Inspiration from the team behind The Art Genome Project at

We Moved!

The Art Genome Project blog is now on Artsy! Find us here, but as always, please send questions or comments to us by tweeting @artsy or sending us an email.

The Art of Printmaking

The act of printing has always seemed to me a miracle, just such a miracle as the growing up of a tiny seed of grain to an ear—an everyday miracle, even the greater because it happens every day. One drawing is sown on the stone or the etching plate, and a harvest is reaped from it.   

–Vincent van Gogh

In an age when information is copied and shared instantaneously, it is easy to forget that the reproduction and distribution of an artwork, document, or idea was once viewed as miraculous. Printmaking developed as a medium to meet this most human of desires: to document and communicate images and ideas, and disperse them to regions far beyond their origin. A print is created by incising an image into a matrix—a metal plate, a block of wood or a stone—inking the image, and then running it through a press onto a piece of paper. By repeating this process, multiple impressions of the same image can be produced. Before cameras, copy machines and scanners, the reproducibility of prints allowed thinkers and artists to disseminate their work, and over time prints became an art form in their own right.

Read more on The Art Genome Project’s new page!

All the World’s Art

Venus of Willendorf. c. 24,000-22,000 BCE. Limestone. 4 2/5 inches (11.1 cm). Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna. Photo © Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY.

At, we constantly think about what it means to have access to all of the world’s art. Until recently, the art on has been largely Western and contemporary, yet with the exciting addition in recent months of more than fifty institutional partners and even more gallery partners from around the world, we are quickly expanding on what we can offer users of the world’s art. 

As such, we wanted to keep you informed of a few recent developments:

We have recently added more African art to the site, spanning from ancient cultures to contemporary figurines. An example is this Mende work. We particularly enjoy how (in a very basic sense) it brings together other masks from throughout history and across geographic regions.

There are now more Chinese artworks, such as this Zhao Zhiqian work or this Qing Dynasty scroll. Something that users may find interesting is how this brings to the fore various connections between other scroll paintings, other examples of East Asian Calligraphy, as well as works influenced by East Asian Calligraphy.

We now have a gene for Arabic/Farsi Calligraphy, which provides a helpful comparison to something like Chinese calligraphic styles, and represents another way to understand writing’s relationship to art and art history.

We have increased the number of Ceremonial objects.

We have added more religious art to the site, including well-known works like Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Related to this, now you can search for the manuscript medium gene and more specifically Bible Stories.

One final note, the Venus of Willendorf (seen above) was an exciting addition and expands our grouping of depictions of Venus throughout history.

We hope you enjoy these new additions. As always, please do not hesitate to send us your feedback on any of these new additions or anything related to art search.

-Clare McLaughlin, Research Assistant

What We Talk About When We Talk About “Art About Art”


Kasimir Malevich, Composition with the Mona Lisa,  c. 1914. Collage. Russian State Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY.

We know that a picture is but a space in which a variety of images, none of them original, blend and clash. A picture is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture…We can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original.”

-Sherrie Levine

We created a gene called Art About Art a long time ago to capture aspects of artworks that were self-reflexive, i.e. that dealt with historical artworks, the art world, or individual artists. In this way it was definitely one of more “art nerd” genes on and always very satisfying for all of us here. It was like a homemade quiz for the art and art history crowd.

Yet as time passed we realized more and more that the gene was becoming too large and was trying to do too much. Artworks that appropriated historical artworks had a value for Art About Art, as did works that focused on or critiqued the art world, as did works that featured images of famous artists. Art about Art thus was starting to say very little.

Our solution was to delete the Art About Art gene and create genes out of what it had been capturing.

One of these is Visual References, which captures visual references to an existing work of art in another. Certain works of art—such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes can paintings or Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisahave become such an important part of the art-historical canon that they take on a meaning far beyond their original time and place. Subsequent artists (like Malevich above) who self-consciously refer to these previous works are often doing so to insert themselves into the narrative of art history and add some commentary or self-conscious adjustment or amendment to the art of the past.

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Discussing The Art Genome Project

Last weekMatthew Israel, Director of The Art Genome Project, spoke about and The Art Genome Project at DataGotham. DataGotham aimed to celebrate New York City’s data community and brought together professionals from finance to fashion and from startups to Fortune 500 companies. The day-and-a-half event took place September 13th and 14th at at NYU Stern's Paulson Auditorium.  


Also, Matthew’s discussion with Suse Cairns about The Art Genome Project has been posted on her blog, Museum Geek. Museum Geek focuses on issues around museums, technology and ideas, and seeks to establish a site for debate about the future of museums. 

Stop Reading! Look! On Bikeshedding and Furry Genes

“Bikeshedding” is a term for the tendency to give minor issues disproportionate weight in the decision-making process. In a famous example from the naval historian C. Northcote Parkinson, a finance committee agrees to build an atomic reactor within a couple of minutes, but then deliberates for hours on what materials the clerical bike shed should be made of. Why does this happen? An atomic reactor is incomprehensibly complex, which means that most members of a committee have a difficult time wrapping their head around what it means. In contrast, everyone knows what a bicycle shed is and what it could be made of. Thus, everyone has an opinion about it.

For months, the little-used “Hairy/Furry/Shaggy/Fluffy” gene was The Art Genome Project’s bikeshed. Humorously, we often found ourselves debating its existence. We wondered how other controlled vocabularies delineate the furriness of artworks. We asked ourselves what the difference is between fur and hair or what to do in instances where you can’t tell if something is composed of faux fur, human hair, or real fur. Everyone on the team had some level of investment in it. We theorized that maybe people feel protective of hairy and furry things, i.e. their pets or other people. But then when we looked at the issue closer, we realized we were consistently preoccupied with whether this gene was supposed to capture content (what an artwork is depicting, e.g. dogs) or its physical qualities (e.g. furriness). When we stepped back and asked if every other appearance gene properly made this distinction, we realized that we had found our atomic reactor.

More on the atomic reactor…

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The (Continued) Evolution of’s Economics Genes

"I’d asked around 10 or 15 people for suggestions. Finally one lady friend asked the right question, ‘Well, what do you love the most?’ That’s how I started painting money." 

-Andy Warhol

Though rarely dealt with as directly as Warhol, the history of art has often concerned money, and more broadly, the economics of art, and the economy. For over a year now, we have debated how to involve these concepts in The Art Genome Project.  

Initially, artists and works that engaged with both the economics of art and the economy in general were dealt with through our Institutional Critique gene, which at one point included works that fell outside the historic meaning of the term—the critique of solely art institutions—and as such, involved critique of cultural, governmental and economic institutions.

Yet as time went on, we realized this was an inappropriate way to deal with these works—especially because it misrepresented the historical meaning of the term. 

So what next?

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Mapping Serendipity

“You’re mapping serendipity,” an art history professor recently told us. As former teachers and students who believe such “happy accidents” (in which a professor happened upon a great connection between artists or artworks not initially apparent to him/her) were often the best parts of lectures, this comment made us feel good.

This comment also begged a question though: Since we talk about as a place to learn about art, in what specific ways do we believe to be educational?

We thought spending some time to discuss this would be helpful to our users. We also hope that in response to such a discussion, those in academia or museums (or elsewhere) will contact us to provide feedback regarding educational features they like or would like to see.

To begin with, let’s return to this idea of serendipity. The Art Genome Project provides the structure for related art search. This type of search can be understood as a new tool for learning about art and art history. It provides an educational experience quite different from other art-historical resources like books and journals, lectures or films. Related search is an active, exploratory, and self-motivated experience that opens up seemingly infinite pathways.

What particularly excites us about related search is you can start almost anywhere on the site—with any artist, artwork, gene, or tag. Often when we are introducing the site to someone, we start with the example of searching for Andy Warhol, as he might be one of the only artists a user has ever heard of.

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The Substance of Painting is Light

“The substance of painting is light.”

-Andre Derain

“Light is not so much something that reveals, as it is itself the revelation.”

-James Turrell

To say that most artists think about light as it pertains to the creation and perception of their work is an understatement. For hundreds of years, artists as seemingly different as Joahnnes Vermeer and James Turrell have been investigating how light affects not only their work but also the perception and experience of their work.

I’d like to use this post to—can’t help it—shed some light on how we have dealt with light as it pertains to The Art Genome Project.

In the early days of—when there were less than one thousand works in our database—the genome team created one “Light” gene. Light was intended to capture any and all artists and works that dealt with the subject of light. Yes, it was a general idea, but we felt it could well identify works that prioritized a concentration on light. A couple of months later, we added an “appearance gene” titled “Luminous/Halo Effect.” (For more on our gene types, see this earlier post.)

Nearly two years later (in January 2012), our “Light” gene had swelled to 1200+ artworks with another 115 in “Luminous/Halo Effect.” In some ways, we should have anticipated this happening, since one could argue that most artists’ work—especially painters (as Derain suggests)—are involved in some respect with light. With so many works lumped together, searches were becoming equally muddy and we decided that the “Light” gene required further clarification.

After a thorough review of the roughly 1500 works, we realized that most works fell into three categories:

  1. Paintings in which the artist is concerned with light as it is visually affecting the world around them (ex. Impressionist paintings such as Pierre Auguste-Renoir’s A Girl with a Watering Can, 1876, Tonalism works, Peter Paul Rubens).
  2. Abstract sculptures or installations containing neon/LED (such as works by Dan Flavin) or material or environments intended to intensify or foreground the effects of light (such as works by California Light and Space artist Peter Alexander, or Mon Levinson’s plexiglass wall hangings)
  3. Images that literally depict sunlight or skyscapes (such as David Ligare’s Landscape, 2010 or Robert Longo’s Study for Underwater Lights, 2010).

With this in mind, we concluded that the most meaningful (and satisfying) result to our users was to group the second and third categories together into a new gene titled “Light as Subject.” 

Into this “Light as Subject” gene we included both abstract Dan Flavin works alongside Robert Longo’s Study for Underwater Lights, 2010. Although both works look different, they both take light as their subject matter in an specific and visually apparent way.

To accompany this new subject matter gene, we created a new medium gene simply titled “Light,” which captures all works that incorporate such things as LED light, Flame/Fire, Lightbulb, Neon, etc. 

In conjunction with these two new genes, we decided against creating a gene that would incorporate works which concern the visual effect of light on the world. It seemed way too broad and in this way less informative as a gene than others might be. However, in the future we may consider again the possibility for having such a gene, especially due to its art-historical significance. We are still keeping track of these artists and artworks for further research. 

-Alessandra Henderson, Content Partner Manager/Specialist and Researcher on The Art Genome Project

"Double Genes"

In the early days of The Art Genome Project, when our inventory was still in the four-digits, we sometimes combined two separate but related characteristics into one gene, knowing that eventually the time would come when each characteristic would gather enough artworks and artists on its own.

Primary/Austere was one of the those unique “double genes” but it quickly outgrew its slash. It began as a way to capture an aspect of Primitivism, a term we were—and still are—hesitant to use on the site. (We have preferred to try and break down the multiple aspects of what one might call “Primitivist” works.) The particular aspect we were trying to capture with Primary/Austere was what one might consider “childlike,” simplified or rudimentary marks in an artwork, such as in this Paul Klee etching. We were really interested in making links across time with this idea. For example, we thought how great would it be to show users correspondences between a historical artist like Jean Dubuffet and a contemporary one like Jonathan Meese.

As the gene continued to grow we noticed that there were a lot of works given values for it that lacked figurative subject matter and often presented basic shapes in solid or primary colors, and were primary or austere in a very different way than we had conceptualized. To explain further, these works were not executed in a kind of rudimentary manner or mark but in them the abstract qualities of geometric forms stood out, as in this Otto Peine watercolor. Appearing in search results more and more, these differently “austere” works formed a powerful presence to the extent that it became clear that Primary/Austere needed to be broken up into a few different genes, at least one that would capture a rudimentary type of mark-making and another than would capture simplified shapes and compositions, marks notwithstanding.

Our first step was to do exactly this: divide Primary/Austere into Primary Mark and Primary Abstraction. Then we decided to maintain Austere as a third gene, that would better represent what austerity was, a simplification of pictorial space or construction, and in so doing, could combine aspects of childlike drawing or basic, elementary shapes, but did not necessarily require either of these elements.

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