Turning an algorithm into an art student

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Turning an algorithm into an art student
David Salle at his studio in East Hampton, N.Y., Sept. 12, 2023. Salle, one of America’s most thoughtful painters, hoped an AI program could nourish creativity. (Justin Kaneps/The New York Times)

by Zachary Small

NEW YORK, NY.- Of the many young artists David Salle has mentored, none were ever as challenging as his latest student, who cannot hold a paintbrush or a conversation.

“The mountain looks too airbrushed,” Salle informed the algorithm that lives inside his iPad. The landscape painting it had produced, based on hundreds of his own artworks, was typically generic, lacking in depth. But the next one succeeded, depicting a valley stream with expressionistic wisps and a sense of volume.

“The way it has rendered water looks more deliberate,” Salle, 70, said. “But it’s funny to call something deliberate when it has no consciousness, isn’t it?”

For nearly a year, the painter — known for edgy images appropriated from art history and popular culture, as well as juxtapositions of voluptuous nudes and ham sandwiches — has attempted to defy conventional thinking about generative artificial intelligence by testing an AI program’s capacity to become a sophisticated creator of art.

The partnership has grown through weekly meetings with two technologists, Danika Laszuk and Grant Davis, who tailored a text-to-image model to Salle’s requirements, relying on descriptive prompts that generated images in the artist’s style. The New York Times observed three of their work sessions, tracking the algorithm’s progress over several months as it adopted more of Salle’s techniques and abandoned the bland photorealism that often limits other generative programs.

“We are sending the machine to art school,” Salle quipped, before expounding on the principles of light, shadow, depth and volume that good painting requires. The algorithm wouldn’t need eyes to achieve greatness, but it would need to hone the robotic equivalent of intuition to spark inspiration and fool a gallerist.

And first, it would have to learn to mimic his style.

The experiment was a mutually beneficial arrangement. Laszuk runs a program called E.A.T__WORKS, for the venture capital firm Betaworks, that pairs artists and engineers on projects where her company might earn a percentage of the profits. Davis is building Wand, an AI platform for artists that promises to help them streamline their operations with faster imaging through text prompts and sketching. Salle was something like a guinea pig for Wand, teaching its program how to paint while developing his own series of digital images.

With permission from Ben Lerner, a friend of Salle’s, the group has been feeding bits of poetry from his new book, “The Lights,” to evoke more fantastical images of cities growing within organic cells, and patterns of interlocking barbules. Prompts also have been sourced from another friend, writer Sarah French.

“Our process starts with very imaginative prompts,” Davis said. “And we generate lots of images before selecting the ones we like. Then David starts drawing on top of them. The process can repeat itself like that until he’s satisfied.”

Salle is one of the first traditional artists to embed on the front lines of artificial intelligence. He, in turn, was trained by conceptualist John Baldessari at the California Institute of the Arts in the 1970s and has a style that absorbs a diverse set of influences, from Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico to New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno.

The results have sometimes been described as memories that barely hold together, and as attempts to ascribe significance to the foggy afterimages of art history. He is often grouped with the appropriation artists of the 1980s, including Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman, who have questioned the primacy of authorship in contemporary culture. He has also juxtaposed photography with painting.

“Every major artist is an amalgamation or synthesis of diverse sympathies and influences,” Salle wrote in his 2018 book “How to See” about making and viewing art. He recalled asking painter Alex Katz to make a list of his own influences; Katz said the list started with Jackson Pollock and ended with “the guy who made Nefertiti.”

On another page of his art treatise, Salle delivered a grand theory of creativity: “Form is the raw material, and style is the forge.”

Artificial intelligence has a limitless vault of forms, thanks to the billions of online images it studies through a process called diffusion, in which the algorithm learns the structure of an image — and then learns to create variations. Its knowledge is then stored in the parameters of the model, which is translated to the AI through a short sequence of numbers known as “latent space.”

But learning artistic style requires going beyond simple pattern recognition. Experts say that increased matchmaking improves accuracy but also stymies the machine’s ability to produce the unexpected. A balance must be struck.

The algorithm’s “training” to become the next David Salle started with a diffusion model to develop a general understanding of visual images based on hundreds of the artist’s paintings. Davis, the engineer, then introduced dozens of detailed snapshots of Salle’s paintings to the program so it would learn to “think like a painter.”

Some of the first experiments were underwhelming: blobby landscapes, figures drawn without brushstrokes, flat abstraction. But the critiques that Salle offered did improve the machine’s intelligence enough to surprise the artist.

“As a painter you only have time to create a painting, but each painting contains within it all the paintings you don’t have time to make,” Salle said. “AI is a great tool because it allows me to see thousands of combinations; things that I would manually sift through in years are made with 5,000 versions in an hour.”

Salle isn’t the first artist to assume the role of mad scientist, pushing against the limits of his own mortality with a machine capable of publishing a series of posthumous “new” works long after his death.

But he is also not someone to rest on his laurels. These experiments have come at a moment of great change in the artist’s career, which has spanned nearly 50 years. This year he left Skarstedt Gallery, which represented him for nearly a decade, to join dealer Barbara Gladstone. This fall, he has a solo exhibition in Seoul, South Korea, filled with paintings in a more graphic style from his “Tree of Life” series — influenced by Arno, the cartoonist — which Salle has described as “little dramas.”

Some of those pictures hung on the walls of his studio during summer, when he met with the technologists behind his algorithm. The branches of his “Tree of Life” resembled the image of brain synapses — summoning the psychological dramas of the characters’ lives onto the canvas foreground.

The algorithm has become another pathway into his own psychology. The experiment has Salle wrestling with the definition of art and the nature of authorship.

What will become of his own identity, as the algorithm continues to produce more Salle paintings than he could ever imagine? Some days, it seems like the algorithm is an assistant. Other days, it’s like a child. When asked if the AI would replace him entirely one day, the artist shrugged. “Well,” he said, “that’s the future.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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