F or nearly a century, innovative artists have pushed the boundaries of their mediums by applying predetermined systems to produce radical new work, eventually birthing Generative Art, a genre often misconstrued today as a recent development. The Hungarian-born pioneer Vera Molnár began using computers in 1968 to generate some of the most conceptually and formally intriguing images in the 20th century. Not only is she a direct forbear to many of the digital artists working today, at the age of 99, she’s still innovating.
Now, on 26 July, Sotheby’s is auctioning 500 unique works from Molnár’s new series, “Themes and Variations” (2023), a body of work produced in collaboration with Martin Grasser that reflects the artist’s mastery over digital forms and explores the aesthetic potential of algorithmically generated work.
Molnár’s Life and Work
After arriving in Paris in 1947 during her early thirties, Molnár fell among various artistic circles, where she met canonical artists like Constantin Brâncuși, Wassily Kandinsky, László Moholy-Nagy and Victor Vasarely – a group of émigrés and refugees from fascism and Soviet expansionism who found in modernist abstraction the potential for emancipatory, experimental expression. In 1959, she began using simple algorithms in what she called a machine imaginaire to predetermine the placement of gridded lines and colors in her art, an essential precursor to what would come next.
The Life and Legacy of Vera Molnár
“Even today, my greatest pleasure in life is to slide the tip of a pencil over the paper, look at the mark, erase it and start again.”
By the 1960s, she had cofounded the collaborative organization Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV), whose membership included François Morellet and Julio Le Parc and who met to discuss the aesthetics of collaboration and spectatorship. Although Molnár soon left GRAV over disagreements over computers and the group dissolved before the end of the decade, its interest in Kinetic Art and Op Art held certain formal alignments with the computer-generated work that she was on the verge of creating.
In the 1960s, a series of breakthroughs made computers more widely available – and culturally central. “When the computer arrived, it put me completely on the fringe of the whole society,” Molnár told the art historian Vincent Baby about her work. “Everyone was scandalized, basically, no one looked at what I was doing; it seemed so terrible.” Other artists, she recalls, accused her of “dehumanizing” art. Still, in 1968, she knocked on the door of the Paris University computer center and asked if she could use their machine to make art. The head of the department, as Molnár told Hans Ulrich Obrist (PDF), “gave me a look and I had the feeling that he was considering whether he should call for a nurse to sedate me.” Yet she was granted access, and alongside scientists and researchers was allowed to rent a computer by the minute.
At the time, programming was done on physical punch cards; in fact, the word “computer” derives from the name of the occupation of people – mostly women – who compiled these paper calculations. Using the early programming language FORTRAN, Molnár generated straight lines that rotated in various degrees to mesmerizing effect. The stimulating series, called “Interruptions,” is not only original in conceit, but it places her in dialogue with the women who were at the forefront of computer development in the mid-century.
Later, Molnár told Obrist, with the development of screens, her art-making process “became a dialogue” with the machine. The display gave the artist the ability to see her imaginary calculations.
In a way, these early computer works are reminiscent of those by another well-known conceptual artist: Sol LeWitt, who also achieved modular arrangements through a collaborative-yet-defined process. Yet unlike LeWitt, who elevated the concept above the actual implementation of his directions, Molnár’s unique works achieve a level of intimacy and immediacy on paper. The artist affirmed her infatuation with including herself directly in the process, telling Baby: “Even today, my greatest pleasure in life is to slide the tip of a pencil over the paper, look at the mark, erase it and start again.”
Themes and Variations
The artist’s interest in the dichotomy between her own hand and automated production continues in “Themes and Variations,” which begins as a series of pencil-drawn variations of the letters N, F and T set within uniform squares – a clever reference to serial NFTs. Molnár’s deft arrangements manifest in a multitude of ways: an inflated, bold N that takes up the entire composition; a large T made up of smaller letters; a group of Fs in variable sizes and thicknesses scattered across the plane. She then turned the initial rough drawings into refined black-and-white graphics that recast their letter origins into abstract motifs.
Working with Martin Grasser, a contemporary artist and coder, Molnár then ran these images through an algorithm that defines their position, size, weight and distribution, as well as selects their colors. One rule establishes that the background color of the first generated image becomes the foreground of the second image, which is then paired with a complementary color – and so on. The result is a serialized arrangement of beautiful color pairings throughout the 500 works. Finally, gridded combinations of letters are generated with highly different arrangements to further disrupt the original letter compositions.
“There is nothing more human than a computer because it was invented by men.”
The works are rife with semiotic play: Astounding effects oscillate between preserving and completely burying the original meaning of the letters, ultimately questioning the value of what they signify. Does a rogue letter in the final composition still connote “NFT” – or has it become something else?
The Legacy of a Pioneer
Over eight decades of art-making, Molnár has explored the aesthetic possibilities of collaboration between humans and machines, establishing her – alongside figures like Manfred Mohr, whom she befriended in Vincennes in 1970 – as one of the most important forebears to the upcoming generation of digital artists. As Michael Bouhanna, Sotheby’s Head of Digital Art and NFTs, says: “Vera Molnár is one of the undisputed legends of generative art, whose decades of experimentation with the form has paved the way for what we know of today as algorithm-based digital art.”
Her present collaboration with Grasser speaks to the enormity of her influence. “To me, and to many artists working with algorithms and letterforms, Vera Molnár has been an unfailing influence and source of inspiration,” says Grasser. “To collaborate with her to bring this project to life has been a true privilege.”
It also marks Sotheby’s foray into Dutch auctions, a popular bidding format in digital art that sees works offered at a set price (in this case, 20 ETH) and reduce by a set amount (0.75 ETH) until it’s sold. In another twist that will be familiar to digital collectors, the 500 works that comprise “Themes and Variations” won’t actually exist until they’re purchased. Although the artist has generated test mints to preview the series, each unique edition will only be minted at the moment that it’s sold.
Though overlooked for years, Vera Molnár’s legacy is rightfully being rectified, perhaps most significantly when she took pride of place at “The Milk of Dreams”: the critically lauded 2022 edition of the Venice Biennale, curated by Cecilia Alemani, devoted an entire gallery to Molnár’s early computer works. Today, “Themes and Variations” only underscores just how profoundly her practice has defined the genre of Generative Art – and how she continues to insist on mining the avenues that technology opens for exploring our humanity.
“I think that there is nothing more human than a computer because it was invented by men,” Molnár told Obrist. “Thus, the most human art is made by computer, because every last bit of it is a human invention.”