Vera Molnár: the computer art goddess

“I have no regrets. My life is squares, triangles, lines” — Vera Molnár

Born in Hungary in 1924, Vera Molnár is one of the first women artists to use computers in her practice. — considered to be a pioneer of computer art.

Long before she had access to a computer, Vera Molnár was already thinking like one. To create her geometric images in the 1950s, she invented a systematic procedure: a series of exploratory steps and rules that aped a computer’s inputs and outputs, and dictated the final, hand-drawn form of her work. Dubbed “machine imaginaire,” her process was as much a tool as it was a concept with which to reprogram traditional visual practices. It was a radical adoption of technology — however much imagined — that would blaze a trail for computational art and design in the decades to come.

She embraced both the computer’s high calculation speeds and accuracy, playing with algorithms to create a high number of variables. Yet Molnar also claimed the importance of hazard and chance, programming her own “interferences” that would offset otherwise predictable outcomes.

Molnar believes one power of the computer is that the random can create an aesthetic shock that ruptures the systematic and symmetrical. The rigor and meticulousness which she applies to her logics, is the human bias that computation and randomness cannot create alone. The work is so powerful because the “randomness” exists within Molnar’s bias.

Interview:

Working with a series of pictures is like a visual dialogue between the painter and what has been painted. …my works are always created from the simplest of geometrical forms. This choice has its actual cause in my personal taste: I like the formal rigidity and the parsimony of geometry, I like the rational purity of mathematics. ′Nature can afford to be extravagant with everything, the artist must be totally efficient′, said Paul Klee; and I would agree. — Vera Molnar

I think I just had the mindset. Because of my idea at Lake Balaton to always pick the next colour in line, that’s already a program. I must have a predisposition for… I don’t know what, I really couldn’t say. An imaginary machine that’s an excellent concept for me because it combines machine and imaginary. Because my goal is not at all to use a computer, I don’t care about computers, but the computer is like a slave in making my dreams a reality. My imagination, if you will.

The real, actual computer was in 1968. That I remember really well. In 1968 we thought that everything was possible and all you have to do is knock on the doors and the doors open. So, armed with this certainty, I went and knocked at the door of the Paris University computing centre, which was in Orsay, and I explained to the head of the centre that I wanted to try to make art with a computer. He gave me a look and I had the feeling that he was considering whether he should call for a nurse to sedate me or lock me up or something.

…Yes, definitely breaking new ground, because everyone jumped at me, saying, ‘you’re completely crazy, you’re dehumanising art: what is this — bringing art closer to machines…’.

I put things on the wall to see them and when people came they would look to the side so as not to get some kind of terrible eye affliction from looking at them. And on the other hand, it made me stronger. I remember the day when I firstsaid to someone, just like that — ‘I think that there is nothing more human than a computer because itnwas invented by men. It wasn’t the good Lord who plopped it down in front of us, it was made by an intelligent man. Thus, the most human art is made by computer, because every last bit of it is a human invention’. Oh my, the reactions I got! But I survived, you know.

And with these little randomisation margins,leaving choice up to chance, you always end up with something different and it’s still always the same thing and never the same thing.

Listen, if you replace the word ‘random’ with ‘intuition’, there you have it. With intuition, suddenly you say — now what if I used a curve instead of a straight line and what sort of a curve? And then you try it — that’s intuition. Randomness does the same thing.

What advice I would give to a young artist today? Work, working. Listen, today, at my age, the only thing that really brings me pleasure and fills my life with joy is working. I do it all the time. There are little bits of paper with drawings on them in my kitchen and on the table where I drink my morning tea, I have paper and pencils…

— Vera Molnar in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist

There is this romantic idea which is called “intuition”. An artist has talent, a genius, sits down, has a drink and creates. And intuition does what it does. Sometimes it creates something good, sometimes not. Now when we work with computers, there is a thing that can replace intuition, the randomness. Because the machine will show you billions of possibilities, of which, with your limited imagination, couldn’t have thought of. So it enriches the senses.

So randomness has a lot of importance, but not in the way of Dada. It’s not to say “anything can be art”. On the contrary, it helps me to better find what I like. Because when you work intuition, you do ten, twelve, fourteen tests… At the twentyish, you’re tired and stop. With computers, you can first open the entire spectrum, and say, this is the part that interests me. And not the rest. So you place the focus and develop all possibility within. After you will find, the interesting part is rather over here, so you get closer.

It’s a paradox. That using computers dehumanises art. The opposite is true. Because it’s thanks to all this technology, we can get very close to what we have imagined. That otherwise we might not have found.

— Vera Molnar talks about randomness and intuition and how computer help artist

I like the Mont Sainte Victoire (by Cézanne) so much. There is a bookshop where I bought Studio International, I found a book of Hokusai, with plates of Mount Fuji. I was fifteen and liked it enormously. I decided that when I grew up, I wanted to make pictures of Mount Fuji. So at the academy, with the arrival of the Cezanne reproductions, I made a sort of amoalgamation between Mount Fuji and Mont Sainte Victoire with my future husband. We decided we would move to France, on the slopes of Sainte Victoire, and grow onions to live becuase we certainly wouldn’t be able to survive with our painting — I was right. In the daytime, we could cultivate onions and at night painting…

Then I forgot Mont Sainte Victoire. You think of one thing, then it disappears, but it doesn’t really disappear, it re-appears. I was in the US, my husband was working at MIT, I went to the library and came across a book on geometry with Gaussian curves. It interested me because I was a little tired of squares, circles, triangles…I like Gaussian curves. I tried making some, injecting a little discorder in the ascent tand descent. I was very please, thought I was really brilliant, I made a whole pile of drawings. This has nothing to do with Mont Sainte Victoire yet, but wait, it will re-appear. On the last day in the mmodel our suitcase was stolen, it had all our work of two or three months, nothing valuable, not a cent, a nore, nothing except our work. I said, shit, I never want to hear about Gaussian curves again. I went back to circles and squares and thought no more about it. The thought shifted down to the bottom of my brain.

One day, I had an exhibition in Aix-en-Provence, the first morning, I open my window and the Gaussian cuve was in front of me: it was Mont Sainte Victoire. I said to myself, I’d better quickly start working on this again.

What interests me in life, even today, is surprise. Wuth computer, you try out crazy ideas, so you have to prepare yourself to be surprised, which one wouldn’t have done working by hand or otherwise. And on the other hands, mistakes are also good surprises. Something comes that you had’t wished for at all. Ultimately the intuition of an artist is the ‘random walk’ of the computer.

I’m absolutely not a concrete artist, inventing systems and then following them, no way. I adore taking little side routes, I adore allowing myself to be disturbed. I don’t like obedience.

— Vera Molnar interview in Paris July 2017

“I do what I like, and I don’t do what I don’t like. If I want to paint pink, I’ll paint in pink. If I want to go back to black, I’ll do that. […] My real audience was François, [her husband]. I was always nervous when I showed him my work and asked him “This is my new work, do you like it?”, and he would always reply that it was better the week before. But it was like a game between us. […]” — Vera Molnar 1996

I was 30, I was young and poor, I sometimes came to Galeries Lafayette, not to buy things, I did not have money for that, but to watch, to admire. I came one day and felt in love with a pencil dress, I tried it, it was perfect. I event thought to steal it for one second. But I bought it with my money, I had to confess to my husband because it was the money for food, I came back home and thought he will put me out, I will sleep in the street for the next night. I asked him to look, he told me that it was nice. I told him the story, he answered me “You made it well, it is the first step out of misery”. He was a fantastic man. — Vera Molnar interviewed at Galeries Lafayette

Others researches about Vera Molnar:

Without the aid of a computer, it would not be possible to materialize quite so faithfully an image that previously existed only in the artist’s mind. This may sound paradoxical, but the machine, which is thought to be cold and inhuman, can help to realize what is most subjective, unattainable, and profound in a human being. — “Digital Art: Painting with Pixels”

Vera Molnar holds that the computer can serve four purposes. The first concerns its technical promise — -it widens the area of the possible with its infinite array of forms and colors, and particularly with the development of virtual space. Secondly, the computer can satisfy the desire for artistic innovations and thus lighten the burden of traditional cultural forms. It can make the accidental or random subversive in order to create an aesthetic shock and to rupture the systematic and the symmetrical. For this purpose a virtual data bank can be assembled. Thirdly, the computer can encourage the mind to work in new ways. Molnar believes that artists often pass far too quickly from the idea to the realization of the work. The computer can create images that can be stored for longer, not only in the data bank but also in the artist’s imagination. Finally, Molnar thinks that the computer can help the artist by measuring the physiological reactions of the audience, their eye movements for example, thus bringing the creative process into closer accordance with its products and their effects.” — Frank Popper

Related artists:

Inspiration: Paul Klee (cubist), Piet Mondrian, Paul Cézanne (Mont Sainte-Victoire), Dürer (Magic Square).

Husband: Francois Molnar

3D randomness: François Morellet

Mathematician and computer artist : Frieder Nake

Talk: Do calculating machines like drawing? And if so, why?

“Doing sth by computer that computer is not made for in this world”

“Think visually, acting symbolically”

“Digital: discrete, counting, analogue: continuous, drawing”

“If the computer could draw, it would do it with utmost precision”

“As always in the world of computing: quantity replaces quality! Computability replaces intuition, top performance is replaced by good standards”

“When calculating: symbol, numbers; when drawing: points, lines”

“Computer does not really want to draw, they’d rather stick to calculating. Therefore, they do it like us-drawing with eyes wide shutting”

“Computer is automaton tool medium”

“Semiotic animal | semiotic engine”

Recreating the past

My recreate of Vera Molnar’s work in Openframework as homework for “recreating the past ” course taught by Zach Lieberman

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Opheliaming

Opheliaming

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Data Scientist @ tech company, Oxford Math + NYU Tisch Art.