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Friday, February 24, 2012

Fractal Art

Photo by Don Archer
Benoit Mandelbrot, digital portrait, 2001
Imagine if you will, a whole, new type of art that didn't exist, couldn't even be imagined, as recently as 35 years ago. It's an art based upon geometry; not traditional, Euclidean geometry, but a whole new type of geometry. It's an abstract art, also one that is largely if not entirely serendipitous. It's an art based upon numbers, real and imaginary, and it's an art that, until the advent of computers, couldn't even be produced on paper. And, while it's based upon a formula, it's anything but formulaic. The simple, yet elegant formula is Z=Z X Z+ C, with C being a constant added each time the multiplication of Z X Z takes place. The result is a series of points, that, when connected, create a graphic image of infinite complexity when enlarged. In nature, a snowflake is a crude example, as are mountains, clouds, aggregates and galaxy clusters. And even though the formula is simple, it was the incredible number of calculations needed to produce this new art form which made it unthinkable, indeed, unimaginable before computers came to be fast enough to perform them and create the images.

Though strictly mathematical in origin, Mandelbrot graphics can be exquisitely beautiful.

It's called Fractal art, and it's first practitioner was Benoit Mandelbrot (above), a Polish-born scientist of French descent who came to this country in the 1970s to work for IBM. It was there he developed both Fractal geometry as a new branch of mathematics, and also wrote some of the first computer graphics programs to print out the art his new, abstract form of geometry could create. Mandelbrot was born in 1924. He came from a highly educated Jewish family. While his father was a clothes merchant, his mother was a doctor and his two uncles were both mathematicians. They fled Poland in 1936 for France where Mandelbrot came of age during the strife and uncertainties of WW II. His education in mathematics, economics, engineering, and physiology was constantly interrupted and irregular. In fact, in many areas, he is largely self-taught. As a result, though primarily a mathematician, he came to have a much more abstract view of geometry than he might have had he attended regularly at a university.  He also came to have a much broader grasp of the other sciences and their interrelationship to geometry.

Infinity, a swept fractal based upon the
Manowar set, a more recent application
If fractal geometry images came tightly bound with the development of computers, fractal art came bound with the Internet. A critical element in the definition of art involves it having an audience. It should come as no surprise then that the first fractal artists were some of the first computer "geeks" of the early 1980s. And the first art exhibitions came with one of the first broad, Internet communities in the early 1990s--CompuServe. But during these early years, the art they created was largely just a novelty traded back and forth among its creators. Then in 1994, a New York City high school English teacher named Don Archer, who also moonlighted as a massage therapist, co-founded the Museum of Computer Art (MoCA), not to be confused with the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA).

Yes, even Mandelbrot tattoos
Even though this Cornell graduate has been creating and selling fractal art for several years now, perhaps Don Archer's greatest contribution has been in presenting, promoting, and preserving it (and other computer-generated images) through his Internet museum. Although in many ways it operates like any other museum, choosing its artist carefully, presenting them professionally, it has no brick and mortar address. Like Amazon or Ebay, it's only address is a URL,

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