Joseph Nechvatal was born in Chicago. He studied fine art and philosophy at Southern Illinois University Carbondale,Cornell University and Columbia University, where he studied with Arthur Danto while serving as the archivist to theminimalist composer La Monte Young. From 1979, he exhibited his work in New York City, primarily at the Brooke Alexander Gallery and Universal Concepts Unlimited. He has also solo exhibited in Paris, Chicago, Cologne, Los Angeles, Aalst, Belgium, Youngstown, Senouillac, Lund and Munich.
His work in the early 1980s chiefly consisted of postminimalist gray graphite drawings that were often photomechanically enlarged.During that period he was associated with the artist group Colab and helped establish the non-profit cultural space ABC No Rio. In 1983 he co-founded the avant-garde electronic art music audio project Tellus Audio Cassette Magazine. In 1984, Nechvatal began work on an opera called XS: The Opera Opus (1984-5) with the no wave musical composer Rhys Chatham.
He began using computers to make "paintings" in 1986 and later, in his signature work, began to employ computer viruses. These "collaborations" with viral systems positioned his work as an early contribution to what is increasingly referred to as a post-humanaesthetic. 
From 1991–1993 he was artist-in-residence at the Louis Pasteur Atelier in Arbois, France and at the Saline Royale/LedouxFoundation's computer lab. There he worked on The Computer Virus Project, which was an artistic experiment with computer virusesand computer animation.  He exhibited at Documenta 8 in 1987.
In 1999 Nechvatal obtained his Ph.D. in the philosophy of art and new technology concerning immersive virtual reality at Roy Ascott's Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts (CAiiA), University of Wales College, Newport, UK (now the Planetary Collegium at the University of Plymouth). There he developed his concept of the viractual, which strives "to create an interface between the biological and the technological." According to Nechvatal, this is a new topological space.
In 2002 he extended his experimentation into viral artificial life through a collaboration with the programmer Stephane Sikora of music2eye in a work called the Computer Virus Project II,  inspired by the a-life work of John Horton Conway (particularly Conway's Game of Life), by the general cellular automata work of John von Neumann, by the genetic programming algorithms of John Koza and the auto-destructive art of Gustav Metzger.
In 2005 he exhibited Computer Virus Project II works (digital paintings, digital prints, a digital audio installation and two live electronic virus-attack art installations) in a solo show called cOntaminatiOns at Château de Linardié in Senouillac, France. In 2006 Nechvatal received a retrospective exhibition entitled Contaminations at the Butler Institute of American Art's Beecher Center for Arts and Technology.
Dr. Nechvatal has also contributed to digital audio work with his noise music viral symphOny, a collaborative sound symphony created by using his computer virus software at the Institute for Electronic Arts at Alfred University.
Nechvatal teaches art theories of immersive virtual reality and the viractual at the School of Visual Arts in New York City (SVA) and at Stevens Institute of Technology.
Joe Lewis wrote:
||in the artist/theorist tradition of Robert Smithson, Joseph Nechvatal is a pioneer in the field of digital image making who challenges our perceptions of nature by altering conventional notions of space and time, gender, and self. [...] Nechvatal successfully plunged into the depths where art, technology and theory meet.
- ^ Milazzo & Collins 1990, pp. 3-7.
- ^ McCormick 2005
- ^ Sharp 1984, pp. 52-55.
- ^ Popper 2007, pp. 120-123.
- ^ Morgan 2006, pp. 75-76.
- ^ Paul 2006, pp. 57-58.
- ^ Liu 2004, pp. 331-336 & 485-486.
- ^ Lewis 2003, pp.123-124.
- Richard Milazzo and Trisha Collins, "Deprivileging Critique" Editions Antoine Candau, 1990.
- Carlo McCormick, "The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene, 1974–1984", Princeton University Press, 2006.
- Christiane Paul, Digital Art, Thames & Hudson Ltd.
- Willoughby Sharp, Joseph Nechvatal, Machine Language Books, 1984.
- Frank Popper, Ecrire sur l'art : De l'art optique a l'art virtuel, L'Harmattan 2007.
- Robert C. Morgan, Digital Hybrids, Art Press volume #255.
- Alan Liu, "The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information, University of Chicago Press, 2004.
- Joe Lewis, Joseph Nechvatal at Universal Concepts Unlimited, Art in America Magazine, March 2003.
- Donald Kuspit, The Matrix of Sensations VI: Digital Artists and the New Creative Renaissance
- Joline Blais and Jon Ippolito, The Edge of Art, Thames & Hudson Ltd, p. 213
- Donald Kuspit, "Del Atre Analogico al Arte Digital" in Arte Digital Y Videoarte, Kuspit, D. ed., Consorcio del Circulo de Bellas Artes, Madrid, pp. 33-34 & 3 color images, pp. 210 -212
- Frank Popper, From Technological to Virtual Art, MIT Press, pp. 120-123
- Johanna Drucker, wings.net/nechvatal/drucker.html" rel="nofollow" href="http://www.eyewithwings.net/nechvatal/drucker.html">"Joseph Nechvatal : Critical Pleasure
- Robert C. Morgan, Voluptuary: An algorithic hermaphornology, Tema Celeste Magazine, volume #93, p. 94
- Bruce Wands, Art of the Digital Age, London: Thames & Hudson, p. 65
- Robert C. Morgan, "Laminations of the Soul" Editions Antoine Candau, 1990, pp. 23-30
- Margot Lovejoy, Digital Currents: Art in the Electronic Age Routledge 2004
- Joseph Nechvatal, Immersive Excess in the Apse of Lascaux, Technonoetic Arts 3, no3. 2005
- Johanna Drucker, "Joseph Nechvatal : Critical Pleasure, Redaktion Frank Berndt, 1996, pp. 10-13
- Mario Costa, "Phenomenology of New Tech Arts", Artmedia, Salerno, 2005, p. 6 & pp. 36 - 38
- Dominique Moulon, "L'art numerique: spectateur-acteuret vie artificielle", Les images numeriques #47-48, 2004, pp. 124-125
- Christine Buci-Glucksmann, "L’art à l’époque virtuel", in Frontières esthétiques de l’art, Arts 8, Paris: L’Harmattan, 2004
- Brandon Taylor, Collage Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2006, p. 221
- Dominique Moulon,  Conférence Report : Media Art in France, Un Point d'Actu, L'Art Numerique, pp. 124-125
- John Johnston, "The Allure of Machinic Life: Cybernetics, Artificial Life, and the New AI", MIT Press, 2008, cover
- Edmond Couchot, Des Images, du temps et des machines, édité Actes Sud, 2007, pp. 263-264
- Wayne Enstice & Melody Peters, Drawing: Space, Form, & Expression, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, pp.312-313
- Robert C. Morgan, Nechvatal’s Visionary Computer Virus in Gruson, L. ed. 1993. Joseph Nechvatal: Computer Virus Project. Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans: Fondation Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, pp. 8-15
- Fred Forest, Art et Internet, Editions Cercle D'Art / Imaginaire Mode d'Emploi, pp. 48 -51
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