Kris Cohen, Reed College, Mellon Network Fellow (Spring 2019)
“Alma Thomas and the Graphical Picture Plane”
Originally presented March 5, 2019
This talk describes how Alma Thomas’s Earth Paintings address, in ways both belied and surprisingly revealed by the language of abstraction, nascent configurations of the computer screen and the forms of labor and personhood associated with those compositions.
Update from Kris Cohen
I measure writing progress in crises and there’s been one since my time at the Clark in Spring 2019 (a writing crisis is really just a structural change beset by feelings). The book, from which this talk is an early draft of an early chapter, is now called The Human in Bits. And it is constellated less, as you’ll hear in this talk, around the specific technology of the graphic user interface (GUI) and more around a diverse but convergent set of graphical technologies (the GUI is the environment in which you’re almost certainly reading this paragraph, and this paragraph is almost certainly housed in a tab or window among many open tabs and windows most of which you might never get around to reading or watching . . . this proliferation of you through your projects being one of the hallmarks of the GUI, even one of its express goals). These cases include the history of the graphical computer interface dating from the 1950s, but also Leo Steinberg’s essay “Other Criteria” (1972), Alma Thomas’s Earth paintings, Jack Whitten’s “digital abstraction” (as he sometimes called his paintings), Charles Gaines’s gridworks, and Julie Mehretu’s massive operating systems. In this particular clustering of cases, two intertwined trajectories of the graphical come into focus: 1. the graphic interface of the personal computer and the role it played in the recuperation of racial whiteness for a world where information is the primary form of capital; and 2. a non-representational politics of blackness that derived some of its energy and inventiveness by being caught up in, while constantly departing from the ways that the graphical interface operated on the human. There is some of the latter history in this talk; the former is a newer development. So the project’s focus has dilated and spread out while its cases, under the umbrella concepts of the graphical and graphical personhood, have started to feel less separated by disciplinary silos, proper histories of painting or computing, or object status—in this talk, the line between computing and painting is far too indelible. Maybe all of this means the book is starting to come to a close; maybe not. Thank you to the Clark and everyone involved for the support offered by the then-inaugural Mellon Network Fellowship, and for making this early iteration of a chapter more widely available.
Next Up in the Archives
June 30: Molly Warnock, “Simon Hantaï after Pliage”
July 7: Delinda Collier, “Natural Media—Light, Water, and Wind—In Souleymane Cissé’s Finye (1982) and Yeelen (1987)”
July 14: Tamara Sears, “Wilderness Urbanisms: Architecture, Landscape, and Travel in Southern Asia”