What sorts of paintings will be hanging in the museums of the future?
Agnieszka Pilat thinks we'll be looking at what she calls "heroic portraits of machines"—fine-art renderings of the technology that freed the modern world from the bone- and soul-crushing labor that our parents and grandparents endured.
Pilat's paintings—especially ones featuring Spot, Boston Dynamics' robot dog—are sought after by Silicon Valley collectors drawn to her valorization of technology, a welcome alternative to the traditional demonization by artists of the man-made world.
Her work is rich in callbacks to artists ranging from da Vinci to Duchamp to Warhol, and she incorporates augmented reality to further highlight how technology shapes our perceptions. A sure sign of success: One of her paintings appeared in The Matrix sequel released last year as a representation of future art.
Born in Poland in 1973, Pilat remembers life under communism as an extended period of conformity and repression that ended almost immediately after the communist regime collapsed in 1989. She talks about how her father, finally able to operate his own shop, stopped drinking and built a prosperous bakery business.
Pilat immigrated to the United States in the early 2000s. Landing in San Francisco, she encountered amazingly wealthy tech workers espousing the same collectivist ideas that had made her childhood so miserable. "I was just really shocked," she tells Reason. "I didn't realize that people still think that communism or socialism is a good idea. Moral outrage was growing within me and also a feeling that I need to protect America by telling people what it really means."
Shortly after arriving in the States, Pilat stumbled across the work of another Eastern European immigrant: Ayn Rand. Though she didn't become an Objectivist, Pilat responded viscerally to Rand's insistence that "you have a right and a moral obligation to yourself to have a purpose and work towards the purpose as hard as you can."
As her work gains stature, Pilat is moving on to a new frontier, if not quite the final one: She's an artist in residence at Elon Musk's SpaceX, where she is looking forward to possibly producing "superheroic portraits" of machines in zero gravity.
Reason talked with her in her New York studio about being upstaged by a robot dog, why she wants everyone to remember what communism was really like, and how to best appreciate—and protect—the economic and cultural freedom we too often take for granted.
Produced by Kevin Alexander; camera by Daniel Schloss
Photos: Additional images and footage courtesy of Agnieszka Pilat; Image of Sport/Newscom; JOE MARINO/UPI/Newscom; CSU Archives/Everett Collection