"I sort of think of myself as a technological fruit-picker," says Lillian Schwartz, whose innovative film and video work over the past decade and a half will be showcased tonight in a special, free retrospective at the American Film Institute.
Cincinnati-born Schwartz, 57, has been one of the leading pioneers in the still growing "interface" between art and technology. A graphic artist by background, largely self-taught in film, video and technology, she was one of the first people to use computers to generate and manipulate visual forms.
Typical of her recent work is a 30-second TV spot, funded by IBM and commissioned by New York's Museum of Modern Art to announce the opening of its newly expanded and renovated facilities this past spring. Schwartz's computer-generated imagery "builds" the museum's new facade before your eyes at the start of the spot, layering the edifice from blueprint lines to detailed surface in a prestissimo feat of electronic "architecture." As the voice-over sound track describes the new interior, computer-drawn galleries appear on screen, with some of MOMA's most famous paintings -- by Rousseau, Modigliani, Picasso, Wyeth, Warhol and others -- "hung" at various angles and perspectives.
There follows a split-second tour of the building, revealing its structure in skeletal form, including the new glass-and-steel-enclosed garden hall, and shooting glimpses of familiar contents -- for example, a frame from one of the museum's collection of Chaplin film shorts -- at one's eyeballs like video flashcards.
"The digital computer," Schwartz says, "has made possible a kind of electronic pointillism -- the ability to analyze and reconstruct images from atomic picture elements. It's really an extension of the technique the painter Seurat worked with, except he had to do it all manually, paint all those dots. He always said he wished he had a machine. Now we have one, and we can invent images, or simulate real ones, pixel-by-pixel, subjecting them to whatever color and shape transformations we wish.
"Theoretically," muses Schwartz, "we could now complete the 'Unfinished Symphony.' With a computer, one could analyze the stylistic ingredients of Schubert's music, and then devise a program to extrapolate a logically consistent ending for the score. With the computer, I can sit at a console and 'abstract' Picasso's paintings, the way he did with every painter since the beginning of time."
Schwartz has created works in conventional modes of graphic art, including paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints. But since the '60s, her main interest has been in exploring the artistic applications of modern electronic technology. In addition to the TV spot, MOMA also commissioned her to do the official poster for its new building -- it, too, was computer-generated.
Schwartz was trained as a nurse in her youth and served for a time in the U.S. Navy Cadet Nurse Corps. She gave up nursing, however, to pursue her passion for art. In the '60s, she worked as a consultant in the studios of Bell Labs and the IBM Watson Research Center, collaborating with scientists on experiments and projects in visual technology. Works by Schwartz in a variety of media have been exhibited at MOMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney and Paris' Centre Beauborg, among other places, and her films and videos have been shown and taken prizes at such places as the Cannes Film Festival, the Venice Biennale and the New York Film Festival.
For tonight's Schwartz retrospective at AFI, which begins at 6:30, introduction and commentary will be provided by Patrick Purcell of London's Royal College of Art, currently a visiting professor at MIT's Center for Arts and Media Technology.