Charles Csuri, whose experiments with computers during the 1960s made him an essential figure in the history of digital art, has died at 99. An announcement by the Ohio State University in Columbus, where Csuri had long been a professor of art education and computer science, said he passed away on Sunday, but did not state a cause of death.
Csuri’s work has been regarded as unclassifiable—neither artistic enough for some to be classed as art nor digitally oriented enough for others to be considered the stuff of the tech world. Despite the adversity that he described facing throughout his career, Csuri found admirers for the unusual ways in which he merged traditional art practices such as painting with algorithms, programming, and more.
In various writings on his career, historians referred to him as the “father of computer art,” and in a 1998 New York Times profile Csuri referred to himself as being “the first artist with any serious art credentials to work with the computer.” In another profile from three years earlier, Smithsonian Magazine said that Csuri “may be the nearest thing, in this new art form, to an Old Master.”
While he may never have been the subject of a proper survey at a major museum, Csuri’s status within the history of digital art is virtually uncontested. He’s acclaimed for works such as Hummingbird (1968), a computer-generated animation of a bird whose image appears to double and come apart. Composed of more than 30,000 individual images, the film was crafted through a labor-intensive process that involved having an IBM 704 computer create images of the hummingbird. Each picture contained information for a drum plotter that, when the images were fed through it, translated each into a pen drawing.
Originally commissioned for a series of computer-generated films accompanying the Museum of Modern Art show “The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age,” Hummingbird was one of the first works of its kind to enter that New York institution’s holdings. Art historian Christiane Paul called the film a “landmark of computer-generated ‘animation’” in her genre-defining 2003 book Digital Art.
Despite Csuri’s reputation within certain art circles, he claimed that few recognized his importance. Indeed, the sole Csuri work held by MoMA remains Hummingbird. In 1967, when an OSU professor tried to get Artforum to run an article on Csuri, Philip Leider, then the publication’s editor, responded, “I can’t imagine ARTFORUM ever doing a special on electronics or computer art, but one never knows.”
“I think I’m a damned good artist, and I don’t think many people know that,” Csuri told the Times in 1995.
Charles Csuri was born on July 4, 1922, in West Virginia. He later went to school at the Ohio State University, where he was put on a track to become a professional football player. In 1944, he was selected in the NFL draft to join the Chicago Cardinals, though he gave up the opportunity to serve in U.S. Army during World War II. During the war, he was exposed to the mathematics, algebra, and technology that he would later take up as a professional artist.
Starting in 1947, he began teaching at OSU, where, for a period, he shared an office with the Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, who had not yet become famous for the Pop paintings he would later make featuring what appeared to be Ben-Day dots. At the time, Csuri was working in what may be called a more traditional mode, producing abstracting paintings that would later figure in the Venice Biennale. But that all changed in 1964, when he saw a portrait made using a computer that was printed in an OSU publication. He enrolled himself in a programming course and began to make his own computer art. Later, he would have others do the programming for him, further underlining the fact that he viewed himself as an artist above all else.
The work from Csuri’s early period—warped-looking portraits formed from sine waves, a computer-generated progression of images showing a person aging—may look entirely digital. In fact, he viewed it as a translation of what he was already doing in painting. He went on to emphasize that idea even more when, during the ’90s, he began to make works that used bump mapping (a type of imaging that can detect changes in texture on a surface) to envision abstractions digitally. One such work, Gossip (1987–91), which features an array of multicolored forms that disband into ribbons, involved scanning a painting and then remaking it anew in a digital void. It received a $100,000 prize of distinction from the Ars Electronica festival in Linz, Austria.
Late-career recognition arrived in 1998 in the form of a retrospective held by Siggraph, the International Computer Graphics Conference. Interviewed by the New York Times on the occasion, curator Barbara London, who advocated video art and sound art as mediums of importance at the Museum of Modern Art, said that Csuri was “ahead of his time.”
“The stress that I often feel as an artist is my attempt to break free of this carefully measured universe, a universe where there is a predictable outcome,” Csuri wrote in the show’s catalogue. “When I allow myself to play and search in the space of uncertainty, the more creativity becomes a process of discovery. The more childlike and curious I become about this world and space full of objects, the better the outcome. “