Frank Popper, Pioneering Historian Focused on ‘Virtual Art’ and New Technology, Has Died at 102

Tessa Solomon

BY TESSA SOLOMON

July 14, 2020 2:56pm

Frank Popper.COURTESY JOSEPH NECHVATAL

Art historian Frank Popper, who influenced generations of artists and theorists with his pioneering discourse on the connection between modern art and new technologies, died on July 12, according to Artforum, which first reported the news on Monday. He was 102. Among his most significant scholarship was documenting the emergence of what he called “Virtual Art,” works which incorporated interactive technologies to stimulate viewers.

Popper was born in the Czech Republic in 1918. As a young man he worked as a textile engineer in Vienna, and he later became a wireless operator in the Royal Air Force. He entered the Sorbonne to study literature, but soon shifted his focus, writing a dissertation instead on “movement in visual art since 1860.”

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In an interview with artist Joseph Nechvatal, Popper said, “One of the main reasons for my interest early on in the art and technology relationship was that during my studies of movement and light in art I was struck by the technical components in this art.” He added, “I was convinced that the technical and technological elements played a decisive part in this art.”

Seeing work by kinetic artists such as Frank Malina and Nicholas Schöffer during the 1950s helped usher in this new way of understanding for Popper. Op Art, the 1960s movement based on optical manipulations of light and color to create the illusion of movement, also had great effect on Popper’s work.

In 1968, Popper published Origins and Development of Kinetic Art, which traced the evolution of kinetic arts from Post-Impressionists such as Vincent van Gogh to the mid-century. His second book, Art—Action and Participation (1975), focused on the role of “spectator participation” in modernism. The emergence of interdisciplinary new media artists such as Nam June Paik and Jenny Holzer in the late ’80s led to coin the term “Virtual Art.” In Art of the Electronic Age (1993), he argued that virtual artists “humanized” technology through viewer-activated artworks.

“What is new in virtualism is precisely its virtuality, its potentiality and above all its openness,” Popper told Nechvatal.

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