Art Department

Back to Contents of Issue: January 2001

MIT professor John Maeda's art mixes freedom and form. A ten-year retrospective of his work shows how he does it.

by Andrew Pothecary

Untitled artwork created for Maeda@Media
ONE OF THE ASPECTS of "new media" is that sometimes -- especially when the work is so reflective of the media itself -- the delineation between the technical and the creative becomes blurred. Of course, this has happened throughout art history: new technology just hastens and emphasizes the process. John Maeda, an adept technologist but more than that an artist, says the delineation is pointless.

Maeda was born in America and brought up in a family business (with the emphasis on family) that was a particularly Japanese one -- tofu making. After studying at MIT, he completed his PhD at Tsukuba University's Institute of Art and Design in Japan, where he worked as an art director for much of the six years before he returned to the States in 1996. The aesthetics of his work spiral around the Japanese, American, or simply symbolic.

October last year saw the publication of a ten-year retrospective of his work, Maeda@Media (also published a month later in Japanese translation). It's a body of work that is basically playful -- sometimes the kick in his interactive work is the "new toy" feel, as your cursor or key stroke sends text aswirl. In his online Shiseido calendars from 1997, you zoom steadily from year to current day to seconds. Fun, but more "seriously," another aspect of this has been the freeing of letters, numbers, words, and meanings from rigidity. While the art of printing started with fixed lead type, in Maeda's work it's freed to roam, or perhaps even to create new meaning.

But while type and numbers frequently appear in his creative history, his most recent creation (an exhibition in New York finished last month) concentrates on the pure form (see below), always apparent in his work.

In explaining this shift in emphasis, he describes his new work as, interestingly, a "repentant" move away from numbers, letters, et cetera.

He now runs a design studio with his wife ( and holds an endowed chair at MIT, where he's been known to ask someone creating work how they'd make it different if it were being done for a girlfriend or boyfriend. That's part of the point in his creations: whether it's new technology for its own sake, commercial work, or a celebration of form, he frees technology from the constraining zero-one mindset of so many digital creators.

It's been said that in the future a scientist will be the new artist. Maeda disagrees and clarifies that thought: "It will be a new kind of artist." -- Andrew Pothecary

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