Paying Tribute to Lillian Schwartz, a Computer Art Pioneer

Although Schwartz has been producing computer art since the ’60s, she’s only now receiving her first solo exhibition in New York.

Installation view of Lillian Schwartz: Pioneer of Computer Art at Magenta Plains (all images courtesy Magenta Plains)

In 1984, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) commissioned the artist Lillian Schwartz to create a public service announcement to advertise the opening of its newly renovated galleries. Her 30-second video showed the museum rapidly being built before your eyes in technicolor, with architectural elements recreated frame by frame and artworks popping up in and then disappearing from digital galleries in quick succession. It was a whirlwind tour that showcased the museum in a fresh dimension and as an institution striding into an era ripe with possibility.

Installation view of Lillian Schwartz: Pioneer of Computer Art at Magenta Plains, showing a still from the PSA “The Museum of Modern Art” (1984)

The advert exemplified Schwartz’s revolutionary work as one of the earliest artists to use computer software to create visual images; it was even the first computer-generated film to win an Emmy. Although Schwartz, who’s now nearly 90, has been producing computer art since the ’60s — and winning awards for it — she is only now receiving her first solo exhibition in New York. Celebrating her long and visionary career, Lillian Schwartz: Pioneer of Computer Art at Magenta Plains surveys Schwartz’s major creations made between 1968 and 2013, from motion works to prints.

MoMA is actually where Schwartz — a member of Experiments in Art and Technology — was first exposed to computer art, as she says in “The Artist and the Computer,” a short 1976 documentary that provides an overview of her work. The video, on view in the gallery, recalls those you might watch in drivers ed or a high school health class: it’s educational but cheesy, scored by campy music, reminding the contemporary viewer just how new a concept computer art was to the public at the time. In it, a bespectacled Schwartz explains how computer scientist Ken Knowlton‘s work in MoMA’s 1968 exhibition The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age caught her attention. Also included in that show was her own kinetic sculpture “Proxima Centauri” (1968), which in turn fascinated the visual perception expert Leon Harmon. He invited Schwartz to join Bell Labs, and it was there that she really began experimenting with the screen, finding novel editing techniques and creating expressive, animated artworks.

One advantage of showing computer art is that it doesn’t require much display space. The exhibition provides the opportunity to view over a dozen of Schwartz’s videos (including the MoMA PSA), almost all of which loop not on a computer monitor, but as projections on a giant screen in the gallery’s  basement. The smart, magnified display immerses you in her animated worlds, which, despite their careful coding, are wild. Bursting with color and ever-shifting shapes of all kinds, they introduced delightful rhythm and unpredictability to a system that was, in those days, mostly home to the linear and systematic.

Lillian Schwartz, still from “Pixillation” (1970)

Take “Pixillation” (1970), for instance, Schwartz’s earliest work with Bell Labs, for which she combined black-and-white, computer-generated images with free, hand-colored animation. It’s explosive: shapes like blood drops swirl, blossom, and transform into hard-edged, labyrinthine patterns that flicker like lights at a rave. The screen seems to be undergoing a seizure that escalates by the second, an effect heightened by Gershon Kingsley‘s thunderous, industrial, Moog-synthesized sounds that punctuate every movement. Your eyes will struggle to keep up with the frames; it’s an experience both nerve-wracking and thrilling.

Apotheosis” (1972), which draws on images made from radiation treatment of cancer, delivers a similar effect: it begins as a slow march of brain shapes filled with colors that pulse like lava-lamp blobs, then rapidly accelerates, with textured patterns tailing each other so quickly the frames become painful to watch. More entrancing is “Olympiad” (1971), which expands on Muybridge’s motion experiments of running men. It’s magnetic in its simplicity, setting athletes in an endless chase as they run back and forth across the screen and overlap with each other in glorious rainbow hues.

Lillian Schwartz, still from “Olympiad” (1971) 

Schwartz’s editing techniques may seem old hat to some 21st-century viewers, but her videos still consistently compel; many of them get their charge from familiar, organic-looking material manipulated to form highly sensory experiences. What’s particularly remarkable, however, is that Schwartz arrived at some of her innovative techniques because of personal physical limitations. In 1955, she was diagnosed with chorioretinitis, which affects how she perceives color. It led her to devise methods of oversaturating her creations, ultimately enabling many of her films from the ’70s to be seen in both 2D and 3D; they predated the development of pixel-shifting technology, which is required for such conversion. And earlier, after the end of World War II, Schwartz contracted polio while living in Japan and practiced Japanese calligraphy to recover from muscle weakness. The painterly elements evident in many of her works produce an expressiveness so unexpected of computer imagery at the time.

We can better appreciate such artistic strokes through Schwartz’s still images, on view on the gallery’s ground floor. Playful inkjet prints of computer graphics from the 1980s feature her illustrations of cave paintings and dodos, mingled with anachronistic HTML links and buttons. They’re all rendered with smooth daubs of digital color, with pixels mixed and overlaid as a painter would handle pigments. In another series, from 1970, Schwartz experiments with etching, using lasers to embed Duchamp-inspired designs into gold circuit boards. Although frozen, these futuristic, figurative forms recall the running men in “Olympiad” — they’re pregnant with energy, poised to stride out of their frames.

In “The Artist and the Computer,” Schwartz says she must bring to her computer works the same imagination, intuition, and emotion as she would to any art form. Her handling of color and creation of complex optical effects in early videos proved that the computer is not at odds with art, but an instrument capable of showcasing creativity. It’s a concept we’re more than familiar with now, but Schwartz’s worlds were truly pioneering for their time. Playing out on screens for over 50 years now, they speak to how strongly she imbues mechanical systems with spirit.

Installation view of Lillian Schwartz: Pioneer of Computer Art at Magenta Plains
Lillian Schwartz, “Cave Painting” (1983–84)
Lillian Schwartz, still from “Bagatelles” (1977)
Installation view of Lillian Schwartz: Pioneer of Computer Art at Magenta Plains
Installation view of Lillian Schwartz: Pioneer of Computer Art at Magenta Plains
Installation view of Lillian Schwartz: Pioneer of Computer Art at Magenta Plains
Installation view of Lillian Schwartz: Pioneer of Computer Art at Magenta Plains

Lillian Schwartz: Pioneer of Computer Art continues at Magenta Plains (94 Allen Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 30.

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