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Sol LeWitt's Art and Computer Science

Sol LeWitt was an early conceptual artist whose work I was first introduced to my first year at college by Prof. Bill Porter. His work is computational and geometric, yielding images in the space between graphic design and fine art.

Yale University, Williams College, and MASS MoCA collaborated on a long-term retrospective of his work that, because his work is created directly on the walls under the direction of the artist, will probably be the final gallery showing of his wall drawings ever. Below is the piece that I wrote for a related show on LeWitt at Williams, discussing how I use his artwork in my computer graphics and data structures courses.

LeWitt’s work is art through computation. He separated the wall drawing from the processes of designing and executing its specification. He produced the written description…which is a program.  It is just a program with instructions for a draftsperson instead of a machine. For LeWitt, the process is of primary importance and the artifact of the actual drawing is secondary. Computer graphics is about creating art through computation by focusing on the process and specification, just as LeWitt did.

Furthermore, the main ideas of computer science—abstraction, enumeration, integration—these are the core ideas LeWitt is exploring visually. This is a wonderful resource for a computer science student.  I show LeWitt’s work in the computer science classroom and then the concept to be studied that day is immediately clear. For example, the sets of stacked cubes explore enumeration. He’s iterating through every possible way to orient these cubes. It’s logical and mathematical. Computer science picks up the trail that LeWitt starts here by providing the tools to understand and harness enumeration when the combinations become too complex to list explicitly.

LeWitt will use 216 figures work out all ways to arrange three identical cubes in a stack.  And for him, working out and showing those was the artistic goal. My students can recognize that and then leverage the science and engineering to extract any figure from the pattern without drawing all of the cubes.  When you have trillions of complex patterns--think about like Facebook or Google's database–you need a way of reasoning about the pattern.  You can't look at every possible combination of two friends on Facebook and start to analyze that data. You have to somehow abstract the pattern.  So even in non-graphical CS classes, LeWitt’s work is a great way to engage the students visually, help them to appreciate the cultural value, and then seamlessly bring it into our domain and reveal a deeper computational concept we’re studying.

Morgan McGuire is a professor of Computer Science at Williams College and a professional game developer. He is the author of The Graphics Codex, an essential reference for computer graphics that runs on iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch.

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