Schwartz was at the forefront of computer-generated art before desktops or the kind of software that makes it commonplace today.
“I came to this collection as a fan of Lillian’s,” said Kristen Gallerneaux, curator of Communication and Information Technology at the Henry Ford Museum. “I remembered learning about Lillian Schwartz when I was in art school, and wondered where her archive is.” In November, Gallerneaux’s wondering bore fruit, as the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, announced the acquisition of the artist’s archive, comprised of over 5,000 items, including Schwartz’s artwork, personal papers, photographs, books, and more, spanning from her childhood into her late career.
Lillian Schwartz, who is today 94, is a singular character for a number of reasons — not least as a pioneer in computer-assisted design, and one of few women working in tech in the mid-1960s. For a field that still struggles to maintain any kind of gender equity in its staffing demographics, Schwartz’s decades as a sort of artist-in-residence and consultant at AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey from 1969 to 2002 was a standalone accomplishment, let alone her work at the forefront of computer-generated art before desktops or the kind of software that makes it commonplace and accessible today.
But Schwartz was already making her way as an artist before the crucial connection that led her to work at Bell Labs; in 1966, she had extended her material experiments to work with light boxes and mechanical devices like pumps. She became a member of the Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) group, which encouraged collaboration between artists and engineers, and in 1968 her kinetic sculpture, “Proxima Centauri,” was part of an influential show of machine art at the Museum of Modern Art, The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age. This career-launching sculpture is just one of the objects acquired by the Henry Ford Museum; it utilizes a slide projector to throw a series of light displays into a white plastic orb, and was at one point used as a special effect for an original Star Trek episode, representing a prison for Spock’s brain.
Schwartz was 93 when Gallerneaux reached out to the artist’s family to inquire about the archive. It just so happened that they were in the process of searching for a home for Schwartz’s decades of multi-media art objects, research, experiments, and artifacts. With the Henry Ford Museum’s emphasis on American innovators, and its encyclopedic archive of objects, inventions, and technologies from the last three centuries — including entire steam trains, functioning pre-industrial artisan works, and Thomas Edison’s entire original Menlo Park laboratory complex — the Lillian Schwartz archives had found a perfect place to enable display and research.
“My mother had a long career with breakthroughs in every medium, becoming one of the most celebrated and exhibited artists of the 20th century,” said Laurens Schwartz, in a press release from the Henry Ford Museum. “It was important to find an institution that represented the same history of advancements in the world of science and art seen throughout Lillian’s career.”
Schwartz’s life has been unusual from the start, born in 1927 to a large and wealthy family in Cincinnati, and spending formative years in Japan, where she contracted polio and suffered full-body paralysis, from which she eventually recovered. She began a career in nursing, which she left to become an artist, and her inclusion in the MoMA show and subsequent introduction to Leon Harmon, a perceptual researcher at Bell Labs seeded a deeply experimental art career that spanned sculpture, collage, digital animations, etchings, films, paintings — and beyond.
“Bell Labs was kind of like 1960s Google,” said Gallerneaux, during an archive tour and preview of the collection with Hyperallergic. “He’s [Harmon] in this incubator, technology hub, and he invites Lillian to come out and visit. … She starts working on those computers to make her first films.” Schwartz’s films are frenetic, “almost brutal,” and the work for which is she best known, but as the archive makes clear, she had a boundless interest in following artistic vision wherever it led.
“You think of artists in the science lab now, and maybe that’s kind of passé,” said Gallerneaux, “but she was really the first.” The acquisition process has been years in the making, and Gallerneaux and the team at the Henry Ford Museum is still in the process of cataloging the archive and doing the research that will support presentation and programming around it. It is Gallerneaux’s hope that this archive can not only highlight the fascinating contributions Schwartz made to digitally assisted design, but bring more light to this extremely unique and eclectic artistic mind.
The collection is currently at the Henry Ford and being digitized for online accessibility. In addition, the museum is working with a number of organizations who are interested in showcasing Schwartz’s work at their own facilities.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Lillian Schwartz was from Cleveland instead of Cincinnati. This has been amended.
Sarah Rose Sharp
Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts…. More by Sarah Rose Sharp