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Important Art and Artists of Kinetic Art
Bicycle Wheel is mainly famous as the first example of what Duchamp called his "readymades": artworks which literally constituted found, generally mass-produced objects, placed in galleries or other suitably suggestive contexts and presented as works of art. In this case, however, the work contains a movable element - the bicycle wheel - and has thus also been seen as the first example of Kinetic art.
Marcel Duchamp is primarily associated with the Dada movement, and Bicycle Wheel is most significant as an expression of that movement's revolutionary attitudes to the boundaries of the art object, and its scorn for established notions of artistic form and interpretation. What is important about the work in this sense is not its incorporation of motion into sculpture but what it is not: its rejection of the artisanal modes of construction and composition central to what Duchamp derided as "retinal art". However, for Duchamp, the movement of the bicycle wheel was also essential to the work's effect. "I enjoyed looking at it," he said, "just as I enjoyed looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace. It was like having a fireplace in my studio, the movement of the wheel reminded me of the movement of flames." The first viewers of Bicycle Wheel were also invited to spin the wheel, and Duchamp went on to make more obviously proto-Kinetic works such as his Rotary Glass Plates (Precision Optics) of 1920, and his Roto-Reliefs of 1935-65.
Although Bicycle Wheel was made outside the context of the Kinetic art movement, artists of the 1950s-60s looked back on it as a precursor, evidence of a tradition of Kinetic art extending across the twentieth century. The importance subsequently assigned to Duchamp's piece also reveals the significance of Dada as a - sometimes hidden - forerunner to Kinetic art. Though in many instances, Kinetic art expressed optimism regarding the relationship between technology and humanity, for some Kinetic artists, the rise of the machine signaled the demise of a vital human spirit, or the absence of any such spirit in the first place. The somewhat abject appearance of Bicycle Wheel, and the comic pointlessness of its freewheeling motion, predict this more satirical, socially critical aspect of Kinetic art.
Naum Gabo's Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave) consists of a steel rod affixed to a wooden base, set in motion by an electric motor. The oscillations of the rod create the illusion of a static, curvilinear shape, a sculptural form generated entirely through movement, and arguably the first example of Kinetic art created in earnest.
The sculpture was constructed in war-torn, post-Revolutionary Moscow, where Russian artists such as Gabo were attempting to play their part in the construction of a new, Utopian society. As many of the workshops where he might have requisitioned materials were shut, Gabo used an old doorbell mechanism to power the piece. In conceptual terms, the work was meant to demonstrate the new artistic principles outlined in Gabo and his brother Antoine Pevsner's "Realistic Manifesto" (1920), the first document of modern art to speak of "kinetics" as an aspect of artistic form, announcing that "kinetic rhythms" should be "affirmed ... as the basic forms of our perception of real time". More specifically, Kinetic Construction was meant to demonstrate the principle of the "standing wave": the way that certain wave-forms move through space to create the illusion of a permanent, static presence. In both concept and context, then, this piece evokes the technological, politically radical world-view which underpinned the earliest, Constructivist-inspired works of Kinetic art.
Many Kinetic artists of the 1950s-60s revived the technological and utopian fervour of the Constructivist vanguard, making new attempts to integrate technology into art, and to establish a new, rational and scientific creative vocabulary fit for an internationalist culture. Gabo thus created a work which stands at the forefront of one part of the Kinetic art movement; at the same time, it is worth acknowleding that in its relative simplicity of form, Kinetic Construction is, as Gabo put it, more of an "explanation of the idea than a Kinetic sculpture itself".
The Light-Space Modulator created by Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy between 1922 and 1930 is an early example of the complex, mechanically-powered Kinetic art that would become more common after the Second World War. The original version displayed in 1930 consisted of a large circular base supporting various interlocking, moving components: several metal rectangles designed to jerk around in irregular fashion; perforated metal discs which released a small black ball; and a glass spiral which rotated to create the illusion of a conical form. Central to the piece's effect were 130 integrated electric light bulbs, which shone through the construction to produce mesmeric interplays of light and shadow on the surrounding surfaces. The work was first shown as part of an exhibition by the Deutscher Werkbund ("German Association of Craftsmen") in Paris; the same year, Moholy-Nagy created a film based on the sculpture, Light Play Black-White-Grey, and used the word "kinetic" for the first time to describe his own practice.
Born in Hungary to a Jewish family, in 1920 Moholy-Nagy emigrated to Germany, and by 1923 was teaching at the Bauhaus, then the most significant outpost of Constructivist principles in Northern Europe. Moholy-Nagy was partly responsible for establishing the technological, rationalist, politically radical approach to art associated with the school; working across a range of applied artforms, he focused on the integration of scientific principles into creative design, and the establishment of new compositional vocabularies for art. The Light-Space Modulator exemplifies these ideas, many of which were expressed in his "Manifesto on the System of Dynamico-Constructivist Forms", co-authored with Alfred Kemeny in 1922: "[w]e must put in the place of the static principle of classical art the dynamic principle of universal life. Stated practically: instead of static material construction [...] dynamic construction [...] must be evolved, in which the material is employed as the carrier of its forces."
Though influenced by Naum Gabo's kinetic constructions - and sketches for kinetic constructions - of the early 1920s, Light-Space Modulator represents a new level of conceptual and technical sophistication within Kinetic art. In this sense, and in terms of the date and location of its creation, it is an important transitional work, standing between the first pioneering efforts of artists such as Gabo and the ever-more complex mechanical constructions of post-1945 Kinetic artists in Western Europe and North America.