Herbert W. Franke, a pioneering digital artist, scientist, and writer of both nonfiction and science fiction, died last week at 95.
During the course of his life, Franke witnessed enormous changes in technology, and he used his art to reflect and record these shifts. His practice evolved as technology did.
In the 1970s, he used the technology available to him at the Siemens research lab in Germany to make early computer animations using an interactive 3D systems. Decades later, he began to enlist blockchain technology to make NFTs on his laptop.
For Franke, art was a way to see the beauty of math, and math was a way to make art. He had a large variety of interests, all of which he would pursue throughout his life even as he made his living as a freelancer.
Franke left behind a rich and important legacy in the field of digital art, most notably when it comes to generative art. Franke found generative art to be of such great appeal and potential because it made the beauty of math visible. His early series “Dance of the Electrons” (1959/62), was made using an analog computer and a a cathode-ray oscillograph that converted electronic signals into images, producing ghostly, grey-scaled graphics.
Later on, Franke would use drawing machines and computer plotters to draw simple algorithms that he programmed. Then, in 1970, he used a newly developed Siemens computer, the 4004, to create the series “DRAKULA” (1970–71) which utilized the mathematical theory of dragon curves to create variations on a fractal pattern.
Franke was born in 1927 in Vienna. His father, an electrical engineer, encouraged Franke’s interest in the sciences, in particular chemistry, and helped him discover his love of art after giving him his first camera when he was nine years old. After fighting in World War II, Franke took some time to photograph Austrian caverns, taking weeks-long expeditions. His remained fascinated with caves for the rest of his life.
In 1950, he would go on to get his PhD in physics from the University of Vienna. During his time as a student, he continued to develop a wide range of interests and projects and began writing science fiction. It was also during this time that he developed an interest in making art with emerging technologies after he and his friend Franz Raimann built an analog computer in 1956, which he would use to make his first artwork.
Franke published books on the intersection of art and science like Art and Construction – Mathematics and Physics (ca. 1950s) and Computer graphics, computer art (1971). As a lecturer at Munich University, he taught a class called “Cybernetical Aesthetics,” which Franke described as a “rational theory of art, in which there was no place for the myth of the artist” in an interview with the Brooklyn Rail.
In 1979, he would cofound Ars Electronica, an interdisciplinary research institute for new media art which hosts an annual tech and arts festival. He would remain a dedicated artist and speaker until the last moments of his life. Just this past June, he presented his artwork MONDRIAN (1979), a program that Franke developed for Texas Instruments that creates colored box and line compositions that reflect on Piet Mondrian’s abstract paintings, at Art Basel.
Museums have begun to canonize Franke’s work. In 2017, the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, acquired Franke’s archive, which contains sketches, correspondence, and a variety of other documents that reflect on his passions as a science fiction writer, computer artist, and dedicated caver. Earlier this year, Franke’s work was the subject of a retrospective at the Francisco Carolinum in Linz, Austria.
His wife Susanne notified his many admirers of his death in a Twitter post on July 16. The comment section became a place to memorialize his incredible impact.
“His work and his ideas will live on through all of us and serve as gift for future generations,” wrote generative artist Dmitri Cherniak. “A true innovator in every sense of the word.”