Beginnings of Kinetic Art

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.

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.

Kinetic Art: Concepts, Styles, and Trends

The Legacy of Constructivism

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.

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

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 - After Kinetic Art

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 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.

Key Artists

  • Vladimir Tatlin was a prominent Russian avant-garde artist and architect. He was one of the key figures of the Constructivist movement.
  • The French artist Marcel Duchamp was an instrumental figure in the avant-garde art worlds of Paris and New York. Moving through Dada, Surrealism, readymades, sculpture, and installation, his work involves conceptual play and an implicit attack on bourgeois art sensibilities.
  • Alexander Calder was an American artist who made important contributions to abstract sculpture, hanging mobiles, and Kinetic art. His work reflects both modern and Surrealist influences.
  • Moholy-Nagy was a Hungarian painter, photographer, and teacher at the Bauhaus School. He was influential in promoting the Bauhaus's multi- and mixed-media approaches to art, advocating for the integration of technological and industrial design elements.
  • Aleksander Rodchenko was a Russian artist, sculptor, photographer, and graphic designer. Concerned with the need for analytical-documentary photo series, he often shot his subjects from odd angles - usually high above or below - to shock the viewer and to postpone recognition. He was one of the founders of Constructivism and Russian design; he was married to the artist Varvara Stepanova.
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  • Op art, short for Optical art, is a style of abstraction that relies on geometric shapes, lines, and color juxtapositions to create optical illusions. Emerging in the mid-1950s, along with Kinetic art, it generated an international following of artists seeking to create new and more interactive relationships with the viewer, and new, disorientating visual experiences.
  • Russian Constructivism emerged with the Revolution of 1917 and sought a new approach to making objects, one which abolished the traditional concern with composition and replaced it with 'construction,' which called for a new attention to the technical character of materials. It was hoped that these inquiries would yield ideas for mass production. The movement was an important influence on geometric abstraction.
  • Performance is a genre in which art is presented "live," usually by the artist but sometimes with collaborators or performers. It has had a role in avant-garde art throughout the twentieth century, playing an important part in anarchic movements such as Futurism and Dada. It particularly flourished in the 1960s, when Performance artists became preoccupied with the body, but it continues to be an important aspect of art practice.

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Kinetic Art Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 01 May 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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