A History of the Leonardo Journal on the 100th anniversary of the birth of it’s founder Frank J Malina


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Roger Malina

A History of the Leonardo Journal on the 100th anniversary of the birth of  it’s founder Frank J Malina


Author(s): Roger Malina and Pamela Grant-Ryan




The development of the journal Leonardo is traced from its beginnings as an idea in the mind of its founder, Frank Malina, through 46 years of publication. The need for a  professional journal for artists sparked its creation in 1968, and Leonardo has served since then as a forum of exchange by and for artists and others interested the connections to the sciences and new technologies in the contemporary arts. The journal championed and documented the work of the first artists to use computers in the 1960s, holography and space technologies in the 1970s, interactive media in the 1980, the web and biological technologies in the 1980s, and more recently the nano technologies, synthetic biology,the science of complexity, ecology and the environmental sciences. The Journal has served an important platform for the world wide movement in art and science and art and technology. The executive editor of the Leonardo Journal since 1982 is the founder’s eldest son Roger F Malina.


“Change is a part of our world. Not to use it is to tie our hands behind our backs. When the whole world is changing, how can art be static? “

-Frank J. Malina [1]





Frank Malina was born in Brenham, Texas on October 12, 1912 and we celebrate this year the 100th anniversary of his birth. He founded the Leonardo Journal in Paris in 1967, 46 years ago. Of particular interest for Chinese readers is the fact that one of Frank Malina’s best friends, while they were both at the California Institute of Technology, was the father of the Chinese space program Tsien Hsue-shen. Malina and Tsien were the leaders of a group that build the WAC Corporal, the first human-made object to reach outer space in 1946. Tsien was expelled on false charges from the United States in 1955 and went on to develop the very successful Chinese rocket and satellite program. In addition, during the 1970s, Shao Dazen of the Department of Art History , Central Institute of Fine Arts served as a co-editor. In addition it is important  to mention that one of the founding editors of the Journal was Joseph Needham, the author of the influential  work “Science and Civilisation” in China.


It is thus fitting to mention that discussions are under-way with the Academy of Arts and Design of Tsinghua University to start a new Chinese- American Journal on Art and Science. We therefore dedicate this article to the memory of  Frank Malina, Tsien Hsue-shen, Joseph Needham.





Frank Malina was a man who embraced change and synthesis as means to a better world. He already had achieved eminence in several fields of endeavor-research engineer, director of scientific research at UNESCO and visual artist-when he had the ideas which led to the publication of Leonardo. As his work and life evolved, moving forward from one field to the next, it was natural that he would integrate his knowledge from previous experience into whatever work was at hand.


As an aeronautical and rocket engineer pioneer, he certainly knew that change was an inevitable fact of the present and future. Yet as a humanitarian whose life experience was shaped by WorldWar II, he was aware that scientists and engineers should not be the only ones involved in directing the changes wrought by technology; artists in particular should be instrumental in developing technology toward humane ends. “It was my feeling that one way in curbing the misuse of technology might be if we could, through the arts, emotionally prepare young people to see the aesthetic, positive side of things and also then respond by seeing the negative” [2]. As an artist he sought to integrate his knowledge of technology and scientific working methods into his own evolving artwork. And as an editor he sought to create an interdisciplinary forum documenting synthesis and change toward the creation of a synthetic worldview.


Perhaps his most frustrating career move was into the field of art. Malina began painting professionally full-time in 1953 after 20 years of working in technical fields. Trained as an engineer, he attempted to begin his artistic investigations in the usual way: to delve into documented studies written by experts-in this case by artists. Whereas technical and scientific advancement are based on each generation of investigators building upon the exhaustively documented work that has gone before, he found to his amazement little significant relevant body of literature written by artists about their work using new technologies, their methods, their discoveries or ideas. He expressed frustration that the lack of appropriate documentation in the arts caused artists to waste enormous time and energy duplicating each others’ technical dis- coveries.


Indeed, when he began to work on his “Lumidyne” system of kinetic art [3], he was unable to find any precedent for kinetic painting and believed himself to be the first artist doing this type of work. When he began exhibiting his kinetic works in the mid-1950s, he learned of one artist, Thomas Wilfred, who had been producing kinetic works since 1905 [4]. During the time Malina was discovering that artists did not have a history of, or a literary vehicle for, exchanging ideas and technical information among themselves, he began also to experience firsth and the political powerlessness of the artist. Then as now is often the case, the decision-making in the art world was in the hands of a group of non-artists, such as gallery owners, art critics and museum curators, who had assumed niches of eminence in explaining, promoting and disseminating art. By contrast, in the technical and scientific professions, documentation by the originators of the work has always appeared first, followed by explanation and comment by the popularizers, science writers and historians. Further, the decision-making in scientific research is dominated by the scientists and engineers themselves.


The establishment ‘supporting’ the arts was at best not interested in-and at worst opposed to  innovative art such as technological or kinetic art. This kind of art was hard to analyze, hard to sell, often hard to display and sometimes hard to repair and maintain – considerations surely not central to artistic significance. Except for a few scattered theoreticians such as Frank Popper , the individuals writing about art were engaged primarily in the business of selling yesterday’s ideas, since that which has already gained widespread acceptance makes for the best merchandise. Meanwhile, at a time when scientists and researchers in other disciplines were exchanging ideas and information at an ever-increasing rate, contemporary, exploratory artists seeking to extend the boundaries of art were working in relative intellectual isolation with no formal system of mutual support. In the midst of a revolution in communication and technology, artists were effectively out of communication with other artists, with other professions and with the entire rapidly changing, rapidly shrinking world community-all of whom, in return, needed very much to hear from the artist. It was not a scenario that suited Frank Malina’s ideas of the artist’s place in society.


As Malina’s artistic explorations continued to evolve through various forms and media [5], he began to discuss the  dilemma with his colleagues in both the arts and science, among them natural scientist Joseph Needham, editor Sandy Koffler, artist-teacher Vic Gray, artist and mathematician Anthony Hill, artist and scientist L. Alcopley and mathematician-artist Claude Berge. His colleagues at the time also included seminal thinkers like C.P Snow and Jacob Bronowski. His initial idea was to form a professional society of scientist-artists in the tradition of existing scientific and technical societies, many of which publish journals as a part of their activities.


Although his plans for such a society were never realized, he became ever more convinced of the need for a journal by and for artists. Malina began in the early 1960s to consider publishing a periodical modeled on scientific journals. By 1965 he had begun to contact prospective publishers and individuals to serve as editorial advisors. And in 1967 he reached an agreement with Robert Maxwell of Pergamon Press to published the journal quarterly.  In 1992 , MIT Press became the publisher.


Following the death of Frank Malina in 1981, his son, co author of this article, Roger Malina took over the journal and realised his father’s dream of starting a society. In 1982 Leonardo the  International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology was founded in San Francisco, and in 1992 the Association Leonardo, Observatoire des Arts et Technosciences was founded in Paris.




It was historian of Chinese science and technology Joseph Needham who suggested the name Leonardo, in reference of course to Leonardo da Vinci, whose work epitomized to the public the melding of science and art. The first issue of Leonardo appeared in 1968 and featured writings both by and for artists. Technical information,discussions of new materials, and the use of technology in art were stressed. Malina believed that the artist of the future would need a working knowledge or at least a basic understanding of contemporary thought in a wide range of disciplines. Today we see a whole generation of artists who are scientifically and technically trained and literate.


Each issue featured Artists’ Articles and Notes, written in the first person by artists. These provided a means for artists to communicate with each other as well as useful source material for teachers. When it came to setting editorial standards for the writings of artists, Malina saw no reason why artists should not, like scientists, present readable accounts of their work. Under his scrutiny nothing passed his desk and onto the pages of Leonardo un-queried.While some artists objected to this rigorous, ‘dry’, scientific approach to writing about art, Malina was undeterred. “It is evident that those that resist editorial comments misunderstand the purpose of Leonardo. We want clear articles of a descriptive and analytical nature” [6]. There was no place in the journal for inaccurate, loosely defined, or misused terms or concepts. The purpose of the journal was to disseminate knowledge and information -to dispel mystery rather than to create it-and its focus was to be ideas and description, not poetry or fiction.


Because Malina believed artists “should be presented readable accounts of relevant developments in other domains (aesthetics, philosophy, science, technology, education) contributed by experts in their fields” [7], General Articles addressing topics with possible cross-over applications to art were published in each issue as well as Book Reviews in diverse fields of study. Over the years several topics sparked debate or special interest in the journal. Kinetic art, which Malina thought would be increasingly important in the future, was an area of lively interest. ‘Entropy and art’ proved to be the dominant subject of debate in 1973, and thought- provoking ideas on visual perception and psychology were debated by E.H. Gombrich, Rudolf Arnheim and J.J. Gibson in the late 1970s. In the 1990s the new complexity science and developments in artificial life were explored. More recently topics such as art and ecology, art and the environment have become more prominent.


That the exchange in Leonardo should be international was of pre-eminent importance in the founding guidelines of the journal. Malina had worked toward international cooperation onearth (as a director of scientific research for UNESCO), in space (as a founder of the International Academy of Astronautics), and in life (as a U.S. American married to an Englishwoman, living in Paris and personally involved with the international community there).Believing that the free exchange of information should know no national boundaries,he carefully selected the original board of editorial advisers for international distributionas well as expertise and solicited and published articles from artists and scholars around the world. Throughout the cold war he worked with colleagues behind the iron curtain and in China.




As might be expected of a pioneer in rocket technology, Frank Malina knew that innovation and a progressive future could only be born of a firm foundation. He was a student of Theodore von Karman, who was responsible for introducing rigorous applied mathematics to many fields of engineering and knew the value of interdisciplinary thinking. It was with great foresight that Malina built Leonardo around a backbone of international thinkers. Artists, scientists and experts from varied backgrounds comprised an editorial board of Co-Editors,Corresponding Editors and Editorial Advisors who solicited articles and provided support, inspiration and information about developments in art and science around the world. An international board of peer reviews reviewed all articls before acceptance; today only 15% of articles submitted for publication are accepted.This broad network that Malina instituted at the beginning has been a hallmark of the functioning of Leonardo ever since.


Following the death of Frank Malina in 1981, editorial operations were moved to San Francisco. During 1983 and 1984 the journal found a hospitable home at San Francisco State University under the editorship of Professor Bryan Rogers. In later years the Journal also found a home at the San Francisco Art Institute.


V The Evolution of the Journal

Today the Leonardo Journal is published by MIT press with a number of other Leonardo publications. These include: The Leonardo Book Series, founded by Joel Slayton and now under editor in chief Sean Cubbitt in England, The Leonardo Music Journal edited by Nic Collins in Chicago, the Leonardo Reviews edited by Michael Punt in England, the Leonardo Electronic Almanac founded by Craig Harris and now edited by Lanfranco Aceti in Turkey, the Leonardo Abstracts Data Based edited by Sheila Pinkel in the USA. In 2009 Ernest Edmonds started the Leonardo Transactions project for rapid and open access publication. Leonardo now allows authors either to publish in open access, with an author fee, or to publish freely with readers paying a fee ( either by subscription or by  article download)


Leonardo has continuously championed the work of artists that are appropriating new areas of science and emerging technologies. The area of Art and Biology is led since the 1990s by Eduardo Kac and George Gessert; the art-science connection by editor Robert Root Bernstein; Art and Chemistry by Tami Spector; Art and Mathematics by editor Michele Emmer; Synesthesia is led by editors Jack Ox and Jacques Mandelbrojt; Art and the Environment is led by editor Drew Hemment;  Art and Complex Networks by Max Schich and Isabelle Meirelles; Art and Space Exploration by Annick Bureaud and Arthur Woods. These topic areas are indicative of the changing topics as artists become involved in new areas of science and technology; this strategy was developed by the late Leonardo Journal co-editor Stephen Wilson whose Leonardo Book ‘Information Arts developed the agenda by including all the new areas of science and technology that artists were appropriating.


Leonardo as an organisation has been an early adopted of the new emerging technologies of communication and publishing. The journal moved very early to desk top publishing. In 1988 Leonardo began publishing an electronic newsletter on the university networks; this electronic newsletter Fineart Forum was founded by Ray Lauzzana. It was followed by Leonardo Electronic News and the Leonardo Electronic Almanac. in 1994 Leonardo was on of the first 400 web sites in the world. The archive of all articles published since 1968 are now available on line through MIT Press and aggregators such as Project MUSE and JSTOR; last year over 300,000 individual articles were downloaded by readers; individual articles are also available on the DeepDyve service. In 2012 the Leonardo Initiatives were established at the University of Texas at Dallas  and a number of new digital publishing methods have been initiated including e-books and web companions; these are targeting areas of current excitement such as art and complex networks, art and synthetic biology, art and water sciences, and art and chemistry. Since most of the Leonardo readership is online there is discussion of whether print publication should be stopped.




Today the journal and organisation is enjoying a new period vibrancy thanks to the efforts of numerous individuals as well as the strength of Frank Malina’s idea and the effective structure by which he realized it. This new incarnation of Leonardo relies heavily on the active support and participation of its International Co-Editors, Editorial Advisors and Honorary Editors to help identify innovation in the arts, to select material for publication and to determine the journal’s scope and future directions.


In its evolution since Paris 1982, Leonardo has benefited from continued efforts to balances  synthesis with change. While the basic framework, format and general areas of emphasis have maintained an obvious continuity since the first volumes, the network of supporting individuals has broadened significantly; as a result, the journal has become  audibly an interweaving of multiple international voices. As new art forms and areas of inquiry develop in the overlapping areas of art, science and technology, so too will Leonardo change.


To date the Leonardo Journal has published articles by over 7000 authors; this world wide community of artist-scientists and artists-techologists have had a growing impact on contemporary culture. No-one now questions whether it is possible to make art with computers, a subject that was much debated in the 1980s. And many of the artists working with computers led to international industries in special effects for films, animation and games on computers. Leonardo’s early adoption of emerging communication technologies and the internet is now taken for granted and emerging and social media are now industries also. Perhaps in twenty years we will see new industries arising from artists who are working with biology, chemistry and nano-science, with space technology and the environment. The community that uses the Leonardo Journal is working on the hard problems of our time, from climate change to the health of older people; in these areas they know have no choice but to combine the arts, sciences and technology in new kinds of professions and new sources of economic development.


Leonardo was and is in many ways a reflection of the life of its founder: modest, simple, direct,accessible-and always changing. The fact that the journal has survived 46 years in an era of unprecedented change is a remarkable tribute to the legacy of Frank J. Malina.





This article is an updated and expanded version of a text published for the 20th Anniversary of Leonardo Journal by co author and Leonardo Managing Editor Pamela Grant Ryan published in Leonardo, Vol. 20, No. 4, 20th Anniversary Special Issue: Art of the Future: The Future of Art (1987), pp. 397-399.





1. Frank J. Malina quoted in Catherine  Read, Biography of Frank Malina (School of Three-Dimensional Design, Kingston Polytechnic, Surrey, England).

2. Frank Malina, interview with Studs Terkel (Chicago: 14 December 1978).

3. Frank J. Malina, “Kinetic Painting: The  Lumidyne System”, Leonardo 1, No. 1, 25-33 (1968).

4. T. Wilfred, “Composing in the Light of Lumia”, J. Aesth. Art Criticism 7, 70 (1948).

5. Frank J. Malina, “Electric Light As a Medium in the Visual Fine Arts: A Memoir”, Leonardo 8, No. 2, 109-119 (1975).

6. Frank J. Malina, Letter to Anthony Hill  (5 August 1967).

7. Sandy Koffler, “Obituary: Frank J. Malina (1912-1981)”, Leonardo 15, No.  1, iii (1982).



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