Art as Invention: Sherban Epuré in memoriam

By Mihai Nadin

Over three years ago, Letiţia Bucur shared the devastating news with me: Sherban Epuré, her husband, suffered a spinal aneurysm. It meant, among other things, paralysis from the waist down and a never-ending succession of medical interventions. The artist was not prepared to give in. Living on borrowed time, he fully rededicated himself to his art.

Before emigrating to the USA—a rather difficult endeavor—he lived under the authoritarian regime of communist Romania. Not a few of his friends and relatives experienced the hell we associate with dictatorships. “If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger” was the bon mot of those days. Those who opposed the suppression of freedom—including the freedom of artistic expression—either were censored or found refuge in forms that made it more difficult for the censorship apparatus and the secret police to detect. Epuré, together with some of his friends, followed this path. The “new Barbizon of the young painting in Romania”—as a critic described it—discovered a superb corner of nature: Poiana Mărului. (In English this area would be called Apple Meadow.) There they painted the village in a manner that qualifies as aesthetic dissidence. Nothing idyllic, as the regime would have had it, rather taking a subjective perspective, an aesthetic different from the official socialist realism. Maybe Epuré was less “at home” in the group of figurative painters, or already seeking his own language. But in spirit, he animated the resistance. Thrown out, for political reasons, of the Bucharest Polytechnic where he was studying, Epuré bore within himself a dedication to geometry that eventually changed his life. (At the same Institute and at the same time, while I was studying electronics and computers, my own investigations into aesthetics began.) Our professor of cybernetics was Edmond Nicolau, a histrionic character, who probably envied us for taking the liberty of seeking refuge in aesthetic issues. One of his articles on art and cybernetics (1974) was illustrated with an image by Epuré. (Later, we found out, to our disappointment, that, like many others who we came to believe in, he was also on the payroll of the Secret Services.)

For Epuré, science became the backbone of his art. It took him little effort to abandon figurative art and to fully dedicate himself to the aesthetics of abstract forms. Just for the sake of explaining what happened, let me recall Mondrian, for whom painting landscapes was a step towards his abstractions. (Suprematism is the name attached to his compositions.) Epuré abstracted from the landscape the expressivity of primal drawings. The same inspired the art of peasants, creating in the language of weaving a miraculous new world. Two articles published during that time in Romania (in the journal Arta, of the Union of Painters [1], [2]) explained the process in detail. He introduced the notion of Mathematical Realism: “The drawing is the outcome of the life record of the point navigating in space.” What counts is the “experience of happiness brought by the discovery.” Moreover: “The object is a pretext, a catalyst in expressing an idea.” I hope that those who are interested in Epuré’s art will one day translate the two texts, which belong to the vast library of writings about the relation between art and mathematics that accompanied the work of artists seduced by new technology.

There is as much art in mathematics as there is mathematics in art. Polykleitos conceived the perfect male nude by ascertaining a ratio (1:2) that endured until the “divine proportion” advanced by Luca Pacioli—an artist and mathematician—extended as far as in Leonardo da Vinci’s images. But nobody needs the rehashing of this narrative, which became almost trivial once automated mathematics—i.e., the computer—entered the stage of human activity, aesthetic activity included. Does Epuré deserve a place in this narrative? The question cannot be taken lightly. So many distinguished artists embraced mathematics via computers that the issue of legitimacy is almost irrelevant. A new aesthetics, or many, emerged. To distinguish in this fast-growing field between authentic contributions and the insignificant is not a matter of history so much as one of aesthetic awareness.

As a matter of fact, Epuré’s art originates in mathematical consideration independent of the “mathematical machine.” A great part of his initial work did not involve computers. The impressive evidence of his creation in the period 1969-1971 shows works that are the outcome of mathematical and of cybernetic consideration. He described in detail the language of geometric forms leading to foldings and iterative structures. The drawing is simple, the colors are minimal. This is a vectorial space that, after reiterations, became more and more complicated. (He used the word complex.) In his mind, there are two players: the artist and the artwork. They exchange information, which means that each new visual rendition returns new insights to the artist. The final judge was an intuition-driven process. In this ascertainment, we become privy to the secret of his art: automated mathematics is a source of a large number of variations. This allows the artist to investigate a large aesthetic space. But intuition, not computable, is the final judge. When Harold Cohen’s AI-based Aaron started producing images, the issue of “what stays” vs. “what is junk” came up. The final judge, as with Epuré’s production, was intuition. The generative geometry that Epuré developed is not made up of rules mechanistically applied for permutations, but a living process: each step in the construction of the image guides decisions leading to the next step. The S-Band is the outcome of an interactive virtual machine defined by 12 variables: geometry (3), color (8), and background. A first look recalls the structure of origami, but as opposed to it, Epuré’s bands do not fold into a desired form, but rather into an open-ended family of shapes. Epuré claimed that he was inspired by Romanian folk rugs, which indeed seem the embodiments of a line seeking to escape from the underlying raster. In this sense, the primitive loom of the folk culture—a beautiful artifact embodying aesthetic sensitivity—is yet another computer before computation became what we have experienced in the last 60-70 years. (I wrote about this in Leonardo [3].) 

Epuré’s work started in the Romania of the 1960s. The mathematics and cybernetics (in essence, feedback loops) that guided Epuré were relatively simple. Imagine the simplest fractals: maintain self-similarity within a triangle, and before you know it, you build a snowflake by hand. But after a number of reiterations, as Mandelbrot (the “father of fractal theory”) learned, it becomes so complicated that you would rather have a machine to do it. Epuré discovered the computer late, when his exploration of what he called the S-Band (S being the first letter of his first name) was so advanced that intricate hand-generated constructions on display at the Edinburgh Festival (1971) were automatically considered examples of computer art. He was the computer—a label used when those in charge of vast calculations for astronomy applications were looking for people who could perform them. It took some time before Epuré’s explorations of the aesthetic space he discovered in the Romanian decorative arts would make it to a computer—more precisely, to a Macintosh. This particular machine, known for its computer graphics capabilities eventually became his tool of choice. Printers still had to catch up with his precise and expressive handwork before Epuré could produce art-quality printouts. But once this was achieved, printers driven by his aesthetic discoveries, it became a production tool. The shop at the Museum of Modern Art carried some of his productions for a long time.

The S-Band is part of the broader aesthetics of what Epuré called Intrinsic Art. The Meta-Phorms (from meta+metaphor+form) and the protruded sculptures derived from his planar art are part of this aesthetic universe that does not have reality as a reference, but the intrinsic aspects of the interaction between the artist and the forms he generates.

Picasso, never too shy in describing his creative process, came up with a formulation that might help us understand Epuré’s aesthetics. Picasso declared: “Je ne peins pas ce que je vois, je peins ce que je pense” (I paint objects not as I see them, I paint what I think). Epuré would say: “I paint forms as I invent them.” Actually, in Leonardo, describing his Intrinsic Art [4], the opening sentence is: “My work is very much about invention”—before trying to explain what it means. He got in touch with Frank Malina (during his Paris years), who started Leonardo as a rather modest publication, exactly because Epuré recognized that his view of art was close to science, from which a renewal of aesthetics was supposed to take place [5]. From the invisible—scientific thought—to the tangible—aesthetic artifacts of undisputable originality that contribute to the richness of the aesthetic landscape of our time. Although he shied away from public events we associate with computers and art, Epuré gained respect for a dedication not subject, in his view, to recognition. There is a record of public presence that started in 1971 with the Paris Biennale, continued in 1973 with the Edinburgh Festival [6], and reached an apex in a distinguished presence at the New York Digital Salon (1995-2001), SIGGRAPH (2005-2006), and beyond. His works are in the collections of important museums: Victoria and Albert (London), the National Gallery of Art (Bucharest), among others of the same renown.

Among the works he entrusted to the Victoria and Albert Museum—a respectable repository of computer art—there is a large artist’s book, Method and Roses (inkjet print, 2015). Let us take a look at one spread (Figure 1):

Spread from Method and Roses. (Sherban Epuré)

Figure 1. Spread from Method and Roses. (Sherban Epuré)

It is self-explanatory—each page comes with attached examples (above the page).  The invented aesthetic space constitutes a narrative: from one generated image to a family, sharing in formal qualities through aesthetic coherence. Page after page, the narration continues. The method and the roses are to be understood in their unity, like in the generative grammars describing biological entities.  In some ways, the book suggests that the space explored will become a multidimensional space. Let me also make reference to how this unfolding from point-line-surface-volume takes place. At the beginning is the invention of the “formula”—something like a still-unfolded protein (Figure 2).

The invented aesthetic space in compressed form (a structural description). (Sherban Epuré)

Figure 2. The invented aesthetic space in compressed form (a structural description). (Sherban Epuré)

Of course, the readers of this extended obituary will not necessarily delve into the syncretic description he provided. But from the description, Epuré generated examples such as the following (Figures 3-8):

Figures 3-8. From a classically framed image to sculpture like art and to large scale compositions. (Sherban Epuré)

Figures 3-8. From a classically framed image to sculpture like art and to large scale compositions. (Sherban Epuré)

No doubt that if he could have found the opportunity, the large-scale works reproduced here would have made for a very convincing aesthetic invention show. They scale in amazing ways, a quality that otherwise is not necessarily intrinsic to other works.

It would be inappropriate to celebrate Sherban Epuré as a computer artist. It would be like celebrating Stephen Wolfram as a computer geek. Let us remember that Wolfram’s “A New Kind of Science” is, like Epuré’s concept of the S-Bands, an intellectual structure. From very few elements Wolfram is re-inventing the scientific description of science. Epuré is an artist, Wolfram a mathematician. Epuré does not submit demonstrations to us, but rather aesthetic inventions. The computer is incidental (but in many ways unavoidable). That I had the privilege of interacting with both Epuré and Wolfram explains why I bring them up in one breath. I wish I had found the opportunity for them to meet.

Value judgments are not for us to make. Time remains ever error free judge. Epuré was not interested in (but well capable of) programming. His art was different in nature from that of users of computers as other tools or as imitating classic tools. Although he wrote about the algorithm, in reality his work is not reducible to a recipe that anyone else could apply in order to generate art. In the years before his passing, I was in contact with many galleries, agents, and art collectors about ways to bring his large body of impressive art to the public’s attention. The ZKM in Karlsruhe still owes me an answer.  I had conversations with the new “Meacenas”—i.e., art patrons—of our time. One was Mark Cuban, not only a sharp shark, but also a rather bright spirit. His questions to me were: Couldn’t any art be reverse engineered and recreated? How would you stay unique? Where would it be platformed? On canvas or . . . ? Of course, Mark Cuban is not into aesthetics (Thank God!—or whatever one might feel like exclaiming). But his questions made me think more about why no one else, with full access to Sherban Epuré’s digital files could create anything comparable to what he left behind. Inventions, once made, are always copied—ergo society’s patent protection laws (which are always as good as the money protecting them). Even already famous classic works of art are copied. (A new market for copies proves to be extremely profitable.) With the advent of digital processing, the copy is almost always better than the original, never mind that it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between them. However, the act of creation, as an instance of discovery or invention, remains unique as such. And authentic works of art bear this uniqueness as testimony to the even more intriguing uniqueness of those who—to the final breath—put their own lives into it. Mark Cuban might add to his record: opportunity missed. Art is always more than a start-up, and it remains the best investment ever when time confirms its uniqueness. Meaning is priceless.

It is in this spirit that I will continue to encourage those passionate about authentic art to preserve Sherban Epuré’s legacy.


Acknowledgments

During the summer of 2016, Sherban Epuré and Letiţia Bucur (always involved in her husband’s artistic journey—“my God on earth” as he called her in our last conversation) introduced me to the “secrets” of his art. We spent a long time with what he called his algorithm—in reality a dynamic model of impressive generative performance. A fruitful conversation with Erwin Kessler, the founder of the MARe (Muzeul de Artă Recentă/ Museum of Recent Art) in Bucharest, who is quite familiar with Epuré’s work, as well as with aesthetic dissidence in Romania, deserves to be highlighted. So does Vasile Cornea, a passionate researcher of aesthetics and its connection to mathematics, with whom I carried on an exchange of messages regarding Epuré.

References

1.   Epuré, S. (1970). S-Benzi, Arta, No. 2 pp. 33-36

2.   Epuré, S. (1972). Realismul matematic, Arta, No. 7, pp. 34-36

3.   Nadin, M. (2018) Foresight and Hindsight, Leonardo 51:3 (June), pp. 270-276.

4.   Epuré, S. (2016) Intrinsic Art: A Cultural Capsule, Leonardo 49:5, October

5.   Epuré, S. (2006) An Artist's Journey in Art and Science: From behind the Iron Curtain to Present-Day America, Leonardo 39:5, October

6.  25e Festival international d'art d'Edimbourg, Grande-Bretagne. Biennale de Paris, http://archives.biennaledeparis.org/fr/1973/participations/epure.htm1971