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Vera Molnàr's journey from the first computers to embracingstands as a testament to the enduring curiosity that transcends age and generation.
At the age of 99, the Hungarian-born artist is set to unveil her newest generative art series, "Themes and Variations," created in collaboration with generative artist Martin Grasser.
500 artworks will be sold by Sotheby's in a Dutch Auction–or lowering the price of an item until it’s acquired–a first in the 300-year-old story of the auction house.
The bidding process begins at 20, or roughly $37,000 at today’s prices, and progressively reduces until a buyer emerges.
“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,” Michael Bouhanna, head of Digital Art at Sotheby’s, told Decrypt.
Back in 1968, Vera Molnàr's fascination with computers began when she gained access to early machines through the Paris University computer center at La Sorbonne.
Amidst the backdrop of student riots in the French capital, she co-founded the collaborative organization “Groupe de Recherche d'Art Visuel (GRAV)” to explore the possibilities of computer-generated art.
Her early foray into digital art used punch cards and the programming language Fortran, giving birth to what she coined as "Machine Imaginaire" or computer imagination. Molnàr's art became a celebration of the spontaneous outputs of machines, with an emphasis on color and composition.
“Vera once said that the human imagination might get exhausted after 20 variations, but the computer can produce 20,000,” her collaborator Martin Grasser told Decrypt. “I fully embrace this idea, finding it immensely satisfying and enabling for my artistic expression.”
A key milestone for both Molnàr and Sotheby’s
"Themes and Variations" (2023) presents an exploration of intricate algorithmic transformations, converting hand-drawn variations of the letters N, F, and T into elegant black-and-white graphics and captivating color combinations.
With this innovative series, Molnàr challenges the essence of letters, infusing them with fresh meanings through compelling interactions between humans and machines.
As the artist once stated, "There is nothing more human than the computer because it was invented by men."
“Working with Vera Molnàr was an immense honor and a humbling experience,” Grasser told Decrypt. “She sent us letters, focusing on the letters ‘n,’ ‘f,’ and ‘t.’ She remarked that no technology has ever disrupted art more than these letters, expressing her amazement at their transformative power.”
Additionally, this auction inaugurates a new "long-form" approach to generative art sales, featuring each artwork in hundreds of unique iterations. The Gen Art Program is a collaboration with the generative art-focused platform, Art Blocks.
“After decades of exploring how systems and computers can generate artistic outputs, I see this collaboration with Sotheby’s and Art Blocks as a culmination of those efforts, providing a new way to generate never-before-seen, unique abstract forms that are defined by the controlled randomness of machine programming—the essence of the algorithm,” Molnár said in a statement.
Michael Bouhanna of Sotheby’s shares the artist's enthusiasm, highlighting how Molnar’s work is “drawing in so many young collectors and inspiring countless young artists as well,” he told Decrypt.
Nevertheless, he acknowledges that there's still much work to be done in bridging the gap between traditional collectors and the older generations to fully comprehend the artistic angle of NFT technology.
According to Bouhanna, the new "long-form" approach will demonstrate the art's quality and help convince those unfamiliar with blockchain and NFTs.
“It's quite unusual and a novel concept for many individuals, making it challenging to grasp initially,” he told Decrypt. “However, as people explore the extensive collection and appreciate its depth, I am confident a consensus will form, acknowledging the significance of this momentous step.”
Sotheby’s, pioneering NFTs
Since 2021, Sotheby’s has aggressively invested in the NFT space, positioning itself as the premier destination for selling and collecting top-tier digital artworks.
Bouhanna insists on the need for curation in the NFT art world, which an actor like Sotheby’s is able to provide.
"We have taken the initiative to provide educational curation to address many questions we had about the different artists present in this field," he told Decrypt.
The historical auction house has already broken several records in the NFT space. In October 2021, the most expensive Bored Ape Yacht Club was sold for $3.4 million. During the same sale, the second most expensive Cryptopunk was auctioned for $11.7 million.
The auction house also organizes "Natively Digital" sales three times a year, featuring iconic digital artists. These events serve as a validation and a snapshot of market trends.
The historic auction house has organized large-scale sales of solo artists' works, such as Pak, group exhibitions centered around specific themes, and collection sales.
Last June, the auction for NFTs from the bankrupt investment fund Three Arrows Capital generated more than $10.9 million.
To date, Sotheby's has already generated over $100 million in NFT sales.