Harold Cohen (1 May 1928 – 27 April 2016) was a British-born artist who was noted as the creator of AARON, a computer program designed to produce art autonomously. His work in the intersection of computer artificial intelligence and art attracted a great deal of attention, leading to exhibitions at many museums, including the Tate Gallery in London, and acquisitions by many others.
Cohen grew up in England. He studied painting at the Slade School of Fine Arts in London, and later taught at the Slade as well as Camberwell, Nottingham and other arts schools. He represented Great Britain at major international festivals during the 60's, including the Venice Biennale, Documenta 3, and the Paris Biennale. He showed widely and successfully at the Robert Fraser Gallery, the Alan Stone Gallery, the Whitechapel Gallery, the Arnolfini Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and many other notable venues in England and Europe. Then, in 1968, he left London for a one-year visiting faculty appointment in the Art Department at the University of California, San Diego. One year became many, Cohen became Department Chair, then Director of the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts at UCSD, and eventually retired emeritus in 1994.
Leaving the familiar, rewarding London scene presaged a career of restless invention. By 1971, Cohen had taught himself to program a computer and exhibited computer-generated art at the Fall Joint Computer Conference. The following year, he exhibited not only a program but also a drawing machine at the Los Angeles County Museum. A skilled engineer, Cohen built many display devices: flatbed plotters, a robotic "turtle" that roamed and drew on huge sheets of paper, even a painting robot that mixed its own colors. These machines and the museum-goers' experiences were always important to Cohen, whose fundamental question was, "What makes images evocative?" The distinguished computer scientist and engineer Gordon Bell notes that "Harold was really a scientist and engineer of art." Indeed, AARON was a thoroughly empirical project: Cohen studied how children draw, he tracked down the petroglyphs of California's Native Americans, he interviewed viewers and he experimented with algorithms to discover the characteristics of images that make them seem to stand for something. Although AARON went through an overtly representational phase, in which images were recognizably of people or potted plants, Cohen and AARON returned to abstraction and evocation and methods for making images that produce cascades of almost-recognition and associations in the minds of viewers.
“Harold Cohen is one of those rare individuals in the Arts who performs at the highest levels both in the art world and the scientific world,” said Professor Edward Feigenbaum of Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, where Cohen was exposed to the ideas and techniques of Artificial Intelligence. “All discussions of creativity by computer invariably cite Cohen’s work,” said Feigenbaum.
Cohen had no patience for the "is it art?" question. He showed AARON's work in the world's galleries, museums and science centers -- the Tate, the Stedelijk, the San Francisco Museum of Art, Documenta, the Boston Computer Museum, the Ontario Science Center, and many others. His audiences might have been drawn in by curiosity and the novelty of computer-generated art, but they would soon ask, how can a machine make such marvelous pictures? How does it work? The very questions that Cohen asked himself throughout his career.
He was later given the rank of professor and stayed at UC San Diego for nearly three decades, part of the time as chairman of the Visual Arts Department. In addition, he served as director of the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts at UC San Diego from 1992 to 1998.
Cohen taught at UC San Diego from 1968 to 1994. After his retirement from UC San Diego, he continued to work on AARON and produce new artwork in his studio in Encinitas, California.
In 2014, Cohen received the ACM SIGGRAPH Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement award.
Early in 2016, Cohen started a new project with AARON called Fingerpainting for the 21st Century. In this project, Cohen used a touch screen to digitally colour and finish artworks. In previous AARON projects, images would be outputted in physical form before Cohen made alterations.