As a show, it takes some work to get into. This simply isn't a visual show, and visitors without a substantial appreciation for the beauty of the algorithm will leave disappointed; the forty-odd works exhibited are nearly all monochrome, obliquely titled (P-159-A, P-777-mbb), and executed by the mechanical hand of the plotter on white paper. It's everything people hate about conceptual art, and it's also a fascinating exhibition.
The best bits are the extra-dimensional pieces. Over the course of his career, Mohr has slowly added to the complexity of his art: in the late 70s, he began producing works conceived in four spatial dimensions; in the late 80s, in six; in the last decade, in eleven. Their shapes are now far beyond his – or our – ability to comprehend without a computer, so they're necessarily simple: hypercubes, mostly, a sort of Platonic solid for the higher dimensions. Rather than trying to convey these shapes in their entirety – an impossibility – Mohr selects paths through them to animate, or slices-of-slices to print on canvas. In each, our view is cross-crossed by black lines, Mohr's markers for the diagonals between the cube's vertexes; in some, sickly blue color fields hang from them, colliding in what Mohr has called “unimaginable constellations”.
In truth, most of them look terrible. Mohr fractures one unrecognizable form into another in a space beyond perspective, and the eye simply doesn't buy it. The difficulty of this translation, though, raises interesting questions about exactly what these works are. Mohr’s extra-dimensional subjects are necessarily abstract and universal, but also very specific; the prints that result are perfect representations, but also mere fragments. There's nothing really quite like them.
The other works in the show, if it can be believed, are harder to grasp. A long series of algorithm-based plotter drawings dominate the walls, but the rules governing their construction are left unstated – in only one case is the generative logic exposed, in a drawn flowchart of mathematical statements held in a vitrine of ephemera. Without knowing how or why these drawings came to be, the viewer assumes they're random, or at least that the logic involved is ultimately inconsequential; a smaller set of similar-looking pieces explicitly based on random numbers seems to prove this. With both aesthetic and generative meaning emptied, there's little to do but nod at these works.
Some of the works on view predate Mohr's engagement with plotters, and those works suck. Mohr went through a few phases – monochrome hard-edge and action painting, mostly – that simply didn't work, and the results tend to look like art deco menu design or just plain scribbles.
Fortunately, Mohr used these pieces for a much more interesting project in the 1970s. Inspired by the work of logician and philosopher Max Bense, Mohr at one point attempted to construct aesthetic algorithms that could produce every image he might conceive of. In the original catalogue for Une Esthétique Programmée, he explains this in depth:
“The first step in that direction was an extended analysis of my own paintings and drawings from the last ten years. It resulted in a surprisingly large amount of regularities, determined of course by my particular aesthetical sense, through which I was able to establish a number of basic elements that amounted to a rudimentary syntax. After representing these basic constructions through a mathematical formalism, and setting them up in an abstract combinatorial framework, I was in a position to realise all possible representations of my algorithms. ”¦ As it is possible to conceive the logic of a construction but not all of its consequences it is nearly an imperative to rely on a computer to show this large variety of possibilities”
It's an interesting concept, particularly to me, but it seems to be strangely absent (or, at least, invisible) in the present exhibition. One wishes a few extra plotter drawings had been sacrificed for the greater curatorial good.
While the absence of plotter instructions and aesthetic algorithms is keenly felt, the rest of the curation does a reasonable job of using Mohr's own words and process to explain otherwise mute works. The vitrine of ephemera by the entrance to the gallery, particularly, is invaluable in this. Still, I wanted more: the placement of works is more lyrical than logical, doing serious harm to the plotter drawings, which have no obvious chronology and would have benefited from the imposition of one. A body of work this oblique will always have trouble proving its own progression, and it's been done no favors here.
Ultimately, “Réflexions sur une esthétique programmée” is a flawed exhibition, of flawed work. You're probably not going to like the look of things, and you may or may not have the patience to delve into the concepts involved. The brilliance of a few of Mohr's ideas, however – extra-dimensional art and algorithmic aesthetics, in particular – just about make up for his failings, and there is, in truth, one great stroke of beauty. It doesn't quite fully manifest in any particular work, but it's there: the realization that this is the computer showing us something only it can see.
AFC's Rating: 5/10 (Will Brand)