95-year-old Austrian artist Herbert W. Franke, who uses algorithms and computer programs to visualize math as art, has recently become a sensation in the art world and in the crypto space .
Earlier this month, the physicist and science fiction writer was behind one of the most talked about digital artworks at a booth for blockchain company Tezos at Art Basel. Title MONDRIAN (1979), the work pays homage to artist Piet Mondrian’s iconic geometric visuals using a program written on one of the first personal computers. By scanning the QR code, users could see the working and mint editions for free.
A few days before that, Franke, who studied physics in Vienna after World War II and started working at Siemens in 1953, where he conducted after-hours photographic experiments, spear 100 images from his famous “Math Art” series (1980-1995) as NFT on the Quantum platform. The drop was meant to commemorate his birthday on May 14 and raise money for his foundation. NFTs sold out in 30 seconds, with pioneering blockchain artist Kevin Abosch buying a few.
And earlier this year, at the Francisco Carolinum in Linz, Austria, there was a survey of Franke’s works spanning several decades. Alongside the exhibition, parts of Franke’s photo archive will be made available. Plus, a new English translation of its quintessential publication Arts and building (1957) will be released later this year.
For more on Franke’s late-career resurgence, ART news spoke with the hyphenated artist over a series of emails.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
ARTnews: You are involved in a number of collaborations and exhibitions in 2022. More recently, the Tezos Foundation at Art Basel presented your work MONDRIAN (1979). The Francisco Carolinum in Linz, Austria also organized a personal exhibition this year, “Herbert W. Franke: visionary”. Could you tell us a bit more about the two exhibitions?
Herbert W. Franke: MONDRIAN is the name of a dynamic image and sound program that I developed for Texas Instruments 99/4 in 1979. It is named after the Dutch artist and follows his characteristic principles of horizontal versus vertical. It could be used in two ways. First, it allows the selective construction of individual images, in a sort of step-by-step operation in which the user can interactively change parameters such as colors or strip thickness at any time. Second, it was also possible to design a dynamic sequence that constantly changes, controlled by algorithms and random processes. In the endless automatic mode of operation, the program also algorithmically generated sound effects related to the structures of the image.
The video presented on the Tezos stand was a film made in 2010 for my personal exhibition at the ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe in Germany. A video camera filmed the monitor connected to my historic TI 99/4A which I had given to ZKM like my other early computers. Since the Tezos booth had this big screen, we thought of a moving movie like MONDRIAN could be a fine historical work for this purpose. The only restriction was that we didn’t want to sell it.
As for the Francisco Carolinum exhibition, I didn’t participate too much personally. As I mentioned, my wife Susanne had taken over all work related to my art for many years. She also operates a website, www.art-meets-science.io, since 2007 that honors my work. She is an expert in understanding my thoughts, and the Francisco Carolinum asked her to be one of the curators along with the museum’s curator Genoveva Rueckert. But you can imagine that Susanne shared her concepts and thoughts with me, and we discussed internally how to present my work.
You also did an NFT drop earlier this year. Was it your first time? Why do you choose to work with NFTs despite the volatility and division of this nascent technology?
We’ve only had one big drop so far on May 31, my 95th birthday edition of 100 images from my “Math Art” series. Before, there was a sales test of three or four images to better understand the technology. And yes, you’re right, volatility and divisiveness are apt descriptions, but that’s never been a problem for me as an artist, as you know. Blockchain is a totally new environment, and this technology is still in its infancy, like the beginning of computer art. But I am convinced that he opened a new door for digital art and introduced the next generation to this new technology.
During interview with Right click Save in April, you explained how, in the NFT world, “computer art has now entered the mainstream art world with big money and therefore a mighty roar. However, that doesn’t mean it’s still common. Artists who work with code today are still struggling to be recognized in the same way we did in the 1960s.” Why do you think this kind of art isn’t mainstream yet?
I think it’s the same problem as 60 or 70 years ago. Most people, as well as most art historians, still believe that technology and visual art do not belong together. I always say look to music where high tech precision machinery has been used to produce art for centuries. Nobody feels strange about it because the instruments have a long tradition. But most 21st century visual artists still focus on traditional techniques.
Despite that, you’ve become something of a Twitter sensation lately, with nearly 15,000 followers since joining the platform a few months ago. Could you share how it happened? Also, has joining Twitter sparked increased interest in your work as a media arts pioneer who has explored the code of the visual since the 1950s?
We started a Twitter account in March because Austrian art historian and former museum director Alfred Weidinger and German art critic and curator Anika Meier told us that we should and that my work has a reputation in the industry. We weren’t sure about that. But having 10,000 subscribers in two days clearly showed that there is a community that knows my work. Many young artists in the crypto and metaverse related field have tweeted that they have been influenced by my work.
Until now, my wife Susanne was in charge of marketing and sales part-time, but this is not her core business, as she is a journalist and media specialist. After this overwhelming acceptance into the world of Twitter, she told me that we needed to “professionalize” this area to move forward in this direction, and we began to explore options (such as exhibitions and partnerships) to publicize my achievements to a wider audience. In doing so, we received some interest in enriching various programs with my pioneering work.
On a more personal note, given that you turned 95 this year, could you share what you consider to be a major turning point in your trajectory as a digital artist and writer? Is there anything you would have liked to change?
I think my path was pretty smooth and there were no sharp turns. However, I can mention the interviews with my mentor, the German historian of modern art, Franz Roh. He told me that I should not consider my works as a hobby but do this work seriously, because it could lead to something relevant in art. It was in the early 1950s when I wanted to publish my first art book called Art and Construction – Mathematics and Physics as a photographic experience. I couldn’t find any publisher for the publication.
At the same time, Roh was working on an art book to be published by Bruckmann Edition. Roh told Friedrich Bruckmann, the well-known art historian and publisher in Germany, that he wanted to step back to open the door to the publication of my manuscript because he thought these ideas were important. So I drew attention to the fact that a young artist needs to be published. I should also mention that Roh’s book was also published around this time. I don’t know if it was a turning point, but it helped me find my way and stay the course. I think having a mentor like Franz Roh is very important to pave the way for a young artist.
There’s really nothing major that I would change. However, when you work as a freelancer, you have to use some of your time to earn money. Sometimes the work is fun, but most of the time it’s time you could have spent better on your own projects. So maybe I would have liked to be born into a wealthy family where I could work 100% on my own ideas and projects.
What are your thoughts on the ongoing digital disruption, via NFTs, Metaverse, Virtual Reality and other related technologies, in the art world and beyond? How do you think your work has contributed to these developments, as the “father of computer art”?
From a crypto art business perspective, the disruption affecting the traditional art world seems like a new phenomenon. However, in the end, the disruption is nothing new at all. What is new is its public awareness. And that’s the point, because a lot of money is involved in the crypto scene these days.
I would like to quote the introduction of Arts and building“Technology is generally rejected as an element hostile to art. I want to try to prove that this is not the case, that it even opens up unimaginable new artistic territory for us. I was convinced that we were at the beginning of new methods in art that would be dominated by automatons and machines. I was sure that the artist’s work would shift to analytical construction – in the digital world, we call that coding now. The core of my early experiments was built with forms of light art, called generative art today, working with cameras, x-ray machines, microscopes and an analog computer to calculate these light waves.
How do you think digital arts will transform in the next 10 to 50 years?
I have always said that it is much easier to predict the future hundreds of years from now and much more difficult to predict 10 years ahead. But I am convinced of it: we are in the process of understanding the code of art. So I dare to make a prognosis: music will evolve profoundly towards automated composition in the years to come. Other art forms like visual arts will follow later, literature eventually. It is the most complex art form to bring back to algorithms.