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UC San Diego Visual Arts Exhibition Honors Art and Computing Pioneer Harold Cohen

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A University Art Gallery visitor considers one of the art works featured in the exhibition, "Harold Cohen, Creating Computational Creativity." Photo by Farshid Bazmandegan

The Department of Visual Arts, with support from the Jacobs School of Engineering, presents a new exhibition that pays tribute to the late computing artist as part of its series of shows recognizing the 50th anniversary of the department.

At recent celebratory receptions, more than 200 campus and community members paid tribute to the legacy of the late Harold Cohen, University of California San Diego Department of Visual Arts professor emeritus who passed away last year. Renowned for creating AARON, an artificial intelligence art-making machi­ne, Cohen and his affiliated works are featured in an honorary exhibition entitled “Harold Cohen, Creating Computational Creativity.” It surveys 40 years of the vibrant and large-scale prints that demonstrate Cohen’s innovative process and invites dialogue about the role of the artist and art. The show runs at the University Art Gallery and in the Visual Arts Gallery in the Structural and Materials Engineering (SME) Building through Feb. 17, when it will conclude with a closing symposium, "Art and Artificial Intelligence (AI), After AARON." The symposium will feature leaders in contemporary art and AI from Google, UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego and the Salk Institute.

Cristina Della Coletta, dean of the Division of Arts and Humanities said, “Harold Cohen embodied the spirit of innovation and interdisciplinary creativity that defines our campus. He would be proud of the EnVision Arts & Engineering Maker Studio, a collaborative space where visual arts and engineering students continue his tradition of pushing boundaries and breaking disciplinary conventions to imagine the ‘not yet.’”

Dean of the Jacobs School of Engineering Albert P. Pisano offered his support of the junction between computing and art as well.

“I support the intersection of computation and art so that our graduates, from both engineering and arts and humanities, use both sides of their brains as they are educated,” Pisano said. “I believe that well-rounded graduates are the best graduates.”  

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Department of Visual Arts professor and chair Jack Greenstein addresses the audience during the exhibit’s opening reception. Photo by Farshid Bazmandegan

According to Jack Greenstein, chair and professor of the Department of Visual Arts, the department was among the first in the country to establish a major in computing and the arts.

“Long before computers became available to households across the country and the world, we were fortunate to have on our faculty Harold Cohen, a visionary pioneer who explored the capacity of machines to make the kind of intelligent decisions about line, form, color and representation that artists make,” stated Greenstein.

Noting that the presence of engineering in Cohen’s artwork made the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering a natural exhibition co-sponsor, he added, “We are especially pleased that this exhibition comes at a time of increased collaboration between Visual Arts and the Jacobs School of Engineering.” 

According to Sheldon Brown, visual arts professor and exhibition curator, for much of his career Cohen, who taught at UC San Diego from 1968 to 1994 and who was an early adopter of the computing/art connection, built robots to execute his paintings.

“I think his attitude to them was always a bit contradictory; he complained about the effort, but I could see that he really enjoyed it,” stated Brown.

Coordinating with visual arts Ph.D. alumna Tatiana Sizonenko (‘13), Brown developed this second major exhibition in VISUAL ARTS @ 50: ART INTO LIFE—a two-year long series of exhibitions that recognizes the Department of Visual Arts’ 50th anniversary; the first major exhibition, “Extensions of Photography,” opened during fall quarter. Additionally, Brown, also the director of the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, and M.F.A. alumnus Robert Twomey (‘07) juxtapose robotic sculptures against Cohen’s pieces in the Visual Arts Gallery, SME. For example, Twomey’s “Convex Mirror” alludes to Cohen’s drawing machine and creates representational drawings of the gallery in real time. Brown’s “My Elegant Robot Freedom,” designed in collaboration with Wes Hawkins, is a fluid robotic arm that contrasts Cohen’s linear machines.

“My robot is a different idea about a possible approach to robotics—it is non-deterministic and it will have to learn how to control itself,” explained Brown.

The next anniversary exhibition is “Making Communities: Art and the Border” which will open with a reception in the University Art Gallery, March 3, 5:30 – 8 p.m. and a panel discussion on March 9, 5 p.m. The panel will feature alumni David Avalos (‘90), Rita Gonzalez (‘92), Yolanda Lopez (‘79), Elizabeth Sisco (‘81), and visual arts faculty Teddy Cruz and Ricardo Dominguez.

UC San Diego’s Department of Visual Arts is ranked 13th in the nation for fine arts, according to U.S. News & World Report, with high-ranking specialties in multimedia and sculpture. The Division of Arts and Humanities jumped 10 points this year to #23, according to U.S. News and World Report’s Best Global Universities listing.


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