Sonya Rapoport featured in Coded: Art Enters the Computer Age 1952 – 1982 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, February 12th – July 2nd, 2023.
Sonya Rapoport’s Anasazi Series II (1977), a drawing in colored pencil on computer printout paper, was recently acquired by Los Angeles County Museum of Art and is featured in the exhibition Coded: Art Enters the Computer Age, 1952-1982, curated by Leslie Jones. This drawing is also included in the exhibition catalog, which explores the history of Rapoport’s work, and has been circulated widely via the promotional materials for the show.
So what is this drawing? What role did it play in the development of Rapoport’s practice? And what place does it have in the history of computer art?
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Berkeley, California-based artist Sonya Rapoport (1923-2015), having slipped the bonds of Abstract Expressionism, was experimenting with shaped canvases and painting on found materials, including wallpaper, fabric, and survey charts. During this time, she made extensive use of a series of stencils that she described as a feminist pattern language.
In 1976, during the era of punch cards and mainframe computers, Rapoport chanced on a box of discarded computer printouts in the basement of the UC Berkeley Math Department. She was fascinated by the futuristic look of the carbon-black, dot-matrix printed code on wide-format continuous-feed printout paper.
She began drawing on this found paper with colored pencils, ink stamps, and stencils, stitching the pages together with colorful yarn. Initially, she was working in an intuitive, visual mode; she did not have access to or interest in the meaning of the printed data. In 1977 she wrote, “my work is an aesthetic response triggered by scientific data. The format is computer print-out, a ritualistic symbol of our technological society.”
In 1977, Rapoport took an important step and began what would be the first of many collaborations with experts from other fields. Anthropologist Dorothy K. Washburn, then at UC Berkeley, was using computers to study the ancient Anasazi people of the American Southwest, analyzing the mathematical symmetry patterns in their pottery (as featured in her book Symmetries of Culture: Theory and Practice of Plane Pattern Analysis, 1991). Washburn provided printouts of her data for Rapoport to draw on and assisted her in understanding the content of her research. At the same time, Rapoport was taking a computer programming course, deepening her knowledge of what would become a critical tool.
The earliest of the Anasazi Series of drawings from 1977 are clearly an “aesthetic response.” Working quickly with colored pencils, Rapoport layered partially-filled geometric and letter stencils over blocks of numerical data, creating a systematic but impressionistic data visualization.
The aesthetic sense that Rapoport cited was rooted in her training in painter Hans Hoffman’s “push and pull” theories of color and composition, which she studied at UC Berkeley in the late 1940s, along with other painters of The Berkeley School. This foundation of Abstract Expressionist theory would continue to influence her art-making process, even as she became an active member in an emerging community of artists working with computers.
As the Anasazi Series progressed, Rapoport started featuring design motifs from Pueblo pottery and mathematical notation from Washburn’s symmetry analysis. She expanded her research into the Anasazi people, incorporating elements such as site plans of archaeological digs, translations of Navajo words and stories, and documentation of artifacts. This approach enables the viewer to access the images and stories behind the printed data and visually decode the drawing.
The final step in this evolution of Rapoport’s artistic methodology was the incorporation of autobiographical material. In the drawing Bonito Rapoport Shoes (1978), she was inspired by the archaeological discovery of an ancient Anasazi sandal to expand her research into her own shoe collection, challenging gender roles by interrogating what was perceived as a domestic, “feminine” concern.
Rapoport’s process began with gathering data about why she chose her shoes, their appearance, and how she used them–what she called “soft material.” She then tabulated and analyzed this information, printed data visualizations, and drew into them with illustrations that presented a critical history of women’s footwear from a feminist perspective. Thus, the Anasazi Series and other computer printout drawings eventually led Rapoport to pursue what we might now term a “research based practice.”
By the early 1980s, when the first personal computers were becoming available, Rapoport had reinvented herself as a computer artist, using a tool designed for the quantitative analysis of business and finance in a qualitative exploration of her psyche. In works such as Shoe-Field (1981-1989) and Objects On My Dresser (1979-1983, 2015), which are explored in the exhibition catalog, she created computer-mediated “audience participation performances” where she applied her new methodologies; gathering “soft” information, analyzing it with the computer, and presenting her viewers with a data portrait of themselves.
Rapoport’s engagement with computers was precipitated by a serendipitous find of discarded printout paper. Her work initially took the form of an aesthetic response to these materials, and grew more conceptually complex as she learned more about coding and data analysis in collaboration with scientists such as Dorothy K. Washburn. This transformed her practice, leading her to create interactive computer artworks that explored the human psyche, anticipating a world dominated by social media, big data, and generative AI. The Anasazi Series drawing on view in Coded: Art Enters the Computer Age, 1952-1982 is a visually compelling expression of a critical juncture in this transformation.
For researchers: primary source information about Sonya Rapoport’s computer printout drawing era (pdf).