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John F. Simon Jr.: Every Icon.

John Simon's Java-applet "Every Icon" (1996) enumerates all patterns which are possible in a 32 by 32 grid of pixels which may be colored black or white.

"Every Icon" was displayed in many gallery exhibitions. Several of its instantiations can also be witnessed online through any Java-compatible browser.

Customized copies of the applet are created on demand; they can be ordered online through the artist's website. A customized applet starts its enumeration at the moment of its creation.The buyer of an applet receives the code for a web-page which can be used to put it online. Examples of web-pages in this format are

John Simon's "artist's proof" of "Every Icon".
The Enterzone copy of "Every Icon"
The Stadium copy of "Every Icon"
The IAAA copy of "Every Icon"

The buyer of an applet receives a license agreement (see below) which looks pretty much like a standard software license agreement. For the connoisseur of modern art it also resonates with the certificates written by the conceptual and minimal artists of the sixtities and seventies to turn their mental and immaterial artworks into tradable commodities. (Knight (1988) shows such certificates by Robert Barry, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Walter De Maria, Bruce Naumann, and James Turrell.)

Watching the program in action, one may wonder: Does it indeed generate all possible 32 x 32 pixel configurations? Does it generate each of them exactly once? To answer that question, is to "reverse-engineer" the program: to guess the underlying algorithm by analysing the program's observed behaviour.

Jochem van der Spek's program "Borges.C" (1993) has a functionality very similar to "Every Icon". Van der Spek reports that his algorithm for the 32 x 32 case would work as follows:

Consider all possible bit strings of length 1024. Notice that these can be read as denoting the numbers 0 through 2^1024 – 1 (in a notation with leading 0's). We can therefore generate all these numbers by starting with 0 (i.e. 1024 0's) and adding 1 until we have reached the number which is writtten as a sequence of 1024 1's. Stipulate that 0 means white and 1 means black, and write each number in a 32 x 32 grid, in right-to-left, bottom-to-top fashion ("backwards", least significant bits first). This process generates all possible patterns by the simple process of binary counting. It starts with small patterns in the upper left corner and gradually extends them, first to the right, then to the next line, etc.


This agreement constitutes a legal agreement giving you, ("the purchaser"), certain rights regarding your copy of the Every Icon software applet ("the software"). YOU AGREE THAT BY RUNNING THE LICENSED APPLET YOU ACCEPT THE TERMS OF THIS AGREEMENT. If you do not accept these terms, please immediately erase all copies of your Every Icon applet.

1. License grant. John F. Simon, Jr. grants you the right to use your personal copy of the software, the copy with your name displayed, on any computer at any time.

2. Code Restrictions. You are not allowed to alter the software, the file of Java byte-code delivered with this document, or replace any of the code. You may not disassemble, decompile, reverse engineer or make changes to the software.

3. Display Restrictions. You may display your unaltered copy of Every Icon on any non-commercial site on the World Wide Web and in any other non-commercial venue.

4. Copy Restrictions. You may transfer copies of your unaltered software to any other person through any media provided that you guarantee any copies transferred are protected by the terms of this agreement. If you are unable to insure that the transferred copies remain unaltered and are properly displayed, then copies may be made for personal use only.

5. Transfer of title. You may sell your edition number of Every Icon under the conditions that all copies of Every Icon with your name are erased and the sale is registered with John F. Simon, Jr. Registration of the sale is subject to a fee equal to 10% of the sale; for which John F. Simon, Jr. will create a new copy of the applet with the same edition number but with the new owner's name and will change the owner's name on the posted list of registered owners.

6. Continuation grant. In such time that the software becomes obsolete and is no longer executable on state-of-the-art computers, you are granted the right to have the working processes of Every Icon reprogrammed and to transfer your name as displayed in the software, the starting date given in the software and the edition number given in the software to the new program. At such time, every effort should be made to duplicate all functions and aspects of the original software including visual appearance.

7. LIMITED WARRANTY. John F. Simon, Jr. warrants the delivery of a working applet (and media free of defects when delivered via disk). This software is provided "as is". There is no other warranty of any kind either express or implied. There is no warranty that the functions contained in the software will meet your requirements or that the operation of the program will be uninterrupted or error free or that the program's defects will be corrected. There is no warranty that Every Icon will meet the purchaser's expectations for owning conceptual art.

8. Limitation of liability. John F. Simon, Jr. will not be liable for any damages beyond the purchase price of the software. In cases of damaged media, John F. Simon, Jr. has the option of replacing the media as purchaser's sole remedy.

9. Governing Law. This agreement is governed by the laws of the State of New York.

Copyright 1997, John F. Simon, Jr. - All Rights Reserved


1. [For A.I. students:] Reverse-engineer the enumeration algorithm. Decide whether it implements the intended functionality. Explain why or why not. [Hint: Check whether the observable behaviour of the program is compatible with Jochem van der Spek's algorithm described above.]
2. [For art students:] Consider the order in which the different possible images are generated. Compare this, from an artistic/aesthetic point of view, with the order that Eijssen and Klopman employ in the algorithm of The Wishing Well.
3. [For law students:] Reverse engineering Simon's algorithm is explicitly forbidden by article 2 of the license-agreement. Explore how the notion of "reverse engineering" should be interpreted in this context.
In its core meaning, "reverse engineering" is the process of understanding and analyzing software on the basis of its external behavior. Is it possible, under the laws of the State of New York, for a license agreement to exclude purely mental activities?
[Subsidiary issue: Article 6 contradicts article 2. One may conjecture that this does not create legal complexities, because the intent is obviously that article 6, when applicable, overrules article 2. Is this correct?]
4. [For art students:] Reverse-engineering Simon's algorithm is explicitly forbidden by article 2 of the license-agreement. Discuss the artistic status of this prohibition. It seems paradoxical for a conceptual artist to impose limitations on the extent of someone's reflections on his works. Do you think this paradox is intended? Why not?

The idea of enumerating all possible pixel grids was developed and implemented independently by several artists. (We list them on our page about "Every Grid". The first piece of this sort that we know of is "The Wishing Well" by Lars Eijssen & Boele Klopman (1991). It displays and prints all configurations of a 172 by 172 black & white pixel grid, and includes a graphical interface for "looking into the future" and an "inverse mapping" which calculates for any input picture when it will be produced. It generates the images in a different order than "Every Icon": after the empty image, first all images with 1 black pixel, then all images with 2 black pixels, etc.

Other, more limited pieces in the same genre were done by Jochem van der Spek ("Borges.C", 1993) and by Leander Seige ("Imagen", 2000). The unique quality of John Simon's "Every Icon" is its availability as a Java-applet.

The idea of enumerating all possible pixel grids has a definite relation with the "random pixel grids" done by artists such as Ellsworth Kelly (1951), François Morellet (1961), and herman de vries (1970). These are discussed in our page on "Any Grid" .

The idea of enumerating all possible pixel grids is an instance of a more general notion of "enumeration art" which can also be carried out without computers. Sol LeWitt, for instance, made many works in this genre.

"Every Icon" was inspired by an early Macintosh "icon-editor". A similar program is Aaron Neugebauer's PixelPaint (2002). A 3D version of the same idea is one of the modes of operation of the program Blocks, written by Wouter De Jong and Roy Tanck in 2000.


Christopher Knight: Art of the Sixties and Seventies. The Panza Collection. New York: Rizzoli, 1988.
Matthew Mirapaul: "In John Simon's Art, Everything Is Possible." The New York Times, April 17, 1997.
John Simon: "Given: a 32 X 32 Grid." Parachute Magazine, January, 1997.



Remko Scha, 2001/2004