Manfred Mohr - Cubist in the Computer Age

by Prof. Eugen Gomringer

In the last three decades few artists have made such thorough research and such distinctive accomplishments in the field of constructivist aesthetics using a computer as Manfred Mohr, the German-born artist (1938 in Pforzheim), who has made New York his home for years now. Many artists, at least occasionally, also make use of the computer, but instead of advancing the cause of "programmed" art in any way have themselves been the cause of misunderstandings that have relegated this art to a secondary rôle. In total contrast, Manfred Mohr has gained world-wide recognition for his art. It must be emphasized that the artist Manfred Mohr is implied with this appraisal, for the superficial glance at the graphic linearity in his black and white works might convey the idea that the author is a mathematician - and here is where one of the misunderstandings begins. That this is not the case is for one put right by Manfred Mohr himself and secondly clarified by the artistic spirit, the artistic "gravity" behind the way he defines and solves the problem involved. Incidentally, Manfred Mohr began as an abstract expressionist, albeit signs of a geometric repertoire as well as linear structures that had a certain priority in the semiotic vocabulary of the sixties are already evident. His poetic vein, as it may, must also be taken into consideration, if his instinct for playing, for example, with concrete poetry, is assessed properly, namely as his unconventional resorting to means and methods.

Manfred Mohr has succeeded in placing the cube, a primordial model of constructivist thinking and creation, in the center of a vital philosophy, whose extensions, however, were made possible only with the help of a computer. But this aspect is well known so that full attention can be directed on the artist's work. It is "only" a matter of looking into the artistic question of "how", the artist himself always ensuring transparent relationships with clear images. In various work phases Mohr once cut the cube in two, dividing it through the center in varied halves with an horizontal cut, and at another time he divided it into four parts with an horizontal and a vertical cut through the center. With these works based on the cube since 1973, constructivist art has taken a formerly undreamt-of, new and phenomenal development. Manfred Mohr describes his method as follows: "The visual idea is to create unstable signs by deliberately disrupting, if not breaking completely, the symmetry of the cube. I developed certain methods: the subtraction of edges from the cube, the clipping of the cube by a square window formed by its frontal view, and the cutting of the cube along the Cartesian axes, allowing parts of the cube to be rotated independently." He expanded the processes in such a way that new algorithms were created, which he compares with biological or organic growth.

What the viewer can expect as the results of applying such methods are linear sign constellations of two structures, two-dimensional projections of the multi-dimensional manipulations of the cube. The structure made up by the thin lines delineates in the shape of a polygon the edges of the cube as well as the horizontal and vertical cut-lines, the thick lines forming the inner lines of the rotated parts of the cube. Superstructures are then formed by extending the processes and creating new algorithms. Splendid above all, however, are the simple horizontal divisions brought about by the rotation of both halves. In that Mohr also sets the square window of the traditional pictorial shape over the linear structures, the thick inner lines become separate signs, which fulfill their semantic function in part without the polygonal contour, in part with it. Optical "turn-down" effects are created, comparable to the "constellations" Josef Albers formulated. The "inventors" of cubism would marvel at the possibilities of the new medium. Mohr's operational models, based on individual signs as repertoire, enable him to produce combinatorial, statistical or symbolic-logical variations. Typical for his entire work is always the act of selecting the aesthetic process. In this sense, Manfred Mohr is also an adherent and developer of Max Bense's theory.

In a further statement, the artist reveals a deeper motivation for his work with the computer, and an art- philosophical thesis on the real state of affairs today could not put it better: "The aesthetic result is ultimately not essentially different from a drawing, but what fascinates me about a machine is the experience of a physical and intellectual extension of myself." No wonder that one of the most competent authors writing about Manfred Mohr, Manfred Schmalriede, drew attention to the dialogue between the artist and the computer, "the latter visualizing the alterations of the program immediately into altered configurations in a type of high-speed processing or, as apostrophized by Mohr, high-speed visual thinking. This dialogue can be compared with Paul Klee's 'pictorial conception'." In his endeavors, Manfred Mohr has experimented with dimensions that resulted in generative processes, dimensions not accessible to perception and intuition, yet depictable. Even the uninitiated viewer of Mohr's works will anticipatorily experience an incomprehensible whole, an invisible universality in what the painting makes visible. Even though the brain is a part of the world developed to great complexity, it has yet to fathom its own complexity. Such reflections, which Manfred Mohr's works evoke, are indications of an emerging cultural change, and they may no longer belong to the aesthetics of constructivism at first view. But in 1958 already Max Bense postulated: "The deeper one penetrates into the micro-aesthetic nature of a work of art, the less can the physical and aesthetic process be separated; the work of art conventionally characterized in this way becomes blurred, disperse and conjugated conditions appearing, whose aesthetic identification cannot be authentic in all cases."

However, Manfred Mohr still works with perceptible tension-filled relationships as well, confirming that his art, as he sees it, visualizes not cold mathematics, but rather a vital philosophy. A good example of this is one of his last series, the 15-part "Counterpoint" series, based on the "6-D hypercube". With its diagonal structures it runs up against the edges of the picture, incorporates these, creating tension between sign and format. In the same way, the latest works, drawings and acryl paintings modify their format on the basis of their inner logic, that is to say, format and contour represent the logic of their structure. Consequently, every encounter with Manfred Mohr's work is ultimately, as with all art, an encounter with the tension between the inner and outer, but it is in the selection of the medium and in the skill with which the dialogue is carried out with it that the historical moment lies.

Copyright by Prof. Eugen Gomringer, from exhibition catalog 'Manfred Mohr', Josef Albers Museum, Bottrop 1998