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Kinetic Art Collage

Kinetic Art

Started: 1954

Kinetic Art Timeline

Quotes

"The investigation of material, volume, and construction made it possible for us in 1918, in an artistic form, to begin to combine materials like iron and glass, the materials of modern Classicism, comparable in their severity with the marble of antiquity. In this way an opportunity emerges of uniting purely artistic forms with utilitarian intentions..."
Vladimir Tatlin
"The reality of our century is technology: the invention, construction and maintenance of machines. To be a user of machines is to be the spirit of this country. Machines have replaced the transcendental spiritualism of past eras."
László Moholy-Nagy
"To me art is a form of manifest revolt, total and complete."
Jean Tinguely

KEY ARTISTS

Vladimir TatlinVladimir Tatlin
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Marcel DuchampMarcel Duchamp
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Alexander CalderAlexander Calder
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László Moholy-NagyLászló Moholy-Nagy
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Alexander RodchenkoAlexander Rodchenko
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Naum GaboNaum Gabo
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"Just as one can compose colors, or forms, so one can compose motions."

Alexander Calder Signature

Synopsis

Kinetic art is a manifestation of the fascination with motion which defines a whole swathe of modern art from Impressionism onwards. In presenting works of art which moved, or which gave the impression of movement - from mobile, mechanical sculptures to Op art paintings which seemed to rotate or vibrate in front of the eyes - Kinetic artists offered us some of the most quintessential expressions of modern art's concern with presenting rather than representing living reality. Tracing its origins to the Dada and Constructivist movements of the 1910s, Kinetic art grew into a lively avant-garde after the Second World War, especially following the genre-defining group exhibition Le Mouvement, held in Paris in 1955. The group was always defined by division, however, and after thriving for around a decade, interest in the style faded; however, its ideas were carried forward by subsequent generations of artists, and it continues to provide a rich source of creative concepts and technical effects up to the present day.

Key Ideas

In creating paintings, sculptures, and art environments which relied on the presentation of motion for effect, the Kinetic art movement was the first to offer works of art which extended in time as well as space. This was a revolutionary gesture: not only because it introduced an entirely new dimension into the viewing experience, but because it so effectively expressed the new fascination with the interrelationship of time and space which defined modern intellectual culture since the discoveries of Einstein.
Kinetic artists often presented works of art which relied on mechanized movement, or which otherwise explored the drive towards mechanization and scientific knowledge which characterized modern society. Different artists expressed a different stance on this process, however: those more influenced by Constructivism felt that by embracing the machine, art could integrate itself with everyday life, taking on a newly central role in the Utopian societies of the future; artists more influenced by Dada utilized mechanical processes in an anarchic, satirical spirit, to comment on the potential enslavement of humankind by science, technology, and capitalist production.
Many Kinetic artists were interested in analogies between machines and human bodies. Rather than regarding the two entities as radically different - one being soulless and functional, the other governed by intuition and insight - they used their art to imply that humans might be little more than irrational engines of conflicting lusts and urges, like dysfunctional machines. This idea has deep roots in Dada, but is also related to the mid-century concept of cybernetics.

Most Important Art

Kinetic Art Famous Art

Arc of Petals (1941)

Artist: Alexander Calder
Arc of Petals is one of many examples of the free-standing or hanging "mobiles" - so christened by Marcel Duchamp - for which the American sculptor Alexander Calder became famous. Looking somewhat like an inverted, suspended tree, the piece comprises a central spine of iron wire with various petal or leaf-like appendages budding off from it; these pieces are largest and most solid-seeming at the top, smallest and most tentative-seeming at the base. The movement of the piece in the breeze is intended to play with the readers' associations of heaviness and lightness, providing a counterintuitive, irregular pattern of motion. With works such as Arc of Petals, Calder defined an important and unique sub-genre of Kinetic aesthetics, one that was concerned with the movement and dynamism of nature rather than of the mechanized, urbanized world.

Calder came from a family of sculptors and painters, and before training as an artist took a degree in mechanical engineering, learning various technical processes which he would later put to use in his Kinetic art. In the late 1920s he moved briefly to Paris, where he befriended many of the prominent modern artists of the day; his construction of mobiles as art-objects commenced at the start of the following decade. Whereas early works in this medium rely on motorized or hand-cranked mechanisms to create pre-determined patterns of movements, by the time Arc of Petals was made, Calder was generally producing mobiles set in motion by passing air currents. Initially he used materials such as glass or pottery to create these pieces, but later works such Arc of Petals were constructed from pieces of hand-shaped aluminum, painted in solid reds, yellows, blues, blacks, and whites. In this case, we can see the influence of his painter friends Joan Miró and Jean Arp in the biomorphic forms of the leaves, while a single aluminum petal left unpainted reminds the viewer of the weight and roughness of the compositional material.

Constructed with artisanal care and intended to be set in motion by natural forces, Calder's mobiles express quite a different aspect of Kinetic art to the futuristic, mechanical contraptions of other artists. The element of chance or contingency introduced into the viewer's encounter with the piece by its interaction with the atmosphere might be described as post-Dada, but there is also a lyrical engagement with nature evident in this effect, and in the graceful organic curves of the piece, while something of the aura of the fine-art object is imbued by Calder's hand-crafting process. In its interaction with the natural world, Calder's work predicts post-Kinetic developments such as Light Art.
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Kinetic Art Artworks in Focus:

Beginnings

Marcel Duchamp with a version of his <i>Bicycle Wheel</i> (1913) constructed in 1951
Marcel Duchamp with a version of his Bicycle Wheel (1913) constructed in 1951

In its focus on capturing the dynamism of its subject-matter, Kinetic Art expresses a foundational concern of modern art in general, and many critics have cited Post-impressionist painters such as Seurat as the first Kinetic artists. But the first examples of modern artworks which literally incorporate movement - or movable elements - date from the 1910s, and were created by artists working in the Dadaist and Constructivist traditions. Arguably the earliest work of Kinetic art is the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel (1913), which consists of a wheel placed upside down on a stool; this is also recognized as the first "readymade". In 1920, Constructivist artists Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner used the term "Kinetic art" in their Realistic Manifesto; the same year, Gabo completed his Kinetic Construction, a free-standing metal rod set in motion by an electric motor which articulates a delicate wave-pattern in the air, the first work of modern art primarily concerned with expressing movement. Ten years later, the Bauhaus artist László Moholy-Nagy used the term "kinetic" again, to describe the mechanized motion of his Light-Space Modulator (1930), while other figures associated with the Bauhaus, and with the post-Constructivist movement of Concrete Art, produced work across the 1930s-40s which might now be called Kinetic art.

One section of the group exhibition Le Mouvement, held at the Gallerie Denise René in 1955, seen to have heralded the birth of Kinetic art as a coherent movement
One section of the group exhibition Le Mouvement, held at the Gallerie Denise René in 1955, seen to have heralded the birth of Kinetic art as a coherent movement

Accepting these early expressions of the concepts underpinning Kinetic art, it was not established as a coherent movement until 1955, when the group exhibition Le Mouvement was held at the Galerie Denise René in Paris. Central to this show was the work of Hungarian artist and René Gallery co-founder Victor Vasarely, whose Manifeste Jaune ('Yellow Manifesto'), published to coincide with the exhibition, became one of Kinetic art's founding documents. Vasarely had been trained in the traditions of the Bauhaus, and had spent many years working in commercial design before turning to fine art, bringing with him various graphic techniques which would inform his new approach, including the use of grid-like arrangements of black and white to suggest depth or motion. Vasarely's work quickly attracted followers, most notably Bridget Riley, who would make a comparable range of effects world-famous.

Other works featured in the Mouvement show relied on real rather than implied movement. In some cases, this movement could be initiated by air or touch, as in the case of Alexander Calder, whose mobiles, including Arc of Petals (1941), combine graceful sculptural lines and biomorphic shapes with a responsiveness to atmospheric movement mimicking the natural behavior of organic forms in space. Or, as was more often the case, the movement could be mechanized. Nicolas Schöffer's interest in incorporating dynamism into his Constructivist-inspired sculptures initially resulted in ever more complex articulations of modelled space. But from the late 1940s he also introduced mechanized motion and theories from cybernetics into his work, producing "Spatiodynamic" sculptures whose movements were governed by environmental feedback.

Concepts and Styles

The Legacy of Constructivism

Victor Vasarely (left) in front of one of his <i>Vega</i> series paintings with the Czech-born Argentine sculptor Gyula Kosice (1958)
Victor Vasarely (left) in front of one of his Vega series paintings with the Czech-born Argentine sculptor Gyula Kosice (1958)

The Kinetic art movement emerged out of what was widely perceived as the decline of geometric abstraction in the post-1945 period. Due to its origins in Constructivism - and in associated movements and schools such as De Stijl and the Bauhaus - geometric abstraction had initially been associated with revolutionary attitudes to art and society. Its austere compositional lexicon of lines and flat planes, and its simplified color palette, seemed to express the rationalizing impetus of the modern world, and to promise a new, universally coherent artistic language, while the philosophy that grew up around it was concerned with the integration of art into everyday life, and focused on applied artforms such as architecture and ceramics. These ambitions faded across the middle decades of the twentieth century, however - in line with the ambitions of Utopian politics - and by the end of the Second World War geometric abstraction was increasingly perceived as a somewhat outmoded, drily academic style.

The Kinetic art movement revitalized the tradition of geometric abstraction, utilizing mechanical or natural motion to establish new relationships between art and technology, and to forge new grammars of abstract composition which, it was once again felt, might transcend cultural and national boundaries. To that end, kineticism was introduced across several artistic media, including painting, drawing, and sculpture, and many Kinetic artists sought to work with ever newer and more public media in order to bring the style to a wide audience. Artists associated with a broadly Constructivist approach to Kinetic art include Naum Gabo, László Moholy-Nagy, Victor Vasarely, and Bridget Riley.

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Kinetic Art Overview Continues

The Legacy of Dada

Kinetic art also drew heavily on the Dada movement, which had inspired some of the earliest works of modern art employing motion, such as Marcel Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel (1913) and Roto-Reliefs (1935-65). The motivation for such works, and for the Kinetic artworks inspired by them, was not so much an interest in uniting art and technology as a desire to break with the conventional constraints of the static artwork. Instead of the viewer's experience of the artwork being determined by the artist in advance, Kinetic artists made the movement of the work - and the viewer's subjective perception of that movement - a vital and necessarily unpredictable element of their encounter with it.

The post-Dada element in Kinetic art is partly responsible for the skepticism of technology as an expression of cultural progress which defined elements of the movement. Jean Tinguely, one of the artists exhibiting at Le Mouvement in 1955, expressed this skepticism most forcefully with his self-destructing sculpture Homage to New York (1960), an unwieldy mechanical contraption designed to set itself on fire, and to disintegrate in a hail of sound and light. Other artists associated with Kinetic art, such as Alexander Calder, were influenced by post-Dada and Surrealist artists such as Joan Miró, while Calder's interest in change, contingency, and biomorphic abstraction arguably place in the Dadaist wing of the movement.

The Influence of Science

Jean Tinguely with his sculpture <i>Metamatic, no. 17</i> (1959)
Jean Tinguely with his sculpture Metamatic, no. 17 (1959)

The Constructivist tradition had always been inspired by a technological conception of life, and this was especially evident in the work of the Kinetic artists influenced by it, many of whom borrowed concepts from fields such as physics, optics, and cybernetics. Naum Gabo's Kinetic Construction (1920), arguably the prototype for all subsequent Kinetic art, was designed to express the concept of the "standing wave" - a type of wave-motion which creates the illusion of a static, curvilinear form - while the Op Art pioneer Victor Vasarely based his visual tricks on studies of the ocular perception of line and color. In broader terms, new conceptions of the relationship between time and space, established by the work of theoretical physicists such as Albert Einstein, provide the ambient cultural context for the fascination with movement evident in Kinetic art.

The interaction of science and Kinetic art was arguably most strikingly expressed by Nicholas Schöffer's "Spatiodynamic" sculptures of the 1940s-50s, intelligent machines whose movements and physical activities would alter based on changes in their external environment. These works were influenced by the newly established field of cybernetics, which posited a series of analogies between human and artificial intelligence. As such, Schöffer's work pushed the integration of science into art to its logical conclusion, implying that human behavior itself might be no more than the expression of a mechanical process.

Later Developments

Kinetic artist Nicholas Schöffer with some of his “Spatiodynamic” sculptures
Kinetic artist Nicholas Schöffer with some of his “Spatiodynamic” sculptures

The mid-1960s brought considerable acclaim to Kinetic works and artists. Julio Le Parc, a pioneer in interactive Kinetic art, was awarded the Grand Prize for Painting at the Venice Biennale in 1966, and Nicolas Schöffer won the prize for sculpture in 1968; the Galerie Denise René celebrated ten years of Kinetic art in 1965 with a group show entitled Le Mouvement 2. But it was increasingly felt that Kinetic art had ceased to be aesthetically or politically radical, and was being steadily incorporated into the art establishment. Arguably, and ironically, the deathblow for Kinetic art was the huge popularity of The Responsive Eye, an exhibition focusing on the Op-Art wing of the movement, held at the The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1965. The very definitiveness of this exhibition perhaps presented Kinetic art as something of a fait accompli, while some critics criticized the work on display as mere 'gadgetry', a collection of kitsch optical tricks whose only value was in momentarily titillating the eye.

By this time, however, the pioneering generation of kinetic artists had already inspired a number of other artists and collective endeavors, whose work would help the ideas underpinning Kinetic art to survive the demise of the movement itself. In Paris, in the 1960s, the Groupe de Recherche d'Art Visuel (GRAV), inspired by Vasarely's ideas, created various immersive, multi-sensory sound-and-light environments, heralding a move towards the post-Kinetic Interactive Art of the following decades. In California, during the same period, the Light and Space Movement, also influenced by Kinetic art, as well as Minimalism and Conceptual Art, pursued the interest in organic movement and natural visual effects which had defined one wing of the Kinetic art movement.

A section of <i>Labyrinthe II</i>, constructed by the Groupe de Recherche d'Art Visuel for the New Tendencies Exhibition held at the Louvre, Paris (1964)
A section of Labyrinthe II, constructed by the Groupe de Recherche d'Art Visuel for the New Tendencies Exhibition held at the Louvre, Paris (1964)

A vast range of individual artists have employed movement in their work in one way or another since the 1960s, some of them influenced by Kinetic art, and almost all of them by the same principles that informed the movement. Rebecca Horn's sculptures often fuse elements of Dada, Fluxus, and Kinetic aesthetics; her Concert for Anarchy (1990) features a grand piano suspended upside down from the ceiling, from which, every few minutes, the keys are thrust out. The North-American artist Liliane Lijn - one of the first artists to incorporate text into kinetic sculpture, with her poem-cones of the 1960s - combined kinetic sculpture with feminist mythography in the construction of her animatronic Conjunction of Opposites (1986). The playground slides, carousels, and interactive sculptures created since the 1990s by Carsten Höller owe little to Kinetic art directly, but the incorporation of bodily movement into the work is obviously vital to their effect. Today, then, the Kinetic art movement perhaps seems less a direct influence on artists than the source and manifestation of some of the most ubiquitous ideas in contemporary art.


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Useful Resources on Kinetic Art

Videos

Books

Websites

Articles

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The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
Force Fields: An Essay on the Kinetic Recomended resource

By Guy Brett, Marc Nash

Kinetic Art: Theory and Practice

By Frank J. Malina

Origins and Development of Kinetic Art

By Frank Popper, S. Bann

Robert Rauschenberg & Jean Tinguely: Collaborations

By Roland Wetzel, Mari Dumett, Robert Rauschenberg, Jean Tinguely

More Interesting Books about Kinetic Art
Kinetica Museum Recomended resource

Features Kinetic Works by Contemporary Artists

Guggenheim: Kinetic Art

Provides a Brief Overview of the Movement and Examples of Kinetic Works from the Collection

Kinetic Art Organization

Victor Vasarely

Official Website of the Kinetic Artist Victor Vasarely

Kinetic Abstraction

By Morgan Falconer
Frieze Magazine
November-December 2007

Force Fields: Phases Of The Kinetic Recomended resource

By Yve-Alain Bois
Artforum
November 2000

Retro or Nostalgic, the Work Never Stops Moving

By Alan Riding
The New York Times
August 16, 2000

Sculpture That Moves By Air, By Touch

By William Zimmer
The New York Times
February 21, 1999

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