I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Lillian Schwartz: Painting Wild Lines Between Man and Machine

by Kristen Bialik
June 11, 2011

Watching a Lillian Schwartz film feels like you’ve fallen into a puddle of color and landed somewhere between a computer hard drive and the everyday world on the surface. In some ways, that’s what it is: a vivid barrier crosser, a colorful combination of life, and art, and machine. It’s hypnotizing, nauseating, bewildering, and entrancing. And when the movie ends and you pick yourself up out of the pool of swirling hues and fragmented geometric shapes, the electronic music still drumming in your ears, you feel like somehow crossed a barrier with Schwartz.

Lillian Schwartz is an artist, filmmaker, computer programmer, art historian and theorist. Her work was the first computer-generated art to be acquired by the Museum of Modern Art -- which, actually, is where it all began. It was through the MOMA that she first learned of Ken Knowlton, a computer graphics pioneer who was developing programming languages1 for movie and art production. Both artists were featured in the museum’s industry-changing1968 exhibition, Machines. Schwartz had created a kinetic sculpture, called Proxima Centauri, that would alter its appearance as the viewer got nearer. With the help of Knowlton, Schwartz taught herself programming and went to work for AT&T Bell Labs. With leading engineers, physicists, scientists, and psychologists at her fingertips, Schwartz pioneered techniques for using computers in film, art, and animation.

Schwartz had an entirely new medium before her. She was shaping its expectations, possibilities, its perceived legitimacies and illegitimacies. For such a huge undertaking, what’s amazing isn’t just that she did it but just how much she did with the medium. As Schwartz experimented with computer-generated art creation and worked to establish the work as a valuable artistic endeavor, she also used the computer to conduct scientific research in areas of aesthetics, color perception, and sound. She helped spur the use of computer image processing in the philosophy and analysis of art. As she was creating colorful, kaleidoscopic movies set to the frenzied pace of electronic music and tribal drums, she was also using computers to map out previously hidden and unknown details of Leonardo da Vinci’s work. Schwartz realized that instead of merely programming lines and shapes into a computer, that same device could be used to tear those images apart, dissect them, analyze them, and in a new way, understand them.

One of her most recognized works, Mona Leo, is a copy of the Mona Lisa overlaid with a cross section of Leonardo da Vinci’s self-portrait. Despite the collage-quality, the features match up in an astonishing way. To show that the juxtaposition was not mere computer hocus pocus and trickery, she used the machine to measure details previously lost on generations of art admirers and historians. Everything from the contours of the forehead, the angles of the eyes, the tilt of the head, the breadth of the nose, all these were suddenly available in unprecedented detail. Schwartz used these newly-illuminated dimensions to theorize that there was no lost woman behind the Mona Lisa, that it was Leonardo himself with the coy, enigmatic smile.

Some say Lillian Schwartz cracked the mystery of the puzzling beauty’s identity. But of course, it wasn’t only beauty Schwartz was after. She used the computer to analyze the angles of ugliness, and in the process created the awesomely niche “library of grotesques.” Using a computer, Schwartz broke down the dimensions of each of Leonardo’s grotesque heads and used the data to examine what proportions da Vinci played with and what proportions we have an aversion to. Then by isolating these features and creating a bank of the grotesque, Schwartz made her own Mr. Potato Head of monstrosity, with endless options for toying and swapping fugly features.

All her work is startling, but perhaps this is the central most startling aspect of all – that a new medium, one that seems so futuristic and divorced from century-old processes, could be as forward-looking as it could look behind. Of course, we know this now that computers can be whatever we ask them to be. But Schwartz’s diverse body of work shows that range of possibility exists within a single discipline and a single artist.

Schwartz wasn’t the only artist to have discovered the utility and creative freedom of computers at the time. Around the world, artists like Vera Molnar from Hungary and Manfred Mohr in Paris were experimenting with computers as an artistic tool. Much of the work of these and other contemporaries focused on using the computer to fracture or mutate common geometric shapes. As Molnar said of the device, "Proceeding by small steps, the painter is in a position to delicately pinpoint the image of dreams. Without the aid of a computer, it would not possible to materialize quite so faithfully an image that previously existed only in the artist's mind. This may sound paradoxical, but the machine, which is thought to be cold and inhuman, can help to realize what is most subjective, unattainable, and profound in a human being."

Schwartz attains a bit of that unattainable, that subjective and elusive aesthetic dream. It’s in the frantic dots, the rhythmic and arrhythmic dissonant drums, and the pixelated geometry of her “U.F.O.’s.” It’s in the spattering, almost cosmic or biological swirls in “Pixillation.” And it’s in the musical trills, the slipping, sliding, kaleidoscopic mosaic of “Pappillons.” Yet that same realization of what is “most subjective, unattainable, and profound” can be found in Schwartz’s creation of theories. In “Mona Leo” and the her “library of grotesques,” Schwartz gets a little closer to understanding what is beautiful, what is ugly, and what is hidden.

Moving from her earlier films to her later films, you can see Schwartz begins to incorporate more live action in later years. What began as a process that stayed within the realm of the shapes and bent rules in the computer moves out to include footage of birds, pixelated and recolored, and eventually, live human action in the form of ghostly dancers and jugglers. Human life is tinted, pixilated, slowed, and accelerated. It’s then, looking at her whole body of work, that the feat of Schwartz’s barrier crossing sinks in. She bridged the gaps between art and computer, crossed the lines of past, present, and future, and in her own way, bridged the gap between man, art, and machine. Only an artist/programmer/filmmaker/academic/theorist could have made art so prophetic.


Lillian Schwartz home page

“A Critical History of Computer Graphics and Animation,” Ohio State University course tools on computer artists

An interview with Lillian Schwartz at 474746.org

Lillian Schwartz at Atariarchives.org

Lillian Schwartz at the Digital Art Museum

1 In fact, Knowlton wrote the programming language BEFLIX (Bell Flicks), which was used by him and Schwartz to create her movie Pixillation.

Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.