The Artist Who Drew With Computers, Before Computers Were a Thing

Vera Molnár, a little-known founding mother of computational art and thinking, will feature in MoMA’s new exhibition on art and technology, "Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age."

Vera Molnár in her atelier. Courtesy Galerie La Ligne, Zürich.

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.

Working at a time before new media was widely embraced, Molnár’s canvases have largely been forgotten—that is, until now. The pioneering contributions from this 90-year-old artist, who is still working today, will be celebrated this November at the Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibition, “Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age,” open today. Examining how art and technology interacted between 1959 and 1989, when personal computers were just arriving on the mass market, the exhibition (which will also highlight artists Waldemar Cordeiro, Lee Friedlander, and Alison Knowles) turns the spotlight on Molnár’s inventive use of machines, and her overall impact on the field.

“Because of her conceptual approach to computing, Molnár’s work is an important part of this exhibition’s thesis: that the computer and its attendant logic were used by artists and designers even when they weren’t working directly with those tools,” explain the exhibition’s curators, Sean Anderson and Giampaolo Bianconi. “What viewers are seeing is the simultaneity of a rigorous process as well as the work itself. Read as transparencies, the process and conceptual meet.”

From 1968, the Hungarian-born Molnár transitioned from thinking like a machine to actually working with them, incorporating a computer and plotter into her process. With these new tools, her images bloomed with complexity. The minimalist logic of her 1957 “Slow Movement” series would evolve into the intricate matrix of “Square Structures” in the ’80s, demonstrating her commitment not just to geometry and sequential thinking, but also to enhancing her practice with technology.

Vera Molnár. A la Recherche de Paul Klee (Searching for Paul Klee) (detail). 1971. Felt tip pen on paper. The Anne and Michael Spalter Digital Art Collection. © 2017 Vera Molnár.
Vera Molnár. A la Recherche de Paul Klee (Searching for Paul Klee) (detail). 1970. Ink on paper, plotter drawing. The Anne and Michael Spalter Digital Art Collection. © 2017 Vera Molnár

Exhibited at MoMA will be two iterations of Molnár’s noted work “A la recherche de Paul Klee”—a digitized reimagining of Klee’s cubist aesthetic, hypnotic in its geometric embroidery—one a plotter drawing from 1970 and the other a felt-tip pen on paper from 1971. However similar on first glance, the computer-aided version bears more detail and nuanced colors than the hand-drawn version, highlighting how the plotter enabled her to reach beyond the limitations of the felt tip and her manual labor.

Whether working with a “machine imaginaire” or a “machine réelle,” Molnár maintained the computer as a formal instrument, constantly probing its purpose and possibilities. She employed a plotter, but never allowed the tech to overwhelm her work—thus preserving in her computer images a vital human aspect. As the distance between machines and humans shrinks, this interrogation and command of technology lend her oeuvre new resonance.

“What makes Molnár’s work so important today is that her ability to experiment was aided and amplified by the tools she used,” say Anderson and Bianconi. “This spirit of experimentation allowed these works to be both systematic and humanistic, and has been influential for artists who have worked with computers since.”

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