Vera Molnár, a giant of computer art whose essential experiments with algorithms, plotters, and more have seen a surge in interest in the past two years, has died at 99. Her death was announced on Thursday by Paris’s Centre Pompidou, where she will have an exhibition in February.
Long before many others did so, Molnár embraced computers, which she used to create spare, minimalist drawings that were made according to sets of rules that she engineered. These drawings flirt with the points where order breaks down into chaos and chaos coheres into order.
During the 1960s, while in Paris, she began creating algorithms by hand and producing drawings through them. She termed this method “machine imaginaire,” or “imaginary machine,” a reference to the fact that she had not yet been able to utilize a digital computer.
Then, in 1968, her work took a turn when she did finally gain access to a computer at the Sorbonne, the esteemed French university. She approached the head of a computing center there and asked if she could use their machine to create art. She recalled his flippant reaction in an interview with curator Hans Ulrich Obrist: “I said yes to you because I thought of a famous quote by Voltaire, the one where he says: ‘I completely disagree with everything that you are saying but will defend until my death your right to do or say or write what you have in mind.’”
The drawings that Molnár would go on to create were made by outfitting a computer with a pen and feeding it instructions on how to go about its work. These works, some of which were produced with her husband, the artist François Molnár, are so simple-looking that they belie the amount of labor taken to get her computer to act accordingly.
“Interruptions,” the series she began producing in 1968, were crafted using FORTRAN, an early computer programming language. She would set up a series of straight lines, then rotate some, causing her rigorous set of marks to be thrown out of alignment. Then, to inject further chaos, she would randomly erase certain portions, resulting in blank areas amid a sea of lines.
Yet Molnár admitted to knowing very little about programming—even if she did learn how punch cards work and was proficient in BASIC before others. “In life, you can’t do everything,” she told Right Click Save in 2022. “You always have to choose. And for me, my primary interest was always painting — putting blobs onto a piece of paper in some sort of order. And then the algorithm comes in.”
Vera Molnár was born in 1924 in Budapest, Hungary. When she was a child, her uncle, a Sunday painter, gave her a box of pastels, and she proceeded to produce an image of Lake Balaton that she described as “minimalist,” returning repeatedly to depict the lake at sunset. But these works, despite being some of the ones that Molnár described as being important to her creative growth, were ultimately lost during World War II.
She attended the Budapest College of Fine Arts to study painting, but when she first began as a student, the school was still under the control of the National Socialist Party. Professors were “indoctrinating me with the idea that Picasso was degrading women by painting them like that,” as she recalled in her interview with Obrist. Then, once the war ended, the school’s program shifted, and she was exposed to the avant-garde. She graduated in 1947, moving to Paris the year afterward.
In the French capital, she became a part of a rich artistic community of émigrés that included Constantin Brancusi, Wassily Kandinsky, and Victor Vasarely. That last artist, whose mind-bending abstract paintings appear to warp before viewers’ eyes, would spur on Molnár in the following decades.
Vasarely’s impact on her cohort became obvious when Molnár, Julio Le Parc, François Morellet, and others whose work messed with perception formed the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV), a short-lived but important collective that sought to lure science into art-making. Light art, kinetic art, and other experimental work resulted, gaining the attention of many in France and beyond. These works disabused traditional-minded critics of the notion that art must remain static; their use of industrial materials in non-industrial settings helped lay the groundwork for Minimalism.
But Molnár stood apart from the rest of GRAV’s members: she was the lone woman in a collective that was otherwise all male, and she was interested in the prospect of using computers. The others were less enamored of the thought of utilizing the technology. She left not long after the group’s founding in 1960, but she remained friendly with artists like Morellet.
After she gained access to a computer, Molnár’s work would grow increasingly offbeat. Her “(Des)Ordres” works, from 1974, involved creating a pattern of concentric squares that appear to pop in and out of line, depending on what information Molnár inputted. She would build on that series with the “Hypertransformations” (1975–76), a series of squares set within squares, all produced using a pen that never leaves its paper. In some, these squares appear to quiver; in others, they remain more fixed. What resulted changed based on how Molnár shifted their vertices.
While some reacted with disgust to these works, which may have appeared totally out of step with history, Molnár implicitly asserted that they could be related to modernist abstraction by producing homages to Claude Monet and Piet Mondrian—with the help of a computer, naturally.
Some works were also distinctly personal. During the ’80s, when Molnár was able to acquire a computer for usage at home, she fed her mother’s handwriting into a plotter, producing Cy Twombly–like scribbles. Some viewed these as romantic tributes to her mother, but Molnár saw them differently, as formal études having to do with making a form “crescendo” as it moves from left to right.
After NFTs went mainstream in 2021, an interest in digital art followed, and Molnár’s work suddenly began to receive attention in areas it had rarely been noticed. She was included in the 2022 Venice Biennale, where she was the oldest living participant, and she even produced 500 NFTs for Sotheby’s in 2023 that cumulatively brought in $1.2 million.
Ahead of their sale, Michael Bouhanna, head of digital art and NFTs at the auction house, said, “Vera Molnár is one of the undisputed legends of generative art, whose decades of experimentation with the form has paved the way for what we know of today as algorithm-based digital art.”
Despite her influence on generations of artists devoted to technology, Molnár was fairly modest about her own significance.
She told Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Listen, I can’t say it any other way: what makes me happy is getting up in the morning, making myself some tea, picking up a pencil… and I’m completely bowled over by this joy that a pencil leaves on paper when you move it around. And that’s not even art yet, it’s nothing, but it’s leaving a mark, making something that hadn’t existed until then.”