A pathway to pure form

MCAD celebrates Roman Verostko, a pioneer of digital art

"The Cloud of Unknowing," 2003, algorithmic pen and ink plotter drawing, 23 x 29 in. Submitted image

When Roman Verostko arrived in Minneapolis in 1968 — newly married and no longer Father Roman, the artist-monk who mingled with art world celebrities in New York City and studied at École du Louvre in Paris — the Twin Cities was a global hub of the emerging computer industry.

“The first supercomputers in the world were right here. Minneapolis was a hotbed,” the artist, who turns 90 this year, recalled recently, his voice inflected with wonder as he ran through the roster of companies that made Minnesota a mid-century Silicon Valley: Honeywell International, Control Data, Univac and “dozens of startups.” He could sense the potential.

“Oh my god,” he said. “It was like goose pimples.”

The subject of a career retrospective at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Verostko would become a pioneer in the realm of digital art, coding form-generating algorithms that can grow drawings like a plant from seed. The year he moved to Minneapolis with his wife, Alice Wagstaff, and joined the humanities staff at MCAD was a turning point, and what had come before would prepare him for what came after.

"The New City," 1968, mixed media with gesso base on wood panel, 48 x 48 in. Submitted image
“The New City,” 1968, mixed media with gesso base on wood panel, 48 x 48 in. Submitted image

The search

Born Joseph Verostko in 1929 in a small coal mining town in western Pennsylvania, Verostko graduated from high school in 1947 and enrolled at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. It would have been nearly three years since he’d last seen his older brother George, who in 1944 set sail for France with his army battalion and was killed in action in World War II. George was 22.

The loss reverberated through Verostko’s family, and it prompted him to follow the path of another older brother when he graduated from art school in 1950. With the U.S. on the verge of war in Korea, he joined his brother Bernard at St. Vincent Archabbey, a Benedictine monastery 40 miles from Pittsburgh in Latrobe. He took his vows and his new name, Roman.

Monastic life provided Verostko with opportunities to continue his development as an artist. In the early ’60s, he spent two years living in the rectory at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Midtown Manhattan while earning an MFA at the Pratt Institute. The man in the clerical collar drew attention on the New York art scene; he appeared in a 1962 Harper’s Bazaar photo spread conversing at a party with sculptor John Chamberlain just a few feet from Andy Warhol, and the headline of a 1965 profile in The Washington Post announced, “Scholarly Priest Is at Home With the Beats.”

Influenced by the art and theories of Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich, key figures in the development of abstraction, Verostko’s work was a “search for pure form,” he said, an attempt to uncover new visual systems that referred only to themselves. Paintings from the “New City” series, which bridge the end of his monastic life and the beginning of the next stage, combine purposely placed rectangles of color with randomly distributed marks made through automatic drawing — aiming for what Mondrian called a “dynamic equilibrium” by finding a precarious balance in color and form, control and spontaneity.

Alongside art, he studied theology, the history of philosophy and logic, the branch of philosophy that laid the groundwork for computer language. He even dabbled in electronics, creating audiovisual experiences for spiritual retreats.

But even as he used his art to help others access their spirituality, Verostko’s doubts about his own faith strained his relationship with the church until, near the start of 1968, it broke. At the same time, his friendship with Wagstaff, a psychologist and member of the Duquesne University faculty, had developed into something much deeper. They married in August of that year, one week before the move to Minneapolis.

Untitled (AA5.D06), 1989, algorithmic brush, acrylic watercolor, and black ink plotter drawing, 40 x 24 in. Submitted image
Untitled (AA5.D06), 1989, algorithmic brush, acrylic watercolor, and black ink plotter drawing, 40 x 24 in. Submitted image

Generative art

When Verostko started teaching history of art courses at MCAD, the school still offered courses in traditional animation, a laborious process of hand-drawing and photographing each and every frame. So seeing even a rudimentary example of computer animation — a wireframe cube tumbling in black space produced by a UNIVAC computer — was to Verostko a kind of revelation.

“I knew at that moment,” he said. “I thought, ‘My God, they just wrote an instruction, a logical instruction. And you can get that!’

“I thought, I’ve got to learn how the hell to do that.”

He took lessons in Fortran, an early programming language, at Control Data in 1970, the same year a Bush Foundation grant funded his work on the “humanization” of emerging technologies. But it would be another decade before he had a computer of his own, an IBM 6150 he purchased in 1981. (He still has it.)

The next year he exhibited “The Magic Hand of Chance.” Software written by Verostko generated basic animations and word combinations that always varied and never quite repeated — an early example of what he called “generative art.”

In computer coding, an algorithm is like a recipe, a set of instructions that produce a desired result. Randomness — a coded role of the dice — is a key element in Verostko’s art-making algorithms, so that the recipe produces something slightly different and unexpected every time.

Verostko prefers biological metaphors, like the relationship between genetics — the DNA sequence — and epigenetics — the way that DNA is expressed in a living being. Or the leaves of a tree, or snowflakes, or the formation of crystals.

“A generative algorithm always in some way mimes nature,” he said.

"Ezekiel Series: Vision 2," 1993, detail. Submitted image
“Ezekiel Series: Vision 2,” 1993, detail. Submitted image

Since the mid-1980s, Verostko has worked with a computer coupled to a multi-pen plotter, a machine drawing tool used to draft architectural plans and engineering schematics before advances in printer technology made it obsolete. (Hackers and artists are driving a recent revival in their use, and at least one company, AxiDraw, is producing new desktop models.)

Verostko loads the pen plotter’s mechanical drawing arm with a variety of colored pens, and the machine executes a drawing. The drawing program, a generative algorithm that makes its own random choices while operating within a set of parameters defined by Verostko, carries on his decades-long search for pure forms.

The software Verostko designed to run the plotter he named Hodos, from the Greek for “path” or “road.” In computing terms, it is an “expert system,” a basic artificial intelligence. Its code is shaped by Verostko’s aesthetic, but Hodos is free to navigate its own path through the chaos of chance.

It can produce dense tangles of multi-colored lines, repetitive marks clustered together in a probability cloud that floats in negative space. These are sometimes paired with bold, calligraphic strokes in black ink, created when Verostko replaces the plotter’s pens with Chinese brushes. Those brushstrokes are indistinguishable from a mark made by a human hand, a tribute to Verostko’s nearly bionic relationship with his tools.

More recently, Verostko through Hodos has created complex, three-dimensional forms built up of extremely fine lines that trace undulating contours. These single-color drawings can resemble topographical maps or translucent fabric twisting in the a wind.

In these works, Verostko approaches “the cloud of unknowing,” a concept he borrowed from a 14th century Christian text. To the work’s anonymous author, the “unknowing” was the mystery of faith, impenetrable to intellect — or, as Nicholas of Cusa, another Middle Ages philosopher put it, a “learned ignorance” that accepts the finite human mind cannot grasp the infinite.

Verostko draws an analogy to the “undecidable,” a problem beyond the power of any algorithm — any computer — to solve. When Hodos comes up with something previously unseen, it is like reaching into the realm of the undecidable and pulling something out.

When he parted ways with the Catholic church, Verostko understood God as an undecidable, choosing instead to live in mystery. With his art, he walks a similar path through the clouds.


Roman Verostko and the Cloud of Unknowning

When: Through Feb. 24

Where: Minneapolis College of Art and Design, 2501 Stevens Ave.

Info: mcad.edu


"Pearl Park Scripture, D," 2005, algorithmic pen and ink plotter drawing with hand-applied gold leaf, 20 x 30 in. Submitted image
“Pearl Park Scripture, D,” 2005, algorithmic pen and ink plotter drawing with hand-applied gold leaf, 20 x 30 in. Submitted image