Summary of Kinetic Art
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 & Accomplishments
- 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.
Overview of Kinetic Art
Declaring, "The only stable thing is movement," Jean Tinguely pioneered Kinetic Art. His sculptural machines expressed his view that all that mattered was, "To live in the present."
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.
Useful Resources on Kinetic Art
- Force Fields: An Essay on the KineticOur PickBy Guy Brett, Marc Nash
- Kinetic Art: Theory and PracticeBy Frank J. Malina
- Origins and Development of Kinetic ArtBy Frank Popper, S. Bann
- Robert Rauschenberg & Jean Tinguely: CollaborationsBy Roland Wetzel, Mari Dumett, Robert Rauschenberg, Jean Tinguely
- Alexander Calder and His Magical MobilesBy Jean Lipman, Margaret Aspinwall
- Victor Vasarely: 1906-1997; Pure VisionBy Magdalena Holzhey
- Kinetic AbstractionBy Morgan Falconer / Frieze Magazine / November-December 2007
- Force Fields: Phases Of The KineticOur PickBy Yve-Alain Bois / Artforum / November 2000
- Retro or Nostalgic, the Work Never Stops MovingBy Alan Riding / The New York Times / August 16, 2000
- Sculpture That Moves By Air, By TouchBy William Zimmer / The New York Times / February 21, 1999
- Naum Gabo reading The Realistic Manifesto (1920)