Alibi V.29 No.27 • July 2-8, 2020 

Art Magnified

Sharing Code

The New Mexican art you missed

sharing code
Clarke Condé

We all know what New Mexican art looks like: You’ve got the subtle hues of the sunset mixed with a few Native American symbols and some dried bones thrown in for good measure. Its subjects are the human, the natural and the divine. The New Mexican artist is an extension of the natural world creating works in an adobe studio with the doors open, gently crafting by hand works on canvas under the dry New Mexican sun, pausing occasionally to look up from their canvas to catch a glimpse of a roadrunner out the window racing away with a lizard in her mouth. Yes, the story of the New Mexican artist and the art they create is well known.

Then again, there is the New Mexican story of creating the most destructive weapon ever unleashed on human beings. The atomic bomb brought computers to the desert and began a different story of New Mexican art rarely found in Santa Fe gallery guides. From its humble New Mexican origins, a new kind of art spread throughout the world, and odds are you didn’t even know it started here.

Sharing Code tells the story of how computer art began at the University of New Mexico in 1968 with the development of a computer program designed for artists to use with little computer training. It describes a collaboration between UNM Art Department Chair Charles Mattox and electrical engineer Richard Williams to create Art1, a computer program that sent output via an IBM mainframe to a line printer. The result was rendered in a limited palette of letters and symbols on computer paper (the kind with the perforated sides). Sharing Code includes 50 illustrations of computer art made from the time period. Colorless, mechanical and without a dry bone in sight. This too is New Mexican art.

What is so striking about Sharing Code is not simply the little-known story, but the works themselves. The book goes deep into the art of Fredrick Hammersley, offering a fascinating look into the process he employed to create his work using this new tool, and by extension providing a new perspective on the creative process of making any art. Sharing Code may be a bit of an oddball as New Mexican art books go, but it is a long overdue telling of an overlooked part of our complex history.

Sharing Code: Art1, Frederick Hammersley, and the Dawn of Computer Art
By Patrick Frank
Museum of New Mexico Press