A.I. Art That’s More Than a Gimmick? Meet AARON

The British painter Harold Cohen spent over four decades refining his collaborator: an image-generating robot.
A.I. Art That’s More Than a Gimmick? Meet AARON

Yes, it’s yet another show of A.I.-generated art — but wait! The software known as AARON isn’t like other A.I.’s. Its developer, the British painter Harold Cohen — being an artist — understood that A.I. isn’t a shortcut to interesting art. It’s a tool, ultimately only as good as its user.

Selections from the paintings Cohen made with AARON, on view at the Whitney Museum, represent their man-machine team’s increasingly sophisticated style. The early pictures, from the 1970s, were limited to abstract, wavering linework and crosshatched blobs — the available computing power couldn’t manage much more — which AARON drew with a robotic plotter and pen. Cohen added patches of blushy, acid color by hand.

Gradually, painstakingly, Cohen deepened AARON’s range to include human figures, objects like tables and flowerpots, and profusions of leafy plants. The 1995 update of AARON could compose jaunty portraits in recognizable, furnished interiors, and color them, using a robot arm to switch between pots of dye. By the mid-2000s, cascades of jagged leaves filled the pictures — in a projection at the Whitney, a version of the software from 2007 builds crayon-hued jungles in real time.

The late-1980s might have been the sweet spot. On view are two examples from Cohen and AARON’s “Bathers Series,” loosely inspired by Paul Cézanne’s Impressionist tableaus on the theme. In “Coming to a Lighter Place,” from 1988, the round warbling lines that are AARON’s constant signature inscribe swooshing figures daubed in shades of mustard and powder blue, a spindly forest jolted with tangerine and fuchsia. The painting creaks with fecund joy, as if it wants to go on flourishing.

Before taking up programming, Cohen was an accomplished painter — his canvases, spread with noodly, tractlike shapes, appeared in major exhibitions including the Venice Biennale and Documenta. In 1968, a teaching job at the University of California, San Diego, took him into the fermenting midst of a nascent Silicon Valley and the mushrooming defense industry. The Apple II personal computer was still a decade away when Cohen began tinkering with robotic drawing. He exhibited early experiments in 1972; but AARON proper was born during a residency at Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory from 1973—75. Cohen stayed in California and continued enhancing AARON until his death in 2016.