This is a show about Zach Lieberman’s favourite shapes. The title refers to a quote by Vera Molnár (1924-2023), a pioneer of generative art who passed away while this show was in production. “I have no regrets”, Molnár told Studio International in 2018, at the age of ninety-four, “My life is squares, triangles, lines”. For Lieberman, Circles, Blobs, Ripples is not an homage, per se, to this foremother of digital art, but rather a nod to their shared sensibility, their parallel dedication to a repertoire of forms. Just as you could dedicate your life to a triangle, Lieberman says, “You could dedicate your life to a blob”.
Born in 1977, while Molnar was programming squares on an IBM mainframe computer, Lieberman belongs to a younger generation of artists who began redefining computer-generated art in the early 2000s. Alongside his studio practice, he is an innovative pedagogue who begins each of his creative coding classes with a recreation of Molnár’s work. Many aspects of her process inform his – a daily sketching practice, an intuitive approach to selecting from a ‘voluminous’ number of iterations, and an unwavering interest in exploring the same forms over and over again.
While early computer graphics, including Molnár’s, were hard-edged and minimalist, Lieberman probes a softer abstraction, cast in otherworldly light and colour. His practice engages with the long history of generative art without nostalgically recreating it, instead reintroducing us to shapes we thought we already knew.
Just as Molnár returned again and again to the same geometric forms, making infinite variations on the square over the course of her career, Lieberman always comes back to the circle. There is a ‘central logic’ to his shapes: the blob is also a circle, transformed; a ripple is built from a series of circles. “I think of them as these wells that I can drink from”, Lieberman says, invoking the undulating surfaces of his Ripples and a plentiful source that never dries out. Repetition brings both comfort and freedom to the artist. As these familiar forms are manipulated, there is tension that emerges between the known and the unknown.
What keeps him going? Like Molnár, Lieberman approaches his forms with a playfulness and genuine curiosity. Just as she would draw in her quadrilled sketchbook while drinking her morning coffee, he has made daily ‘sketches’ on his laptop since the first day of 2016, using either p5.js or openFrameworks (an open-source toolkit he co-created, which seeks to make C++ more friendly and intuitive). For Lieberman, sketching is simultaneously something he does for himself and something he likes to share with the world, by posting a daily video snippet or still image to his 200,000+ Instagram followers. Social media serves less as a vehicle for self-promotion and more like a medium of its own, its limitations (such as the 15-second video, which Instagram recently relinquished) adding productive parameters to his generative practice.
Circles, Blobs, Ripples explodes Lieberman’s visual world beyond the limits of the Instagram grid and the laptop screen. The exhibition is comprised of a combination of moving images and still prints. We are invited to view these forms both at a larger scale and beyond the 15-second loop. This longer format allows Lieberman to explore what it means to create a meditative experience for the viewer. Rather than double tapping and scrolling on, we may stay a while, letting the shapes transform, undulate, and wash over us. Working with the rhythm of the breath, he creates compositions that feel alive, despite their artificiality. These moving paintings, as he calls them, explore the relationship between order and chaos (also a favourite subject of Molnár’s) and experimental movements through colour, which Lieberman orchestrates via shader programming – writing code directly for the graphics card, almost at the pixel level.
Zach Lieberman, Blob Ribbon Study, 2024, NFT Video, Unique Original.
Lieberman’s circles, blobs, and ripples offer some respite from the constant influx of chaotic digital imagery in our visual culture. Even as we move into a post-pandemic moment, we remain trapped between ‘good screen’ and ‘bad screen’. Lieberman’s friendly forms spring from the former, reminding us that algorithms aren’t all out to hurt us.
While Lieberman is perhaps best known for his moving images, he comes from a background in printmaking and maintains a print studio. It should come as no surprise that such a tech-savvy artist got his start in the hyper-technical realm of the printshop. “I love the idea of all this technical work”, Lieberman says, “and in the end, you hold an image”. But what does it mean to hold an image in this day and age? To collect it, to live with it? The advent of NFTs, which Lieberman is no stranger to, has turned this question upside down, and so does this body of work.
The glicée prints and C-type prints exhibited here offer one avenue for the future of digital art. Lieberman makes selections from hundreds or thousands of variations to output to what, in the recent past, was referred to as ‘hard copy’, which offers a more traditional approach to collecting. In so doing, these images take on new forms – new lives, even. The C-type prints, a photographic technique, offer a new materiality to the images, imbuing them with a darkroom quality. The giclée prints invoke both cameraless experiments in abstraction and the ‘soft circles’ of Polish abstract painter Wojciech Fangor (1922-2015), a major reference for Lieberman. No longer constrained to the screen, they invite a different mode of viewing, one that is slower and more deliberate.
An art practice – a life – dedicated to circles, blobs, and ripples. This is a life that is dedicated to curiosity, to wonderment, to always seeing something new in the seemingly familiar. Whether still or moving, a solo print or a series, Lieberman’s images capture the small thrills of subtle change. This change is not radical or astronomical. It comes with no hype. It is simply a part of our daily lives, keeping us moving, like the breaths we take.
is an American visual artist, researcher and educator who creates artwork by writing software.
Lieberman is notable for developing openFrameworks, an open-source C++ toolkit for creative coding. He has been listed as one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People and has won the Golden Nica award by Ars Electronica. His artworks have been exhibited internationally, including Studies in color, light and geometry (2023) at Verse in London and Future Sketches (2020) at ARTECHOUSE in Washington, D.C. His project EyeWriter has been shown multiple times at The Museum of Modern Art, New York and in 2022 his series Atlas of Blobs was presented at M+ Museum, Hong Kong. Lieberman is currently a professor at MIT’s Media Lab.
Image: Zach Lieberman in his studio, 2024. Courtesy of Unit and the artist.
Dr Zsofi Valyi-Nagy
is an artist, writer, and art historian who is currently a postdoctoral scholar in residence at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, California. She received her PhD in Art History from the University of Chicago in 2023, with a dissertation titled, “Vera Molnar’s Programmed Abstraction: Computer Graphics and Geometric Abstract Art in Postwar Europe”. Her writing has appeared on Right Click Save, in Art Journal, and in a series of texts for HOLO titled, “Vera Molnar: Weaving Variations.” Valyi-Nagy was formerly a DAAD fellow at the Institute for Media Studies at Humboldt University.
Image: Dr Zsofi Valyi-Nagy, 2020. Courtesy of Bridget Madden.