Founding Mother of Generative Art Vera Molnár Dies at 99

Michael Bouhanna, Vice President and Head of Digital Art & Contemporary Art Specialist at Sotheby’s, shared today (Dec. 7) that pioneering generative artist Vera Molnár has passed away at age 99. The news was confirmed by Michael Spalter, a notable digital art collector and former Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Rhode Island School of Design.

Vera Molnar at home and in her studio workshop
Molnár in her Paris studio in 2017. Photo by Catherine Panchout/ Sygma via Getty Images

Molnár was less than a month away from turning 100—a milestone many people in the art community were looking forward to celebrating as the longevity of her career is the stuff of legend. The Hungarian-born French artist (b. 1924) began experimenting with generative art in the 1960s, eventually using mathematical principles and the programming languages Fortran and Basic to create stunning works of randomized geometric abstraction.

Classically trained at the Budapest College of Fine Arts, Molnár was inspired by Albrecht Dürer’s Melancholy to begin experimenting with non-representational, geometrical art in the mid-1940s. She studied at Rome’s Villa Giulia in 1947 before moving to Paris, where she’d live for the rest of her life. Molnár was a founding member of the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel with artists including François Morellet, Julio Le Parc and Francisco Sobrino, and Art et Informatique. With a computer at the Sorbonne, she began making digitally guided works using a plotter in a method she referred to as the “machine imaginaire”—an algorithm-based artistic process with strict rules that resulted in sometimes surprising output.

A visitor looks at two Molnár works, ‘Untitled’ and ‘2 Lettres M (du Cycle M Comme Malevich)’, at MoMA’s “Degree Zero: Drawing At Midcentury” exhibition in 2021. Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images

As computers evolved, so did Molnár’s process. Computers with screens reduced the element of chance but afforded her new opportunities to collaborate with digital tools. In the mid-1970s, she created her Molnart software with her husband, artist François Molnár, and the introduction of the personal computer in the 1980s freed her from the shackles of the computer lab.

The first solo exhibition of her work, “Transformations,” was held more than fifty years ago in the gallery of the Polytechnic of Central London. Since then, Molnár’s generative artwork has been shown many times, in galleries and in major museums. She was part of the 2010 “On Line: Drawing Through the Twentieth Century” at MoMA. Zürich’s Haus Konstruktiv mounted a major retrospective of her work titled “(Un)Ordnung. (Dés)Ordre” in 2015. In 2022, she was selected for inclusion in “The Milk of Dreams” at the 59th Venice Biennale.

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More recently in July of 2023, her work brought in 631 ETH ($1.2 Million) in a sellout Dutch auction of Molnár’s work hosted by Sotheby’s Gen Art Program. Buyers snapped up the 500 pieces, minted upon purchase, in the Themes and Variations sale in less than an hour.

“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,” Bouhanna said in a pre-sale statement.

Generative artist Vera Molnár in her own words

“I am a painter, an image-maker, in particular, of images of a nonfigurative kind. I ‘create’ visual forms in the sense that they consist of combinations of shapes that cannot be found in nature.” — Vera Molnár’s “Toward Aesthetic Guidelines for Paintings with the Aid of a Computer

“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.” — Vera Molnár in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist

“To genuinely systematize my research series I initially used a technique which I called machine imaginaire. I imagined I had a computer. I designed a programme and then, step by step, I realized simple, limited series which were completed within, meaning they did not exclude a single possible combination of form. As soon as possible I replaced the imaginary computer, the make believe machine by a real one.” — Vera Molnár, in her artist statement

“In spite of their advantages, computers, no more than other simpler tools, do not guarantee that a work of art of good quality will result, for it is an artist’s skill that is the decisive factor.” — Vera Molnár’s “Toward Aesthetic Guidelines for Paintings with the Aid of a Computer”

“This may sound paradoxical, but the machine, which is thought to be cold and inhuman, can help to realize what is most subjective, unattainable, and profound in a human being.” — as quoted in Digital Art: Painting with Pixels

“If you replace the word ‘random’ with ‘intuition’, there you have it. With intuition, suddenly you say – now what if I used a curve instead of a straight line and what sort of a curve? And then you try it – that’s intuition. Randomness does the same thing.” — Vera Molnár in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist

“My works are always created from the simplest of geometrical forms. This choice has its actual cause in my personal taste: I like the formal rigidity and the parsimony of geometry, I like the rational purity of mathematics.”  — Vera Molnár, in her artist statement

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