Artist who was working with alternative pixels and text art before it was fashionable. I’ve covered Ken Knowlton many times previously, but thanks to the Tumblr text-mode for, err, re-reminding me …
He has been making these images with various objects for years (from dominoes, sea shells to toy cars), with the examples above ranging from 1966 to 2003. Here, in his own words, is an explanation of his background, taken from a short piece “Mosaic Portraits: New Methods and Strategies”:
My main interest was computers, particularly their use in picture-making … The non-scientific, some say artistic, aspects of computer graphics arose for me via a sophomoric prank. Ed David, two levels up, was away for a while and the mice, one might say, played ever more freely. Leon Harmon stopped by to ask me for help with a brilliant idea: when Ed returns, one entire wall of his office will
be covered with a huge picture made of small electronic symbols for transistors, resistors and such. But overall, they will form a somewhat-hard-to-see picture of, guess what, a nude! And so the renowned Harmon-Knowlton nude was conceived, coaxed into being, and duly hung on Ed’s wall.
But the big version burst forth a while later at a press conference on Art and Technology in Robert Rauschenberg’s loft, and on the watershed date of October 11, 1967, it appeared atop the first page of the second section of the New York Times, which made not the slightest effort to conceal its birthplace. Billy Kluver claims that this was the first time ever that the Times printed a nude! The PR department huddled and decided, so it seems, that since she had appeared in the venerable Times, our nude was not frivolous inyour-
face pornography after all, but in-your-face Art. Their revised statement was: You may indeed distribute and display it, but be sure that you let people know that it was produced at Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc.
We did make similar pictures - of a gargoyle, of seagulls, of people sitting at computers - which have appeared here and there. But it was our Nude who would dolphin again and again into public view in dozens of books and magazines. Sometimes it is excused by a more dignified title, like Studies in Perception I; once the two of us were photographed in front of it, providing a scant two-piece cloak of modesty. Just recently I encountered it in Lewis Mumford’s The Myth of the Machine (1970) where, as last in a three-panel display, it demonstrates progress (or regress) in mechanization of the portrayal of woman.
That was the beginning for me of a fascination with large pictures made of small things, that has occupied my eyes, hands and mind ever since. It was also my first conscious buffeting by chaos: a mischievous butterfly had flapped, and a huge chunk of my career and persona veered onto a new course.
On the other hand, and again by chance, my debut as artist was postponed for several years. How so?
Because Art-and-Technology was the rage, and The Museum of Modern Art had a “Machine Show,” and the Brooklyn Museum and other places had similar parties, and in each case Leon and I submitted the Nude to demonstrate a collaboration between artist and techno-geek (or whatever). One of us had to be an artist. So
by the whim of a spin-launched coin, Leon became the artist and I remained a technologist (pretense aside, so did he). I did not understand until ten years later that I had lost the toss, since artists, I was learning, were the perceptive predictors, the daring, flamboyant and revered analysts of past, present and future, the grand but sly commentators on human joy and sorrow. (After another ten years, and exposure to a hundred artists, I learned that that notion was 90 percent humbug.)