The NFT boom has renewed people’s interest in the earlier phases of the digital art movement, and with that renewed attention, Vera Molnar, 98, is now an object of fascination. Considered to be the first woman artist to incorporate computers in her practice, Molnar is enjoying long awaited recognition for her contributions and will now be presenting her work at the Venice Biennale for the first time .
Curated by Francesca Franco, Molnar will present her new work Icône 2020 at a Collateral Event at the Atelier Muranese.
“I wanted to connect by two passions,” Franco told ARTnews. “The history of computer art and this city, Venice.” Franco, a Venice native, completed a PhD in the history of computer art at the Birkbeck University of London. It was during this time that she became familiar with Molnar’s work. “I began to interview her and study her as one of the pioneers of computer art, and in time we began to collaborate.”
Franco and Molnar previously worked together on the exhibition “Algorithmic Signs” at Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa Venice. This time, Franco and Molnar worked together to create something in Venice that would be deeply rooted in its artisanal history. Franco found a team of glassmakers from the island of Murano. Set just off of the coast of Venice, Murano has been the site of exquisite glass production since the Middle Ages. Their creations were so popular that vases, jewelry and other glass goods were traded around the world. Muranese beads even reached Native Alaskan communities before Christopher Columbus ever arrived on America’s shores.
A team of expert glassmakers worked with Molnar to create her first ever glass work in the furnaces of Atelier Muranese, which also has a gallery space where Molnar’s work will be exhibited.
“She’s 98 so she was really, really excited to work with a new material,” said Franco. “She loves surprises, unexpected materials, so when I asked her if she wanted to work with glass in 2019, her first reaction was like, ‘Oh, yes, let’s do it.’”
Icône 2020 is split into two parts. Hanging from the ceiling is a square of thick glass partially coated in gold leaf from which cubes have been seemingly punched out. The cubes, irregular in shape, lie on the ground beneath the floating aspect of the work.
If Yayoi Kusama is obsessed with dots, Molnar’s abiding love is the square, but the sculpture is a bit of shock, making viscerally real the algorithmically generated two dimensional pieces that have defined her career. In Molnar’s hands, art history bends backwards: from computer to ancient glassmaking technique. This recent work draws from one of Molnar’s earliest computer based pieces, Computer-Icône/2 (1975), a small piece on canvas that takes, in turn, inspiration from Molnar’s computer plotter pieces.
Molnar began to use the computer as an artistic tool in 1968 after she taught herself an early coding language called Fortran. Earlier in her career, she and her husband, an academic researcher in experimental psychology, approached art together as a kind of series of experiments. Then, with access to a computer, Molnar began to play with the myriad permutations of simple geometric designs by programming algorithms that a computer would that plot out with a pencil or pen into paper. This balance of “randomness and redundancy,” as digital history scholar Dr. Aline Guillermet wrote in her paper “Vera Molnar’s Computer Paintings,” became central to Molnar’s exploration of the relationship between painting and computer programming.
Where is the line between artist and machine? Where is “the hand of the artist” when the pen is literally held in the grip of a mechanical arm? This is a question that Molnar probed with her work and Guillermet posits that Molnar’s programming of jerky lines, hesitations and scratches, were in pursuit of this handmade trace, the ‘‘autographic effect.” Perfect lines, in the age of the computer, are suspect. Yet Icône 2020 displays that true human ability, a legacy of craft, of exacting, precise work.
Molnar’s work is increasingly relevant and the art world has noticed. Sotheby’s is currently staging a sale of generative art works, specifically highlighting Molnar’s impact as a pioneer in the form. Her work is now being collected by institutions and collectors and this is her first time being featured at the Venice Biennale.
“She had to fight against a very sexist environment, and on top of that, computer art was also a niche field,” Franco said. “It’s only in the past ten years of so that she started being acknowledged by really big institutions and art museums.”
How does Molnar feel about this newfound success?
“Honestly, I don’t think she actually cares much about fame or awards,” Franco said. “She is a person who everyday wakes up thinking, ‘What if I do this or what what if I do that?’ It’s a constant search: for challenges, new materials, surprises.”