Digital Art Museum
David Em    

A Note About My Work

This text is Em's own introduction to the monograph on his work, The Art of David Em, published by Abrams, 1988.

Permission to reproduce this paper is kindly granted by the author.



The Art of David Em

David Em

My father was a petroleum engineer and my mother was an artist. When I was a year and a half old, we went to South America, where we lived until I was twelve. We moved around a lot, living in Colombia, Venezuela, and Argentina. When I was fourteen, we moved to Connecticut. I was very unhappy in school, and I started drawing to make myself feel better. For the next three years, I drew constantly: portraits of friends, copies of paintings, nature studies. I attended evening life classes at the Silvermine Guild, read voraciously about art and artists, and on the weekends haunted the museums in New York City. In my senior year of high school I won a scholarship to art school, and I chose to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where I studied painting.

For my first two years in art school, I used oils to paint portraits and figures. Then I started working with plastic paints, and after a while I began making my own paints from scratch. The Rohm and Haas Corporation, which manufactures the plastic base from which most acrylic paints are made, is in Philadelphia, and one day I went by their headquarters to see if someone could answer some technical questions I had about the chemical composition of the paints. I met with two of their chemists, who it turned out were wrestling with some of the same problems, and they generously supplied me with information and materials that gave me much greater control over the physical properties of the medium.

As my artworks involved molding the plastic paints into highly textured three-dimensional surfaces, it dawned on me that what I was trying to do could be better accomplished with industrial fabrication equipment, and I began renting time on industrial plastics extruders in the area. By this point, the faculty at the academy didn't have a clue as to what I was doing, and I left after my third year of formal instruction. I moved to California, where I met the owner of a plastics factory who had an interest in the arts. He gave me an industrial extruder of my own to work with as well as access to his technical staff.

Over the next year I set up a collaborative relationship between myself, the management, and the technicians, in order to produce highly textured plastic sculptures on the fabrication machinery. I spent a lot of time lighting the pieces I was creating on the industrial machines, and after a while I began to think of them as three-dimensional canvases that I was composing with light instead of paint. The arrangement of highlights and shadows was the central focus of each piece.

One day I saw an old color TV someone was about to throw out. It was built into a huge old wooden cabinet and had a large round screen. It still worked, but the color characteristics of the screen had become extremely distorted with age, and the very dim television transmission signals it received produced forms that bore a striking resemblance to the light and shadow arrangements I had been working on. I dragged the old tube back to my studio, where I discovered that by altering the hue, saturation, and brightness controls on the side of the set I could pull some really extraordinary color ranges out of the screen. For the next several weeks I spent hours on end staring at the screen and twiddling the knobs.

I soon wanted to gain more precise control over what the television screen was capable of displaying. I started asking around, and one evening I met Larry Templeton, an electronics engineer who had designed and produced a video image-processing system that could also electronically synthesize colors on a video screen. Larry was very interested in seeing the tools he had designed applied to the making of art, and I spent most of 1974 working with his system, creating colorful electronic paintings on television screens and recording the results on videotape. By the end of the year, however, it became clear that this system was not precise enough to explore the deeper ranges of the medium. I was able to determine overall hues and compose broad sections of the screen, but what I needed was the ability to control every dot.

I had heard through the grapevine that something along these lines was brewing at the Xerox Research PARC in Palo Alto. Alvy Ray Smith, a computer scientist and pioneer of computer imagery, was working there with a device called a frame buffer, which had been designed at Parc by Dick Shoup. Shoup's frame buffer offered total control over the hue, saturation, and brightness of every dot on a monitor. The frame buffer was controlled by a computer, and Alvy had written an interactive paint program for it called Superpaint. He and animator David Di Francisco were using Superpaint to create images for an animated videotape, and they invited me to see their system.

Early in the evening of January 6, 1975, I visited PARC for the first time. I had never been in a computer research lab before, so everything was new to me. Computers were everywhere. Alvy showed me how to run his paint program, which consisted of an electronic stylus that could create lushly colored and exotically shaped electronic brush strokes on a color computer screen. Moving the stylus across a digitizing tablet controlled the location and movement of the electronic brushes on the screen. Up to this point no one from a fine arts background had sat at the controls of the system. But the stylus and tablet setup were easy for me to adapt to because of my traditional painting background and my familiarity with video tools, and an hour later I had created my first computer image.

That night there was a discussion of what might be possible with the computer, and Alvy quickly programmed an electronic airbrush. After entering the program, he randomly swept it back and forth across the tablet, creating glowing white brush strokes on the black screen. There were no lights on in the room, so these large white forms made of pure light seemed to be suspended in the air. I knew I had found what I was looking for. It was fortunate for me that my first encounter with high technology had been so positive, because for the next two and a half years my experiences with computers were not. I quickly learned that making pictures with state-of-the-art computers required a lot more than simply learning to use the tools. Computer programs were delicate and fragile, as were many of the personalities who created them. Everything was in a state of development, and the machines tended to break down. Even when a picture had been created it was barely possible to document it. The dark specter of managerial bureaucracy also reared its ugly head, and a few weeks after I had discovered that computer image making existed as a medium, Xerox shut down its computer graphics lab, presumably because they could see no real world application for it. For the next nine months all I had to assure me that this electronic medium was not the product of an overactive imagination was an SX-70 Polaroid photograph of the first picture I had made, which David Di Francisco had shot off the computer's display screen for me.

Before Xerox shut down its graphics lab, I took Larry Templeton over to see it. Larry was pretty sure he could design a similar system. Since computer memory, and therefore resolution, was so expensive at that time, we decided to build a low-resolution system with an expandable memory. Days and nights were spent fabricating computer boards. Larry did the designing and I wirewrapped the computer chips to the boards.

Our excitement was contagious, and before long we were joined by another artist, Bill McMahon, and two engineers, Gabriel Normandy and George Ellis. We all contributed money, time, and love to the project, and soon our little system began to grow. Going into it, we had no idea it would take over a year and a half to build the machine, during which time we could not make a single image with it. The construction was extremely slow and tedious. I was constantly plagued by doubts as to whether it would ever work, and the frustration and constant delays ran counter to my experiences with other art forms. But when we were finished, we had a working frame buffer that could duplicate the capabilities of the Xerox system in low resolution.

I had become aware in the meantime that a few dozen computer scientists around the country were also devoting their energies to making pictures with computers. In the fall of 1975, Gabriel and I took a trip across America to visit every computer graphics installation we could find. Each system was a hybrid: no two were alike. Only a handful of people were involved, all of them very dedicated, inspiring, and open. They were just beginning to harness the vast potential of the medium.

Fred Parke, one of the scientists I visited, had a strange kludge of a system operating at Case Western Reserve. He suggested I look into the Jet Propulsion Laboratory when I got back to California to see if they were doing anything with computer images. When I passed through Los Angeles on my way back to San Francisco, I gave JPL a call. Although some scientists at JPL were heavily involved with the computer enhancement of photographs of outer space, they were not synthesizing computer images from scratch. However, a secretary there took an interest in what I was doing and connected me with Bob Holzman, a member of the JPL technical staff who was looking for funding to setup a computer-imaging lab at JPL. Holzman turned out to have a deep interest in the fine arts. He thought it might be worthwhile for an artist to have access to a high-level computer graphics system, and he suggested we stay in touch. I called him a couple of months later, and over the phone he was ebullient: he had just gotten the lab funded. The next month I moved from the Bay Area to southern California.

The problems I had encountered building the homebrew graphics computer in San Francisco were greatly amplified at JPL. Simply getting the official passes for regular access to the computing facility took half a year. The computers were months late in being delivered, months late in being installed, and once they were up and running they ran programs that were of virtually no use to me. By then a year and a half had gone by.

During those eighteen months I had started spending my nights at a company called Information International Incorporated (I.I.I. or Triple-I), where two pioneers of computer filmmaking, Gary Demos and John Whitney, Jr., had set up a graphics system powerful enough to produce computer-generated animation for the television broadcasting and motion picture industries. Gary had programmed the I.I.I. computer to simulate three-dimensional objects on film, but the system's software was still under development, and it was quite convoluted and hard to control. I blundered forward slowly and eventually learned to make completely synthetic computer-generated objects with shaded surfaces move around in simulated three-dimensional space. After a year or so of hacking away, I finally made some pictures of a candy-colored cricket that could jump, fly, and flap its transparent wings.

In 1977, Eric Levy and Julian Gomez were hired as systems programmers at the JPL graphics lab, and the machines there finally began to respond to instructions. Jim Blinn, who had recently completed his now historic thesis on computer imagery, also came to JPL and implemented his ideas. Blinn's programs, which among other things could display objects with highly textured surfaces, represented a major redefinition of the field of computer imaging and made important advances in realistic simulation. One evening Jim gave me an overview of his programs, which I immediately saw were far more capable than any I had used up until that time. What I found most attractive was the fact that the various program modules (paint, lighting, object definition, and so forth) were integrated in such a way that they all communicated with each other, so that one program could interact with another. Later that night I used what I had learned to "paint" Aku (plate 33).

The middle to late 1970s were JPL's glory years. Photographs taken of Mars by the Viking Mars lander and of Jupiter and Saturn by the Voyager spacecraft flybys were beamed directly to JPL, where they were decoded and displayed to the world. As computers on board the spacecraft sent back the picture data, the features of the planets and their moons were scrolled onto computer screens and seen by human eyes for the first time. All of us watching felt as if we had been transported millions of miles from Earth. The wild cheers of the scientists filled the control rooms, and for months before and after a mission the air was alive with the astrophysicists' talk of trajectories, viewing angles, and space phenomena. Inevitably, a lot of this activity seeped into my imagery. While the scientists around me were using the computers to take snapshots of outer space, I was using them to design and document worlds of my own.

As the JPL graphics lab grew and developed over the next several years, it came to resemble an ascetic spaceship. Rooms were refrigerated to keep the computers happy, and due to the high reflectivity of the glass video screens, which creates color distortion, I tended to work in the dark. There were constant technical problems, with tape drives breaking down, disks crashing, and inexplicable memory burnouts. Sometimes people broke down too. Thinking back on it, it's amazing anything ever got done at all, yet it was an intensely productive period for everyone who was there, and although the rooms were very cold, my recollection of that time is very warm.

I enjoyed working with Jim Blinn's programs. Despite the fact that they had originally been written for scientific purposes, their capabilities were such that I was able to adapt them to my own very different purposes. They did more or less what I wanted and needed them to do, and I found them easy to use. As long as the hardware and software were both working, and I had access to the machines, I would make pictures with the computer for hours on end. The system's ability to manipulate vast amounts of picture information with great speed and flexibility allowed me to develop new working procedures. Ideas came up that would not have occurred to me otherwise, and the images began growing into and out of each other. Eventually I was able to use the computer intuitively, and as the tool became more and more transparent to me, I began to explore the unique qualities of the computer as an art medium, to see where it obeyed my commands and where it controlled my actions.

One of the things I liked best about the process was that by accessing different programs, I could work in areas that were formally very different. At times I would limit myself to the paint programs for days or even weeks. Then I might start working with two-dimensional transformations, which allowed me to study symmetry and geometric arrangements (plates 61 and 70). When a creative fork in the road appeared, I could save the current stage of the image in memory, explore one path, then come back to the stored image and explore the other, a process not possible in traditional painting. Images could be built up in layers, and elements of one could be combined with elements of another. A detail from one painting could become a texture wrapped around an object in another work, and the objects could be scaled to any size and viewed from any angle. I had always been interested in sculpture and architecture as well as painting, and now I was able to explore elements of these disciplines through the computer's keyboard, as well as investigating the properties of an entirely different medium.

Soon I started designing my own large, three-dimensional data bases, which simulated complete environments. I spent a lot of time in the early 1980s exploring these self-created worlds. Despite the fact that I had had to painstakingly define every bit of information in the hundreds of files they were composed of, they were full of strange and wonderful surprises. Subter4 (plate 73), Gabriel (plate 74), and Adonde 2 (plate 72) were all part of a large data base that I devoted a lot of time wandering around in during that period. Most of the people in the field at that time were obsessed with animating their computer pictures, and for a while I was too. But gradually I found that what really interested me was creating paintings with electronic light. I also still took programs that had been developed for scientific purposes and adapted them to my own artistic purposes. Ragnarok (plate 59) and Aftermath (plate 60) were made in part by using a program that had originally been written to simulate the rings of Saturn. The twists in Twist 1 (plate 41) I accomplished by using a program that had originally been written to simulate an expanding galaxy. Accidents also played a role in my image making. Bad bits would appear at random, usually at the worst possible times, but sometimes they contributed something unusual to the look of an image. The wavy grid patterns in Where 3 (plate 45) and Approach (plate 46) were due to program errors, but these glitches are an important part of what makes the pictures work. When some of these bugs were ironed out later, the new pictures weren't nearly as interesting, and so I had to mix occasional random numbers into the brew to reintroduce an element of unexpected chance.

As the medium develops, new ways of displaying the picture data develop along with it. Caribou 1 (plate 40) and Caribou 2 (plate 87) started out as the same picture but were photographed seven years apart, using different display and film recording systems. They amount to different states of the same image. At one time it seemed that the digital domain was the ultimate archival medium because everything is stored in the computer memory as numbers. But it turns out that it is not a simple task to reconstruct the numbers in a manner that accurately reflects the artist's original vision. Since computer display screens can rarely be matched exactly and are subject to such things as color drift, phosphor decay, and vagaries of the nondigital real world, computer-generated art remains an extremely ephemeral art form unless and until the artist transfers the image from the computer onto some physical medium or the exact studio conditions in which the original image was created are reproduced in an exhibition setting. The whole problem of accurately reproducing the images became a consuming issue for me. Because I had been working exclusively with electronic light, I had ignored the properties of real light. In 1982, I therefore began to examine and redefine my assumptions and ideas about optics and color perception.

In June 1982, I made a painting in oils called Salvador(plate 85). It was the first time in over eight years that I had concentrated on the effects of natural light and it occurred to me how similar my pursuit of the properties of electronic light was to the Impressionists' studies of natural light but how different our circumstances were. Where Monet painted sunlit poplars by the riversides, I had traded in the direct observation of nature for a pitch black computer room with radiation pouring into my eyeballs. Painting from real light for the first time in years refreshed me, and when I got back to the machines I began to work in more painterly directions (plate 91). Indeed, working with materials on physical surfaces on paintings like -/(plate 32) and Invierno (plate 82) felt so good that in the summer of 1983 I stopped working with computers for a year.

In March 1985, I went back to the keyboard. The system had matured a bit in my absence, and my ideas were different from what they had been before. For years I had been taking my cues from high technology, from which I had learned much about myself. Wandering the mesas and studying rocks and clouds in northern New Mexico (where my studio was) had now changed my sources and references drastically. When I returned to the computer, a very different integration of medium and inspiration occurred from what had taken place before, which became articulated in pictures like Sunrise (plate 90) and Teec Nos Pas (plate 99).

While I was away from the high-tech lab, I became extremely conscious of how much the tools we use determine the physical and social environments we live and work in, and how much these factors influence our perceptions and ideas. How tedious and time consuming it must have been for Rembrandt's studio assistants to grind up a tiny quantity of paint for the master's daily work, compared to more recent times when an artist like Jackson Pollock, alone in his studio, could take advantage of drums of commercially produced paints to develop new creative directions. Now, by eliminating paint entirely from the initial creative act, the computer is pushing the envelope of imaging a little further, opening the way to a vast new and unpredictable visual territory.

How physically and spiritually removed sitting in front of a computer terminal is from the experience of a prehistoric cave painter making a red handprint on a cave wall. Perhaps if the prehistoric painter were presented with Velazquez's paint box and brushes it would take him a little while to grasp what had been delivered into his hands. And perhaps it will take us a little while to appreciate that the computer, which has so suddenly appeared in our midst, is likewise a wonderful and mysterious gift.