Georg Nees | i |
last name: Nees
first name: Georg
birthday: June 23, 1926
birth-place: Nürnberg (Germany)
death date: January 3, 2016
died in: Erlangen (Germany)

Georg Nees was the first world-wide to publicly show his computer art (today often called digital art; a more precise term is algorithmic art).

In all likelihood, his solo show in rooms of the Studiengalerie of Technische Hochschule Stuttgart (now University of Stuttgart) was the first to present drawings that had been generated by running algorithms on a digital computer under control of a program. The drawings appeared in coded form on punched paper tape before being physically generated by a drawing machine, the legendary Zuse Graphomat Z64. This kind of automatic drawing machine, in the USA, was called flatbed plotter.

The exhibition took place under the auspices of the Ästhetisches Colloquium, a seminar permanently offered by Max Bense and his Institute of Philosophy and Theory of Knowledge (Philosophie und Wissenschaftstheorie). It opened on Thursday, February 4th, 1965, and was on display from February 5th to 19th, 1965.

For this occasion, one of the earliest publications ever on computer art appeared in print (“rot 19”, Stuttgart 1965). Max Bense contributed to it a short essay under the title projekte generativer ästhetik (also available in an English translation). Nees himself contributed short notes in German describing very succinctly the algorithms behind the accompanying drawings. These texts were in the form of of pseudo-code.

Georg Nees is one of the so-called “three big N’s” (the other two are A. Michael Noll and Frieder Nake). The word reminds of the fact that these three scientst-artists were the first to put up shows of algorithmic art, all in the year of 1965.

Nees was a mathematician who worked during all of his professional life for the Siemens AG in Erlangen (Germany). He gained his doctoral degree in philosophy from the University of Stuttgart in 1969. Max Bense was his doctoral advisor, Walter Knödel the second reviewer. The doctoral thesis was published as a book in 1969 (under the title, Generative Computergrafik). This was in all likelihood world-wide the first doctoral thesis on a topic of computer art.

Nees has exhibited extensively and world-wide. He has a long publishing record on topics of computer art, aesthetics, semiotics, artificial intelligence, and more. He was an honorary professor in applied computer science at University of Erlangen-Nürnberg (since 1977). Kunsthalle Bremen dedicated to him a retrospective exhibition in 2005. This museum also holds a large number of his works, including virtually all those that were published in his thesis.


Nees studied mathematics and physics at the University of Erlangen. From 1964 to 1969, he was a doctoral student of philosophy at University of Stuttgart. Employed by the Siemens AG, he began work in the emerging field of computer graphics in 1964. The company had acquired an automatic drawing machine, the Zuse Graphomat Z64. It became Nees’ job to do something useful with it.

The Graphomat Z64 was a construction by Konrad Zuse, one of the inventors of the programmable digital computer. It was a flatbed drawing machine equipped with the option of controlling up to four pens or other tools for drawing or cutting. It operated at a precision of 1/16 mm. The drawing head’s movements were effected by two spindles arranged in orthogonal directions. The two motors driving the spindles were controlled by a punched paper tape. This tape was generated by a program running on a digital computer.

Nees became the first to exhibit what then was called computer art, computergrafik in German or, better, algorithmic art. He had the opportunity in 1964 to show some of his graphics to Helmar Frank, a former Ph.D. candidate of Max Bense’s and Abraham A. Moles’. These two were the founders of Information Aesthetics, the rigorous attempt to use concepts of statistical information (as propagated by Claude E. Shannon and Warren Weaver in A mathematical theory of communication) for the aesthetic evaluation of artifacts. Frank told Bense of Nees’ experiments in having a computer calculate, and a drawing machine actually carry out, artistic drawings.

Helmar Frank was one of the editors of the interdisciplinary journal Grundlagenstudien aus Kybernetik und Geisteswissenschaften, published by Bense’s institute. Bense immediately invited Nees to submit to the journal his graphic works as part of a scientific article. Nees did so, and his short paper, “Statistische Grafik”, became one of the earliest publications in computer graphics. The Siemens company insisted that the word “art” did not appear in contexts where their name was used.

Bense further invited Nees to exhibit his graphic works in his experimental gallery. The gallery was dedicated mainly to concrete art (text and graphics, typography), and similar movements in the arts. Algorithmically generated drawings were the most natural and consequential continuation of what Bense’s radical rationalism called for.

At the occasion of the exhibition, Bense and Nees published issue no. 19 of the series of brochures collectively known as rot. This small booklet became one of the first, if not the first, publication in the field of computer art. It contains several of the drawings Nees exhibited at the show, plus short and precise pseudo-code. Bense wrote a short text, Projekte generativer Ästhetik, that may now be considered the earliest manifesto of computer art.

Among Nees’ many publications, the book Formel, Farbe, Form. Computerästhetik für Medien und Design (Springer Verlag 1995) is outstanding.

When Frieder Nake prepared for his first exhibition, in November 1965 at the Galerie Wendelin Niedlich in Stuttgart, the gallerist invited Bense to talk at the opening. Bense suggested that Nees should be included with his works.

In 1968, Georg Nees defended his doctoral thesis for a degree in philosophy with Bense as the advisor. The thesis was published in October 1969 under the title Generative Computergraphik. This became arguably the very first doctoral degree about a topic in computer art.

In 1977, Nees became Honorary Professor for Applied Computer Science at the University of Erlangen/Nuremberg. He was teaching there until retirement in 1985 (and some while after).

He was a scientific advisor to Semiosis, Internationale Zeitschrift für Semiotik und Ästhetik. (International Journal for Semiotics and Aesthetics)

Nees has participated in many of the major computer art exhibitions. He had a retrospective solo show at Kunsthalle Bremen from August 23rd to October 2nd, 2005 under the title, Georg Nees: Künstliche Kunst. Die Anfänge (Articial Art: the Beginnings). This was the second in the series of exhibitions Archaeology of Digital Art that Kunsthalle Bremen started with a show of Frieder Nake’s work in 2004/05. The Nees retrospective went to ZKM in Karlsruhe as Georg Nees – The Great Temptation. Early generative computer graphics (August 19th to October 15th, 2006).


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