Advancements in computer technology and programmes from the 1970s onwards allowed digital art to blossom from the prior world of black-and-white, stoic engineering. One of the pioneers of this form is American artist Lillian Schwartz, now in her 80s, who still works, teaches, and innovates today. Schwartz developed her techniques at Bell Laboratories, a research centre in New Jersey set up by the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell.
Schwartz worked with scientists, psychologists, and engineers to develop computer-aided art. As well as working in animation, effects, 3D, colour-saturation and frame-editing, she also used computer technology to analyse historical paintings.
For instance, by aligning one half of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa with one half of his self-portrait at the nose tips and running Gerard Holzmann’s programme, Pico, Schwartz believes that Da Vinci must have used himself as the final model since the original one, Isabella, Duchess of Aragon was no longer available (apparently he could never complete a portrait without a model). Schwartz carried out extensive research into this theory, involving other tests with programmes, searching through his notebooks and clues Da Vinci left in paintings, which led her to conclude that her initial theory was correct.
Humans Invent caught up with Schwartz to find out more about her extraordinary career.
I’d been an artist experimenting in all media available to me. I had Designed “Proxima Centauri,” a kinetic sculpture – a large, shiny black box that when approached caused a white globe to rise out of the structure onto which were projected specially-designed abstract paintings on 35 mm glass slides intended to reshape three-dimensionally. These were then subjected to distortions by a moving ripple tank. “Proxima Centauri” was one of nine pieces selected internationally for a major show at the Museum of Modern Art, “The machine at the beginning of the mechanical age.” In the same show there was a nude, a photograph taken by Leon Harmon. Leon studied the issue of the least number of elements needed to recognize an image. Ken Knowlton provided a programme that could output an image using symbols to replace the black and white levels of the photograph.
Leon was intrigued by my sculpture. He invited me to Bell Labs where I studied programming for six months with his associate, John Vallaro. I also took a course in computer math at The New School in New York City. It was 1968. I was 41. At that time it was set up for the Bell companies that ran systems in different regions along with doing a tremendous amount of work in things like missile trajectories and laser emissions for DARPA. Everything was very linear in terms of computer hardware and software since there were defined purposes with targets. But then I found that some of the scientists were beyond brilliance and they loved to talk about shifts that I needed to help me change static black-and-white systems into technologies capable of brilliant colour plus absolute control. But it took time and a lot of pushing.
At the time I was there I was the only in-house artist. I stayed for 33 years, until 2001. At the beginning I was hidden or given titles like “morpho dynamiscist” that sounded scientific. Max Matthews was the father of computer music programmes and he was very happy to have an artist who could make images that he could put music to. He also brought in excellent composers including Jean-Claude Risset, who did a composition called Mutations using one of Max’s programs, Music V. It provoked me to do the movie Mutations, made up of laser imagery, microphotography, Game of Life, all intermixed with images I created using the computer. By then I was pretty advanced in terms of programmes. But on my arrival, after tutoring by John Vallaro plus the college courses, I tried to see if I could push Knowlton’s programme, Beflix, but it was too limited for my vision. I worked with Knowlton on the programme, EXPLOR, that was oriented toward art and animation.
I kept investigating ways to change how the technology was conjoined so that I could control every pixel. I also kept experimenting, learning from Land’s work at Polaroid, fractals, artificial intelligence which I used with the Symbolics machine, even doing work to establish questions left unanswered before, such as the perspective for the last supper by Da Vinci. Leon Harmon spent months with me on visual perception. Béla Julesz, an outstanding psychologist in depth and 3D perception, whose film, Cyclopean Perceptions, I edited, was another influence. I had had an eye infection that took away depth perception. I was trying desperately in my work to create depth and Leon and Béla both taught me the science of vision so I was able to use programmes to create not just depth, but also 3D.
What inspired you?
Some of my artist friends wouldn’t accept the computer, they thought you sat and pushed a button and stuff spills out. In order to explain to them the connection to the art world, I went back to Seurat and I coined the term ‘Technological Pointillism’ where you use dots of colour and from a distance you saw one thing and up close another. I also used Leon’s methods which he first did with Abraham Lincoln where he wanted to test how little information we needed to perceive an image. He made a picture of Abraham Lincoln in blocks that if you squinted at you could recognize who it was even though it had very little information.
What software and technology were you using at Bell Labs?
Early on computer software was very limited so I spent a number of days with Ken Knowlton and he asked what I would like and I spent hours talking to him about designing a better programme, which became EXPLOR, (explicit patterns, local operations and randomness). But in the early films, I spent most of my time using a regular optical bench and experimenting with lenses, colours and editing. But just like with Photoshop everything gets stale. If you don’t constantly change the language you begin to see, oh that was done with Photoshop or whatever and it’s very hard to try and keep something unique and innovative without getting hung up with the software.