Painter Agnieszka Pilat is Silicon Valley's answer to where great art and our muses are headed. It's all about the almighty machine and innovation by the brushstroke.
Agnieszka Pilat has seen the future of art, and it is robotic. This bicoastal artist (Bay Area and New York) has made it her life’s work to reflect the world’s real power brokers: our collective machines.
Agnieszka Pilat’s studio showcases her work in progress—in her new series, the artist employs brighter hues to reveal the playful, unpredictable natures of her subjects.
Pilat, who grew up in Poland, arrived in the United States and was immediately impressed by the scale of America’s industrial sector—from our factories to our mammoth machines. “Living near Silicon Valley, I witnessed a huge power shift happening in front of my eyes: machines and technology coming to great power and influence,” says Pilat. “As a classically trained painter, I felt a desire to abandon human portraiture for machine portraiture. Why? In art history, portraiture mirrors the arc of civilization, reflecting hierarchies of power. These machine portraits show the real elite with increasing power today—technology.”
Pilat’s technological muse isn’t fleeting; it has now become her artistic mission as she awaits the next wave of innovation, whether it’s artificial intelligence or augmented reality. “My machine portraits are a study in human nature. They reflect a belief that machines are a manifestation of man’s need for heroism,” she says. As a self-proclaimed machine chaser, Pilat goes where the machines live, including the USS Hornet aircraft carrier, the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Computer History Museum in Mountain View and even Google X, where she earned a residence with Waymo, the self-driving car.
At Boston Dynamics, she even collaborated with Spot, a robotic dog, which engineers, with Pilat’s help, taught to paint. “I thought of myself as a master artist, a teacher to an intelligent machine, and this is very much in the vein of what was happening in the guilds in the Renaissance, where young students would come to study with old masters,” she says. The results are astonishing, and collectors thought so too: Spot’s “B70 Self Portrait 02” recently sold at Sotheby’s for a hefty sum, proving that humanity’s love affair with machines, even cuddly ones, continues. Pilat, who recently had her first show at San Francisco’s Modernism West Gallery, chats with us about her work, her muses and what’s next.
Spot, the Boston Dynamics robotic dog
Your journey hasn’t been linear, which I love—and you’ve had a quintessential American moment, yes?
My journey to becoming an artist in America has been a challenging adventure. I was born in Poland, and I grew up in a communist society behind the Iron Curtain. When I arrived in the United States, I was immediately struck by the vast scale of everything American. Especially its industry: big factories, huge shipyards, giant machines. And the daily promise of even more great new technologies, both in robotics and in the digital realm.
You’re keenly aware of art movements and your place in them. You mention the hierarchies of power driving these movements. Could you elaborate?
Portraiture mirrors the arc of civilization, from the sacred portraiture of Christ through medieval kings and queens. And from Andy Warhol’s celebrity-fame portraits to the selfie—we are living in the ‘me’ society— portraiture is always a site for discussion of power.
“Sistine Chapel” (2021, oil on linen), 50 inches by 48 inches.
What are you trying to convey in your art that showcases machines?
My machine portraits are a study in human nature. They reflect a belief that machines are a manifestation of man’s need for heroism. The Kitty Hawk Flyer to the Wright Brothers or the lunar lander to Neil Armstrong—machines are often the extensions of human heroes.
In my paintings, I treat each machine as an individual. I consider my subjects to be noble and beautiful. They are manifestations of parsimonious engineering—form following function. However, I don’t look at a machine only in terms of the task for which it was made but also consider its role as an actor on the broader technological stage. In this framing, all machines are important, whether or not they were the first of their kind or led to the next stage of progress. They are all related, and their most profound impact on society is collective. These machines are preemptively posing for their place in museums of the future, provoking us to preemptively consider the trajectory they embody.
Pilat worked with Boston Dynamics engineers to teach Spot, the robotic dog, how to paint. Here, one of the works sold at auction this fall.
Your subjects are both beautiful and world-changing. We can’t say that about many things. How does that impact your work?
We’re at a crisis in history regarding machines and need to think about their impact on humanity. While machines have been some of humanity’s greatest achievements—elevating us above all other animals and allowing us to land on the moon and control the atom—they have also threatened us with ultimate destruction for more than 40 years.
I’m a technology romantic, and I think of myself in a sense as a machine crusader. Understandably, there’s a lot of anxiety about technology today. Because I use such an old language, oil painting, to present a new idea—AI, robotics, technology—I believe I can invite traditional art audiences who might fear technology.
Additionally, by adding augmented reality, or AR, the work reaches digital natives who are disconnected from the fine arts. I love using the old language of oil painting to relate a new idea. Lin-Manuel Miranda used this model of mixing the old and the new in his musical, by employing hip-hop to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton. By adding a layer of AR to the paintings, an artist can revive the centuries-old art of high portraiture and create an engaging clash of old and new by colliding analog and digital.
“Vitruvian Man in Turquoise” (2021, oil on linen), 78 inches by 78 inches.
You’re certainly living in the right part of the world for this artistic crusade and engagement.
I’m on a mission to engage the tech community’s interest in the fine arts, to create a new generation of patrons among Silicon Valley digital natives. We have witnessed the disconnect between the artists and technology leaders in Silicon Valley. The tech culture responds to innovation and by speaking a language that they can relate to—innovative AR and digital experiences—and I aspire to build that connection.
Pilat at a recent exhibition of her work.
As a machine chaser, I go where machines live! Some examples include the USS Hornet aircraft carrier, Museum of Flight in Seattle, Autodesk in San Francisco, Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Google X, the machine graveyard in Los Angeles and Boston Dynamics.
What do you hope viewers see or take away from your work, especially your recent show, Renaissance 2.0, at Modernism West?
My approach toward my machine portraits changed quite a bit in the last couple of years: the color palette, the types of machines, the series of works. My mentor and art dealer,
Martin Muller, worked with me on the Renaissance 2.0 show at Modernism Inc., and he helped me really pivot in this new exciting body of work. The color palette was one of the things that changed under his guidance.
During my residency at Waymo—Google’s self-driving car—I hit a wall when I couldn’t produce a portrait of Lidar technology. This was the first time I tackled new technology, and the painting was coming out really hostile. I was in despair because the project was so public. This is when I reached out to Martin for help. I remember we were having conversations about demystifying the machine and about how I take them on perhaps too seriously.
These new technologies are like young children, teenagers perhaps— unlike the old, vintage machines I used to paint that are more like adults and elders. So, I realized young kids dress in loud, bright colors; they are silly, and they think they know a lot, but understand very little. And that’s the treatment I gave to the new technologies—bright, loud colors, silly but benevolent. And that’s the color palette you see in Renaissance 2.0.
But your work still reflects the duality of machines—their brilliance and potential harm, yes?
The excitement and the anxiety of our times deserve a long-term approach toward technologies that are transforming the world as we know it. The friction between man and machine has been made by man, and man himself. Machines and robots are man-made; we spawned them. My work revolves around that conversation—the impact of technology on humanity.
There’s a desire in the public to have these conversations. Art is a great way to lead them.
Gordon Moore, the founder of Intel, predicted computers would double in power every two years. Given this truth and advances in artificial intelligence, machines may grow to the omnipotent power of deities in the coming decades. These new machines could help us transcend human weaknesses or make us subservient to their unknown purposes. The potential of emergent AI is one of the biggest crises in human history, and we all need to think about it. We need to engage the technological realm as more than passive consumers. There’s both anxiety and excitement around this conversation, and the best minds are participating in building a new future.
Please tell me a little about your collaboration with Spot, Boston Dynamics’ celebrity robot dog, and its first painting.
In 2019, in my journey of exploring humanity’s relationship with technology, I approached Boston Dynamics, a manufacturer of the most advanced robots in the world. When I was introduced to Spot, I was astonished by the robotic dog’s ability to walk in any terrain with lifelike agility. So, I took on a project of painting a portrait of Spot, and, during my time working on it, a couple of Boston Dynamics engineers approached me with excitement and a bit of disappointment. They asked why I wasn’t including the robot’s arm in the portrait. This conversation was only the beginning of what became a series of paintings created in collaboration with Spot, including ‘B70 Self Portrait 02,’ which sold in auction at Sotheby’s this fall.
Agnieszka Pilat in her studio
In this experimental series, the paintings were executed by Spot. Like the craftsman in the great art guilds of the renaissance, my robotic apprentice worked directly under my control. In contrast to generative art, in this series, I don’t allow the robot to operate autonomously, nor do I relinquish my individual artistic expression to the machine. The challenges of using traditional materials by an advanced robot give the resulting piece a sense of spontaneity and play. What attracts me to using a robot is this innocence in it markmaking, like a child learning to use crayons or fingerpaint.
Like any medium, using a robot imposes limitations on my artistic practice. My expression is filtered or affected, creating imperfections and artifacts. Like drawing with your left hand, accidents are introduced in the process. This idiosyncratic output stands in sharp contrast to the natural function of a machine: mass-produced, standardized and repetitive. In contrast to abstraction as a design element, abstraction in these machine works is a record of an authentic learning process, a collaborative endeavor between a human artist and a robot. However, the machine is merely an extension of the artist’s hand, and, as a result, the authorship stayed with me, the human artist.
What’s next for you artistically?
The direction of my work is pretty straightforward, and it always revolves around technology. I’ll go deeper into AR and use robots to create art—that’s pretty exciting and cutting-edge innovation. I’ve been working with machines and technology for many years now, but, in the past year, I feel like I tapped into something that’s very significant—not just culturally but also historically.
Conceptually, the real boundary to cross—and to innovate—is to make machines my patrons. I often half-jokingly say that I work for the machines; they are my true patrons. For artists, myself included, will the future AI be what the Medici family was for Michelangelo? Will machines ultimately look at these paintings as representations of the past and even value the works as collectors? Am I serving machine audiences? I believe I might be building a museum of the future. How exciting is that?
Photography by: PHOTO COURTESY OF AGNIESZKA PILAT