Art and computers. In the past, they've seemed as incompatible as milk and motor oil. But today artificial intelligence and artistry are teaming up more and more for a widening variety of creative pursuits ranging from music to film to weaving. For some individuals involved in painting, drawing, or sculpture, computers have become as important as their own hands.
Harold Cohen is one of these. A well-established British artist, he crossed the Atlantic and the North American continent to accept a visiting professorship at the University of California at San Diego in 1968 - a move that would soon lead to a sea change in his artwork as well. There, he was introduced to a young computer programmer who initiated him into the wonders of computer programming.
''When I met my first computer I had no idea it would have anything to do with art. It slowly dawned on me that I could use the machine to investigate some of the things that I thought I hadn't been able to in painting, that had made me very discontented with my painting,'' he explained during a recent visit to the De Cordova Museum here, where his work was being exhibited.
Mr. Cohen has stayed in the US and is now a permanent professor in the visual arts department at the university. He has spent two years at Stanford University developing his skills and a program to enable the computer to draw. As he describes his work, computer names occasionally slip in, easily accompanying philosophical and artistic ideas. He speaks fondly of his own computer, for instance, a VAX 11/750 given to him by Digital Equipment Corporation.
''In some senses, the whole installation is intended to be a kind of philosophy machine in that its function is to persuade people to ask questions and get sensible answers.''
As he's talking, four tables, or flat bed plotters, in the De Cordova Museum hum with the activity of drafting pens being mechanically directed across paper. Various other works which have been colored by Cohen are displayed on surrounding walls. Some of the visitors are asking questions of an assistant recruited specifically to answer questions and engage in intellectual discussion.
In fact, at each Cohen exhibition, such as the one at the De Cordova, or a similar one that recently closed at the Brooklyn Museum, there is always someone in attendance to talk - and often Cohen himself.
''I don't think an exhibition of this kind without the discourse would be very interesting,'' says Cohen. ''It would be deliberate obfuscation.''
He adds, ''A lot of contemporary art rests upon mystification. You know, 'If you don't understand what I'm doing, there's nothing I can do for you.' The point here is to demystify, not to make things more mystifying.''
But exactly what? For Cohen, part of it is exploring ''the paradox of persuasive meaningfulness. Things stand for other things.
''I could make a few marks on a piece of paper and you will assert that it is a face, when you know it isn't a face, it's just marks on a piece of paper. The fact that people use the drawings as images, as if standing for something in the real world, rests upon their propensity for assigning meaning.
''The drawing program is intended to simulate human image making. The lines, for instance, have to look quirky and uneven.''
Indeed, the pictures do suggest, at least to this viewer, the direction of the human hand - especially the ones Cohen has, in fact, colored himself. There's irregularity of the shapes, the apparent shading, and the hints that each shape is building to a larger whole.
His colored works - especially some of his earlier ones - are visually appealing and suggest themes. For instance ''Mouse Wars in Winter,'' a mural at the Digital Museum in Marlboro, Mass., does, in fact, look like a disagreement among rodents. However, many of the recent drawings that have not been aided by color from his brush are much less evocative and suggestive of human artistry.
Mr. Cohen says that the computer program he wrote to draw these pictures ''reflects my understanding of what's important in making a drawing. (For instance), you either have images completely bounded, or completely contained within the frame, or you have images off the edge. This is the sort of thing we (artists) normally do without thinking very much about them.
''It's only when you're writing a computer program that you become aware that many issues exist and what your own attitude is about them. Somebody pointed out the other day that all my images were horizontal. And I stopped for a moment and realized that in my whole history as a painter, with or without the computer, I doubt if I've painted three vertical format pictures. Obviously somewhere deep down inside my understanding of what a picture is implies horizontality.''
''But is it art?'' That's a question Cohen is asked wherever he's exhibited.
''I've had people coming into the museum and spending an hour talking about things . . . but at some point they would (ask me the question). And my answer always is, look, you've just had a marvelous conversation; you're absolutely entranced by what the (computer) is doing; you love its drawings. What difference does it make?
''Art has always been to some degree an ongoing discourse on the nature of art. In that way I'm doing something very conventional.''
The fruition of his, and the computer's, efforts were on sale at $10 a drawing at the front desk of the De Cordova. ''My machine can turn out 100 original drawings much faster than a lithographer could pull 100 copies of the same print. What does that mean? I'm trying to find out what this implies to rather fundamental questions about what an artist is and who the artist works for.''
Cohen is now in England for three shows before returning to the university this fall. His work was recently exhibited at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff; will be at the Tate Gallery in London though July 24; and at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol during August and September.