Fretting over the “death of art” is a tradition as old as the monochrome—just ask Aleksandr Rodchenko. Such concerns have resurfaced of late with the brow-furrowing over AI: Will DALL·E put artists out of work? An AI-generated picture won an art prize—what does it mean? “Refik Anadol: Unsupervised”—featuring a project made with an AI trained on publicly available data of MoMA’s collection—suggests one approach to such questions. Using a patchwork of sophisticated machine-learning and rendering software, Anadol created a multidimensional “map” of the museum’s collection data. Then he directed a software to “travel” through that space and generate a continuously evolving image in real time—a “hallucination” of art that does not exist. The results, unfurling on a massive LED wall in the museum’s lobby, are spellbinding. Familiar motifs from the modernist tradition effloresce, hybridize, and vanish: A blossoming of Fauvist color transforms into allover patterning; a biomechanical shape attenuates into graphic registrations on a printed page; a loose grid melts into Cubist planes.
The callbacks to modernism’s past are not simply visual; they are also structural. In a review of Anicka Yi’s 2022 show at New York’s Gladstone Gallery, Colby Chamberlain notes an affinity between the machine-learning tools the artist used to make a new series of paintings and Surrealist processes of overpainting and grattage. With Anadol’s project, we might add the broader modernist tendency toward noncomposition, and efforts by artists to surrender authorial control via strategies such as indeterminacy and iterative systems. There is a not terribly vast leap from Jean Arp’s Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance), 1916–17, or Ellsworth Kelly’s Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance II, 1951, to the probabilistic computation that gives rise to Anadol’s evolving composition—with the added twist that the Arp and Kelly pieces belong to MoMA’s collection, thereby constituting entries in the artist’s ready-made data set, such that motivations proscribing any mark are doubly abstracted, receding into the fractal expansion of procedural play.
Critics have complained that Anadol’s art didn’t let them “feel” anything, and, apparently uncomfortable with the machinelike strategies deployed by artists from Seurat to Sturtevant, have worried at how little the work “expresses.” But modernism was never about feeling in a conventional way. MoMA’s prominent display of an artist such as Anadol, who arrives from a context different from the so-called art world, is surely a shock. Yet perhaps it is precisely those qualities that make the work seem so alien—its inexpressivity, its entanglement with “tech”—that bring it most in line with the historical tradition to which the museum is devoted.