For her pioneering work at the intersection of art and computing
What would the famous artist-engineer Leonardo da Vinci have done with a computer? Lillian Schwartz tried to find out. Schwartz is an early and important artist exploring the use of computers in creating new forms of art and film. She studied traditional painting and Chinese brushwork techniques with well-known artists but began to explore beyond these traditional media. Schwartz built novel creations out of found objects and new materials like acrylic. Her 1968 sculpture Proxima Centauri mixed interactive sensors, kinetic movement, and complex projections. It was shown at MoMA’s The Machine As Seen At The End Of The Mechanical Age exhibition in 1968 and the Brooklyn Museum’s Some More Beginnings: Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T), leading to her invitation to the Bell Telephone Laboratories that same year.
Schwartz developed Proxima Centauri while associated with E.A.T.— Experiments in Art and Technology—a collective of artists and engineers that worked together to explore the separation and alienation of the individual by technological change while promoting the role of the artist in society as a source of insight and wisdom. E.A.T was led by painter Robert Rauschenberg and Bell Labs engineer Billy Klüver. Another Bell Labs engineer associated with E.A.T, Per Biorn, supported Schwartz on some of the technical aspects of Proxima Centauri.
Schwartz’s invitation to the Laboratories by engineer-artist Leon Harmon was a unique opportunity: In the late 1960s, it was a world center of computer research—including graphics and music—that boasted some of the best researchers in the world. With support from computer researchers there, Schwartz created 2-D computer-generated images, which she subsequently transformed through silk-screening techniques.
Experimentation was a central tenet of Schwartz’s work. Working closely with scientists and engineers at Bell Labs in a process of mutual support, she soon incorporated imagery from the Labs—from very early computer animations to crystal formation and to laser projections—into a series of remarkable experimental films created through the mid 1970s. It was a difficult process to generate art on the computers and peripherals of the day, involving days and sometimes weeks of careful background preparation before the final output could be generated. Schwartz became an official member of the Labs’ center led by Max Matthews, a pioneer of computer music. She collaborated with him and other composers associated with the center.
Schwartz’s experimental films of the early 1970s, some commissioned by AT&T itself, and incorporating computer-generated sequences, quickly won worldwide attention and invitations to exhibitions. For the computer-generated sequences, which Schwartz reworked for color and other effects, she was supported by Bell Labs computer graphics researcher, Ken Knowlton. These films remain important milestones, attracting recent historical scholarship and exhibition.
Schwartz’s artistic practice took her into video—incorporating analog and digital effects—and to using graphical workstations for animation, special effects, digital shorts, art analysis, and virtual reality.
Her work has been exhibited at and is owned by the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Moderna Museet (Stockholm), Centre Beauborg (Paris), Stedlijk Museum of Art (Amsterdam), and the Grand Palais Museum (Paris). In 1984, she won an Emmy Award for a computer-generated TV spot that she created for the newly renovated Museum of Modern Art in New York. Among many honors, in 2018, she was inducted into the ACM SIGGRAPH Academy. Today, at the age of 93, she continues to create art.