Patric D. Prince: digital art visionary

Patric D. Prince (1942 – 2021) was a pioneering American collector of digital art. As a key figure in early computer and digital art, she was one of the first to recognise the importance and potential of these new art forms. Over the course of her career, she had many different roles: as collector, curator, gallery founder, art historian, and Professor at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), as well as a supporter and friend to many of the artists she worked with.

Prince donated her collection of over 260 artworks and substantial archive to the V&A in 2008. The Patric D. Prince archive, which is held in the National Art Library, is a rich resource for understanding the early years of computer art from the 1960s. Prince diligently collected articles, conference paraphernalia and exhibition invitations relating to digital art, as well as her own research and correspondence. Her collection of artworks is one of the most comprehensive collections of original works of early computer-generated art and design. The V&A holds the National Collection of Computer Art, of which the Patric D. Prince collection and the Computer Arts Society collection (also acquired by the museum in 2008) are foundational collections.

'Composite Oscillons', C-type colour photograph, by Ben Laposky, 1960, United States. Museum no. E.957-2008. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Today, we use the term 'digital art' to encompass a broad range of art and graphics created using computer and digital technologies since 1960. But in the early years many different terms were used, including 'computer art', which referred to a more specific practice of making art with computers, often inspired by algorithmic theories, and 'computer graphics', a broader term encompassing all images made using a computer. Corresponding to these changes in terminology, Prince initially researched 'computer graphics and techniques', but later used terms like 'computer art', and later still 'digital art' to describe the different kinds of work she collected.

Poster advertising a talk by Patric Prince
Poster advertising a talk by Patric Prince at the L.A. Times Media Center, June 2 1992. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Collaboration in the early years

Making art using technology at this time was almost always a collaborative process, given that the equipment needed to make these kinds of images was typically held in laboratories or universities. Scientists, mathematicians, programmers, artists, and graphics and games designers all worked together to design software (and at times hardware) to create art.

Prince made connections to many universities and laboratories, including through her husband Robert Holzman, who ran NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), which hosted NASA's first artist in residence programme in 1977. Through Holzman's work with artists, Prince met David Em, who worked with Jim Blinn to program the first 3D navigable environments, and Paul Allen Newell, the 'unofficial artist in residence' who used the machinery after hours. Other successful collaborations included the artist Colette Bangert and her husband Charles, who worked at the Computer Center at the University of Kansas. They collaborated to create a series of 'algorithmic drawings' using a plotter. Similarly, Ken Knowlton and Lillian Schwartz often collaborated at Bell Labs, where Knowlton, a programmer and artist, worked. Schwartz, now considered a pioneer of computer-mediated art, had originally been invited to Bell Labs by Leon Harmon, a researcher in mental/neural processing, following her involvement in the Museum of Modern Art's 1968 – 69 exhibition The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age.

'Approach', computer-generated colour photograph, by David Em, 1975, Sierra Madre, United States. Museum no. E.952-2008. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Watch an interview with Patric Prince, David Em, Rebecca Allen and Victor Acevedo as part of ART 1990

ART 1990 was a digital art exhibition hosted at EZTV Gallery, Los Angeles, September 1 – October 31, 1990. ART 1990 was curated by Patric Prince and produced in collaboration with L.A. SIGGRAPH and EZTV as part of the Fringe Festival/Los Angeles.

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Early research

Prince conducted her early research into digital art practices while she was an MA student at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). In 1985, she completed her MA thesis, a survey of The First Years of the Computer in Art, which included a database of publications, exhibitions, and artists from the early 1950s to 1985. The earliest artworks she references are by Ben Laposky, and in her notes for the report she writes alongside them '1st graphics?'. Laposky was one of the first to utilise oscilloscopes to make art images, which Prince later described as 'pre-computer work' and an example of the evolution of the use of technology.

'Oscillon 40', C-type photographic print, by Ben Laposky, 1952, United States. Museum no. E.958-2008. © Victoria and Albert Museum

Prince's archive offers an insight into her early research process and connection with its key figures. It includes letters sent to contemporary institutions asking about their engagement with 'computer arts', as well as to university faculty members with programmes that broadly intersected, and artists experimenting in the field. The impression from the replies she received is one of enthusiasm and collaboration that characterised this period. The fact that many of the 260+ artworks that Prince gifted to the V&A had originally been gifted to Prince, reflects the generosity of spirit at this time and the appreciation of Prince as a supporter.

'P-370-P Divisibility II Series', lithograph, by Manfred Mohr, 1984, New York City, United States. Museum no. E.962-2008. © Victoria and Albert Museum

Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques (SIGGRAPH)

In 1986, the year following the publication of her MA thesis, Prince chaired the art show SIGGRAPH 1986: A Retrospective, which traced the development of computer graphics over the previous 25 years. In it, Prince defined three main ways that artists engaged with computers: as a tool, a medium, and for inspiration.

Front cover of the Art Show Catalogue for SIGGRAPH 1986: A Retrospecti
Front cover of the Art Show Catalogue for SIGGRAPH 1986: A Retrospective. © SIGGRAPH

Between 1989 – 96, Prince also chaired the SIGGRAPH Traveling Art Show, a highly original touring exhibition of contemporary digital art practices. It travelled extensively across the United States, but also to venues in Europe, Asia, Australia, and what was then the Soviet Union, bringing innovative artistic practices to a broader audience, as well as connecting artists and encouraging collaborations. The work displayed in these shows was seen as unusual at the time in that it focussed solely on the latest developments in the field. The works also varied hugely – some were more related to animation or video games, others used the algorithmic influence of the previous decades, experimented with new techniques, or were explicitly political.

(Left to Right:) 'Mapplethorpe and the Nineties', autostereogram, by Art(n), 1990, United States. Museum no. E.1060-2008. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Poster from the SIGGRAPH 1989 Traveling Art Show, 11 – 22 May, 1990, Museo de Salamanca, Spain. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Cyberspace Gallery

Prince co-founded CyberSpace Gallery in West Hollywood in 1992 with curator and artist, Michael J. Masucci. As one of the first galleries dedicated to digital art practices, it literally put digital art on the map and gave artists an opportunity to bring their work to a wider audience. Speaking to the LA Times about the gallery, Prince is quoted explaining, "Thousands of artists use new media and have no venue for showing it. […] I'm not talking about just computers, but even stuff like lava lamps. We wanted to give a home to what is otherwise underground work." Prince was ahead of her time in anticipating the importance of new media practices when they were only just beginning to be recognised and collected by major institutions.

CyberSpace Gallery flyer, advertising the gallery's second show 'Digital Salon des Independents', 1993, Los Angeles, United States, printer paper with pixilated graphics. Museum no. AAD/TEMP/2009/19/5/9/2. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The early shows at CyberSpace Gallery were group shows, and many of the exhibiting artists were ones Prince had been in correspondence with, or worked with, during the SIGGRAPH traveling art shows. Later, the gallery also exhibited solo shows of more established artists, including Barbara Nessim, who attracted attention for her work in more traditional media but also had a significant digital art practice.

Involvement in the scene

Outside her more formally established roles with groups and institutions, Prince had a broad involvement in the local Los Angeles digital art scene. In the mid-1980s, she formed part of a group that referred to themselves as 'The Digilantes', initially a joke shared between Michael Wright and Victor Acevedo, as a play on 'digital vigilantes'. The group consisted of eight artists plus Prince, and they worked together to put on shows, host panel discussions and conferences to establish a digital art scene.

Some of these same artists, including Michael Wright, were involved in other curated projects including the Portrait Virus event that Prince organised at the 1992 CyberArts festival. At the event, artists collaborated to take digital photographs of attendees and pass them between each other, each editing the images in different ways. At the time, the internet was not widely available, and the idea of a virtually connected world held a great deal of excitement and promise. The texts from the event reveal the hopefulness of this cultural moment, when the collaborators declared, "We hope the virus will transform the portrait element to project an otherworldly reality that reflects the positive aspects of technological manifestations in society."

'Portrait Virus', inkjet print, part of a portfolio of documentation for the event Portrait Virus, curated by Patric Prince, 29 October – 1 November 1992, CyberArts, Pasadena Convention Centre, United States. Museum no. E.987:4-2008. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Digital art visionary

Prince worked and collected at a time when digital art practices were largely overlooked by the established art world and the wider public. Perceptions shifted in her lifetime, and today the collection is seen as an important record of the development of the digital as a significant medium both technically and intellectually. At the time of making, much of the material was treated as ephemeral, and as such many of the works in the collection are modest in their creation – it includes printouts, photographs of computer screens, and handouts from exhibitions and conferences. While some artists diligently preserved and catalogued their output, many did not – there are tales of Prince fishing artworks out of bins! It's thanks to the commitment and vision of Prince that these works survived and through them we can gain a fuller picture of the first decades of digital art.

You can view works from the Patric D. Prince collection in the Prints and Drawings Study Room.

Header image:

'Portrait Virus', inkjet print, part of a portfolio of documentation for the event Portrait Virus, curated by Patric Prince, 29 October – 1 November 1992, CyberArts, Pasadena Convention Centre, United States. Museum no. E.987:4-2008. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London