Computer Art and Human Response (signed)
Lloyd Sumner (1943-1996) was an engineer-turned-artist who exhibited in Cybernetic Serendipity, the first major exhibit of electronic and algorithmic art, curated by Jasia Reichardt and premiered at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London shortly before Computer Art and Human Response was published in 1968.
He dedicated the book, “To my good friends the Burroughs B5500 and the Calcomp 565,” and included information about how the images were programmed in ALGOL, sharing specific line commands used to generate the images. In this way, the book also serves as the first text to offer instruction in creating computer art, preceded in gesture only by William Fetter’s Computer Graphics in Communication (1965), which instructed on the development of computer graphics in engineering.
Despite being a pioneer in the field, Sumner remains essentially unknown, largely a reflection of the dismissive attitudes toward his style of “computer art”, which became regarded as trivial and kitsch as the tools required to create such pictures grew increasingly common.
Sumner’s primary area of study was engineering. He began producing computer-generated drawings while working at the University of Virginia Computer Science Center and later became an artist-in-residence there. UVA was central to Sumner’s early success–he gained the support of President Edgar F. Shannon, Jr., and more importantly, that of Paul B. Victorius. Victorius was a prominent antiquarian prints and maps dealer who had relocated to Charlottesville from London. His legacy as a dealer and collector of Darwin material is well documented, yet Sumner’s book appears to be his only such foray into publishing. Victorius ran a frame shop and gallery on UVA’s doorstep and was personally acquainted with Sumner and Shannon. The preliminary remarks by both Shannon and Victorius refer to the unexpected allure of the images and the demand for reproductions amongst the general public.
The overwhelmingly friendly tone suggests there was a personal motivation behind supporting Sumner as a young artist. Victorius was not a publisher by trade, but he produced Sumner’s book in both a trade and a signed limited edition of 250 copies. 83 copies of the numbered edition are recorded in OCLC, the vast majority held in university collections. Only 4 copies of the standard edition are listed, all located outside of the United States. It’s plausible that the limited edition copies were distributed by Victorius and his UVA connections to other institutions that could help further Sumner’s career by soliciting reviews and encouraging invitations for guest lectures–our copy came from one such lecture at Vassar, which received a generally positive write-up in the school paper, save mention of Sumner’s "pseudo-profundities" that “brought uncertain snickers from the audience.” (Vassar Miscellany News Feb 28, 1969)
A more notable review came from Alan Sutcliffe, founding member of the Computer Arts Society, in the October 1969 issue of Leonardo. He leads, “This is a happy book: unpretentious and direct,” then continues:
"…if I say that Mr. Sumner’s art and attitudes are uncomplicated, that is not to say there is no progression. His investigations of composite and representational forms have led to the appearance of ‘tensions’ absent from the simpler works. That is why I call the simpler works designs and not art. But already he is looking to Klee and Miro, and I believe that Lloyd Sumner has a creative energy that will lead him on a considerable way from these studies. There is nothing here relating to the problems of those in the mainstreams of art today; some will find that welcome and refreshing… But I am being too solemn, for this is Pop art.”
The “unpretentious” “pseudo-profundities” in Sumner’s work would seem to be why it has been left out of critical discussion. In his review, Sutcliffe refers to the Christmas and greeting cards sold under the name “Computer Creations,” Sumner’s most profitable outlet, stating “The large-scale reproduction of these works is to me antithetical to the use of computers in the arts.” The accessibility that made his approach to digital art so commercially successful is also why it’s left out of contemporary discourse.
The very term “computer art” carries derogatory connotations. As the ability to create computer-generated pictures became commonplace, computer art could be likened to more of a kitsch craft than a serious art practice. Unfortunately, the dismissal of Sumner’s style of art has meant his near complete disappearance from art history, despite racking up a stunning number of “firsts” in the field.
From Grant D. Taylor, When the Machine Made Art (2014), to impress the scale of Sumner’s contributions (and absence):
“In the late 1960s, pioneering computer artists such as the Brazilian Waldemar Cordeiro and the American Lloyd Sumner pursued overt humanist themes. They were the first artists to bring human emotions into what Benthall described as the “cold and cerebral world” of computing. Lloyd Sumner was the first to use the computer solely for aesthetic means, and his publication Computer Art and Human Response (1968) was the first text devoted entirely to an individual computer art practice. He was also the first artist to sell substantial amounts of his work. In fact, in 1971 he funded much of his famous round-the-world bike expedition by selling computer artworks and lecturing on the subject. 58 Sumner’s travel memoir, The Long Ride (1978), which records the artist selling and making computer artworks to finance the next leg of his journey, became legendary amongst adventure cyclists. Even with his success—he was exhibited in Cybernetic Serendipity—he does not feature in key histories of digital art.
Although the computer generated the images, Sumner reminded the viewer that the conception and perception of the image was fully human. While Sumner’s drawings are a combination of abstract patterns and geometric spatial forms, many express the quality of organic shape and movement. These drawings, which he called “Sumnergrams,” were defined as smooth curves and the recursion of flowing lines fashioned into closed loops. With this process, Sumner produced the first self-portrait generated by a computer (Figure 3.3), creating in the process an early example of a digital avatar. (pp118-119)