Vera Molnar, Pioneer of Computer Art, Dies at 99

Vera Molnar, a Hungarian-born artist who has been called the godmother of generative art for her pioneering digital work, which started with the hulking computers of the 1960s and evolved through the current age of NFTs, died on Dec. 7 in Paris. She was 99.

Her death was announced on social media by the Pompidou Center in Paris, which is scheduled to present a major exhibition of her work in February. Ms. Molnar had lived in Paris since 1947.

While her computer-aided paintings and drawings, which drew inspiration from geometric works by Piet Mondrian and Paul Klee, were eventually exhibited in major museums like the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, her work was not always embraced early in her career.

“Vera Molnar is one of the very few artists who had the conviction and perseverance to make computer-based visual art at a time when it was not taken seriously as an art form, with critics denouncing the emergent form since they did not believe that the artist’s hand was evident in the work,” Michael Bouhanna, the global head of digital art at Sotheby’s, wrote in an email.

Ms. Molnar in fact began to employ the principles of computation in her work years before she gained access to an actual computer.

In 1959, she began implementing a concept she called “Machine Imaginaire” — imaginary machine. This analog approach involved using simple algorithms to guide the placement of lines and shapes for works that she produced by hand, on grid paper.

She took her first step into the silicon age in 1968, when she got access to a computer at a university research laboratory in Paris. In the days when computers were generally reserved for scientific or military applications, it took a combination of gumption and ’60s idealism for an artist to attempt to gain access to a machine that was “very complicated and expensive,” she once said, adding, “They were selling calculation time in seconds.”

Still, she later said in an interview with the art curator and historian Hans Ulrich Obrist, “In 1968 we thought that everything was possible, and all you have to do is knock on the doors and the doors open.” Even so, she was met with skepticism from the head of the computer lab.

“He gave me a look,” she said, “and I had the feeling that he was considering whether he should call for a nurse to sedate me or lock me up.”

Making art on Apollo-era computers was anything but intuitive. Ms. Molnar had to learn early computer languages like Basic and Fortran and enter her data with punch cards, and she had to wait several days for the results, which were transferred to paper with a plotter printer.

One early series, “Interruptions,” involved a vast sea of tiny lines on a white background. As ARTNews noted in a recent obituary: “She would set up a series of straight lines, then rotate some, causing her rigorous set of marks to be thrown out of alignment. Then, to inject further chaos, she would randomly erase certain portions, resulting in blank areas amid a sea of lines.” Another series, “(Des)Ordres” (1974), involved seemingly orderly patterns of concentric squares, which she tweaked to make them appear slightly disordered, as if they were vibrating.

Over the years, Ms. Molnar continued to explore the tensions between machine-like perfection and the chaos of life itself, as with her 1976 plotter drawing “1% of Disorder,” another deconstructed pattern of concentric squares. “I love order, but I can’t stand it,” she told Mr. Obrist. “I make mistakes, I stutter, I mix up my words.” And so, she concluded, “chaos, perhaps, came from this.”

Viewers of her work were not always entranced. Ms. Molnar recalled one exhibition at which visitors would, she joked, “look to the side so as not to get some kind of terrible eye affliction from looking at them.” She eventually spoke out, telling a skeptical visitor that computers, like artworks, were made by intelligent humans, and that therefore “the most human art is made by computer, because every last bit of it is a human invention.”

“Oh my, the reactions I got!” she said. “But I survived, you know.”

Vera Gacs was born on Jan. 5, 1924, in Budapest. She found early artistic influence from an uncle who was a “Sunday painter,” as she put it in a 2012 interview.

“I went to his house to admire him; he painted clearings, undergrowth with dancing nymphets,” she said. “The smell of the oil paint, the little green and yellow leaves, enchanted me.” Her uncle gave her a wooden box of pastels, which she used to draw evening sunsets at the family’s country house near Lake Balaton.

Ms. Molnar went on to study art history and aesthetics at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts, where she met her future husband, François Molnar, a scientist who at times collaborated with her on her work.

Mr. Molnar died in 1993. Information about survivors was not immediately available.

After Ms. Molnar graduated in 1947, the couple moved to Paris, where she began her art career and found herself mingling in cafes with prominent abstract artists, like Victor Vasarely, Fernand Léger and Wassily Kandinsky, who also brought a geometric sensibility to their work.

By the early 1960s, she was enough of a recognized figure in the art world to join with François Morellet, Julio Le Parc, Francisco Sobrino and others to form the influential collective Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel, which sought to incorporate science and industrial materials into the making of art.

Her career continued to expand in scope in the 1970s. She began using computers with screens, which allowed her to instantly assess the results of her codes and adjust accordingly. With screens, it was “like a conversation, like a real pictorial process,” she said in a recent interview with the generative art creator and entrepreneur Erick Calderon. “You move the ‘brush’ and you see immediately if it suits you or not.”

Ms. Molnar acquired her first personal computer in 1980, allowing her to “work as I wanted and when I wanted,” she told Mr. Calderon. “It was great to go to bed at night and hear the computer and the plotter working by themselves in the workshop.”

While the art world was slow to fully recognize Ms. Molnar’s work, her reputation has grown in recent years with the explosion of digital art. In 2022, she exhibited at the Venice Biennale, where she was the oldest living artist shown.

Earlier this year, she cemented her legacy in the world of blockchain with “Themes and Variations,” a generative art series of more than 500 works using NFT technology that was created in collaboration with the artist and designer Martin Grasser and sold through Sotheby’s. The series fetched $1.2 million in sales.

“I have no regrets,” she said in a 2017 video interview. “My life is squares, triangles, lines.”

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