In Memoriam: Jean-Pierre Hébert (1939–2021)

By Robert Murphy

PARIS – Jean-Pierre Hébert, one of the leading artists working with computers, died on March 28 at hospital in Santa Barbara after heart failure. He was 81.

Hébert, who was born in Calais, France, had lived on the West Coast of California since the 1980s, when he moved to the United States and became a dual American French citizen.

Having programmed computers to elaborate complex drawings since the mid-1970s, Hébert will be remembered for the nuance of his work and the manner in which he blended Eastern and Western influences through the filter of mathematics and science.

“I see Hébert as the lost Picasso of computer art because he created some of the most serious and original abstraction of the early digital art period, with an abundant body of artwork yet to be found in most museums’ collections,” said Jason Foumberg, curator of digital art at the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Art Foundation.

“Jean-Pierre Hébert has a special place in the history of computer art,” said Douglas Dodds, senior curator at the Victoria and Albert museum in London. “His exquisite artworks from the mid-1970s onwards are perfectly conceived, and brilliantly executed too. They’re controlled to the extent specified by the artist, while also retaining that essential element of chance or randomness.”

Like many of the so-called digital art pioneers, Hébert’s work recently earned more curatorial attention as museums around the world grapple with the first and second generation of artists who turned to the computer as a means to push abstraction beyond the limits achievable by hand.

Hébert, who wrote the code used to create his art, was particularly interested in the “uninterrupted line,” or drawings made with a plotter that traced a singular line from the beginning to the end of the art-making process.

This technique resulted in very fine geometrical representations that harkened to natural phenomena, such as ripples in water or wind blowing trees.

“The result of his work is often sensual and draws the viewer in to experience a type of space at once ancient and highly modern, one that does not reject technology and progress but adapts it in pursuit of unchanging ideals,” said artist and historian Anne Spalter, who with her husband Michael have collected Hébert’s drawings.

As a child, Hébert moved to Vence in southern France, fertile with the artistic ghosts of some of the great modern masters, from Renoir to Picasso. It was there at the gallery of a family friend that he first discovered a love of art.

An interest in computing came later. As a university student he held a summer internship at IBM in Paris. Inspired by the Bauhaus aesthetic and Anni Albers, Hébert melded his artistic proclivities with his talent as a programmer to make his first grid drawings.

At the time, the Hewlett-Packard computer on which Hébert coded remained a rough tool on which to draw.

In 1985, after a business trip to Santa Barbara, he and his soon-to-be wife Claire decided to move to California. Still working as a computer consultant, Hébert toiled on his art behind closed doors, honing the language he wished to express in his creations.

It did not take long before Hébert had left his consultancy behind to concentrate full-time on art.

Hébert’s creativity flourished. The complexity of his compositions grew to reflect a growing interest in Eastern philosophy and the rich diversity of nature. He had his first one-person show at the Galerie Alphonse Chave in France.

The originality of Hébert’s work brought international recognition and in 1995, he coined the word Algorists to form a group with his fellow artist Roman Verostko to underscore the unique algorithmic approach they adopted to create art.

“Jean-Pierre has experimented with innovative algorithmic procedures for over 35 years. Although well known for the Zen-like qualities of his algorithmic drawings, he has also created important work with alternative technologies developed in his studio. His experimental work testifies to a vigorous pursuit to join well-formed algorist procedure with fine arts traditions,” said Verostko.

Hébert’s commitment to melding art and science earned him the unique position of artist in residence at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, an honor he held since 2003. The post was created for him by David Gross, the theoretical physicist who was awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics with Frank Wilczek and David Politzer for their discovery of asymptotic freedom.

“I was very impressed by (Hébert’s) pioneering efforts to take advantage of modern computers to create new forms of art,” said Gross. “Much like experimental physicists who leap to take advantage of new technology to advance our observations of nature, Jean-Pierre would take advantage of new technology—printers, computers,…— to advance our artistic palette. Much like theoretical physicists who search for patterns in nature and use mathematics to weave these patterns into laws and theories, Jean-Pierre, endlessly curious, was always on the look-out for new patterns and used new tools to weave them into, what he called, visual poems.”

In 2012, the artist was honored with the ACM SIGGRAPH Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement in Digital Art.

Hébert is survived by Claire Hébert, his wife of 35 years, and his children Caroline, François, Marie, Anne and Claire-Alice.