Artwork in Block’s collection featured in LACMA’s “Coded: Art Enters the Computer Age” 

The Block Museum of Art partners with colleague institutions nationally and internationally to loan works from its collection for select exhibition projects. The Block’s Academic Curator, Corinne Granof spotlights a recent visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to view works on loan to the museum.

Earlier this year, two works in The Block’s collection traveled to Los Angeles to be part of the landmark exhibition Coded: Art Enters the Computer Age at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, or LACMA, (February 12–July 2, 2023), organized by Leslie Jones, Curator, Prints and Drawings.  

In June, just before it closed, I was delighted to see the artworks included as part of a broad history of how computers have been used in artmaking in the mid-20th century by artists with varying styles, media, and approaches. The works on loan from the Block Museum are by two women who were pioneering in the development of early computer art:  Sonya Rapoport and Joan Truckenbrod. The artworks were side by side in a gallery that explored art as information — or maybe more accurately, information as art, one theme of the exhibition. 

Since acquiring these pieces in 2008, the artworks have occasionally been brought out for classes, but have otherwise rarely been shown. It was beyond exciting to see the artworks in a major exhibition that has been critically praised for how it has reframed and broadened questions of art and technology. The exhibition looked at myriad artists working with computers in the early years of computer technology with diverse conceptual and practical frameworks.  

The artworks first came into the collection as gifts from each artist during the development of the exhibition Imaging by Numbers: A Historical View of the Computer Print (2008), curated by former Block curator, Debora Wood, a contributor to the Coded catalogue, and Paul Hertz, former faculty at Northwestern whose practice often used algorithmic approaches. Including the artworks by Rapoport and Truckenbrod, Imaging by Numbers explored the development of computer programming as an artistic medium, looking at algorithmic processes that “instruct” a computer on how to draw an image.  

Both pieces in the LACMA exhibit are large-scale and commanding artworks. Rapoport’s Shoe Field Map developed out of an interactive and performative endeavor. In June 1982, Rapaport organized a “Shoe-In” at a commercial store, Berkeley Computer Systems, in Berkeley, California. There she had 76 visitors provide responses to how they felt about their shoes. She took Polaroid photos of each of the participants’ shoes and interpreted all the data into symbols—letters numbers, and signs that appear across a scroll-like vertical sheet of paper. The symbols, representing each person’s “personalized shoe psyche” swirl and trail across the page in aestheticized, but largely indecipherable, information. In addition, a Sintra tile with each person’s individual “shoe psyche” was created and reexhibited in a later presentation. Rapoport was an absolute pioneer in generating imagery from data she collected on a “floppy disk,” and her work is playful documentation of a performative interactive installation. 

Joan Truckenbrod’s piece is colorful and bold and fuses two realms of the visual — combining traditional craftwork (quilt-making, textile, decorative arts) with the more technology-based world of computer art and computer-generated imagery. While she was a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute, Truckenbrod had worked with artist and teacher Sonia Sheridan, whose work had often been sponsored by 3M and who had done some of the first artistic experiments with the color copier, which 3M had brought on the market in 1969. Truckenbrod used the program BASIC and the Apple IIe computer to create algorithmic drawings of natural phenomenon (light waves or wind currents), and then copied the images that appeared on the monitor. She placed the actual monitor upside down on a 3M Color-in-Color copier to produce the image on heat transfer paper, which was then ironed onto fabric. Electronic Patchwork was possibly Truckenbrod’s earliest experiment with this technology. 

In addition to the two works on loan from the Block’s collection, the exhibition featured artwork by a number of artists who are also represented in the Block collection: Colette and Charles Bangert, Manfred Mohr, Jean-Pierre Hébert, and Frieder Nake, among others. 

Corinne Granof, Academic Curator, The Block Museum of Art

When The Block loans artworks for exhibitions, the curatorial department, registrars and the director review how much exposure the artwork has already had and what kind of light exposure it will have while on view, as well as the potential for future displays. We review the environmental conditions at the borrowing institution, the length of the loan, and whether the exhibition will travel to additional sites. We consider whether there are multiple copies and if another version of the artwork would be readily available to the borrower if we were to decline the loan request. There is always stress on artworks on loan—travel, handling, and light. With all this in mind, we consider whether the artwork is critical to the premise of the exhibition and how it will help tell the story among the other artworks on view. What will the exhibition contribute to art history or our understanding of visual culture? Is the artwork central to that story? In this case, the artworks in the Block’s collection were fundamental to the stories told in Coded and to the history of artmaking with computers.  

Joan Truckenbrod (American, born 1945), Electronic Patchwork, 1978. Color photocopy of computer monitor display transferred to polyester sheet. 80 x 55 in.  Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, gift of Joan Truckenbrod, 2008.15.1  

Sonya Rapoport (American, 1923–2015), Shoe-Field Map, 1982/85. Photocopy enlargement of computer plot on rag vellum. 45 5/8 x 23 5/8 in.  Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, gift of Sonya Rapoport Family, 2008.13.1

Sonya Rapoport (American, 1923–2015), Shoe-Field (floor tile), 1982/85.  Screenprint from impact print on black Sintra. 24 x 24 in.  Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, gift of Sonya Rapoport Family, 2008.13.7  

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