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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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 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.
“First, the number of concentric squares in each set is randomly altered, disrupting the optical vibration of the grid.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
(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.