An Introduction to Generative Art

It’s far from the first example of a generative art platform, and it certainly won’t be the last. Read on to discover the ins and outs of generative art, from its surprisingly long history to what the future of technology holds for artists.

What is Generative Art?

Generative art refers to a work of art that was, at least in some part, created using an autonomous system. Any system that is non-human and can independently determine some or all of the features of an artwork, is considered autonomous.

This image was created entirely by a flow field algorithm (Fidenza by Tyler Hobbs), which is programed to generate an unpredictable series of organic curves and other visual elements.

A generative artist invents a process, such as a computer algorithm or a machine, that can autonomously contribute to or even entirely create a completed work of art—including images, video, music, literature, and digital interfaces.

Generative NFT art is one of the newest innovations within the genre. NFT artists can create and execute a system that generates countless variations of an original concept. In addition to guaranteeing authenticity and increasing sellability and scalability, NFTs are an obvious choice for housing generative art because both mediums share the same building blocks—code.

Types of Generative Art

Generative art can be divided into two overarching categories: illustration-based and algorithm-based.

Illustrated generative art includes PFP projects. It occurs when an artist creates a series of illustrated components and invents a system that combines them to generate a final artwork.
Think of the notorious Bored Apes—a recognizable template with collectable individual varieties. (Whether you love them or hate them, you have to admit they’ve made an impact on pop culture.)

Various Bored Ape characters by Bored Ape Yacht Club, via The New Yorker

Algorithmic generative art refers to an artwork that is designed by a mathematical or computer algorithm.

A collection of algorithmic generative art is considered curated when an artist produces several outputs and hand-selects their favorite final pieces for exhibition.

It’s considered long-form when everything produced by the algorithm becomes part of the collection, with no curation from the artist besides pre-testing the algorithm to avoid unfavorable results. The popular Fidenza generative art algorithm takes this approach.

Fidenza #58 via Tyler Hobbs

The Surprising History of Generative Art

It all sounds so futuristic, right? But you might be surprised to learn that generative art has actually been around for decades.

Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged according to the Law of Chance) by Jean Arp, 1916-17,
via Museum of Modern Art

In fact, the foundation of generative art was already being laid at the turn of the 20th century. The Dada movement, for example, encouraged artists to eschew total creative control and allow elements of chance to affect their artwork—such as Dada artist Jean Arp’s controversial method of ripping paper, randomly tossing the pieces onto a canvas, and pasting them into place exactly as they’d fallen.

Spectrum Colors Arranged By Chance by Ellsworth Kelly, 1951-53, via San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

In the 1950s, famous minimalist painter Ellsworth Kelly created Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance, a series of collages of dozens of squares in different colors, using a mathematical system that randomly determined color placement.

By the second half of the 20th century, the rapid advancement and accessibility of the personal computer—and, later, the internet—facilitated the explosive potential and popularity of generative art.

Generative Artists to Know

Emma Kunz

Work No. 012 by Emma Kunz, undated, via Frieze

In 1938, Emma Kunz began creating abstract pencil drawings on large squares of graph paper. She used a handheld pendulum to randomly map out the basic structure of the final design. While Kunz personally considered this process to be more spiritual and scientific than strictly artistic, she is now remembered as one of the most influential generative artists.

Attila Kovács

Metrische Sequenz 1973-75 by Attila Kovács, 1981, via Mayor Gallery

Artist Attila Kovács took a mathematical approach to geometric abstraction in the 1960s. In fact, he was the first artist to use mathematical algorithms to make paintings and facilitate accurate reproductions of his designs. Kovács was most interested in how generative art processes could be used to explore symmetry.

Vera Molnár

In 1968, Vera Molnár taught herself one of the first programming languages and used a borrowed computer in a research lab to code her first generative art program.

Molndrian, 74,066/13.30.37 by Vera Mohár, 1974, via Thaddeus Ropac Gallery

After she painstakingly input 0s and 1s into the computer, her program could instruct a plotting device to produce geometric line drawings with a pen. Molnár is now celebrated as one of the first woman artists to use computer programming in her work.

Charles Csuri

Considered the father of computer animation, Charles Csuri is famous for creating Hummingbird, one of the first examples of computer-animated art, in 1967. Each of the film’s 30,000 frames was computer-generated and plotted directly onto film.

Hummingbird Film by Charles Csuri, 1967 via Charles Csuri and Museum of Modern Art

Today, Csuri uses computer algorithms to generate dynamic technicolor images and animations—many of which can be collected in NFT form.

The Future of Generative Art

Today, like any successful art movement in history, generative art is once again shattering our preconceived notions about what art is. It’s making us question the scope of how—and by whom—art can be created, collected, and experienced.

Structural Fragmentation by Charles Csuri, 2021, via Charles Csuri

“Art takes place outside the machine, yet I create art by computer that’s humanly impossible by conventional artistic methods,” said the artist.

The technologies that feel so new and complex to us now—like NFTs or artificial intelligence—will before long feel as familiar as a paintbrush or a block of clay. Simply put, as technology transforms and becomes more accessible, so does the artist’s toolbox. And that’s a good thing for artists, collectors, and art appreciators alike—because the creative possibilities are truly endless.

Interested in turning your art into digital NFT masterpiece?
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