What do tech mogul Yuri Milner, One World Trade developer Larry Silverstein, and Sotheby’s have in common?

They all own paintings from Agnieszka Pilat, the classically trained Polish artist rendering portraitures of technology. Pilat’s exploration of machinery reimagines notions of man and machine in mind-bending ways. By creating portraits of machines, Pilat says she’s “capturing the culture controllers,” a nod to how portraiture historically was reserved for wealthier elites and gatekeepers who controlled the mechanisms to culture. According to the artist, machines occupy this role today.

While investing in contemporary art is typically risky business, Pilat has all the hallmarks attractive to collectors: talent; a who’s who client roster of billionaires; a stalwart San Francisco dealer, Modernism Inc.; and artwork that fits into the current historical moment. Several of her paintings even appeared in The Matrix Resurrections.

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Her latest exhibition Renaissance 2.0 is a nod to the technological renaissance taking place in Silicon Valley, where, like the Italian Renaissance, “people are gathering, bouncing ideas off each other and rethinking ways of how we live.” With her imaginative vision and ambitious hopes for the future, Pilat is charging into conceptual and futuristic territory. 

Photo by Mark Sommerfield

Pilat recently sat down with Worth to talk about Renaissance 2.0, her personal philosophies and vision, and Spot, the robot from Boston Dynamics.

Q: How does machinery influence your art?

A: Because I grew up in post-industrialist Eastern Europe, I have a romantic relationship with machines, and they are very familiar to me, they are a part of the ecosystem I grew up in. In my worldview, they represent human aspirations; every time a man wants to achieve something extraordinary, he builds a machine (like the Wright brothers).

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When you think about who owns the culture, it’s Silicon Valley: I work for the machine, not the man.

I was trained as a classical portrait painter where subjects are people. Portraiture reflects the current power in society. Historically, portraiture would be religion, aristocracy, celebrity portraits. Right now, it’s the selfie depicted through smartphones, the “me society.” But the future belongs to the machine.

What is your process when you’re coming up with new works?

One body of work is made by the robot, that’s abstract line-driven works. I use Spot like a printer where there are no aesthetic decisions made by the robot. It’s a process-driven work, a record of the robot as an extension of the artist’s arm. These works are very playful, reflecting the culture of optimism and curiosity that drives inventors and entrepreneurs to build the future.

The other body is me painting machines and technology—the portraits of machines, the aristocracy of the future. I purposefully use bright, pastel colors in these portraits to reflect the embryonic stages of these technologies. In my mind, they are still growing up; the color palette reflects that. Going back to my training as a classical portrait painter, I think of them as if they were young kids who dress up in bright, loud colors; they are silly, loud and like to draw attention. I often use baby blue and pink—as a subtle commentary on the conversation about gender.

Both bodies of work have augmented reality layers that can be activated through a digital device. It’s an important part of my work. As an artist paying tribute to innovation and technology, I had to incorporate cutting-edge technology into the work itself.

Have you done portraits of other machines?

At some point, I thought about making some work with Roomba. Now…the reason I am so attached to Boston Dynamics is because of the celebrity status of Spot, which brings me directly to the legacy of Warhol, to his celebrity portraits. So perhaps Roomba is too mainstream, too accessible—my interest lies with celebrity machines, like the project I did with a very secretive Google self-driving car. I had access to their technology, so that piqued my interest in that industry too. Now I am working towards space technology, which will be between Virgin Galactic and SpaceX. These machine portraits would reach another level—super-heroic machines. The real royalty in the machine world.

How was Art Basel this year? 

It was a clash; the NFT and crypto community crowded out the conversation about art. It was more about the crypto people invading and showing up in Miami in huge numbers and throwing very fancy and loud parties. So, the conversations about crypto and NFTs were the dominating conversation during the art week. The NFTs are changing the conversation about art collecting and making it about art trading. This reflects a shift in current culture—art that used to be a calm, slow and steady medium is finally joining the fast-paced, mass-driven tastes and expectations. It’s interesting what this will bring.

Patronage always reflects money in society, and since there’s such a shift from old money into technology, Silicon Valley founders are kind of the new Rockefellers. As an artist who depends on private collectors, not on institutional grants or public projects, I am very grateful and lucky to have found support in these circles, the new power brokers in society.

What are you working on right now? 

I am working on pieces for an upcoming exhibition that will most likely take place in San Francisco later this year. I have been cautious to enter the NFT space and wanted to do it in a meaningful way. The NFT collection will consist of digital works (data captured from Spot painting) that will come with a limited edition of works to be created on-demand by Spot. So, a combination of an NFT with a real painting. The challenges of using traditional materials by a robot result in accidentals introduced in the process. Each piece will be truly unique. I like this idea of making it an edition because of its idiosyncratic output that stands in sharp contrast to the natural function of the machine: mass-produced, standardized and repetitive.