An Interview with Artist Mark Wilson

March, 2009

Mark Wilson has been exhibiting his art since the early 1970s both across the US and in Switzerland, Germany, Austria, the UK, Russia, Finland, and Japan. He received a BA from Pomona College in Claremont, CA, and an MFA from Yale University in New Haven, CT. He has received grants and fellowships from the Commission on the Arts, State of Connecticut, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Ars Electronica awarded Wilson the Distinction in Computer Graphics in 1992. Wilson’s work is found in many private, corporate and public collections, including: the Block Museum, Evanston, IL; the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA; the Museum der Stadt Gladbeck, Wasserschloss Wittringen, Germany; The Museu de Arte Contemporanea, São Paulo, Brazil; the Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK. He is the author of Drawing with Computers (Putnam, 1985). He lives and works in West Cornwall, CT.

Julie Karabenick: Early in your career you made paintings and drawings. Now for almost 30 years you’ve used computers in making your art.

csq3422, archival ink jet on rag paper, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2008

Mark Wilson: When I started using computers in 1980, very few artists were using them. To me, these machines were totally cool and exciting. Back then there was little software of interest to an artist like myself. To make art with computers, you had to invent new working procedures. I bought a personal computer and learned to write my own software. I was trying to find a unique way of using the computer and software to create geometric images.

e5906, archival ink jet on rag paper, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2008

After developing some programming skills, the methodology of writing software to create images became utterly natural.

psh30, archival ink jet print on rag paper,
119 x 89 cm (47 x 35 in), 2002

JK: The use of computers is widespread in the visual arts today.

MW: There’s a kind of continuum of computer use in the fine arts. I’m a purist in that the programs I create directly produce the final results. But these machines are so adept and useful that many artists routinely use them as a tool.

psc37, archival ink jet print on rag paper,
119 x 89 cm (47 x 35 in), 2003

JK: Creating your own software involves writing algorithms.

MW: Yes. Algorithms are associated with computers and mathematics, but they merely imply a procedural sequence of instructions to accomplish some task.

JK: Interestingly, you say that your writing and use of algorithms parallels a significant part of the process of making abstract art by many artists who work in more traditional mediums.

e4858, archival ink jet on rag paper, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2008

MW: While a computer program may use a complex series of mathematical algorithms, the visual artist generally uses simpler procedures. But the process is similar whether the algorithms are simple or complex. Artists like Larry Poons, Sol LeWitt and Jackson Pollock sometimes used structured visual procedures—or algorithms—to generate their images.

JK: LeWitt wrote specific rules that would allow anyone fabricate his artwork—but Pollock?

MW: Pollock is an extreme example. He exemplifies freedom, intuition, and expressionism, but in fact, in the drip paintings he is using a kind of recipe to create the artwork. Artists like Poons and LeWitt used a much more systematic recipe that could be embodied in a series of written instructions. Other artists such as Bridget Riley, Donald Judd, and Richard Paul Lohse have used similar systems.

In my case these instructions are simply embodied in the computer program. Computers require very precise instructions, but again, the sequences of instructions can be simple or complex. They can employ randomness to create variation. Because of the speed of the computer, the set of instructions—the algorithms—can produce one or many examples very quickly.

As the software runs, it might make 20 different examples and I’ll pick one. I preview these images on the screen.

csq3100, archival ink jet on rag paper, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2008

JK: Are there intuitive aspects to your process?

MW: Writing software can be very intuitive. Even with a very formally defined programming goal, there are usually many different ways to achieve that goal. Choosing a good path to achieve the goal is a question of intuition, judgment, intelligence, and probably a thousand other things. In my case I don’t have a formally defined goal—except to make what I hope are interesting pictures. So I’m juggling these various algorithms—these recipes—in my software, adding a bit more here, taking some away there. I could almost describe my working process as “Algorithmic Expressionism.” This might be a bit of hyperbole, but again, I don’t have a formal goal. I follow the process where it leads me.

e4462, archival ink jet print on rag paper, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2008

JK: Does chance also play a role in your process?

MW: Chance plays a large role. In the software, chance is represented by the algorithm of a random number generator. That is, the software makes a decision based on randomness.

For example, colors are determined by this random process, but I select the colored images that please me. When I have 20 different results—20 variations on a theme—my choice makes the process less random because my personal predilections are operating. If I tend to like yellow grounds, then my preference for a yellow ground is really my visual preference and not a random decision by the machinery. I use randomness in many aspects of the software, but color is perhaps the most conspicuous.

csq4002, archival ink jet on rag paper, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2008

 JK: So surprise must be a part of this process.

MW: The power and excitement of image making with these machines lies with their power to create many choices. Randomness does lead to surprises and this is always exciting.

e5313, archival ink jet print on rag paper, 61 x 183 cm (24 x 72 in), 2008

JK: The evolution of the requisite technology has been remarkable since the early 80s.

MW: Yes. My first computer was a Texas Instruments 99/4a. It was quite limited, but I had a great time playing with it. I learned a little programming and for its time, it had fairly good color graphics. In 1981 I bought an IBM PC. It was a much more capable machine, and I’ve continued to use PCs and Microsoft operating systems since then. The power of these machines roughly doubles every two years. But my software is relatively simple and if, say, I was trapped on a desert island with electricity, I think I would be perfectly happy to make pictures with my nearly thirty year old IBM PC.

JK: How do you print your work?

MW: Today I use a large format Epson ink jet printer that has unlimited colors. It can print on paper, canvas and thin board in sizes up to 44″ wide and essentially unlimited length.

Mark Wilson and Epson 9500 printer
Mark Wilson and his Epson 9500 ink jet printer

JK: And the inks are archival?

MW: Epson and some independent analysts claim that works on paper that are framed and not exposed to direct sunlight will not show any appreciable fading for 200 years. Nobody really knows, but I’ve done my own informal testing with an unframed paper test swatch. It’s been in a sunny window for eight years and shows virtually no fading. So the inks aren’t fugitive—probably as good as artists’ watercolors.

JK: Let’s look at a recent print and take a closer look at a detail of one area.

csq2265, archival ink jet print on rag paper, 61 x 183 cm (24 x 72 in), 2006

MW: The detail below shows a section of about 12 by 12 inches of a 24 by 72 inch print. This section represents about 12 by 12 pixels on the screen. These pixels are plotted as various geometric elements: squares, circles, lines. The process is repeated a number of times, creating a complex layering.

csq2265 detail
csq2265 detail

JK: Lets take a look at the process you use to generate a print.

demonstration: completed print

MW: To make the print above, I would begin by creating a screen image, as shown below. This screen image is a simple geometric design on the computer. These designs tend to be regular grids of lines.

Software that I write generates these screen images. They include both randomly chosen colors and lines, as well as elements deliberately chosen by me. The screen coordinates are in pixels. The screen image below is about 260 by 260 pixels.

demonstration: screen image as it appears on the computer monitor

MW: A pixel mapping process takes an array of pixels from the screen image and maps them onto a series of different geometric elements—circles, lines, boxes and so forth. The black pixels from the screen image are not mapped.

JK: So your software selects from pixels on the screen and determines the shapes that will appear in the print—as well as their sizes, colors and locations?

MW: Yes. The program randomly selects different geometric elements to plot and randomly varies their dimensions and colors.

Actually, there’s not just a single screen image. The software randomly selects from among around 20 different screen images. So as the layering process proceeds, you can get different sequences of forms plotted from the respective screen pixels.

JK: We see below one layer resulting from mapping screen pixels to colored shapes.

One layer in the creation of a print
demonstration: one layer of colored forms

MW: And below left, we see the base or the ground for this print. First a black square is drawn as the base layer and then a rectangle is randomly placed. The color of the second rectangle is randomly chosen. At right we see the layer of colored shapes of the first layer, shown above, superimposed on this base.

BaseBase plus first layer
demonstration: base layerdemonstration: base plus first layer of colored shapes

In this case, the completed print would involve plotting six layers over the base.

JK: It seems the black pixels—which are not mapped onto shapes—serve an important function.

MW: Their use is a way of cutting and cropping an image, as shown in p1812 below. The black pixels in the screen image on the right result in voids or cutout sections in the final print.

p1812screen image for p1812
p1812, archival ink jet print on rag paper,
61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2006
screen image for p1812

In the drawing 5K92 below, the pixels are mapped to polar rather than rectangular coordinates. Large areas have been cut out of the drawing.

5K92, plotter drawing on mylar, 91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 1992

JK: Were you interested in art as a child?

MW:  When I was young I had a vigorous interest in drawing and painting. I took Saturday art classes at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon and spent a fair amount of time in the galleries of the museum. When I was about 12 or 13, I became fascinated with photography and darkroom work. I commandeered a spare sink in our house and proceeded to turn it into a darkroom. The whole process of finding a scene, adjusting the camera, shooting, exposing a sheet of photographic paper and finally processing the print seemed utterly magical. I took pictures for my high school newspaper, family photos, and fine art photos, processing all my own films and prints.

At the time I became involved with photography, the medium tended to encourage a hands-on approach. My interest in photography and the technical issues of developing and printing definitely anticipated my willingness to attempt to make art with computers.

JK: After graduating from high school in 1961, you did your undergraduate studies at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

MW: At Pomona I took several studio art classes, and my visual interests began shifting from photography to painting. Richards Rubens and Salvatore Grippi, both associated with the New York School, taught studio art. At that point I became infatuated with painters like de Kooning, Guston, and Tworkov.

This painting from my undergraduate days was made in 1964 and can be read a a sort of landscape.

Untitled 1964
Untitled, oil on canvas, 51 x 76 cm (20 x 30 in), 1964

Although there’s a lot of abstract expressionist brushwork and dribbling paint in the painting below from 1965, the circle and line elements were a response to the geometric and hard edge painting that was becoming prominent in the early 60s. It represents the beginning of a transition from an abstract expressionist style to my later geometric style.

Untitled 1965
Untitled, oil on masonite, 122 x 152 cm (48 x 60 in), 1965

JK: Next you were accepted into the MFA program at Yale.

MW: It was an exciting moment in the art world. Abstract Expressionism had been fading for several years, and all of a sudden there were important new artistic possibilities: Pop Art, Op Art, Color Field painting, Conceptualism, and Minimalism. Al Held and Jack Tworkov, who taught studio classes in painting, were both moving towards individual interpretations of geometric abstraction. Frank Stella gave a six-week seminar that I attended. He was interested in showing students that there was a lot of new work being made in New York that was not in debt to Abstract Expressionism. Stella concluded the seminar by taking us on a studio tour in New York. We saw his studio and visited Ad Reinhardt, Donald Judd, and Helen Frankenthaler. That was a very memorable day!

JK: Your own work moved dramatically away from Abstract Expressionism.

MW: Pop Art had shown artists that there were fascinating alternative sources of imagery, and I realized that there was a vast resource of curious and beautiful images in architectural and engineering drawings, aerial photographs, maps, and technological diagrams. Minimalism was intriguing, but I was more interested in a kind of complex invention through drawing. My work shifted from painterly and gestural to an open linear imagery. The pictures began to look like some kind of indecipherable engineering plans dense with skeins of colored lines.

Untitled 1973
Untitled, acrylic and watercolor on paper, 41 x 41 cm (16 x 16 in), 1973

I was captivated by images of circuit boards and photographs of computer components. I was making these drawings with the standard tools of engineering drafting—ruling pens, straightedges, compasses, and protractors.

Untitled 1973
Untitled, acrylic and watercolor on paper, 41 x 41 cm (16 x 16 in), 1973

As my drawings grew larger, they became difficult to handle and frame, and around 1974 I returned to traditional canvas and acrylic paint. The complex linear networks of lines continued, but I placed them on colored grounds.

Untitled (Gray Painting)
Untitled (Gray Painting), acrylic on canvas,
183 x 183 cm (72 x 72 in), 1974

JK: Below is a detail from the above painting where it’s easy to appreciate its great intricacy.

Untitled (Gray Painting) detail
Untitled (Gray Painting) detail

MW: Of course there was certainly a long history of machines and technology inspiring 20th century artists. The path of geometry, technology and art was in part formed by the late paintings of Kandinsky, Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, and the machine aesthetic of artists like Charles Sheeler and Gerald Murphy. I was also influenced by the work of artists who were currently involved with imagery of machines and technology. For example, I loved the graphics of the London-based avant-garde architectural group, Archigram, and the Pop Art prints and paintings of the Scottish artist, Eduardo Paolozzi. There were also contemporary collaborative experiments like E.A.T—Experiments in Art and Technology—at MOMA, and Art and Technology, an exhibition of collaborations between artists and engineers, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Untitled (Blue Gray Painting)
Untitled (Blue Gray Painting), acrylic on canvas, (72 x 72 in), 1975

My early drawings and paintings from the 70s have always represented a combination of order and disorder. I was also fascinated by the issues of complexity and texture in abstract art. By the late 70s, I was experimenting with a combination of complex drawing and diagrammatic imagery. Paintings like Untitled (Pink Painting) could clearly be interpreted as some kind of chart or diagram.

Untitled (Pink Painting)
Untitled (Pink Painting), acrylic on canvas, 183 x 183 cm (72 x 72 in), 1978

JK: Your work had become quite large by this time.

MW: Back in the 70s—and of course earlier—artists were constantly making bigger and bigger paintings. I guess I felt that the works had to have a certain scale to be taken seriously. I think that assumption has fortunately expired.

Mark Wilson with Untitled (Pink Painting)

JK: Soon you would begin using computers to make your art.

MW: In the 70s computer technology quickly evolved from an arcane endeavor that was centered in universities and large corporations to cheap machines that were universally available. I bought a Texas Instruments home computer in 1980 and became instantly addicted. Like most personal computer users in those days, I played games and used crude word processing software. But I knew that somehow I would be able to use this machine to make my pictures.

I learned to write code. At first, the images I made were generated only on the screen. But my background in drawing and painting pointed me in the direction of a non-ephemeral object. In those days, there were limited means of creating hard copy. One of the earliest devices used for computer graphics was the pen plotter. The plotter used a conventional pen that was controlled by the computer and drew on paper. I acquired a small pen plotter and began writing programs to make drawings. The pen plotter could only make lines, so large painterly areas of color were difficult to create. But the plotter was fast and could make many, many lines in a very precise manner.

Douat Dump
Douat Dump, plotter drawing on rag paper, 28 x 28 cm (11 x 11 in), 1981

At first, I wrote very simple programs that would make rectangular series of parallel lines. These would sometimes be overlaid, creating moiré patterns. These earliest plotter drawings were really just experiments.

Random Douat Dump
Random Douat Dump, plotter drawing on rag paper,
28 x 28 cm (11 x 11 in), 1981

An irony of this work was that while the visual appearance of technology and machines was the inspiration for my earlier handmade pictures, once I began using software and computers to fabricate the pictures, the imagery became more abstract and generalized.

Seeking more interesting visual procedures, I hit upon the idea of transferring patterns of pixels on the computer screen onto paper using the pen plotter.

JK: So, as we saw earlier, pixels could be mapped onto various geometric shapes—circles, boxes, lines and so forth— that would be printed by the pen plotter.

MW: Yes. The concept behind this procedure is simple, yet it’s proven to be a remarkably versatile and inventive graphic idea for me, and I continue to use it today. In 1982 I was fortunate to receive a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and I used the funds to buy a larger pen plotter.

Mark Wilson and IBM pen plotter

The plotter had built-in commands that allowed an image to be skewed on one or both axes. The skew commands made it very easy to create the illusion of a three-dimensional space.  All of my previous imagery was flat surfaces, but suddenly these three dimensional possibilities became very seductive. I placed objects and surfaces in a three dimensional architectural space.

Skew R34
Skew R34, plotter drawing on rag paper, 51 x 97 cm (20 x 38 in), 1983

As can be seen in Skew R34 and Log Skew G9the pixels were mapped to planes. I used pixel mapping of cellular automatons to create a visual pattern and texture on the forms.

Long Skew G9
Long Skew G9, plotter drawing on rag paper, 51 x 254 cm (20 x 100 in), 1985

The drawing from 1987 below represents a change from the earlier Skew drawings. I modified my software in about 1985 or 1986 so that the three dimensional space depicted in the drawings is correctly rendered.

NAC A31, plotter drawing on rag paper, 51 x 51 cm (20 x 20 in), 1987

Stylistically my work remained fairly consistent through the 80s, but in about 1985 I acquired another plotter.  This Alphamerics plotter had an open flat-bed design. This meant that it could be placed right on the surface and be moved around to create larger scale paintings on canvas.

Open flat bed plotter
Open flat bed plotter

I used thinned acrylic paints in technical pens. These could be tricky to use—they would clog up and they had to be cleaned frequently.

The open flat bed plotter could draw in an area about 24 by 36 inches. The STLD26 painting is about 3 by 8 feet, and the plotter had to be moved three or four times along the horizontal axis of the painting.

STL D26, plotter painting on canvas, 81 x 254 cm (32 x 100 in), 1988

My plotter works on canvas from 1986-1988 continued to explore a constructed, abstract, architectural space. Later I began mapping pixels onto polar and conic surfaces. In 1E90 bands of decreasing radius are plotted, each time in a different color sequence. The wrinkles are a sine function mapped onto the surface.

1E 90
1E90, plotter drawing on paper, 91 x 122 cm (36 x 48 in), 1990

These three plotter images from the early 90s play on the idea of a complex form for the viewer to contemplate. There’s a kind of visual tension between a large singular form and the intricate texture mapped onto the surface.

1E91,plotter painting on canvas,
183 x 183 cm (72 x 72 in) 1991
8G91, plotter painting on canvas,
183 x 183 cm (72 x 72 in), 1991

JK: You also worked with different techniques and materials at this time.

MW: In the humid summer weather at my studio in Connecticut, the paper was frequently dimensionally unstable, and it was often difficult to maintain registration of colors and patterns. I experimented with a type of tough polyester drafting film with an opaque white drawing surface. The film took the black ink from the pen plotter beautifully, though it didn’t take color well, and it maintained extremely accurate registration as different images and overlays were plotted. Color had always seemed important in my work, but the complex monochrome polyester drawings seemed to stand on their own.

16J92, plotter drawing on mylar, 91 x 274 cm (36 x 108 in), 1992

This is a detail about 12 by 12 inches.

16J92 detail
16J92 detail

JK: You made other types of monochrome work at this time—laser prints and laser engravings.

MW: The mylar plotter drawings, laser prints, and the laser engravings are all linear—all the imagery is built up from a series of lines. The laser prints and mylar drawings are done on a white ground with a complex image composed of many thousands of black lines.

Line: Vectors 6
Line: Vectors 6, laser print on rag paper, 28 x 43 cm (11 x 17 in), 1995

In laser engravings a laser beam cuts or incises a path in the acrylic sheet. The powerful beam actually vaporizes the plastic and leaves a small trough on the sheet. The line width is narrow and visually reads as a translucent white line.

Laser engraving
Untitled, laser engraving on clear acrylic sheet,
81 x 81 cm (32 x 32 in), 1998 (shown hung against a window)

 JK: Soon you would begin to use an ink jet printer.

MW: In 2001 I acquired an Epson large format ink jet printer that could print up to 44 inches wide and essentially unlimited in length. The inks were lightfast. Before I could really make any artwork with this machine, I had to rewrite my software.

JK: Ink jet printers expanded your printing range.

MW: Pen plotters could only draw single lines. Filling an area meant hatching back and forth and was only practical for small areas. But ink jet printers could draw lines of any width. They could fill in areas or create a ground and then draw lines upon that ground in any colors.

Ps6, archival ink jet print on rag paper,
119 x 89 cm (47 x 35 in), 2003

JK: And as we see from the print below, ink jet printers could handle highly complex images.

Psc31Psc31 detail
Psc31, archival ink jet print on rag paper,
119 x 89 cm (47 x 35 in), 2003
Psc31 detail shown at ~30%
larger than its true size

Did elements of your creative process change with the use of an ink jet printer?

MW: The process of creating plotter drawings was interactive in the sense that I would draw an object or element and then decide to add a new element. The overall composition could be created in an incremental fashion. But the ink jet printer, like the laser printer, required a single image file. Once sent to the machine, it could not be altered.

Psh46, archival ink jet print on rag paper,
119 x 89 cm (47 x 35 in), 2003

I began using my programs to generate multiple files from a single run of the software. Colors and the layers of the pixel mappings were determined randomly. My job then as an artist was to act as editor. I would preview selections and keep the best images, discarding the rest. I might produce a hundred images from one run of the software. Of those hundred, I might save ten on my computer.  Of those ten, I might actually print one or two on paper. So despite all of this computer technology churning out pictures, very old-fashioned artistic intuition and judgment remained at the end of the day.

e5417, archival ink jet on rag paper, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2008

Today computers are ubiquitous in artistic endeavors. The computing hardware and software have evolved from an automated high speed calculator into a universal tool that manipulates images. Amazing software has been written, and technology has opened all sorts of new possibilities.

Computers are democratic art making machines. Artists have always been interested in technology and have been eager to employ whatever tools offer the possibility of better, new, and different image making. Some artists like myself write their own software and essentially control the whole process of image making. For other artists, there’s a kind of continuum of computer use, from heavy to light.

csq3104, archival ink jet on rag paper, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2008

All mediums have inherent confines, but I think that artists typically try to make use of whatever virtues the medium has and ignore the limitations. In my case, writing software is a virtue in the sense that there is really no limit to what the code might do. Your imagination is the only limit.

artist Mark Wilson
Artist Mark Wilson

While my work might be difficult to create in some other medium, it’s also very much a part of the context of abstract and geometric art. This work, while influenced by technology, is ultimately about the context of abstract art.


More about Mark Wilson at:

Interview images and text copyright ©2009 Julie Karabenick & Mark Wilson. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2005-2015 GEOFORM. All Rights Reserved.
All text and artwork reproduced by permission of the artists.

site by Massive Ant