The artist Lillian Schwartz was honored with a CHM Fellow award in 2021 for her pioneering work at the intersection of art and computing. In the first half of the 1970s, she created a remarkable series of films that brought the new technology of computer animation into the artworld. Her work, and those of artists like her, expanded the scope of media art, and spurred fresh developments in technology. Through a decades-long residency at Bell Labs, and collaborations at IBM and the MIT Media Lab, Schwartz continued to explore the possibilities of the computer for artistic exploration. Through teaching and writing, she shared what she had learned with others. Schwartz’s work has been exhibited widely and internationally at a variety of museums and galleries, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Whitney. Several of her films from the 1970s are in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Her entire archive is now held by The Henry Ford.
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1927, Lillian Schwartz was the child of recent immigrants to the United States. Her father had come from Russia and her mother from England. Schwartz’s father worked as a barber, while her mother worked as the caregiver for the couple’s thirteen children.
From the youngest ages, Schwartz followed her creative impulse, turning the materials from her household into artistic media: drawing with sticks in dirt; sculpting with bread dough; and drawing on the walls of the family house. Her creative and expressive pursuits, along with those of her siblings, were especially encouraged by her mother. As a result, Schwartz was further exposed to more traditional artistic media—Conté drawing crayons, oil paints, and more—among her sibling’s possessions.
With her father suffering from heart disease, and in the throes of the Great Depression, Schwartz and her siblings worked from an early age, and moved houses often. She and her family experienced violent anti-Semitism, with her mother often keeping her home from school for fears for her physical safety. While these experiences positioned her as an outsider, her creativity and passion for art were undiminished.
Lillian Schwartz found a way to further her education: the Cadet Nurse Corps, which started in 1943. This federal program addressed the dramatic shortage of nurses by covering almost every cost of nursing school, and explicitly did not discriminate based on race or religion. Cadet nurses were simply required to serve as a nurse for the duration of the war. Schwartz jumped at the chance to pursue her education, joining the Cadet Nurse Corps at the University of Cincinnati. She found nursing difficult, finding herself perhaps too sensitive for it, but reinforcing her identity as an artist. At the University, she also met a young physician who would soon become her husband, Jack.
After the war, Schwartz accompanied her husband to occupied Japan, where he was completing his service. The couple was based in the port city of Fukuoka, which had been firebombed during the war. With severely damaged infrastructure of all kinds, diseases were a serious challenge. Schwartz began suffering severe neck pain and stiffness and was quickly diagnosed with polio. Paralyzed from the waist down and in her right arm, she became a patient in the hospital in which her husband worked.
During her long recovery, Schwartz worked with an expert in the art of Japanese calligraphy. With him, she practiced visualizing each motion and brushstroke needed to create the complex forms. This practice of detailed visualization, Schwartz found, greatly expanded her artistic imagination. Recovered, but still living with post-Polio syndrome, she returned to the U.S. with Jack, soon settling their family in northern New Jersey.
As her husband established his pediatric practice, Schwartz dove deeper into her study and practice of art. She studied both oil and watercolor painting, and then began creating sculptures in acrylic. In her painting and sculpture both, she made creative and unusual use of her materials. In her words, she was always “pushing the medium.”
In the 1960s, New York City figured larger in Lillian Schwartz’s life and art. A short half-hour train ride from her home in New Jersey, Schwartz regularly visited New York’s art museums and galleries, many times bringing her children. On other visits, she collected surplus and abandoned technological materials, transforming them into new artistic media. She created a long series of acrylic sculptures, manipulating the material, shaping it, and adding elements to it. By the mid 1960s, she was creating kinetic sculptures, with colored liquids pumping through glass tubing.
This work brought her into a new development in the New York artworld, a project called E.A.T, Experiments in Art and Technology, led by the painter Robert Rauchenburg and the Bell Labs engineer Billy Kluver. Schwartz attended meetings of the E.A.T. group, which paired engineers with artists to collaborate on new works of art. As part of E.A.T., in the late 1960s she developed a new, complex, multimedia, interactive sculpture, Proxima Centauri. In it, a globe covered by colorful, changing projections responded by retreating into its base when viewers tripped a sensor. The sculpture was included in the exhibit “The Machine as Seen at the End of the Machine Age” at the Museum of Modern Art, along with several other E.A.T. works. The exhibit ran from November 27, 1968 to February 9, 1969.
Lillian Schwartz’s invitation to Bell Labs grew into a decades-long residency. She was quickly enthralled by the computer, and was assisted by several computer professionals to explore how she might use it to create art. Her first work with the computer was a print titled “Head,” formed much like “Studies in Perception.” However, Schwartz characteristically decided to push this new medium, transforming the image through subsequent silk-screen printing.
Her focus soon shifted to the very new technology of computer animation, interacting with computer researcher Ken Knowlton. Knowlton had developed a programming language, BEFLIX, used at Bell Labs to generate computer animations. Schwartz took short animations generated at her direction, manipulated them in various ways, and combined them with other imagery and techniques to create a series of short films, moving computer animations into the artworld. Her earliest efforts led to official AT&T sponsorship, and her films from the first half of the 1970s incorporating computer animations garnered both acclaim and wide showings.
In this same period, Schwartz engaged with another emergent electronic medium, video, to produce video art. She drew on the resources of the TV Lab at the television station WNET/Thirteen in New York City, where Nam June Paik and others had developed pioneering video art and video art tools.
Through the support of electronic music pioneer Max Mathews, a high-ranking researcher at Bell Labs, Schwartz received official status at Bell Labs, continuing her use of computers for artmaking and her interactions with scientists and engineers for several decades.
She pursued other important collaborations as well, with IBM and particularly with the MIT Media Lab in the use of Symbolics artificial intelligence computers for artmaking. In these collaborations, and on her own primarily using Apple Macintosh computers, Schwartz continued to push the boundaries of the computer as an artists’ tool, and to educate others in its use. In continuation of her work both with computers and with video, she won an Emmy award for a public-service advertisement for the Museum of Modern Art, promoting their 1984 reopening.
While vision challenges prevent her direct use of the computer today, Schwartz continues to make art, creating a series of drawings that she intends to animate using the computer.
Her body of work—both her computer films and video art—were important steps in the emergence of time-based media art in the artworld, opening fresh avenues in both the history of computing and the history of art.