Forever in Motion: The Ins and Outs of Kinetic Art
Man has always been intrigued with the notion of movement, not only from the ability to arrive at new destinations, but rather the fascination with speed, machinery and technology.
This holds true through the art movements of the 20th century, where these themes of movement and captured moments of velocity are depicted in painting, photography and sculpture.
Kinetic art is a celebration of movement, its interaction with natural and artificial elements, and creating a dialogue within time and space.
Discover the movement’s origins, the makers and the artworks that define kinetic art.
ORIGINS OF KINETIC ART
Victor Vasarely. Credit: FOTO-FORTEPAN / Ormos Imre Alapítvány/Wikimedia Commons
The term kinetic art was first introduced in 1920 by Russian artist Naum Gabo (1890-1977) in the Realistic Manifesto, which was written in collaboration with fellow artist Antoine Pevsner.
Gabo described his work to have a kinetic rhythm, the same year he completed and presented the artwork Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave).
By using an electric motor, the piece consisted of a metal rod spinning in a constant motion, eventually creating a soft wave pattern, demonstrating Gabo’s belief in space and time as components within a sculpture.
Standing Wave is considered one of the first works of modern art that involves real movement.
In the 1930s, so-called kinetic art and influences can be found within the constructivist and post-constructivist movements, such as artists at the Bauhaus, before the famed German school of art, architecture and design had to close its doors in 1933 due to the Nazi regime.
The kinetic movement is finally established and recognised in 1955 during the exhibition Le Mouvement, held at the Parisian Galerie Denise Rene.
The group exhibition included works by prominent artists of the period, such as Alexander Calder, Marcel Duchamp, Jean Tinguely, Yaacov Agam, Pol Bury and Jesus Rafael Soto.
There were also works by the gallery’s co-founder Victor Vasarely (1906-1997), a Hungarian-French artist who is widely considered the “grandfather” or founder of the art movement, op art.
Vasarely presented his Manifeste Jaune (Yellow Manifesto) as part of the exhibition, which was seen as the official starting point of the Kinetic Art movement.
KINETIC ART VS OP ART
Op art, an abbreviation of optical art, is a type of abstract art often incorporating geometric forms to create patterns of visual effects, blurring the line between foreground and background, ultimately confusing the eye.
Both relating to movement, op art, refers to the notion of virtual movement within an artwork, whereas kinetic pieces relate to works that identify with real movement, whether through electricity, natural elements or by the viewer themself.
In 1965, a survey exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York titled The Responsive Eye was a huge success with the general public, initiating a new curiosity in op art and kinetic art, influencing consequently both fashion and mass media.
Critics at the time however were cynical of the show, calling it “tricks of the eye”.
As well as op art, kinetic art has roots in both constructivism and dadaism, one for its strict use of geometry and link to a utopic reality, while the other for its anarchic rebellion to so-called normality.
WHO ARE THE KINETIC ARTISTS?
From Duchamp to Calder, Bridget Riley, Tinguely and lots more, there are numerous names that stand out when it comes to kinetic art. Here is a look at the artists and their famous creations.
Marcel Duchamp's 'Rotary Glass Plates'. Credit: Marcel Duchamp/Wikimedia Commons
In 1913, French artist Duchamp (1887-1968) created Bicycle Wheel, the first of his readymade sculptures.
“I had the happy idea to fasten a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool and watch it turn,” Duchamp was once quoted as saying.
Appropriating found objects, such as in this work a wooden stool and a single metal bicycle wheel, Duchamp questioned the preconceived notions of art, and especially so-called fine art.
For the piece Rotary Demisphere (1925), Duchamp demonstrated his fascination with optical effects. As the piece begins to rotate, the circles seem to move closer to the viewer, almost pulsating. The artwork almost comes to life.
Alexander Calder in Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Credit: Eric Koch for Anefo/Wikimedia Commons
American sculptor Calder (1898-1976), who initially trained as a mechanical engineer, used his mathematical mind to intertwine wire sculptures and mobiles, creating innovative pieces of kinetic art.
Finding equilibrium in balance and suspension in the air, his delicate pieces both large and small, take on a life of their own as they begin to move in an unpredictable manner.
Calder initially added electric motors to instigate movement within his work, later he relied solely on air currents.
The larger works, such as Carmen (1974) found in the courtyard of the Museo di Reina Sofia in Madrid, move in sync with the breeze, and not by human touch.
The stabiles, as called by Jean Arp, instead of moving autonomously, called on the viewer to walk around the sculpture, again referencing movement however not in the piece itself.
Bridget Riley's 'Descending' (1965). Credit: Rob Oo from NL/Wikimedia Commons
Riley (1931-) is a British artist who is known for her works primarily in the field of op art, yet several works cross the line into kinetic art.
Influenced by futurist works by Boccioni and Balla in Venice in 1960, Riley wanted to introduce curves into her own art.
Current (1964) was chosen as the cover of the catalogue for the exhibition The Responsive Eye, after which she gained notoriety in the United States. The painting appears to vibrate as the curves and the proximity of the lines create an illusion of movement.
The viewer cannot understand if the black is on the white or vice versa, challenging the concept of foreground and background as clear entities.
Jean Tinguely's ‘Gismo’ (1960). Credit: Jmersina/Wikimedia Commons
A pioneer in kinetic art and more precisely sculpture, Swiss native Tinguely (1925-1991) initially focused his artistic research on sculptures made using found objects.
Intrigued by the modernisation of society and the rapid advancements in technology, Tinguely adapted his once static creations into moving sculptures. The decision to move into kinetic art also stemmed from the artist’s investigations into the public’s reaction and interaction when it came to these types of works.
Tinguely aimed to challenge the static observation of art, again inviting the viewer to move and become an active participant.
Influenced by the practice of dadaism, Tinguely’s works often mocked society’s obsession with technology. Again demonstrating dadaism’s influence, he used found objects, such as scrap metal, cardboard, and so forth.
Meta-Matic No. 17 (1959) was presented during the Paris Biennale and consisted of various pieces of found materials, which rotate separately at different speeds.
MARK DI SUVERO
Mark Di Suvero's 'Are Years What?' Hirshhorn Museum Sculpture Garden. Credit: Mark di Suvero/Wikimedia Commons
Known for his use of industrial steel as an art medium, and a crane as an artist’s tool, Mark Di Suvero (1933-) has introduced the theme of kinetic art within his own pieces.
His research is inspired by working environments, such as the docks of Manhattan, and the scrap materials of a construction or demolition sites. Similar to Calder, Di Suvero explores the dialogue between sculpture and viewer, between material, gesture and form.
During the 45th Venice Biennale in 1995, Di Suvero installed a selection of his large sculptures along the Grand Canal, where for one particular sculpture one section of steel hangs in almost precarious manner and moves as the breeze comes past.
Di Suvero creates a balance between the heaviness of the industrial material and the lightness that can be felt by the relationship held between the combination of forms.
Filipino interdisciplinary artist and political activist, David Medalla (1942-2020) investigates participatory art, performance, drawing, sculpture and kinetic art.
Cloud Canyons (1963-2015) is an example of Medalla’s kinetic sculptures, where bubbles are continuously made and expelled from large transparent perspex tubes.
Eventually, the cloud-like clusters spill over, taking over the space, encouraging the viewer to blow or touch the bubbles.
JULIO LE PARC
Julio Le Parc's 'Sphere Rouge' installed at Palais du Tokyo. Credit: Florent Darrault/Wikimedia Commons
Influenced by the group Arte Concreto-Invencion, artist Lucio Fontana's spazialismo movement and later, the tradition of constructivism, Argentinian artist Julio Le Parc (1928-) began to create geometrical abstract paintings, initially in black and white, and consequently adding colour.
Le Parc later began to construct sculptures, introducing movement and light, experimenting with mobiles and materials such as mirror and reflective surfaces.
Large sculptures, such as Continuel Mobile En Diagonal (2020), take over the room – the small sections fluctuate with the current, reflecting and moving the rays of the light, whether natural or artificial.
In 2010, Swiss artist Etienne Krahenbuhl (1953-) began to work on his series of kinetic sculptures titled Big Bang (2010-2018).
The works consist of hundreds of hanging steel rods that move in unison. Presented as a sphere, the rods contract and expand and as they come back together, vibrating against each other to create sound.
Influenced by research in shape-memory metals, Krahenbuhl investigates the physical properties of the materials he works with – moulding together and creating a choreography of sound, movement and time.
The Big Bang sculpture can be found at the Chateau De Vullierens gardens in Vaud, Switzerland.
Theo Jansen (1948-) is best known for his series of works, the Strandbeests. Verging on science-fiction, these creatures whose skeletons are composed of yellow plastic tubing, move and walk autonomously, dependent solely on the wind for energy.
Combining art with engineering, Jansen has evolved the series starting in 1989 to today’s branch in the family tree of Strandbeests which are adapted to not only walk but also fly.
Animated by the wind as they wander along the sandy beaches of the Netherlands, these creatures take on a life of their own.
WHERE TO SEE KINETIC ART?
Invites: Shinuk Suh, 2022. Installation view, Zabludowicz Collection. Photo: David Bebber.
Works of kinetic art from art history can be found in several large collections of modern art.
To name a couple, one can find pieces such as Bicycle Wheel by Duchamp at Rome’s National Gallery of Modern Art and his Rotary Demisphere is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The National Gallery of Art in Washington exhibits the world’s largest permanent display of works by Calder, while in Europe, one can come across his mobiles at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice or at the Museo Di Reina Sofia in Madrid.
Riley’s pieces can be found in many collections, including the Tate Modern in London and the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne among others. An example of Tinguely’s work Gismo (1960) is part of the Stedelijk Museum’s collection in Amsterdam.
From the classics to contemporary, kinetic art can be found in several exhibitions of contemporary art.
From the work Chroma V by Yunchul Kim as part of the Korean Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale, to Time Zone by Dutch visual artist Rogier Van Der Zwaag shown at Tegel airport in Berlin.
The motorised So Glad To Be Back by Shinuk Suh can be viewed at the Zabludowicz Collection in London.
Cover Credit: Amelia, 1972. Mary Curtis Ratcliff. Satin, plexiglass, plastic, wood, and monofilament. Credit: Mary Curtis Ratcliff/Wikimedia Commons
Writer | Glesni Trefor Williams
Glesni Trefor Williams is a Bologna-based art journalist/translator from North Wales, who focuses her writing on contemporary art and interlinked exhibition spaces. She writes for Lampoon, Spinosa Magazine, and is an arts contributor on BBC Radio Cymru. @glesniw