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Frank Popper.
Frank Popper.

Frank Popper (1918–2020)

Pioneering art historian Frank Popper, whose writings were among the first to explore the relationship between modern art and technology, has died at age 102 in Lugano, Switzerland. At the time of his death, Popper held the title of professor emeritus of aesthetics and the science of art at the Sorbonne. In addition to helping lay the groundwork for discourses concerning new media and ethics in his later writing on what he called the “virtualization” of art, Popper influenced countless historians and artists with scholarship conducted in the 1960s, when he published early analyses of light and movement in contemporary art.

Born in the Czech Republic in 1918, Popper’s initial occupations included textile engineer and wireless operator in the Royal Air Force. After moving to Paris with his wife, the painter Hella Guth, Popper received a doctorate from the Sorbonne, where his initial focus on Marcel Proust transformed into a dissertation focused on kinetic art. His interest in the field developed in the early ’50s, after he encountered the work of sculptors George Rickey, Nicholas Schöffer, and Frank Malina. Published the same year as Jack Burnham’s “Systems Esthetics” and Beyond Modern Sculpture, Popper’s 1968 book Origins and Development of Kinetic Art considered the role of movement in art dating back to 1860, drawing a direct line between Impressionism and kineticism. His next book, Art—Action and Participation (New York University Press, 1975), explored “spectator participation” as a central tenant of modernism.

With Art of the Electronic Age (Harry N. Abrams, 1993), Popper argued that “technological” art had given way, in the early 1980s, to what he termed “Virtual” art, a set of practices that humanized technology through interactivity—for him, the term clarified that “we were in the presence not only of reality itself but also of the simulation of reality.” His other titles include Reflexions sur l'exil, l'art et l'Europe: Entretiens avec Aline Dallier (Reflections on Exile, Art, and Europe: Interviews with Aline Dallier; Klincksieck, 1998) and From Technological to Virtual Art (MIT Press, 2007). Popper will be buried in Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery.