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Movements Kinetic Art

Kinetic Art

Started: 1954

"Just as one can compose colors, or forms, so one can compose motions."

Synopsis

Kinetic art - art that depends on movement for its effects - has its origins in the Dadaist and Constructivist movements that emerged in the 1910s. It flourished into a lively avant-garde trend following the landmark exhibition Le Mouvement at Galerie Denise Rene in Paris in 1955, after which it attracted a wide international following. At its heart were artists who were fascinated by the possibilities of movement in art - its potential to create new and more interactive relationships with the viewer and new visual experiences. It inspired new kinds of art that went beyond the boundaries of the traditional, handcrafted, static object, encouraging the idea that the beauty of an object could be the product of optical illusions or mechanical movement. But the group was split between those such as Jean Tinguely, who were interested in employing actual movement, and those such as Victor Vasarely, who were interested in optical effects and the illusion of movement and went on to be more closely associated with the Op art movement. Kinetic art thrived for a decade and achieved considerable prominence. But Op art proved almost too successful in capturing the public's imagination, while Kinetic art eventually began to be seen as a stale and accepted genre. By the mid-1960s, these developments led to a decline in artists' interest in movement.

Key Ideas

Kinetic art marked an important revival of the tradition of Constructivism, or Constructive art, that had been a presence in modern art since the 1910s. Parts of the movement also revived its utopian optimism, talking once again of the potential for art to spread into new areas of everyday life and to embrace technology in ways appropriate to the modern world.
But the movement also borrowed much from Dada, and in this respect parts of it were highly skeptical about the potential of technology to improve human life. Artists who were inspired by Dada, such as Jean Tinguely, used their work to express a more anarchic, satirical attitude to machines and movement. They suggested that rather than being humanity's helpmate, the machine might become her master.
Although ostensibly fascinated by machines, some Kinetic artists developed a profound interest in analogies between machines and human bodies. Rather than regarding machines and human bodies as radically different - one being soulless and functional, the other being governed by the sensitive, rational mind - they used their art to suggest that humans might be little more than irrational engines of conflicting lusts and urges, like a dysfunctional machine. This idea has deep roots in Dada, and betrays Kinetic art's debt to that earlier movement.

Most Important Art

Bicycle Wheel (1913)

By: Marcel Duchamp

Bicycle Wheel is famous above all as the first example of a "readymade" sculpture, an art object comprised of commonplace parts not manufactured by the artist. However, it has also been seen as the first work of Kinetic art, by virtue of the fact that the wheel affixed to the stool can be spun. For Duchamp, this movement was essential to the object'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." Even though the piece was made outside of the context of the Kinetic art movement of the 1950s, artists of that time looked upon it as an important precursor, one that justified their claim that there had been a tradition of Kinetic art throughout the early 20th century. The importance of Duchamp's piece to the later Kinetic artists also reflected the influence of Dada on the later movement. For while some Kinetic artists were optimistic about technology, others were skeptical, and they drew inspiration from works such as this, in which the wheel turns almost senselessly, secured in one spot and going nowhere.

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Arc of Petals (1941)

By: Alexander Calder

Before Alexander Calder trained as an artist, he took a degree in mechanical engineering, and this laid the foundations for what would later be an important and early contribution to Kinetic art. He is most associated with mobiles, which he began to make in the early 1930s, which employ motorized or hand-cranked mechanisms to move an array of different forms in a predetermined way. These later gave way to the works for which he is most famous: non-mechanized mobiles driven by air currents. Early versions of these often used materials such as glass or pottery, while later mobiles were generally comprised of flat metal pieces painted in solid red, yellow, blue, black, or white. In these works, movement is produced naturally and accidentally by virtue of passing breezes. Taking the theme of movement that was central to Kinetic art, Calder's later wind-blown mobiles reflected its harmonious and entirely natural aspects, suggesting that these forces can provide some of the subtle pleasures of human life.

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Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave) (1919-20)

By: Naum Gabo

Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave) was initially created by Naum Gabo to demonstrate kinetic energy to a class. Here a metal strip stand is mechanized to create a motion that produces the illusion of volume. The abstracted form embraces the elements of time and space in a constructed form. It reflects the origins of Kinetic art in some of the radical approaches to sculpture born with Constructivism. What is remarkable about the object is that, when immobile and stationary, it fails entirely as a sculpture, being nothing more than a vertical strip of metal; it is only movement that lends it interest, and that interest is the product of an optical illusion. In that sense, the artistry of Gabo's Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave) is a fleeting thing - nothing more than a mirage that can be gone in an instant.

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Monument to the Third International (1919-20)

By: Vladimir Tatlin

Monument to the Third International is Tatlin's most famous work, as well as the most important catalyst to the formation of the Constructivist movement and, therefore, Kinetic art. The tower, which was never fully realized, was intended to act as a fully functional conference space and propaganda center for the Communist Third International. Its steel spiral frame was to stand at 1,300 feet, which would have made it the tallest structure in the world at the time. It was to be taller, more functional and therefore more beautiful - by Constructivist standards - than the Eiffel Tower. There were to be three glass units, a cube, a cylinder, and a cone, which would provide functional space for meetings, and would rotate once per year, month, and day, respectively. For Tatlin, steel and glass were the essential materials of modern construction. They symbolized industry, technology, and the machine age, and the constant motion of the geometrically shaped units embodied the dynamism of modernity.

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Homage to New York (fragment) (1960)

By: Jean Tinguely

Homage to New York was constructed in three weeks in 1960 in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and involved the talents of several artists and engineers, among them Robert Rauschenberg. It was blown to pieces in a public performance of noise and light in only 27 minutes. Consisting of several mechanized parts that result in the self-destruction of the artwork, it contained pieces of metal, wheels, bicycle horns, and motors. The parts jutted out into space to create an entanglement of abstracted forms. The machine fragments worked together to complete tasks that eventually led to its destruction. Homage to New York is typical of the anarchic and satirical side of the Kinetic art movement, and reflects the skepticism among many of its followers about the possibility of mechanization and modernization. Homage to New York is like a mechanized Frankenstein that turns on its own and destroys itself in a parable for the modern world.

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Blaze (1964)

By: Bridget Riley

The zigzag black and white lines in Blaze create the perception of a vortex. As the brain interprets the image, the alternating pattern appears to shift back and forth; the interlocking lines add depth to the form as it rhythmically curves around the center of the page. And, although the image is black and white, prismatic color appears when the eye focuses on the image. The perception of motion in what is a static object demonstrates the interest in virtual movement that occupied the Op art wing of the Kinetic movement. The pulsating quality of the work also makes it reminiscent of an important predecessor of the movement, Marcel Duchamp's Rotary Demisphere (Precision Optics) (1925), in which a moving, circular design was used to create the impression of movement. Some critics have likened the movement in that piece to bodily rhythms, and in that respect the Demisphere - and Riley's Blaze - points to the links between mechanized and human movement that interested many Kinetic artists in the 1950s and 1960s.

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Beginnings

Kinetic art

Early experiments with movement in art began between 1913 and 1920, led by artists of the Dadaist and Constructivist traditions. Perhaps the earliest instance of kinetic art was Marcel Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel (1913), which consisted of a wheel inverted on a stool (the piece is also recognized as the first "readymade" sculpture). In 1920, Constructivist artists Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner used the term "kinetic art" in their Realistic Manifesto. And, later, Bauhaus artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy used the term "kinetic" to describe the mechanized movement of his piece Light Space Modulator (1930).

Kinetic Art Overview Continues

Although artists used the concept of kinetics intermittently for several years, it was not until 1955 that it was established as a major artistic movement, when the group exhibition Le Mouvement was held at Galerie Denise Rene in Paris. Central to this exhibition was Victor Vasarely; his so-called 'Yellow Manifesto' was published at the time of the show and came to serve as one of the movement's founding documents. Vasarely had been trained in Bauhaus ideas and had spent many years working in advertising. The graphic designs that he had initially used in advertising formed the substance of his new style. These took the form of a grid-like arrangement of black and white that produced a flickering effect. His style quickly attracted followers such as Bridget Riley.

But other aspects of Le Mouvement, those involving real movement as opposed to optical illusions, began to attract the interest of artists across the world. This movement could be effected by air or touch, as in the case of Alexander Calder's mobiles: his Arc of Petals (1941) combines subtle lines and biomorphic forms with natural movement to examine the behavior of an object in space. Or, as was more often the case, the movement was mechanized. Nicolas Schoffer's desire to introduce a sense of dynamism to his geometric Constructivist sculptures initially involved merely lending them a complex sense of space. But he eventually introduced mechanized movement to these works, which he called Spatiodynamic sculptures, and this led to his interest in fusing electronics and art.

Concepts and Styles

The Legacy of Constructivism

The Kinetic art movement emerged out of what was widely perceived as the decline of the tradition of geometric abstraction in the post-war period. Due to the legacy of Constructivism, De Stijl, and the Bauhaus, geometric abstraction had initially been associated with revolutionary attitudes to art and society. Its austere and conceptual language of lines and flat planes, and simplified color palette, made it seem appropriate to the modern world. The philosophy that grew around it also encouraged the belief that it might provide a language in which art might filter into everyday life, decorating everything from architecture to ceramics. But as these hopes receded, geometric abstraction came to be seen as a somewhat academic art form concerned with little more than old-fashioned notions of composition.

The Kinetic art movement represented a revitalization of that tradition, by utilizing mechanical or natural motion to bring about a new relationship between art and technology. The movement introduced Kineticism across several forms of art, including painting, drawing, and sculpture, and many of its artists aspired to work with ever newer and more public media in order to bring Kinetic art to a wide audience.

The Legacy of Dada

Kinetic art also drew heavily on the Dada movement, which had inspired some of the earliest instances of movement in art, such as Marcel Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel (1913) and Roto-Reliefs (1935-65). The motivation for these was less an interest in uniting art and technology than in breaking with the conventions of the traditional static artwork. Instead of the experience of the artwork being entirely determined by the artist in advance of exhibition, Kinetic art objects suggested that movement and the viewer's own impression of that movement - something out of the artist's control - was more important. Indeed the Dada tradition brought to Kinetic art a skepticism about the value of technology in modern life. Jean Tinguely's amusing self-detonating construction, Homage to New York (1960), was typical of this skepticism, since the mechanical contraption ultimately destroyed itself in a violent performance of sound and light. Dada and Surrealism also informed the work of another prominent kinetic artist, Alexander Calder. His mobiles, such as Arc of Petals (1941), used the natural movement of the air to animate an assortment of biomorphic forms. Rather than use movement to suggest modern technology, he used it to conjure a wistful, calming mood, one that suggested a happy union of nature and humanity.

Later Developments

The mid-1960s brought considerable acclaim to the movement and its artists. Julio Le Parc was awarded the Grand Prize for Painting at the Venice Biennale in 1966, and Nicolas Schoffer won the prize for sculpture in 1968. Galerie Denise Rene celebrated ten years of the movement in 1965 with another group show entitled Le Mouvement 2. But the perception that the movement had ceased to be radical and was beginning to be accepted by the art world establishment discouraged a new generation from pursuing it. Much of the impetus behind the movement had derived from an avant-garde spirit - on the one hand a utopian optimism that modern art might find a wider public, on the other a critical, anti-establishment ethos - and the realization that the movement was settling down to become just another successful style of art contributed to its decline. The deathblow was delivered by the huge popularity of The Responsive Eye, an exhibition concentrating on the Op wing of the movement, which was held at the The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1965. Some critics attacked this Op work as "gadgetry" and as a collection of kitschy optical tricks whose only effect was to titillate the eye.

Since that period, artists have continued to use movement in their work, sometimes in ways that betray the influence of kinetic art, sometimes not. Rebecca Horn's sculpture sometimes fuses aspects of Dada, Fluxus, and Kinetic art; 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. Yet the playground slides, carousels, and interactive sculptures created since the 1990s by Carsten Höller owe little to Kineticism, despite the importance of movement to them. Today, the Kinetic art movement seems less a pressing influence for artists than a resource for ideas.

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Key Artists

Vladimir TatlinVladimir Tatlin
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Marcel DuchampMarcel Duchamp
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Alexander CalderAlexander Calder
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Laszlo Moholy-NagyLaszlo Moholy-Nagy
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Alexander RodchenkoAlexander Rodchenko
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Naum GaboNaum Gabo
Pol BuryPol Bury
Jean TinguelyJean Tinguely
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Mark di SuveroMark di Suvero
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Yaacov AgamYaacov Agam
Nemo GouldNemo Gould
Frank Joseph MalinaFrank Joseph Malina
Thomas WilfredThomas Wilfred
Bruno MunariBruno Munari
Nicolas SchofferNicolas Schoffer

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."
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy
"To me art is a form of manifest revolt, total and complete."
Jean Tinguely
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