Pixels and Paint

By Richard P. Morin / March / April 2000
October 29th, 2007
While working on a master’s in painting at the Rhode Island School of Design in the early 1990s, Anne Morgan Spalter ’87 fell in love with computers. She began experimenting with computer-generated imagery in her paintings and searched the RISD catalogue to find a class that would help her develop this new artistic direction. No such course existed at the school, however. So, with the encouragement of her professors, Spalter created and taught RISD’s first-ever course on the computer in the visual arts.

When Spalter finished her degree in 1993, she combined her aesthetic and technical interests as an artist-in-residence with Brown’s Computer Graphics Group. But her zeal for teaching remained. Spalter founded Brown’s first course in the computer arts, and last year published The Computer in the Visual Arts. Part textbook and part beginner’s guide to computer art, the book includes a comprehensive overview of the basic tools and techniques behind digital art, and outlines the history and artistic theory of the field. A 500-page tome, the book comes complete with color reproductions of dozens of important digital works.

Spalter’s reason for writing a new textbook came when she began teaching her course at Brown. “I didn’t have any idea what I was doing,” she says. “There were no books that really examined computer art and defined who was working in this field.”

Though not a bestseller, The Computer in the Visual Arts has met with positive reviews and has rapidly become a textbook of choice at more than thirty-five colleges and universities around the country, including the prestigious Pratt Institute, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Fashion Institute of Technology. The book has filled a hole in arts education, says Cynthia Rubin, a RISD faculty member who uses Spalter’s book in class. “We need more books that don’t treat the computer as just another tool?” Rubin says, “and which help illuminate the depth of the computer revolution in the visual arts.”

Much like photography in its early years, Spalter says, computer art has not been greeted with universal critical acclaim. “Initially, computer art was associated with the military and corporations because they were the only ones with computers,” she says. Early computer-art shows that contained both scientific experiments and pieces “that really could be called art,” says Spalter, were met with scorn by critics. But today, with the proliferation of the personal computer, computer graphics programs, and the Internet, all that is changing. The Whitney Museum of American Art has included an Internet category for the first time in this year’s Whitney Biennial.

The change can be seen in the commercial galleries as well, adds Spalter, who has exhibited her own computer-generated images of urban landscapes in the United States and abroad. “The computer is now becoming an invisible part of the process for many artists,” she says, speaking like a true pioneer, “and I believe what we are now witnessing in studios and classrooms around the world is history in the making.”

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March / April 2000