Thesis ID: CBB411460064

Vera Molnar's Programmed Abstraction: Computer Graphics and Geometric Abstract Art in Postwar Europe (2023)

unapi

Widely recognized today as a pioneer of generative art, Vera Molnar (b. 1924) was born and educated in Hungary, migrated to Paris in 1947 to become an abstract painter, and in 1968 became one of the first artists to experiment with electronic computers. The first monograph to center on Molnar’s computer graphics, this dissertation traces the computational thinking behind her work from the late 1950s, before she had access to an electronic computer, to her 1970s experiments with mainframe computing, and into the late 1980s when she used a personal computer in the domestic sphere of her home. Through a combination of archival research, close object study, and media archaeological strategies, this dissertation traces the material history of computer graphics in postwar Europe (which has been overlooked in histories of art and technology alike) and how its concerns intersected with serial, geometric abstract art practices, namely the tradition of l’art concrete (Concrete art). In other words, it situates early computational art within a longer history of abstraction. Foregrounding Molnar’s process, the dissertation emphasizes the nonlinear nature of early computational art. Exploring themes of recursivity and iteration, it draws conceptual parallels between Molnar’s “computer-aided” painting practice, as she called it, and the computational processes that she engaged with. Drawing on five years of conversations with the artist, the dissertation is also rooted in what I call critical oral history, which acknowledges that the artist’s words are one of the richest sources of historical documentation––especially in these cases where their work has been systemically marginalized or overlooked––while also considering factors like self-mythologizing, aging, memory, and trauma, as well as the relationship between artist and historian and the positionality of the author. The introduction raises themes that are woven throughout the dissertation: questions of migration and identity, the fraught role of biography in feminist art histories, and the myth of 'neutrality' in postwar geometric abstraction. Chapter one provides a media-archaeological ‘re-enactment’ of Molnar’s series Lettres de ma mère (1981-1991), itself a computational re-enactment of the Molnar’s late mother’s handwriting. Chapter two offers a deep dive into the history of technology, focusing on the advent of the CRT graphics display, an early computer screen, in Molnar’s practice in the early 1970s, and the role it played in her aesthetic experiments. I argue that her “conversational” method, which entailed early interactive computing, allowed her computational experiments to be not only about generating images, but also about examining the processes of image-making. Chapter three further investigates Molnar’s inquiries into artistic subjectivity, focusing on the role of ‘intuition’ and the deeply gendered binaries underpinning postwar French painting, namely the rift between ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ abstraction. Ultimately, I suggest that at a moment when the computer was beginning to raise anxieties about artificial intelligence and the obsolescence of humans, Molnar used it to investigate precisely what aspects of creativity could not be automated.

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Authors & Contributors
Heeffer, Albrecht
Hintz, Eric S.
Kane, Carolyn
Maher, Jimmy
Moyon, Marc
Nothaft, C. Philipp E.
Journals
Leonardo
Archaeometry
Configurations: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Technology
Foundations of Science
IEEE Annals of the History of Computing
Isis: International Review Devoted to the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences
Publishers
Cambridge University Press
New York University
Alfred A. Knopf
Amsterdam University Press
MIT Press
The MIT Press
Concepts
Computer graphics
Geometry
Technology and art
Mathematics
Computers and computing
Translations
People
Euclid
Fichte, Johann Gottlieb
Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von
Mandelbrot, Benoît B.
Kare, Susan
Time Periods
20th century, late
Medieval
21st century
Early modern
13th century
14th century
Places
Europe
United States
Mediterranean region
Italy
North America
Strasbourg (France)
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