Vera Molnar

Weaving Variations
Augmenting Molnar’s first U.S. solo exhibition, Zsofi Valyi-Nagy parses the legacy of the nonagenarian generative art pioneer.

Vera Molnar “Variations
Apr 2–Aug 27, 2022

The Beall Center
for Art + Technology
Irvine, California (US)

© 2022 HOLO

001 – Note: Pulling Threads (18/04/2022)
“Molnar doesn’t weave with thread––she makes paintings, drawings, and collages––but her metaphor perfectly captures the way ideas have moved, and continue to move, throughout her lifelong art practice.”

Zsofi Valyi-Nagy is a PhD candidate in art history at the University of Chicago, where she is writing her dissertation on Vera Molnar and the intersection between abstract art and early computer graphics in Cold War Europe. She is currently based in Berlin as a DAAD fellow at the Media Archaeological Fundus/Signallabor at Humboldt University, and is also a predoctoral fellow at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Her texts have appeared in Art Journal and Right Click Save; Zsofi is also a practicing artist.

Animation:
Vera Molnar, 36 Squares, 8928 Quadrilaterals: Pleasure Geometries (1986), excerpt

“My work is like a textile,” Vera Molnar has told me, many times, over coffee, first in her home/studio in the fourteenth arrondissement of Paris, then in her sun-filled room at the nearby EHPAD, or retirement home, where she has lived since the summer of 2020. Molnar loves her coffee, and she squeals with delight whenever I show up at her door holding a thermos or two little paper cups. Like a textile—at least that’s how I can best translate the Hungarian word szövet that she uses, since we always speak in our shared mother tongue. At first I didn’t understand what she meant. But then she used her finger to trace a sinusoidal wave through the air, up and down along an imaginary x-axis. She was miming the weft, the thread that disappears behind the warp and then reappears again. Disappears, then reappears. Molnar doesn’t weave with thread—she makes paintings, drawings, and collages—but her metaphor perfectly captures the way ideas have moved, and continue to move, throughout her lifelong art practice.

Whether it’s the form of the concentric square or the continuous line, or the theme of the progression from order to disorder, Molnar is constantly revisiting her old ideas, creating unrealized works from her notebooks or reopening projects she hasn’t looked at in years. For her, nothing is ever really finished. There is always potential to come back, to see something from a new perspective. At ninety-eight, she is still bursting with new ideas, though her visual language is remarkably consistent, always remaining in the realm of geometry. For Molnar, it seems the square, the line, and the circle never go out of style. They are timeless.

“Whether it’s the form of the concentric square or the continuous line, or the theme of the progression from order to disorder—for Molnar, no work is ever really finished.”

This recursivity of Molnar’s work is one of its most compelling aspects, but it is also one of the most difficult to address in the traditional form of the art historical monograph. As I write my PhD dissertation on Molnar, parsing through the interviews, archival materials, and documentation of artworks I have gathered over the last five years, I become increasingly aware of the limiting structure of the monograph’s chronological structure and distinct chapters. How can I capture a nonlinear practice through such a linear form? I’m still figuring that out, but in the meantime, this is why I am particularly excited to lead this HOLO dossier. The way the dossier format weaves a narrative that unfolds over time, and that allows for nonlinear navigation across media, feels particularly amenable to Molnar’s work, and how I have been thinking about it.

“Variations”
Beall Center
exhibition views
photos: ofstudio

And what better time to do this than on the occasion of Molnar’s first solo exhibition in the United States? “Variations,” curated by David Familian, is an important show not only because it is a first, or because it brings the remarkable Spalter Digital Art collection to a wider audience. “Variations” matters because the Beall does what very few institutions have had the space or the care to do: focus on Molnar’s works on paper, and show important series in their entirety. While most exhibitions will show one of her plotter drawings in isolation, framed and finished off with a date and signature (often alongside the work of other—mainly men—’Algorists’), at the Beall we can see the whole series together. We are invited to compare different steps in Molnar’s process, and to imagine what algorithms lie behind her pictures.

“This exhibition matters because the Beall does what very few institutions have had the space or the care to do: focus on Molnar’s works on paper, and show important series in their entirety.”

Over the next few months, we will take slow, virtual walks through this exhibition, pausing on specific artworks to look closely at them. I’ll be musing about Molnar’s processes behind the works, drawing on her writing as well our many conversations. Since my specific interest lies in the intersection of early computer graphics technology and abstract art, I will also be profiling specific computer hardware and programs that Molnar used in the 1970s and 1980s to create her work. Drawing on methods from media archaeology, I will also discuss how ‘reenacting’ her processes through creative coding can lend itself to art history as well as to contemporary media art practices and pedagogy. By sharing a combination of archival photos and anecdotes, vintage computing nerdery, and experimental writing, I hope to also weave something like a textile—and I invite you to explore its many threads with me.

Located in the Claire Trevor School of the Arts at UC Irvine in California, the Beall Center for Art + Technology was founded in 2000 in honour of Don and Joan Beall. Drawing on the arts and engineering interests of its namesake donors, it has served as an important North American hub for artist-led critical interrogation of emerging technologies through exhibitions, artist talks, and residencies. Over the last decade the Beall has featured artists including R. Luke DuBois, lauren woods, Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau, Zimoun, Golan Levin, and Nam June Paik.

The Vera Molnár exhibition was made possible with generous support from the Anne and Michael Spalter Digital Art Collection; the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts; the Beall Family Foundation; and Etant donnés Contemporary Art, a program of Villa Albertine and FACE Foundation, in partnership with the French Embassy in the United States, with support from the French Ministry of Culture, Institut Français, Ford Foundation, Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, CHANEL, and ADAGP.

002 – Timeline: 1924–1946 (04/05/2022)
1924–1946: Early Life in Hungary

“Though she used only traditional artists’ tools before working with an electronic computer in 1968, Vera remembers inventing systematic methods for making art from an early age.”
Vera, age 17, at Mátrafüred, Hungary, 1941 (Molnar archives, used with the artist’s permission)
“Here she is at age 17, on vacation in Mátrafüred, Hungary. The photo is black-and-white, but Vera reminds me that her silver hair was once red—her signature colour.”
Images:
Molnar archives
(mouse over
for details)

Vera grew up drawing and painting, so it was no surprise she would end up applying to art school. Here she is at age 17, on vacation in Mátrafüred, Hungary, about 85 kilometers northwest of her hometown Budapest. The photo is black-and-white, but Vera reminds me that her silver hair was once red—her signature color. Here, it’s pulled back in milkmaid braids. She wears a shirtdress covered in thick pinstripes that meet at 90-degree angles on the collar, framing her face in a pattern of concentric squares—her signature motif. Her style remains remarkably consistent to this day—at 98, Vera still dresses like the art she makes.

Teenage Vera flashes a proud smile as she looks up from the sketchpad in her lap. Though she used only traditional artists’ tools—colored pencils, paintbrushes, pastels—before working with an electronic computer in 1968, Vera remembers inventing systematic methods for making art from an early age. Vacationing with her parents in Balatonvilágos at the house they named Veronika after their beloved only child, she came up with a system to draw the sunset over Lake Balaton with a different colored pencil, selected at random, each evening. We can’t see what she’s drawing here, but it’s possible she’s gearing up for the competitive entrance exam for the Magyar Képzőművészeti Főiskola (Hungarian College of Fine Arts). She recalls being one of the weakest students at her preparatory course, but she would pass the exam with flying colours and enrol in fall 1942. She graduated in 1946 with a degree in art education—to appease her father, she’ll tell you—but no one could stop her from heading to Paris the following year to pursue her one true ambition: becoming an abstract painter.

Preparatory painting course, Budapest, Hungary, 1942. Vera is in the back row, fifth from the right.
“She graduated in 1946 with a degree in art education—to appease her father, she’ll tell you—but no one could stop her from heading to Paris the following year to pursue her one true ambition: becoming an abstract painter.”
003 – On View: Hommage à Barbaud (1974) (16/05/2022)
On View: Hommage à Barbaud (1974)

“First, the number of concentric squares in each set is randomly altered, disrupting the optical vibration of the grid.”
Vera Molnar, Hommage à Barbaud 1-8 (1974), Benson plotter drawing on paper, 20 x 14 in. / Anne and Michael Spalter Digital Art Collection
“Then, the concentric squares snap back to the grid, but their central square is randomly displaced, like a fish hanging on to a sea anemone.”
Animation:
Hommage à
Barbaud

(mouse over
for details)

It’s a theme that recurs in many of Vera Molnar’s works, as recognizable as her signature: concentric squares that bend in and out of shape until they become a tangled net of squiggles, no longer recognizable as neat geometric forms. This is the basis of Hommage à Barbaud, the first work from “Variations” that we’ll explore in this dossier. Molnar made this series of eight plotter drawings in 1974, one of her most prolific years.

A matrix of nine sets of seven concentric squares transforms according to three different patterns: first, the number of concentric squares in each set is randomly altered, disrupting the optical vibration of the grid. Then, the concentric squares snap back to the grid, but their central square is randomly displaced, like a fish hanging on to a sea anemone. The rest of the squares follow this pattern until they are completely dislodged from their grid. The grid then resets again, this time transforming by way of the sides of the square being replaced with other geometric forms—curves, diagonal lines. By the final transformation, we have a mess of squiggles, in which we must strain to find the underlying structure.

Molnar’s oeuvre is full of homages to other artists, from Dürer to Monet to Mondrian. But who was Barbaud? Pierre Barbaud (1911–1990) was one of the founders of algorithmic music in France, and a close friend of Molnar and her husband, François. By dedicating a work to Barbaud, Molnar immortalizes the impact of algorithmic music on her work, and on early computer art more broadly.

Pierre Barbaud with one of Molnar’s plotter drawings from the series À la recherche de Paul Klee (1970-71), exhibited in “Ordinateur et création artistique” at L’Espace Cardin, Paris, in October 1973 (archives of Vera Molnar, used with artist’s permission)
Pierre Barbaud
Molnar archives
(mouse over
for details)

Though Molnar was friends with other visual artists in Paris, some of them her former art school classmates from Budapest—Simon Hantaï, Judit Reigl, Marta Pán—it was with experimental composers—Pierre Barbaud, Michel Philippot, Janine Charbonnier, Jean-Claude Risset—that she really clicked with. They shared an interest in working with parameters and chance procedures, but in a more systematic way than Dadaist automatism or the neo-Dada of the 1950s. It was from Philippot that Molnar borrowed the term machine imaginaire, her systematic approach to making pictures from around 1958 to 1968. Using basic concepts from combinatorial mathematics and analog ‘randomness generators’ like a roll of dice, Molnar ‘generated’ series of drawings by altering one parameter at a time. Each variation was executed painstakingly by hand.

“By dedicating a work to Barbaud, Molnar immortalizes the impact of algorithmic music on her work, and on early computer art more broadly.”

It was thanks to Barbaud that Molnar accessed her first machine réelle, an actual electronic computer. Barbaud had spent the last decade experimenting at Bull–General Electric in Paris, composing music with their mainframe computer free of charge in exchange for promoting and consulting for the company. Barbaud and Molnar ran in the same circles and, according to Molnar, on the same wavelength, too. They both participated in the 1965 SIGMA festival of contemporary art in Bordeaux, where Barbaud’s Musica d’invenzione was performed alongside pieces by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis. In 1968, he invited Molnar to Bull take “his” mainframe for a spin.

Soon after, Molnar began experimenting at the Sorbonne university computing center in Orsay, just southwest of Paris. She worked there unofficially—clandestinely, she would say—mostly on evenings and weekends. Here, Molnar used an IBM system/370 mainframe computer and a drum plotter manufactured by the French company Benson, a name visible in the margins of most of her 1970s works, just outside the sprocket holes used to feed rolls of paper through the machine. At the top of each page is a timestamp and the words “JOB FROM MOLNAR,” referring to the computer program “Molnart” that she and her husband co-wrote in Fortran.

Listen: Molnar on Hommage à Barbaud
Recording:
Molnar &
Valyi-Nagy,
May 1, 2022

“So now all of them are going out of place,” Vera Molnar explains the progression from Hommage à Barbaud plot 2 to 3 in her Hungarian mother tongue. “They’re still squares, which is important, still exact squares, but their center is no longer there. It’s scattered.” On May 1, 2022, during her latest research trip to Molnar’s retirement home in Paris, Zsofi Valyi-Nagy asked the generative art pioneer to elaborate on the 1974 series of plotter drawings that is now on view at the Beall Center for Art + Technology. A video recording of their conversation (including English subtitles) is available here.

For collectors and enthusiasts, these marginal details have become all but marginal. But until quite recently, Molnar did not consider them part of the work. In the earliest days, she would carefully cut out her computer graphics, gluing the thin, almost transparent plotter paper to a thicker support. When she started selling her work in the 1990s, she was advised to cover the margins with a passe-partout, so that the image could pass as handmade. Now, Molnar has joked to me, “JOB FROM MOLNAR” is what gives the work market value. “You can forge my signature, but you can’t forge that,” she laughs.

This marginal text allows us to reconstruct the order in which Molnar programmed these images, to develop some understanding of her working process and of the algorithms she used—of which very little documentation remains. In fact, the sequence in which Molnar shows her series—whether in exhibitions or artist’s books—rarely corresponds to the chronological order in which she made them. Barbaud was made over the course of two days, Wednesday, September 18 and Saturday, October 5, 1974. Molnar worked on other series simultaneously, including Out of Square and Love-Story, which also explored twisting and tangling her favorite geometric shape.

Vera Molnar, Hommage à Barbaud (1974), Benson plotter drawing on paper, 20 x 14 in. / installation view: The Beall Center for Art + Technology, Irvine, California (US) / Anne and Michael Spalter Digital Art Collection / photo: ofstudio
“The progression from order to disorder in Molnar’s series is artificially constructed. We only see a small selection of outputs from dozens of variations; even their sequence is based on subjective choice.”
Hommage
à Barbaud
,
install. view
(mouse over)

Why does it matter that Molnar doesn’t show Barbaud in the order it was made? It may not seem significant, but ultimately the progression from order to disorder in Molnar’s series is artificially constructed. Not only do we only see a small selection of outputs from dozens of variations, but even their sequence is based on subjective choices made by the artist.

It’s a bit ironic, then, that this work is named for Barbaud, because he couldn’t have had a more different approach to algorithms. As Jean-Claude Risset writes, Barbaud refused to “arrange” the results of his compositional programs.1 Molnar also recalls this fundamental difference between their approaches: while Barbaud believed all of his randomly generated results were of equal aesthetic value, Molnar would compare and contrast results until she found the ones she wanted. It was always her—not the program—who had the last word.

This is an age-old question in generative art that remains relevant today. In a recent conversation2 between Casey Reas and Harm van der Dorpel at DAM Projects in Berlin, these artists debated the difference between messing with a program and messing with its results, changing the algorithm or changing the outputs. For some, tinkering is “cheating”—Barbaud certainly would have thought so. But for Molnar, tinkering is possibly the most important creative gesture in her practice. This is something I will continue to explore in the coming weeks.

“While Barbaud believed all of his randomly generated results were of equal aesthetic value, Molnar would compare and contrast results. It was always her—not the program—who had the last word.”

References:

(1) Risset, Jean-Claude. ‘Une Experimentation Plastique En Actes’. In Véra Molnar: Une Rétrospective, 1942-2012, edited by Sylvain Amic, 28–35. Paris: Bernard Chauveau, 2012.

(2) Casey Reas and Harm van der Dorpel. “A conversation on art, software and NFTs,” DAM Projects, Berlin. April 22, 2022 / a recording of the conversation is available online here

004 – Wisdom: Enemies and Cover-Ups (07/06/2022)
Wisdom: Vera Molnar on Enemies and Computer Art Cover-Ups
“[In the early days] people said I was ruining art, by taking such an artificial approach to something that was so fundamentally human. It felt like I only had enemies. It makes for a good story, though. I very rarely exhibited, very very rarely. But when I did, then these computer drawings, you know the ones that have holes along the sides because they had to roll through the [drum] plotter? At the top you can see the day, the hour, the minute the calculation was made. And I was told to cover this up, to put a passe-partout over it so that all you could see was the drawing. And I had to sign it, by hand. But now, that [timestamp] is all the collectors care about. Anyone could forge my signature but that, no one can forge that. They only want drawings where the computer is visible. The paper with the holes in it? They don’t use a passe-partout anymore. They frame it with the holes showing!”

Vera Molnar to Zsofi Valyi-Nagy (translated from Hungarian), Paris Oct 31, 2019

005 – Research: Plotters (16/06/2022)
Research: The Mechanical Arm of the Plotter

“In the early days, computing was a blind process. Artist gave instructions using punch cards but wouldn’t see the results of their program for hours or even days.”
Zuse Graphomat Z64 flatbed plotter (1961), installed at DAM Projects for “Aesthetica” (2015). Molnar peer Frieder Nake cheekily argues that flatbeds are the only “real” plotters (conversation with author Feb 9, 2022).
“Even later works made using a screen couldn’t be shown in their native environment. The images had to be transposed to a more traditional art form: ink on paper.”
Image: Zuse
Graphomat Z64,
DAM Projects
(mouse over)

When we talk about ‘computer art’ from the 1960s and ‘70s, the actual shape and form it took looked quite different from most digital art made today. Nowadays, we’re used to viewing digital artworks—and most other artworks, frankly—on a screen, whether on a phone, laptop, or larger monitor. But this was not yet an option in the early days, when computing was still a blind process. This meant that the artist/programmer gave instructions using punch cards and couldn’t see the results of their program until it was output to paper, hours or even days later. When computer screens became more ubiquitous in the 1970s, they were still only accessible to people in computer labs. Even if an artist made work using a screen—as Vera Molnar did from the early 1970s onward—they still had to make hard copies, for these works simply couldn’t be shown in their native environment. In other words, the images had to be transposed to a more traditional art form: ink on paper.

These works-on-paper were not executed by hand, but by the mechanical arm of a plotter.1 Still, they became known as ‘drawings.’ Plotter drawings. For Molnar, this reliance on paper was not necessarily a limitation. It was a way to show continuity with her pre-computer works, which were programmed with the machine imaginaire but executed manually. For her, there was no fundamental difference between working with dice or combinatorial mathematics and working with an IBM system/370 mainframe computer. It was all “painting” to her.2 I want to point out, however, that the plotter allowed for considerable creativity. Molnar experimented with different kind of inks, even making some homespun inks out of beet juice and blood3—the wildest she would ever get—until she settled on a satisfying dark grey tone.

“I suggest we look at the nuances of these ‘drawings’ as an entry point for seeing the complex, iterative, nonlinear, and very hands-on process that was early computing.”
Zsofi Valyi-Nagy with a Benson 1112 drum plotter (1980 model) at ACONIT in Grenoble (FR), May 2022. Molnar would have used a similar, slightly earlier model in the 1970s. For scale, Zsofi is 5’7”, one inch taller than Vera was at the time. Molnar’s plotter would have been slightly wider. Photo by Xavier Hiron.
Plotter drawings from Molnar’s series Love-Stories (1974), on an uncut roll of drum plotter paper in the artist’s studio, Dec 2020. Each drawing measures about 54 x 36 cm. The thin paper allows for multiple variations to be seen at once. Photo by ZSVN.
The distinct sprocket holes and BENSON imprint on many Molnar plotter drawings tell a story about their machine origins. Photo by Alexander Scholz, DAM Projects (2015).
Benson 1112 drum plotter (1980 model), ACONIT, Grenoble (FR). Note that the BENSON imprint on the paper margins is the same as on Molnar’s 1970s works. Photo by ZSVN.
Images:
Benson 1112
drum plotter
(mouse over)

Molnar’s fellow digital art pioneers, including Manfred Mohr, who also worked in Paris, and Frieder Nake, a member of what is now called the Stuttgart school in Germany, also used plotters. But while Mohr and Nake used flatbed plotters, also known as ‘drawing machines,’ Molnar most often used the less glamorous drum plotter. Here’s the fundamental difference: with the flatbed plotter, the paper is stationary and the pen moves in both the x- and y- directionl the operation looks a lot like the human process of drawing, only it’s done by a robot. The drum plotter less so: its pen moves on the x-axis while a roll of paper is fed through in the perpendicular direction. This is why many of Molnar’s works have sprocket holes along the sides. Drum plotter drawings tend to have a more ephemeral quality because the roll mechanism required a very thin, almost transparent paper—by contrast, the flatbed could handle nicer, thicker paper. Perhaps Molnar liked the drafty quality, but my guess is she preferred the drum plotter because it was better suited to serial output: she could plot one variation after another in succession, without having to switch paper.

The ink-on-paper format is perhaps what has allowed art museums to collect this work more extensively than other forms of digital art, as we don’t need to reactivate obsolete technologies to view it. But its deceptive straightforwardness also runs the risk of flattening our understanding of early computational art into a simple process of input and output. I want to suggest we look at the nuances of these ‘drawings’ as an entry point for seeing the complex, iterative, nonlinear, and very hands-on process that was early computing.

“The ink-on-paper format has perhaps allowed art museums to collect this work more extensively than other forms of digital art, as we don’t need to reactivate obsolete technologies to view it.”

References:

(1) See contemporary generative artist Sher Minn Chong’s talk “Recreating Retro Computer Art,” and read her historical overview of plotters here.

(2) See Molnar, Vera. “Toward Aesthetic Guidelines for Paintings with the Aid of a Computer.” Leonardo 8, no. 3 (1975): 185–89. My intention is not to equate painting and drawing, but an exploration of the rich historical relationship between them is outside the scope of this note and will be addressed in my dissertation.

(3) Molnar also told this story to Hans Ulrich Obrist: “Vera Molnar in Conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist.” In Bookmarks: Revisiting Hungarian Art of the 1960s and 1970s, edited by Hans Ulrich Obrist and András Szánto, 76–87. Koenig Books, 2018.

006 – On View: Inclinaisons (1971) (04/07/2022)
On View: Inclinaisons (1971)

“In this plotter drawing, we see line segments in red, green, and blue—the three additive primary colours—scattered over a square surface area like a game of pick-up sticks.”
Vera Molnar, Inclinaison (Inclination), 1971, Coloured plotter drawing on Benson paper, 19.75 x 14 in. (unframed) / Anne and Michael Spalter Digital Art Collection
Inclinaisons, like its English cognate inclination, refers to a tilt, a line that runs oblique to the horizontal plane.”
Inclinaisons
(mouse over)

Vera Molnar loves colour as much as the next painter, but we rarely see colour in her plotter drawings from the 1970s. Much like the juice and blood she experimented with, the marks of coloured plotter pens were more ephemeral — highly light sensitive and not designed to last. In this plotter drawing Inclinaisons from 1971, however, we see line segments in red, green, and blue — the three additive primary colours — scattered over a square surface area like a game of pick-up sticks.

Inclinaisons, like its English cognate inclination, refers to a tilt, a line that runs oblique to the horizontal plane. The word might be used to describe the lines in a graph that a scientist would output to paper using the same tools as Molnar. But Molnar’s ‘figure’ seems to mock the orderliness of scientific data. Her lines lead to nowhere, point to nothing. Their random distribution produces a visual rhythm, given more texture by the colour variations. At points, the colours overlap, creating teals, purples, and browns that anchor the eye, if only for a moment.

While Molnar did not begin her Journaux Intimes until 1976, she did hang onto her sketches for this work, which are framed alongside the plotter drawing at the Beall Center (the Spalter collection also includes two studies from 1969 and one from 1972). Of the two in this show, one is more obviously handmade, with red, green, and blue marks drawn with marker in a 7 x 7 grid structure, delineated by the artist herself in graphite on graph paper. Its wavering lines suggest that she drew the grid freehand. The other study is on tracing paper, the delicacy of which throws the different line qualities into sharp contrast: the thin blue marker appearing crisp alongside the thicker, runnier red and green that she accidentally smudged. Neither study, however, is identical to the plotter drawing. While they demonstrate that Molnar did work out ideas on paper, they do not establish a strict, linear relationship between hand-drawn sketch and computer-generated final product.

In fact, Molnar’s process involved a constant dance back and forth between paper and computer, between pencil and keyboard, and between images and alphanumeric commands. She worked — and continues to work — in a series of translations and transpositions across media.

Vera Molnar, Untitled (Study for Inclinaisons), 1971, ink and graphite on graph paper, 10.5 x 8.25 in. / Anne and Michael Spalter Digital Art Collection
Study for Inclinaisons
(mouse over)

In 1974, Molnar came up with a term to describe her way of working. Writing for the journal Leonardo, she described her “conversational” method, always leaving the scare quotes around conversational.1 Why? My guess is that she borrowed the term from French computing discourse, where conversationnel referred to interactive computing. While blind computing involved a significant time delay between submitting instructions and receiving results, interactive computing happened in real-time. The site of interactivity was the computer screen, which served as an interface between the user and the computer. In fact, the introduction of the interface is when the user, in our contemporary conception of the term, was born. I argue in my dissertation that the advent of interactivity was the most significant milestone in Molnar’s career, though it’s been overlooked in both studies of her work and in the history of computing more broadly.2 When I asked her about the screen in our very first conversation, a shaky phone call in August 2017, I could hear her beaming as she said, “The IBM 2250!” She recalled her first time using the screen like a sort of rebirth, akin to moving to Paris at age 23. While I still don’t know for sure what year she first encountered the IBM 2250 (it was released in 1964, but there was usually a delay getting hardware to Western Europe; Molnar does not mention it in her writing until 1973), she remembers it with the kind of fondness usually reserved for an old friend.

“The site of interactivity was the computer screen. In fact, the introduction of this interface is when the user, in our contemporary conception of the term, was born.”
IBM 2250 Graphics Display Unit (1964), vector graphics display system by IBM for the System/360 / photo: Model IV display station, including light pen and programmed function keyboard (source: Wikipedia)
Output on-screen: Vera Molnar, photograph of an IBM 2250 computer screen showing a digital image from the series Inclinaisons, likely 1974 (collection of the artist)

Output on paper: Vera Molnar, plotter drawing from the series Inclinaisons, 1974, about 52 x 35 cm (collection of the artist)
“While I still don’t know for sure what year Molnar first encountered the IBM 2250, she remembers it with the kind of fondness usually reserved for an old friend.”
IBM 2250 &
Inclinaisons
(mouse over)

In 2018, leafing through a box of archival materials at the home of Molnar expert Vincent Baby, I stumbled upon these unmarked, black-and-white photographs of a computer screen. It wasn’t until 2020 that I found their plotter drawing counterparts at the artist’s studio, labeled, again, Inclinaisons, dated 1974. Another thread resurfacing in the Molnar textile. While these photos were never exhibited in an art context, they seemed to capture a moment Molnar did not want to forget.

So what was the conversational method? It employed not only a mainframe computer, but two key peripheral devices: the plotter and the CRT display screen, an IBM 2250 vector graphics display. She embraced the screen like few of her contemporaries did. Instead of waiting for the results of her program to be output to paper, she “[made] parameter changes quickly while viewing the images on the CRT screen.”3 This was not just about hardware. It also raises a fundamental question about process. Molnar’s results were emphatically not predetermined; they were always contingent on her subjective decisions.

Molnar’s text subtly points to the ways in which her method differed from others: “Whereas they begin with an initial set of rules (a grammar) specifying the way parameters are to be varied, I try to elaborate the rules as a work develops.” Her words recall debates about ‘tinkering’ that remain relevant to generative art today. Is it right for artist-programmers to mess with their results, their algorithms, or their programs? At what point do we call it ‘cheating’?

Some might say that Molnar cheated with the computer, an accusation I don’t think would upset her terribly. Maybe she did, depending on how you look at it. If you ask me, I’ll say that she was simply insistent on having the last word. Though I’m skeptical of her insistence that the computer was merely a tool for her, it’s true that Molnar never let it subsume her role as an artist.

Vera Molnar, Inclinaisons (1971) / installation view (frames on the right): The Beall Center for Art + Technology, Irvine, California (US) / Anne and Michael Spalter Digital Art Collection / photo: ofstudio
“Molnar’s results were emphatically not predetermined; they were always contingent on her subjective decisions.”
Inclinaisons,
install. view
(mouse over)

References:

(1) Molnar, Vera. “Toward Aesthetic Guidelines for Paintings with the Aid of a Computer.” Leonardo 8, no. 3 (1975): 185–89. The text appeared in English. Molnar submitted the manuscript, written in French, to Malina in May 1974.

(2) Recent scholarship on early computer graphics largely comes from architectural history and media studies. See Matthew Allen, “Representing Computer-Aided Design: Screenshots and the Interactive Computer circa 1960,” Perspectives on Science 24, no. 6 (2016): 637–68; Jacob Gaboury, “The Random-Access Image: Memory and the History of the Computer Screen,” Grey Room, no. 70 (2018): 24–53; and Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan, “An Ecology of Operations: Vigilance, Radar, and the Birth of the Computer Screen,” Representations, 2019, 86.

For earlier historicizations of interactivity, see sociologist Thierry Bardini’s Bootstrapping: Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution, and the Origins of Personal Computing (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000) and interaction and videogame designer Brenda Laurel’s Computers as Theatre, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co., 1993.

(3) Molnar, “Toward Aesthetic Guidelines,” 187.

(4) ibid. The word “grammar” was included on the suggestion of Leonardo editor Frank Malina.

007 – Guestbook: Tina Rivers Ryan (14/07/2022)
Guestbook: Tina Rivers Ryan on Molnar’s corrupted squares and challenging the modernist cult of rationality with its own tools
I’ve always loved squares and cubes, with their symmetry and stability and perfect rationality. The history of early 20th century modern art is filled with them, from Malevich’s Black Squares to Mondrian’s grids of primary colors and Albers’ colour studies. Although every artist might decide to use these shapes for different reasons, ultimately, they became a symbol of the almost scientific pursuit of “progress’ in art—as if art itself could be made as perfectly rational as geometry or industrial mass-manufacturing. But the square and cube are always haunted by their negation—by the threat of entropic dissolution or the specter of the chaos that lies beyond their borders. In the 1960s and 1970s, postminimalist artists made squares that literally seemed on the verge of collapse (signaling a preference for the messiness of reality over the perfection of abstract ideals), such as Richard Serra’s One Ton Prop (House of Cards) or Gordon Matta-Clark’s Splitting. I love these works, but I’m especially drawn to artists like Julio Le Parc and Vera Molnar, who embraced industrial and technological materials and processes to produce their own corrupted squares, essentially challenging the modernist cult of rationality with its own tools. When I look at Molnar’s many ‘transformations’ of the square, I see not only the automation of composition through algorithms, but also a celebration of the everyday beauty of the vitally imperfect, and even a kind of political statement about the values we encode in our technologies.

Dr. Tina Rivers Ryan is an art historian specializing in modern and contemporary art, with a focus on the uses of new media technologies since the 1960s. An Assistant Curator at Buffalo AKG Art Museum since 2017, her recent exhibition “Difference Machines: Technology and Identity in Contemporary Art“ was awarded the 2022 Award of Excellence by the Association of Art Museum Curators. Ryan’s writing has been commissioned by museums including the Walker Art Center, the Dia, and HangarBicocca; and she regularly writes about exhibitions and (more recently) the rise of NFTs for magazines such as ArtforumArt in America, and ArtReview. 

008 – Timeline: 1950–1960 (19/07/2022)
1950–1960: Partners in Crime

“Close friend François Morellet would refer to Vera and husband François Molnar as un peintre à deux têtes, a two-headed painter.”
Vera Molnar in her home/studio, rue de Gergovie, Paris, 1954 (scanned medium format negative; photo by François Molnar, Vera Molnar archives, used with permission of Vera Molnar)
“Without the signatures, it’s nearly impossible to tell the solo and collaborative works apart. The couple painted according to a shared ideology that de-emphasized individual authorship.”
Images:
Molnar archives
(mouse over
for details)

During their first decade in Paris, Vera and her husband François Molnar often made paintings and collages collaboratively. Their close friend François Morellet, who they met in 1957, would refer to them as un peintre à deux têtes, a two-headed painter. In Vera’s words, they had “two optics, each with their own ideas of variations.”1

Their collaborations usually took place at the planning stage of a painting or large-scale collage. The Molnars would pin paper cutouts to the wall of their home/studio, and alternately make modifications until they agreed that the composition was finished. Then, Vera would do the painting and gluing, since of the two of them she was more enthusiastic about the materiality of making pictures—the smell of turpentine, the sound of graphite sliding along a sheet of paper.

Not all of Vera’s 1950s works were made with her husband. In a photo from 1954, she sits at her desk against a tall Parisian window, under a collage titled Douze Rectangles that is now held at the Musée de Grenoble along with many of their co-signed canvases. This one bears only her signature. Without the signatures, it’s nearly impossible to tell the solo and collaborative works apart. Not only did the couple paint according to a shared ideology, very much in current with the postwar Concrete Art movement, but this very ideology emphasized a ‘rational’ methodology that de-emphasized individual authorship.

Hommage à Dürer: Double Autoportrait de Vera et François, 1989, ink on paper, 6,9 x 8,8 cm
Vera & François,
1989 self-portrait
(mouse over)

The Molnars didn’t follow this path for long. After co-founding the Centre de Recherche de l’art Visuel (CRAV), later known as GRAV, in July 1960, the couple left the group only four months later, citing a fundamental disagreement over the definition of ‘research.’2 They made their last co-signed canvas, Effet esthétique de l’inversion des fonctions par la fluctuation de l’attention, in 1960, exhibiting it in Max Bill’s landmark exhibition “Konkrete Kunst” in Zurich that same year. Then, François Molnar ‘quit’ art, turning his attention to scientific research in perceptual psychology and experimental aesthetics. I argue in my dissertation, however, that the Molnars’ collaborations did not really end there. Rather, they took on a different shape. For the next three decades, until François’s death in 1993, the couple remained each other’s primary interlocutors, Vera’s painting influencing François’ research and vice versa.

“Until his death in 1993, the couple remained each other’s primary interlocutors, Vera’s painting influencing François’ research and vice versa.”

References:

(1) Deiss, Amely, and Vincent Baby. “Entretien avec Véra Molnar.” In Véra Molnar: Une Rétrospective, 1942-2012, edited by Sylvain Amic, 15–19. Couleurs contemporaines. Paris: Chauveau, 2012, 18.

(2) François Molnar, “Lettre de démission / Letter of resignation, 30.11.1960,” in GRAV, Groupe de recherche d’art visuel, 1960-1968: stratégies de participation: Horacio Garcia Rossi, Julio Le Parc, François Morellet, Francisco Sobrino, Joël Stein Yvaral: 7 juin-6 septembre 1998, Magasin—Centre d’art contemporain de Grenoble, ed. Yves Aupetitallot (Grenoble: Le Magasin, 1998), 59–61.

This letter suggests that the disagreement was primarily François’ and that Vera left in solidarity, along with the artist Servanes.

009 – In Conversation: Anne Spalter (29/07/2022)
“Vera certainly holds a special place in our collection—we have over 200 of her works—and have lent pieces to top tier museums such as MoMA and LACMA.”

Anne Spalter is a digital mixed-media artist, founder of the digital fine arts courses at Brown University and The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in the 1990s, and author of The Computer in the Visual Arts (1999). Her artistic process explores imagery of the modern landscape. She is currently creating crypto art, with works auctioned by Sotheby’s and Phillips, and featured in the New York Times. She is also co-instigator of the Anne and Michael Spalter Digital Art Collection.

Q: If I remember correctly, you met Vera Molnar when you interviewed her for your book, The Computer in the Visual Arts (1999). Could you tell us about what that was like, and how your relationship with Vera has developed over the years?
A: Sadly, I was not aware of Vera’s work when I was writing my book, but I have since met her several times and am always impressed by her focus and vibrancy. I especially loved seeing her movie-ready Paris studio for the first time in 2006, and how the digital and analog practices were so integrated in the same space. In early 2020 we met again and my daughter Amelia interviewed her.
Q: How has Vera’s work influenced your own artistic practice?
A: Like many women working in the arts, it is a source of great inspiration to see Vera’s long career arc and her repeated triumphs over many obstacles. Although Vera says she did not feel that gender played a role in the reception of her art, I cannot help but believe that her talent would have been recognized sooner if our society consistently saw men and women on more equal terms. Another wonderful artist, Natalie White, once told me, “the reason most artists don’t succeed is that they give up too soon.”

What if Vera had decided thirty years ago that her art wasn’t selling enough or being shown in the right places and had stopped creating? It would have been a tragic loss for all of us. It is a lesson for any artist. I particularly hope that artists who have come to digital art through the NFT world, where everything moves so quickly, take note. Aesthetically my work and Vera’s are usually quite different but I have also been influenced by her commitment to unending quality. I truly can say I’ve never seen a ‘bad’ Vera Molnar.
“What if Vera had decided thirty years ago that her art wasn’t selling enough or being shown in the right places and had stopped creating? It would have been a tragic loss for all of us. It is a lesson for any artist. I particularly hope that artists who have come to digital art through the NFT world, where everything moves so quickly, take note.”
Q: Spalter Digital Art is really one-of-its kind in breadth and expansiveness, and from what you and Michael have told me, Vera has served as a sort of a touchstone for building the collection. How would you characterize Vera’s work and her practice, especially in relation to the other artists you have brought together in this collection?
A: Vera certainly holds a special place in our collection–we have over 200 of her works–and have lent pieces to top tier museums such as MoMA and LACMA. Molnar’s work is the perfect entry point for us to introduce newcomers to generative art because the quality of the work is simply impossible to dismiss. Curators and others are immediately intrigued and we can then explain the process and theory while thankfully skipping over the debate about whether this type of work is ‘art’ or not.
Q: You have collected Vera’s works not only from the 1960-80s, for which she is best known, but also some of her early gouaches from the late 1940s and her more recent works as well, which she executes with the help of assistants and/or publishers like Bernard Chauveau of Galerie 8+4 in Paris. Could you speak to why this historical breadth is important to your collection of digital art?
A: Although the collection is chiefly focused on those early years, we do include relevant works outside that range that have a meaningful connection to the early period. This could be either in terms of process or style or content thematics. Many of the artists who started their digital investigations with generative art have continued to use the same approaches and investigate the same issues that initially brought them into the field, even as the available technologies have dramatically changed. I think this is interesting art historically because they could have embraced raster graphics, say, or begun to use much more complex algorithms. It speaks to the disciplined nature of their practices that they keep the same constraints they were initially faced with.

As an aside, it is a common misunderstanding that artists working with technology gain some extra benefit from using the computer–that it is somehow cheating or making up for a skill gap or some other negative perception. A closer look at their work inevitably disproves this, of course. Artists like Vera Molnár and Manfred Mohr were creating work that looked like their computer work, and that was conceptually related, long before they ever touched a computer.

Collecting pieces from before Vera had access to a computer and through long after she could have brought in a range of new features and tools demonstrates the strength of her specific vision.
$40 USD