Painting as Programming: Casey Reas and the Aesthetics of Generative Code


Session Title:

  • Code and Generative Art

Presentation Title:

  • Painting as Programming: Casey Reas and the Aesthetics of Generative Code




  • Session: Code and Generative Art

    Software art has been frequently historicized in terms of the self-reflexive, philosophical, anti-aesthetic principles of conceptual art. Generative art is critiqued as being overly aestheticized, all about surface insofar as it conceals its algorithmic operations instead of bringing them to the forefront, as is the case in software art . In this paper, I consider the work of Casey Reas, an artist whose output hovers in an indeterminate range of picture-making between painting and computing, between surface and coded process. I propose that the seemingly insurmountable division between the conceptual and the aesthetic is not absolute , and argue that Reas’s practice, one that is fundamentally tied to the specific functions made possible by a digital computer, but whose designs exhibit a markedly painterly morphology, begins to offer an alternative to this artificial distinction. Not only does Reas up the ante of conceptual art by translating linguistic programs into a computationally executable form, but he also brings the emphasis back to the visual register. Reas’s programs, in all their visual richness, refuse the “dematerialized” anti-ocular ethos of 1960’s and 70’s conceptual art. Moreover, his desire to “minimize the technical aspects” of his work and to make working with software as fluid as drawing suggests a resistance to the determinate properties of computational media. Reas’s production hybridizes the analog and the digital; one the one hand, he is deeply invested in a computational, proceduralist logic, and on the other, the richness, ambiguity, and organic harmony of his output revel in painterly abstraction. Computers, taken both within and outside of an art context, are tools constructed to facilitate regular, repeatable, and efficient calculations.  However, they are also tools that allow dynamic change to occur within their programmatic constraints. Reas addresses the question of what happens to information when it becomes painterly, and when that painterly quality becomes dynamic. Information becomes a living organism whose transformational capacities are revealed in the performative execution of code.

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