You hear about it time and time again, about art taking place in the margins. And sometimes it can take years – sometimes decades – for an artist to receive the public recognition they so rightfully deserve. If anyone fits that category, it’s Lillian Schwartz. She is what you could call a self-taught artist par excellence: a woman who didn’t quite fit the norms of Western postwar society. Schwartz’s multifaceted vita alone is full of twists and surprises, yet it was her cutting-edge work that lead her to become one of the key pioneers in computer-generated art and art analysis.
Born in 1927, she already showed artistic interest as a child and enjoyed experimenting with mud, chalk, and wooden sticks as tools for art. Years later, at the age of 22, she moved with her husband to occupied Japan, where she fell ill with polio – and ultimately cured her paralysis by taking up calligraphy. A recovery through art, so to say.
After returning to the US, she began her studies in Fine Art at St. Louis University, where she specialized in free-hand drawing. However, it wasn’t until 1968 that she had her first big breakthrough: Schwartz participated in her first major exhibition after submitting her work Proxima Centauri to the now legendary MoMA exhibition The Machine as Seen at the End of Mechanical Age.
It was here that she met Leon Harmon; an encounter that marked a turning point in her practice. Harmon invited her to the renowned AT&T Bell Laboratories, a science and research center located in Murray Hill, New Jersey. Acting as their artist in residence as well as a consultant, Schwartz continued to hone her craft working among a male-dominated group of physicists and chemists – a position she would hold for more than thirty years to come. It was there she first experimented with coded icons and still graphics via trial and error. And it was by coding relentlessly, alternating zeros and ones, that she fell in love with computers. Her first art film Papillon, a work made of contour plots whose shape reminded Schwartz of fluttering butterflies, came about in this process of iteration.
By 1972, her craft had matured into an actual applied science. With the help of a colleague, she began experimenting with laser projections, turning the colorful light beams into film footage. The result, entitled Mutations, would turn out to be her most prominent work. Oftentimes these clips were musically supported by contemporary composers, thus her work developed a real synaesthetic quality: sculptural figures, in radiant colors, dancing through a pitch-dark void to the sound of abstract music.
Schwartz continued working at the verge of art and science over the coming decades, holding exhibitions and performances and lecturing worldwide. Her work was way ahead of its time, perhaps marking the beginning of animated film as we know it. Lillian Schwartz is now in her late eighties and continues to inspire all those who dare to swim against the stream.
This article first appeared on hey-woman.com in February 2017 under the title “Past Perfect: Lillian Schwartz”.