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When the artist lets a computer make the choices

THE part played by an artist's intentions in the formation of a work of art may always be a matter of debate. The debate has flared repeatedly in the 20th century, whenever a modern artist has asserted that chance procedures are as valid a means of generating forms and resolving decisions as an individual's conscious activity. Artists as different as Max Ernst and Ellsworth Kelly have combined indeterminate processes and deliberate techniques to produce works whose quotient of premeditation will always be uncertain. But perhaps no artist before him has taken indeterminacy to such extremes as Harold Cohen.

The drawings Cohen generates are more impersonal than the adjective ''abstract'' suggests, for they are produced by computer-driven mechanisms rather than by the artist's hand. Cohen observes an analogy between the way an artist checks the progress of a drawing while making it and the feedback of information through which a computer can regulate the actions of a machine.

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Unlike most computer-assisted art, Cohen's work is not just processed by computer. It is actually generated and composed by the computer according to a program of rules and a feedback system devised by him. His basic program gives the computer the capacity to distinguish between figure and ground, between closed and open forms, and between ''insideness'' and ''outsideness.''

The drawings that result from Cohen's programs, such as the one shown here, seem erratically composed, but they have a look of rule-bound activity. The programmed rules seem to give Cohen's drawing machines ''preferences'' for certain kinds of forms and relationships that recur in what may at first appear to be a mishmash of arbitrary shapes. In the drawing on this page, there are a number of closed curvilinear shapes with small ''tabs'' jutting from their perimeters. Other areas of the drawing are taken up with clusters of trapezoidal forms that lean away from each other. Other, more irregular shapes enclose sets of roughly parallel lines.

In one sense, Cohen's conscious intentions play no part in the disposition of details his drawing machines carry out. The choices that go into a drawing's composition are made by the computer. On the other hand, the range of choices available to the computer are the product of Cohen's planning. He substitutes the indeterminacy of the computer's choices for the spontaneity his own actions would have if he were to execute his drawings with his own hand.

The look of constrained randomness that results is a kind of technological parody of the way individual sensibility registers in the work of an artist's hand. Cohen's drawings are the work of no one's hand. They are the sort of thing we call ''art'' because there's no better word available to categorize them. Contrary to Cohen's aim, the aesthetic indifference of his drawings may serve to sensitize viewers who look at them carefully to nuances of decision and taste in abstract art that they might otherwise not have noticed.

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