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.


The first use of the term digital art was in the early 1980s when computer engineers devised a paint program which was used by the pioneering digital artist Harold Cohen

This became known as AARON, a robotic machine designed to make large drawings on sheets of paper placed on the floor. Since this early foray into artificial intelligence, Cohen continued to fine-tune the AARON program as technology becomes more sophisticated.

Cohen's work on AARON began in 1968 at UC San Diego. He initially wrote AARON in the C programming language but eventually converted to Lisp, citing that C was "too inflexible, too inexpressive, to deal with something as conceptually complex as color."

It was with AARON and his drawing machine – that used an adaptation of a turtle robot in a more sophisticated version – that Cohen participated in Documenta 6 in Kassel, Germany, in 1977. He was subsequently invited to hold a solo exhibition in the same year at the temple of Dutch art, the Stedelijk Museum, in Amsterdam. He later retired the little robot because he thought it was too friendly and attracted more attention than the computer program.

In an attempt to create something akin to human cognition, Cohen spent the 1970s teaching the program more rules. However, he realized that, even with an increase in the outputs, the images generated (not just processed) did not become more complex. Cohen noticed that Aaron had stagnated. The program was lacking something intrinsic to the development of human cognition: “I spent 10 years working on a program that was being developed in a vacuum; it didn’t know anything about the outside world. So, it was time to take a step back and reveal the real world to the program.”

The Tate Britain also has Proof of this Cohen Work reference: P04152

Image: 686 × 686 mm

ACQUISITION Presented by Rose and Chris Prater through the Institute of Contemporary Prints 1975


Harold Cohen’s Drawing Machine in 1979. Courtesy Harold Cohen’s archive.

Harold Cohen in 1995 printing a colourful-human-figurative artwork. Courtesy Harold Cohen’s archive.

Harold Cohen. copse#18-060518P, 2006. Plotter print, pigment on paper, computer generated image, 100 x 100 cm. Courtesy Harold Cohen’s archive.

Harold Cohen. Rincon#3-061010, 2006. Plotter print, pigment on paper, computer generated image, 100 x 100 cm. Courtesy Harold Cohen’s archive.

Harold Cohen. 020514, 2003. Plotter print, pigment on paper, computer generated image, 25 x 25 cm. Courtesy Harold Cohen’s archive.

Harold Cohen. 031135, 2003. Plotter print, pigment on paper, computer generated image, 50 x 85 cm. Courtesy Harold Cohen’s archive.