Manfred Mohr's Abstract Aesthetic

by Marion Keiner


The accurately, rationally and logically composed works of Manfred Mohr are rooted in abstract expressionism, the painting that emphasizes the gesture, the handwriting and thus the individuality of artist and art, and further in jazz and computer science, but not, as one might suppose, in constructive, concrete or systematic art.

Mohr's early model in painting was K.R.H. Sonderborg, one of the principal representatives of European abstract expressionism. From 1953 onward Sonderborg took the instantaneous act of painting as his theme in works done in black Indian ink, a quick-drying liquid that is widely used for sketches capturing momentary ideas and projects, and since 1960 the drawing act has been emphasized by the title. Sonderborg's pictorial world is not the sign of an external reality, but sign and denotation are here identical. The artist, who is incidentally a jazz musician like Mohr, formulates his expressive purpose accordingly: "It is important to me that these things should be visible: the beauty and rhythm of our technical environment, and the beat of the human heart."1 Sonderborg thus integrates technology in his aesthetic world and transfers its central criterion, beauty, to technical products. It admittedly remains undecided whether beauty for him has a substantial or rather a structural, an objective or a functional significance.

From his colleague one generation removed Mohr adapted in 1962 the non-color scale of black and white, which sometimes extends to include gray. He later considered this economy in his means of expression to be suitable for the "artificial art" 2 : "Black and white as my exclusive visual components allows the elaboration of a rigorous system of binary decisions."3 The reduction has proved to be an "absolute basis of communication" in his dialogue with the computer and plotter. Mohr has employed both since 1969 as aids in realizing his artistic ideas. Before this he engaged in an intensive study of the aesthetic writings of Max Bense, as a result of which semiotics became the central theme of his thinking and provided him with a new artistic goal: "A rational construction of art!"4 or a rational creation of signs. In this Mohr saw the possibility of conveying his intentions more exactly than in painting guided by subjective feelings, and quite generally of integrating the aesthetic process in the horizon of our technical civilization: "Technical and social developments call more and more for logical and abstract thinking on our part. It is therefore quite understandable that logical connections and rules are being sought in the field of aesthetics."5 Starting from spontaneous utterances, from abstract images, Mohr works out a constructible statement by preparing the aesthetic information out of the structures of his works in analytical procedures. The successive systematization of the building of the image is documented in compositions and series from the sixties, as for instance Early Works (1965-1966), Subjective Geometry (1966-1969) and Early Algorithmic Works (1969-1972). They show a progressive preference for geometric and thus constructible forms as opposed to irrational elements. His works in this transition phase are already accompanied by texts. They explain, for example, the procedures used to make graphics by computer, so that everybody can follow their construction. Mohr consciously emphasizes the artistic and technological moment as opposed to the metaphysical and speculative in his image creation, since he is interested in breaking down the "mystic barriers behind which an artist can hide himself"6 . The computer comes to his assistance here in that it requires the transformation of the creative act into a logical process. This leads on the one hand to a theoreticization and intellectualization of aesthetic production and on the other to the transition from a creative and emotional to a conscious, rational and logical conception and realization of the image. It is thus not of primary importance for Mohr in his art that the cooperation of the machine should be perceptible, as it functions only as an instrument. It should be recognizable instead that his work is the object of a semiotic, syntactic and thus scientific aesthetic whose central idea is not beauty, mostly experienced through subjective interpretation, but an aesthetic state according to Bense that can be objectively determined and described.7 Unlike Sonderborg, Mohr wishes to trigger a cognitive process in the observer with his works: "It seems to me more important that the observer accepts an unusual aesthetic form, that he is overtaken by a new insight that is no longer based on the distinction between 'beauty' and 'ugliness' of single forms but on the structure, the construction of these forms and on their statistical relations to each other. Only the whole counts."8 Mohr's works are consequently conceived as stimulants for the mind and less as stimulants for emotions.


The prerequisite of "artificial art" is the finding of algorithms 9 , of rules in the sense of rules of the game, to produce signs. This is above all a rational approach to the conception of the image, since an algorithm supplies a solution for every problem in a given class. Mohr applies the principle of the algorithm to his art by the almost exclusive production of series of images. Since 1969, when he introduced the computer and plotter into his work, he has called his paintings and graphic compositions Generative Works, since the signs are produced by the rational structure of the programs and by generative processes. They thus belong to a generative aesthetic. Bense takes a generative aesthetic to mean: "... the sum total of all operations, rules and theorems... by whose application to an assemblage of material elements that can function as signs aesthetic states (distributions or designs) can be deliberately and methodically produced."10 Mohr calls the signs thus generated êtres graphiques, and as such they cannot be allocated to the world of mere appearances or to an ideal state: they possess, as a result of calculation, an objective, independent and determinable existence. Their "logical content" is the history of their generation. The signs of the Generative Works serve primarily as the bearers of aesthetic information. Their origin is of fundamental but not overriding importance: "The sign must be able to free itself visually from the logical content so as to appear as an abstract form. But at the very least an equilibrium between logical content (origin) and aesthetic information (goal) should be reached."11 The creation of the i dynamic state demanded by Mohr succeeds in the experiment: "It is important to mention at this point, that not any arbitrary procedure will lead to interesting results. Through directional decisions a mainstream of thoughts has to become visible by modifying or if necessary rejecting certain procedures in order to avoid pseudo-aesthetical information."12 The êtres graphiques emerge from a process that is comparable in structure with a game. As in a game, the start and the theoretical goal are known and the procedure is governed by rules. The special feature is that the network of rules is not fully determined: the generation of signs arrives in its course at forks where free or random decisions have to be made. The random decisions keep the process of calculation going, and Mohr regards these effects of chance, akin to Arp's Zu-fallen or to intuition, as a positive feature. They are the "whip" that drives the program. In particular they guarantee, according to Bense, the singularity of the mechanically produced aesthetic object. 13 The weakly determined sign production therefore differs from the strongly determined production of technical objects. In addition, the technical product can be anticipated, while the aesthetic product is not susceptible of anticipation.

Even though precision linked with anticipation and predictability, which is a tool of our technical civilization, contradicts the unpredictability of aesthetic production, Mohr makes it a constant of his Generative Works and exploits the chance of acquiring knowledge about the creative process: "The contribution of the computer in art is thus quite clear: it compels the artist to use absolute precision, and it makes accuracy an artistic tool. For the artist precision implies the obligation to go beyond spontaneous intuition, the obligation to express himself, to transform an original idea into a program that contains all the possibilities needed for its realization. The reward of precision is the certainty that everything the artist can and wishes to define is capable of realization."14 Mohr admittedly restricts precision to what can be mathematically described, to what can transpose "the mediating system inserted between creator and work"15 . In any case the artificial work of art made with a computer is one that is abstracted from the traditional picture. Yet the aesthetic information is not predictable in either. According to Bense the art that exists only in its realization is statistically describable in respect to the means of realization. Like every sign, the work of art is capable of analysis only in relation to the repertoire of the means used.


In 1973 Mohr introduced the cube into his work as a "Basic structure" for his sign-creating generative processes. In the Cubic Limit series (1973-1977) the stereometric figure as a fixed structure, a system of line relations, is used to create signs, with the various elements of the cube, for instance its edges, forming the repertoire. Put more exactly, the sign repertoire consists of the elements of a cube projected in parallel perspective. The set of signs is determined as a repertoire of means by the projection, which is independent of the viewpoint of the observer, and the sign belongs to this repertoire as a means, or as a bearer of aesthetic information. The choice of the cube as the basic body of his pictorial world is an expression of the artist's outlook. In contrast to the sphere, which as a symbol of order, of perfection and of the universe traditionally represents heaven, the angular cube is a symbol of solidity and changelessness and as one of the five Platonic bodies represents the earth. In the spherical universe of antiquity rules were sought behind appearances in order to set up the unbroken network of rules and algorithms that would define the cosmos. Exponents of a cubic outlook according to Vilém Flusser are by contrast aware of the interfering edges that hinder the movements of the cube. They know about the unpredictable and random things that lurk behind order. In spite of this, the opposites of order and disorder or randomness arrive in the dynamic movement of a cube at a certain arrangement in which disorder is a component of a sensitive order. This can admittedly only be perceived when the symmetry of the cube is fractured. When symmetry is destroyed for example by applying the spots to a dice the object becomes a toy that is capable of making people forget their everyday world. In Mohr's work, as in the game, the cube becomes a means to an end. Imagination sets up the connection between the game and the art, what Kant called "the ability to represent aesthetic ideas". Dietrich Mathy states: "It seems as though the Romantics had brought the idea of imagination into relation with that of chaos because of its affinity with the field of games - on the one hand through the appearance of largely arbitrary beauty qua purposefulness without purpose, and thus of a freedom, expressed primarily in anarchic spontaneity, qua regularity without law, and on the other because of a function that esthetically transcends the limits of experience, presenting the possible to the real."16

Mohr's decision to use a geometric body as the basic structure of his Generative Works can be justified by a reference to Bense's Aesthetica : "The relationship between art and mathematics has long been known; the fact that the formal interests of art can be described in terms of mathematics, arithmetic or geometry has been part of aesthetics from the earliest times, and not only since the Renaissance... From the standpoint of statistical and informational esthetics it should be commented: every extensional reality, the aesthetic as well as the physical, is mathematically describable; its arithmetic or geometric (statistical and topological) structures are part of the nature of its manipulable and determinable assemblage from material elements. The advantage of the mathematical bearer as a special class of the semantic bearers of aesthetic messages (artistic designs) is due in the main to two properties: firstly to the high and subtle redundancy features which are given to the artistic reality by the mathematical bearer and by which this acquires determinable precision but also nondeterminable fragility... The basic (ontological) difference between mathematical and aesthetic existence - that the former is based on maximal redundancies and ideality, but the latter an maximal innovations and reality - thus remains excitingly and aesthetically surprisingly preserved in the exploitation of mathematical bearers of aesthetic messages."17


In the series Cubic Limit, following up the pictorial idea and the concepts of imitation and abstraction, Mohr investigates the iconicity18 or noniconicity of a sign by the systematic dismantling of the twelve edges of the cube. The elimination of the edges leads to a loss of information with respect to the basic body but to a gain in information with respect to the aesthetic drawing process, inasmuch as the impairment of the basic structure by destruction is compensated to a certain extent by the eye, or more exactly by the memory. The degree of iconicity of a sign thus depends not only on the existence-changing or existence-modifying operation of dismantling but also on the interpreter. The iconicity of a sign can consequently not be clearly determined. The aesthetic drawing process is governed by sign-generating functors (e.g. dismantling, memory). In particular fragments, broken structures, interruptions or omissions are aesthetically attractive, since a visual instability emanates from them. This reveals that the syntactic construction of a work of art may be the "basis of a visual and intellectual understanding of aesthetic relationships". The Cubic Limit series introduces various operation models, a generative grammar, for the production of signs: rotation, projection, combinatoric, statistic, symbolic logic, addition/subtraction, restriction and extension. The systematic application of these operators to the cubic elements of the repertoire in question produces an impressive abundance of new aesthetic signs. This variety does not result merely from the different combinations of a constant repertoire of signs; Mohr also modifies the repertoire of his means. In Cubic Limit II the symmetry of the cube is destroyed. Symmetry, generally associated with order and beauty, is for Mohr a synonym of immobility, stability and also death19 and thus an evolutionary standstill. This is in agreement with a "big bang" theory according to which the collapse of a symmetrical state was the condition necessary for the creation of the universe. For Mohr the disrupting or dissolution of symmetry is "a generator of new conditions of construction and tension" 20 . The accompanying destruction, however, does not lead, as some have speculated from the second law of thermodynamics, to the decay of the "world". The computer graphics show that as a result of methodic breakdown and dismantling a large but finite number of alternative "worlds" can be selected. These worlds, or sign-worlds, are pervaded with chance, and by virtue of their unstable and improbable order are capable of triggering new cognitive processes.

The syntactic sign-character of the compositional medium symmetry is revealed by its breakdown. The cancellation of this ordering structure in the painting P-196-EE from the series Cubic Limit leaves room for alternative interpretations regarding the relation between square window and tilting figure. None of the alternative interpretations, however, makes the relation quite clear, which compels the observer to seek for a higher order, a symmetry. The cognitive process which here takes place lights the way from the alternative to symmetry, the freedom associated with the alternative being overtaken by the symmetry involving order, or in other words rules. This course of events reflects the aesthetic production process in Mohr's Generative Works. He begins, inversely, with the establishment of parametric rules, and variable decisions have to be made only in the course of the process. These are taken over by chance, a guarantee of a choice free from emotions and values. The following decisions are reached: "Yes/no decisions, selection from several possible elements, distribution of elements according to statistical considerations."21
In Mohr's work the act of selection decides the aesthetic process. Bense has this to say: "In fact such aesthetic systems, exactly like information, are the expression of a distributory and selective function, and both, the relative frequency of a certain sign and the relative freedom one has of selecting it from other available possibilities, are in general not statistically favored at the beginning of the aesthetic process as compared with the frequency and possibility of selection of other signs (among those given). On the whole the probabilities of being selected and appearing are at first equal for all signs in the available set."22 The aesthetic drawing process belongs to "that class of processes that begin with equal probabilities, and thus purely stochastically, but in the course of which the probability of certain signs being chosen and appearing becomes progressively greater, while the probability for certain others...progressively decreases and finally vanishes"23 . The aesthetic information as a function of selection increases with freedom of choice, as Warren Weaver points out, and "the uncertainty that the actually selected message is a definite one" indeterminate. A successive increase of the aesthetic information as a function of an extended sign repertoire can be observed particularly in Mohr's series since 1978. Unpredictability and improbability are associated in Mohr's compositions with the fragility of the forms.

In the wall pieces of the series Divisibility (1980-1986), the dismantling process is extended to the carrier of the image, and the technological procedure of making the object is included in the drawing process. The aesthetic drawing process is conceived in this case as an object-producing process. Generation and growth are the subject of this series. The basic structure, the cube, can no longer be identified in the isolated image. According to Mohr the sign "has been able to free itself visually from its logical content in order to present itself as an abstract form". What is presented is an abstract sign, reproducing itself by the transference of information, which grows and expands sequentially and without any restriction of direction. The separation of the form from the history of its generation can be interpreted to the effect that the aesthetic process is not only a process of creation but one of transference, of communication: the aesthetic information is produced by the division of a cube into four. Since not every one of the four cube segments reproduces itself as a new sign in a new field of representation, the communication is selective in respect of the aesthetic information. The new signs again reproduce themselves selectively in new fields of representation: in representations, in representations of representations, etc., and there as signs of signs, as signs of signs of signs, etc. In these works outlines appear "as a system of extending (expanding) possible outlines, and this outline system which shows the product in the 'confusion of the object', as Whitehead puts it, is not a system of limitation but a system of expansion which does not convey form but function, which does not supply an object in the sense of something that can be isolated but in the sense of its coherent 'congredience', i.e. the totality of its happening"24 .

Work on the Dimensions series (1978-1989) began almost at the same time as Divisibility. While Divisibility was concerned with the growth or multiplication of signs, in Dimensions Mohr takes as his subject the extension of the repertoire of signs. Once again the basic structure, the cube, can no longer be recognized. The 3-dimensional cube of Cubic Limit is turned into a 4-dimensional hypercube with 32 edges to provide new insights into the aesthetic process. The body, which lies outside our visual experience, is composed of eight inherent cubes, each edge of which belongs simultaneously to three different cubes. With this fixed structure Mohr generates signs that develop their complexity in various dimensions. They leave the observer a wide scope for imagination and association which is rooted in the visual ambiguity of the signs. Polyvalence and equivocality are methodically built into Mohr's metalanguage as an artistic element. They result from the transformations of the 4-dimensional body or more generally the n-dimensional body, as well as from the systematic dismantling of their 2-dimensional projections. The unity or wholeness of the body is annulled by the elimination of line elements, and an ambiguity appears which is due to the open connection of the linked signs.
The work P-224, which consists of four parts, reveals the connection: the four diamond shaped images not only touch each other from outside through two corners; an inner coherence is also visible through the horizontal lines. As a result each image is not only a sign "reflecting" itself but a constituent part of a complex relationship, a whole, a configuration. This closed connection is presented to the observer in an integrating process in which the graph of the hypercube is developed.
The relief series Laserglyphs (1991-1992) is based on the 6-dimensional hypercube, a structure with 32 diagonals and 32 x 720=23040 diagonal paths. With the enormous enlargement of the repertoire a random selection of four definite diagonal paths makes the construction of a Laserglyph an impartial undertaking. The title of this series relates to the production, the material realization of the relief concept and directs the attention to the material pattern of diagonal paths that appears as a complex nexus of indices. The graphic quality of the aesthetic result consequently does not depend on a reproductive iconism but on a compositional indexicality by which the reference to the object is brought into the foreground. For the observer of the white reliefs the aesthetic state consists on the one hand in the presented physical reality of the artificial object of the art work and on the other in the represented spiritual reality, plunged in reflecting white, of its originally singular state. This dual reality is made the subject of the Laserglyphs in that the physical reality of the solid, hard and heavy steel reliefs takes second place to the sign reality of the object shrouded in dematerializing white, in which the diagonal paths seem fragile and appear to change their courses and directions weightlessly. As objects of art the Laserglyphs represent, in respect of their sign-internal interpretant function, the complex interconnection of their indexical associations through the totality of the artistically composed material substance. For the recipient the aesthetic reality of Mohr's frameless reliefs unfolds in a pattern of diagonal paths whose interpretant is formed by an open connex. The triadic relationship which has validity for each work of art, is not only characteristic for the aesthetic reality but is the reality of the sign.

In the latest series Counterpoint (1993-1994), the title refers to the all-embracing framework in which Mohr's art must be seen. Mohr, who is himself a jazz musician, always points out that he has received some important impulses in relation to the use of a computer in art from the French composer Pierre Barbaud. The extent to which compositional elements of music, and in particular of improvisation, are integrated in his works might be a subject for further investigation.

The fifteen-part series Counterpoint is built up, like Laserglyphs (1992), on the 6-dimensional hypercube. The abstract forms have freed themselves of their logical content. It is noticeable that the forms, in their character of bizarre, expressive lines of movement, touch the boundaries of the picture, as though they meant to make a direct reference to them. In this respect Counterpoint is in direct contrast with Action Painting and thus with Mohr's early work, one of whose characteristics is that it ignores the picture format, the object. Counterpoint brings out a tension between sign and format. This tension is the real subject, which the sign conveys not through perception but only through reflection.
In the Counterpoint series two of the possible 23.040 diagonal paths through the 6-dimensional hypercube were selected at random. Each work consists, according to Mohr, "of two diagonal paths which have at least one point in the structure in common so as to maintain visually the inherent connection"25 . The two diagonal paths stand for the inner coherence of this series: all fifteen compositions show the same pair of diagonal paths, but from different viewpoints. The changed angle produces a different être graphique. The fifteen-part series Counterpoint is determined by the total of fifteen different possibilities of projection in 6-dimensional space by means of which a figure can be projected in the plane. Mohr leaves it to the observer, however, to decide whether he wants to follow up the story of how these compositions originated. He himself says of his Generative Works: "My art is not mathematical art, but an expression of my artistic experiences. I don't want to show cold mathematics but a vital philosophy."26 According to Bense the special character of a generative aesthetic consists in the fact that it permits "the methodical elaboration of unknown forms", "whose methodology, however, only makes sense when in a series of images it can be recognized from the changes"27 . Mohr's serial images, particularly Counterpoint with its varying, "individual" formats, reflect the essential structures of the modern consumer society, which enables diversity in uniformity to be expressed with one and the same algorithm.


1 Sonderborg, in: Gabriele Lueg, Studien zur Malerei des deutschen Informel, Aachen 1983 (thesis)

2 Max Bense introduced this concept to distinguish mechanically produced art from art deriving solely from human productivity, or "natural art".

3 Manfred Mohr, in: Divisibility, Generative Works 1980-1981, exhib. cat.: Galerie Gilles Gheerbrant, Montréal 1981

4 Manfred Mohr, in: exhib. cat.: Algorithmus und Kunst: Die präzisen Vergnügen, Hamburg 1993, p. 38

5 Manfred Mohr, quoted by Marie-Luise Syring, in: Manfred Mohr, review of work 1965-1980, exhib. cat.: Galerie Teufel, Cologne 1980, p. 9

6 Manfred Mohr, in: Computer Graphics: Une esthétique programmée, exhib. cat.: A-R-C, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris 1971, p. 40

7 Max Bense, kleine abstrakte ästhetik, text 38, edition rot; reprinted unchanged in: Max Bense, Aesthetica: Einführung in die neue Aesthetik (1st ed. 1965), 2nd enlarged ed. Baden-Baden 1982, p. 345

8 Manfred Mohr, in: IBM-Informatique, No. 13, 1975, p. 40

9 According to Frieder Nake's definition an "algorithm is a finite list of instructions that are well defined. The algorithm yields a solution to every problem of a class of problems after a finite number of steps in which the instructions are carried out one after the other." In: Frieder Nake, Aesthetik als Informationsverarbeitung, Berlin, Heidelberg 1974, p. 88

10 Max Bense, Aesthetica (as in Note 7), p. 333

11 Manfred Mohr, in: Algorithmus und Kunst (as in Note 4)

12 Cf. Manfred Mohr, in: Dessins Génératifs, Part II, Travaux de 1975- 1977, exhib. cat.: Galerie Weiller, Paris 1977

13 Max Bense, Aesthetica (as in Note 7), p. 337. The theory proposed by Bense should be discussed at a higher level.

14 Manfred Mohr, in: IBM Informatique (as in Note 8)

15 Max Bense, Aesthetica (as in Note 7), p.338

16 Dietrich Mathy, Poesie und Chaos: Zur anarchistischen Komponente der frühromantischen Aesthetik, Munich, Frankfurt/Main 1984, p. 44

17 Max Bense, Aesthetica (as in Note 7), p. 331

18 By an iconic sign Mohr understands "a selfreflecting sign"; cf. Manfred Mohr, Cubic Limit, Generative Drawings, Part I, Travaux de 1973-1975, exhib. cat.: Galerie Weiller, Paris 1975

19 Manfred Mohr, quoted by Richard W. Gassen, "Zehn Aspekte zum Werk von Manfred Mohr", in: Manfred Mohr, Fractured Symmetry, Algorithmische Arbeiten 1967-1987, exhib. cat.: Wilhelm-Hack- Museum, Ludwigshafen am Rhein 1987, p. 11

20 Manfred Mohr, in: Algorithmus und Kunst (as in Note 4)

21 Ibid.

22 Max Bense, Aesthetica (as in Note 7), p. 214f.

23 Ibid., p. 215

24 Ibid., p. 253

25 Manfred Mohr, letter of May 26, 1993 to the gallerist Heinz Teufel

26 Manfred Mohr, quoted by Richard W. Gassen (as in Note 19), p. 15

27 Max Bense, quoted by Marie-Luise Syring (as in Note 5), p. 10

Copyright by Dr. Marion Keiner, from Monograph 'Manfred Mohr', Waser Verlag Zürich 1994