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Pioneering Video Artist Lillian Schwartz

Sunday, January 29th, 2017

Lillian Schwartz is a pioneering video artist, who is only now getting the attention she deserves.

As Wikipedia notes, “Lillian Schwartz (born 1927) is a 20th-century American artist considered a pioneer of computer-mediated art and one of the first artists notable for basing almost her entire oeuvre on computational media. Many of her ground-breaking projects were done in the 1960s and 1970s, well before the desktop computer revolution made computer hardware and software widely available to artists . . .

As a young girl during the Great Depression, Schwartz experimented with slate, mud, sticks, and chalk as free materials for making art. She studied to become a nurse under a World War II education program and later on found her training in anatomy, biology, and the use of plaster valuable in making art. Stationed in Japan during the postwar occupation in an area between Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she contracted polio, which paralyzed her for a time. As part of her rehabilitation, she studied calligraphy with the artist Tshiro . . .

By 1966, Schwartz had begun working with light boxes and mechanical devices like pumps, and she became a member of the Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) group that brought together artists and engineers as collaborators. In 1968 her kinetic sculpture Proxima Centauri was included in the important early show of machine art at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, entitled ‘The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age’ . . .

Schwartz was brought into Bell Labs in 1968 by Leon Harmon. While there, she worked with engineers John Vollaro and others, including extensive collaboration with Ken Knowlton, a software engineer and computer artist who had also had work in the 1968 Museum of Modern Art show. She began making paintings and films with a combination of hand painting, digital collaging, computer and other image processing, and optical post-processing . . .

Schwartz used the works of Leonardo da Vinci extensively in experiments with computers. One notable work she created is Mona/Leo, for which she compared the image of a Leonardo da Vinci self-portrait with the Mona Lisa, matching the two faces feature by feature to show their underlying structural similarity. Specifically, she replaced the right side of the Mona Lisa with the flipped left side of a red chalk self-portrait of Leonardo.

Superimposed lines drawn on the image showing the close alignments of the bottom of the eye, eyebrow, nose and chin prompted her to argue that the Mona Lisa is in part a cryptic self-portrait of the artist. In further experiments along these lines, she removed the gray tones in Leonardo da Vinci’s self-portrait and superimposed the Mona Lisa eye over it.

Schwartz has been called a pioneer in ‘establishing computers as a valid and fruitful artistic medium’ by physicist and Nobel laureate Arno Penzias and a trailblazer and virtuoso by the philosopher-artist Timothy Binkley.Her films have been included in the Venice Biennale and the Cannes Film Festival, among many others, and have received numerous awards. Among these is an Academy Award (with Ed Emshwiller) in 1980 for special effects on the film The Lathe of Heaven. In the 1980s, a computer-generated TV spot that she created for the newly renovated Museum of Modern Art in New York won an Emmy Award.

Schwartz’s artworks have been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Moderna Museet (Stockholm), Centre Beauborg (Paris), Stedlijk Museum of Art (Amsterdam), the Grand Palais Museum (Paris), and at numerous galleries and festivals worldwide.

Schwartz has been a visiting member of the Computer Science Department at the University of Maryland; an adjunct professor at the Kean College, Fine Arts Department; an adjunct professor at Rutgers University’s Visual Arts Department; an adjunct professor at the Psychology Department of the School of Arts and Sciences, New York University; and a Member of the Graduate Faculty of The School of Visual Arts, NYC. She has also been an Artist in Residence at Channel 13, WNET, New York. She has been a fellow of the World Academy of Science and Art since 1988.”

This is just a brief overview of Schwartz’s work as an artist; still very active with a gallery show at the prestigious Capri Gallery in Germany running through the end of March, 2017 (click here for full details), she is also the subject of an excellent short documentary on her life and work, which can be found by clicking here, made just before her 87th birthday. Direct, unpretentious, and absolutely determined, Schwartz has too long labored in the shadows of the art world, when her prodigious accomplishments clearly place her in the absolute vanguard of computer and video art.

I thank Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for introducing me to Schwartz’s work; see more by clicking here.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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