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AI, Spaceships, and Keith Richards: A Sitdown with Anne Spalter (Part 1)

CohentheWriter chats with the Digital Art Pioneer

As far as I’m concerned any comprehensive history of digital art has an inherent mandate: Mention. Anne. Spalter.

Anne Spalter is an original contributor to the Museum of Crypto Art Genesis Collection, a crypto artist who was minting work well before “crypto art” had developed a cogent culture. But long before our movement’s conception, Spalter had already solidified herself as a foremost authority on digital art: She founded digital fine arts courses at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and her work helped to establish digital art in the public mainstream. Together with Michael Spalter, Anne has amassed perhaps the world’s preeminent early digital art collection, to boot: The Anne + Michael Spalter Digital Art Collection.

It all speaks to an expansive love affair between Ms. Spalter and the digital art she’s spent her career creating and exploring. She was already there studying it in the ’80s, falling for its contours and capabilities at a time when digital art remained a mere curiosity well outside the purview of so-called “real artistry.” A passionate contributor to digital art for 40 years, Anne Spalter has as much claim as anyone to a seat on the high council of digital artistry.

Ship Fire Landscape (2019), by Anne Spalter; Oil painting based on AI algorithm generated composition. 10×10 in.

Yet, throughout the course of our conversation, Ms. Spalter proved herself a conscientious and humble figure. When she speaks of herself, it is through the lens of an artistic practice she exalts. When she speaks of her own art, it is almost always within a greater context, with an emphasis on the programs and processes she uses, not the incredible outcomes she achieves.

I emerged from our discussion with a broader idea of digital art’s history and of its possibilities. But that’s what happens when you come into contact with a teacher of Anne Spalter’s caliber. You get an education.

The following is the condensed and lightly edited transcription of a conversation between Anne Spalter and Max Cohen (@cohenthewriter) recorded in September 2022. This is part 1 of 3.

Max: What is the first piece of art you ever created?

Anne: In my life? I have no idea. Like in school? Laughs. I’m maybe a bit older than some of the people you normally interview.

Max: Well, is there one thing that, say, jumps out at you? Was there a moment where you felt A) This artistry thing is really appealing to me in a profound sense, or B) I feel like a capital-A Artist?

Anne: I would say I began to really be interested in art in high school — which was forever ago — and it was because I was obsessed with the Rolling Stones and began drawing Keith Richards.

Max: Why him and not Mick?

Anne: I don’t know! I don’t know why it started with that. And then I took a print-making course, and I really liked print-making and loved being able to bring things to life that looked like something. It just was incredibly powerful. And I hated the rest of academia. This was actually something fun that I could do in school.

Max: At what point did — I presume you followed that path more and more intensely as time went on — but at what point did you look in the mirror and say, “I am, first and foremost, an artist.”?

Anne: I went on to RISD [The Rhode Island School of Design] from high school. I ended up transferring to Brown, but I started my college career in art school. And I had really not enjoyed school up to that point. And then being in art school, I loved that. Being in the studio 10 hours a day, I thought was fantastic. I definitely thought I could do this all the time. This is like what I would do in my free time, but I could do it as a main activity as well.

Ship Fire Landscape (2019), by Anne Spalter; Oil painting based on AI algorithm generated composition. 10×10 in.

Max: Why digital art as opposed to something more traditional, or something more “classically” fine art?

Anne: All my training was traditional. I was a painting major. And I loved traditional things. The show I just installed was charcoal drawings and paintings, actually. So I go back to traditional stuff pretty frequently. I actually finished my painting major and everything, then I went back and got a Master’s degree in painting.

But I was in New York in between, in a banking job because I’d graduated from college and my parents stopped sending me a check, laughs, and I had to get a job, and you can’t really get a job in painting. I had a degree in mathematics from Brown, too, and you can’t really get a job in that either (in pure math). So it was the ’80s, and I went into investment banking. And I was in my little cubicle, and I had a computer… I was working a million hours a week — because it was banking — , and I actually made really good money, but I had no time to be in a studio because of the workload.

But I had this computer!

And I found out there was software on the computer where you can make images. And then I began doing that more and more, actually to the exclusion of my job while at work. I could click on Excel when my boss came by and then learn this art software and use it at other times.

After a while, I realized I should not be a banker, and that’s when I applied to go back as a graduate student to art school. So, it was sort of just that environment where I realized I could make artwork…in my work cubicle… on the computer. And when I went back to graduate school, I thought, Ohhh, I’m not going to use the computer anymore, it’s not really an art tool. I’m going to make ‘real’ art. But then I started to realize I’d missed a lot of the things you can do with a computer. The way you can infinitely undo something. And play with color forever! And I thought, This is actually an incredibly powerful visual thinking tool, and I really do want to incorporate it into my practice.

But there weren’t any classes that I could take. I wanted to learn more from someone who knew more than me, but there weren’t any classes at RISD at that time on the computer. So the head of the graduate program said, “Why don’t you teach one?”

It was a little bit like the one-eyed leading the blind, but you actually learn a lot when you have to teach because you have to articulate what you’re doing, and I started teaching the first digital fine art courses at RISD. I later taught [and founded the digital fine arts courses] at Brown, and also a joint class between the two schools. Doing that and creating my own curriculum and material led me to write my book [The Computer and the Visual Arts], which brought together everything that I had learned in five years of teaching.

Max: A couple months ago, I was writing a long-form piece that touched on digital art, and when I Googled “digital art,” the first option that came up was “Is digital art real art?” It’s 2022, and you’d think that at some point we would have accepted that it is. I’m curious about the opinion on digital art from your peers and colleagues in the ’80s, which was a touch before it started to proliferate as a legitimate outlet.

Anne: Yeah, there was a lot of hostility. When I began showing work that I created with the computer, there was a visiting critic from New York who refused to even look at my work. This was in the ’90s. He didn’t even say, like, “I saw the work and it sucks.” He wouldn’t even look at the work…

So it was just rejected out of hand because I had used the computer. When I was writing the book, Michael Spalter, who had majored in art history, said, “These people that you’re studying: The academy hates them, they have these amazing bodies of work, they’re just like the Impressionists! Like every art movement ever. We should try to support them and collect some of this work.” And it was really pretty inexpensive, because of what you were saying, that people didn’t think it was artwork and didn’t collect it. And we started what is now one of the largest collections that there is of early computer artwork.

Ship Fire Landscape (2019), by Anne Spalter; Oil painting based on AI algorithm generated composition. 10×10 in.

Every few years I think, Okay now everyone realizes that it’s really artwork, and it isn’t going to be a question I get asked all the time and have to defend. But then something will happen, and I’ll realize that, no, there’s still a lot of people who don’t think it’s artwork. So it’s always two steps forward, one step back. I do think it’s getting better and better, though. Take smartphones, for example, people take photos and do things with their phone that are so incredible and which they take for granted. So I think it’s much more accepted that you can gather material, and process it, and use it in your artistic practice without really even having to comment on it sometimes. I’ll see work in a gallery and I can tell that the artist used a computer in their practice but it’s not anywhere in the wall text or in their statement; they just didn’t even think it was necessary.

Max: Do you think that stems from something like shame about using the computer?

Anne: No, but sometimes it’s similar to the role of photography. The way a painter might use their camera for source material in a painting, and they don’t feel a need to say, “It’s photographic painting. I’m a camera-painter,” or something. Because they don’t feel as if they need to discuss that. We all know that everyone has a camera. So I think some of it is just taking technology for granted.

But then there’s artwork when it is really about the computer. It’s commenting on technology or using it in a very intensive way where there’s a specific focus on it.

Max: Why are people so hostile to new kinds of art? I feel like you get this attitude from mostly uneducated people — not uneducated in any grand scope but uneducated about the history of artistry itself. Why do you think people who don’t have a broad education in art are so reticent to bestow the title of “art” on new things and technologies?

Anne: I can understand it because, actually, at the beginning I felt that way. When I first heard about people making art with the computer, I said, “No way. That’s not art.” I thought, Your hand has to be involved; there has to be a medium. It’s part of that whole mind-hand connection, and that’s where the emotion comes out in it. So I do understand that initial reaction. And historically, I understand it via the history of photography. People said, “Oh, anyone can press a button. So where’s the artwork?” Today, you see people press a button and get amazing photographs. I press a button and I get totally mediocre photographs. Laughs. So obviously there’s a difference. But it can take a while to see that. Now we’ve had photography for so long, I think everyone understands that [as an art form]. But in the beginning, they didn’t. And we can all study that.

Ship Fire Landscape (2019), by Anne Spalter; Oil painting based on AI algorithm generated composition. 10×10 in.

So I do understand that initial reaction. And I think that a lot of people don’t study any kind of math or science beyond what’s required for, say, two years of high school. So they’ve never written a program or even really know what an algorithm is. And they think the computer is doing the creative part. And that the artist has just pressed a button and made something and then is trying to sell it. So they don’t really understand what’s going on. And that’s why they are continually dismissing it, and why it seems sort of scary, and why they don’t understand it. I think if you can explain it, or if people can read something about it, often there is more interest and understanding and appreciation for the work.

But how hard it was, especially in the beginning.

You know, artists were programming and using punch-cards and teaching themselves how to program, and having to use a computer at a corporation or a military institution, often in the middle of the night at 3am when they could get time on it. How amazingly challenging it was. It’s incredible we even have computer artwork from the ’70s.

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