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Kinetic art

Everything is spinning!

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In the twentieth century, art was able to surmount one of its basic limitations: it stopped being static. For centuries, the theatre, cinema, literature, and music had a feature that seemed absolutely impossible for painting and sculpture: an artwork’s ability to exist in time, transforming and evolving from the beginning towards the end. The only moving element was the observer walking slowly around a static sculpture, or approaching a static canvas and then stepping backward at the distance recommended to see the picture to advantage. Kinetic sculpture defied this long-established stereotype and started a new era in art. Now, an artwork can move, sound, and even destroy itself forever.
Kinetic art is a 20th-century trend that, for the first time ever, allowed an art object to move and change while being perceived by the viewer. Before, motion in painting or sculpture had been but a visual effect, an illusion achieved by artistic techniques — but now, movement became real. No illusions, just motors, levers, screeching, swinging, fizzling, splashing, swaying, gears, cords, plexiglass.

Start the engine!

Though as early as in the 1930s, Dada and Constructivist sculptors attempted to create moving art objects, it was only in 1955 that kinetic art started being spoken of as an artistic style in its own right. That year, the Galerie Denise René in Paris held an exhibition named Le Mouvement ("The Motion"). It brought together works by Avant-garde artists from different countries who, in a variety of ways, aimed to work their way through the immobility, the stillness of an art object, its once-and-forever "museumness." The exhibitors were allowed to do anything they found necessary: they could suspend their works from the ceiling, set them drifting and rolling about the exhibition floor, confuse and perplex the public with optical illusions. The public, in turn, were allowed to approach the art pieces, touch them, breathe on them, wind them up, and play with them. Actually, Denise René had no intention to announce a new artistic movement. For a year, she had been keeping track of whatever interesting had taken place in Paris, and now, she just got the prominent artists all together.
The exhibition Le Mouvement in the Galerie Denise René. The works displayed are by Marcel Duchamp, Jean Tinguely, Alexander Calder, and Jesús Rafael Soto. 1955. Photo from: monoskop.org.
One of the exhibitors was Jean Tinguely, who, some time earlier, had arrived in Paris with a few kinetic sculptures. His Méta-Malevitch looked like a typical painting experiment by the founding father of Suprematism. But as soon as Tinguely came up and pressed the button to start the motor, the geometric elements on the object’s surface began moving, each on its own, never making the same combinations. Another mechanical sculpture, completely automotive, could travel about the floor on a wheel. Alexander Calder's mobile hang from the ceiling, and draughts of air made its balanced elements sway and turn slightly. In the corner, on a metal support stood Marcel Duchamp's Rotary Demisphere with its concentric circles. The Venezuelan artist Jesús Rafael Soto presented works that were actually immobile — it was the viewer who was supposed to move around them and discover quite unexpected pictures depending on the angle. The geometric elements Yaacov Agam from Israel placed on the surface of a picture could be taken off it and repositioned.
  • Marcel Duchamp. “Rotary Demisphere.” 1924
  • Jean Tinguely. “Metamechanical Sculpture with Tripod.” 1954
"At the Salon des Réalites Nouvelles, I had seen Soto’s early pieces. Tinguely, who had just arrived in Paris, had shown some of his first Méta-Malevitch pieces at the Galerie Arnaud in 1954. Agam had shown his first transformable works at the Galerie Craven. I had just discovered Pol Bury. I had the idea of gathering these artists together to "mark a milestone." This first event wasn’t designed to be encyclopaedic, it was just to bring these innovative artists together right away. It was a real shock; it was unexpected, youthful, stimulating. It was a turning point at a time when we were struggling against the vogue for abstract Expressionism," René remembered in an interview in 1983.
Alexander Calder. A fish
In May 2019, Alexander Calder’s mobile Fish made from colour glass fragments, wires, and steel rods was sold at Christie’s for $ 17,500,000.

What the hell were they thinking of!

Why was kinetic art so persistently opposed to abstract Expressionism
You can hardly tell the exact day or year of the birth of Expressionism, which is usual for all powerful art movements. You cannot draw a border on the map and indicate the territory where Expressionism took its start and got stronger. Overall, it’s all roughly known. Except for one rock-solid spatiotemporal benchmark: Northern Europe on the eve of the First World War. Expressionism is an avant-garde art movement, a new tragic worldview, and a whole set of significant motifs, symbols, and myths. Moreover, it is a revolutionary reaction both to the shabby, lifeless traditional academic art, and the light, idyllic southern impressionistic “appearance” of the world. Read more
? What alternatives could it offer to the huge abstract canvases that had made New York a centre of modern art of that time? During centuries, Paris had got accustomed to being the artistic Mecca for the whole world, and now, it was not going to give up this title to New York that easily.
The abstract Expressionists Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning rejected figurativeness and imagery to focus on their inner life and personal experience. Kinetic artists, as if indirectly arguing with them, persisted in taking a firm hold of the real world that could be felt, heard, analysed, modelled, and calculated. The mid-20th-century reality had a certain order of things they could not ignore.

1. Rapid scientific and technical development. Since Einstein’s discoveries, the relation between time and space had no longer been a purely scientific question. Now, it had become an object for artistic study
A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
, a matter to reflect upon by means of art. It was hardly an accident that Alexander Calder and Naum Gabo, the progenitors of kinetic art, were educated as engineers. In Munich, Gabo was even Einstein’s student, and Calder had an engineering experience in the car industry and on a passenger ship.
Naum Gabo. Fountain outside St Thomas’ Hospital in London, 1973
Jean Tinguely. Heureka. Zürich, 1964
Alexander Calder. Mercury Fountain. 1943
Jesús Rafael Soto. Installation in the Royal Bank of Canada, 1978
All kinetic sculptors, sooner or later, grew to large-scale artworks: they were commissioned to make revolving fountains or moving sculptures that were later set up in parks and airports, at stadiums, on city squares, and in front of modern art museums.
2. The two world wars. A few years' period of silent shock and counting the losses was now over. By the mid-fifties, Europe had been rebuilt and recovered after the war. The art historian Irina Kulik points out that the two wars brought machines and mechanisms into disrepute: now, they were associated with death and destruction. So, kinetic artists took upon themselves the task of exculpating the machine. Their major objects were devices that looked useful and intricate, but actually, served no purpose, were only created for fun, for motion as such. This holds true for the very first kinetic sculpture in the world — the bicycle wheel Marcel Duchamp mounted onto a stool.

3. Nobody was sure of anything any longer. The future had discredited itself, and the past was disastrous. In 1959, Jean Tinguely took a flight in an aeroplane over Düsseldorf, and scattered 150,000 leaflets with his artistic manifesto: one should live in the present, and the only thing which is constant and stable, the only reality available is movement.
The creators of the installation Dylaby ("dynamic labyrinth") in Stockholm: Per Olof Ultvedt, Robert Rauschenberg, Martial Raysse, Daniel Spoerri, Jean Tinguely, and Niki de Saint Phalle. 1926. Photo from: www.tinguely.ch.
4. An artist became a loner, an anchorite, and only left the studio to show the world the results of his or her emotional and life experience (yes, this is an allusion to the New York abstract Expressionists). Kinetic sculptors, on the contrary, often co-worked on their projects. With them, individual authorship lost all its sacredness. Doubt was even thrown on the very idea of authorship. Indeed, when Jean Tinguely’s machine, a controlled mechanism, drew unique abstract pictures (they were poor slapdashes, of course), was it art? And who was the author? Tinguely or his machine?
Jean Tangley. Pit stop
Pit stop
1984, 360×600×600 cm

An engineering project or a scrap heap monster?

Like any artistic trend, kinetic art did not appear out of thin air, all of a sudden. Prior to the legendary exhibition in the Galerie Denise René, absolutely different artists from different cities and countries, motivated by different ideas and outlooks, quite independently, built up moving constructions. Many of them were Constructivist artists. They greeted every technical innovation, never hesitated to apply them in their creations, and advocated the unity of art, science, and technology. There were also Dada painters, who derided the very idea that an artwork could be of any use. Besides, they sneered at people’s state of bondage to modern technologies, that is why they composed absolutely useless constructions from litter and second hand machine parts.
However different, even diametrically opposite were the philosophic foundations of the first kinetic experiments in art, they all paved the way for the rise of kinetic art as an independent movement in the 1960s. There were some important examples of these experiments.
Monument to the Third International (Comintern) by Vladimir Tatlin

It is rather a model than a finished work of art. Its creator is the avant-garde
Avant-garde is how modern art critics refer the general trend of new artistic directions that arose in world art at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. A very thin line separates it from the concept of “modernism”. Read more
artist Vladimir Tatlin. In 1920, he designed an architectural object that was never brought into being. However, models of the building were exhibited in Moscow and Petrograd. At an International Exhibition in Paris, a model of Tatlin’s Tower won the gold medal. This metal construction was supposed to house rotating rooms of glass, shaped as a cube, a pyramid, a cylinder, and a hemisphere. The cube was to make a complete revolution in a year, the pyramid in a month, the cylinder in a day, the hemisphere in an hour.

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Light Spatial Modulator

Light-Space Modulator by László Moholy-Nagy

A Constructivist painter and professor in the progressive Bauhaus school, László Moholy-Nagy invented a machine and built it assisted by an engineer and a metalsmith. The machine was driven by an electric motor and had mobile elements fixed on its base: metal plates, perforated discs, a glass spiral, and a small ball. Lit with 130 light bulbs, the moving parts cast grotesque shadows on the walls and ceiling. The Modulator was nothing more than a means to create a moving image, and the real objective was the shadow dance.

Naum Gabo. Standing wave
Standing wave
1920, 61.6×24.1×19 cm
Standing Waves by Naum Gabo

However, it was Naum Gabo who first equipped his sculpture with a motor to make it move. He did not need any technical assistance: due to his engineering education, he had no problems with tasks like that. His Standing Waves is considered the first kinetic work of art. Each time the motor started, the curved plate of metal began rotating and created new mobile shapes.

Marcel Duchamp. Bicycle wheel

Bicycle Wheel by Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp, on the contrary, needed no specialised education to make a moving sculpture — he just fixed a bicycle wheel on a stool. By which act, he asserted the idea that any object could be considered a work of art if the viewer saw it in a museum and found any meaning in it. In our selection of classical kinetic artworks, the most unscientific and useless ones are Duchamp’s area of responsibility.

Alexander Calder. Tower
Tower
1952, 101.6×152.4×40.6 cm
Alexander Calder’s mobiles

Yes, that is perfectly true: one of Alexander Calder’s mobiles was on display at the exhibition Le Mouvement in the Galerie Denise René. It is curious, though, that he made his first mobile constructions about twenty years before kinetic art became a hot point of discussion. He balanced the elements (balls or plates), suspended them on thin threads or wires, and they moved and turned in the currents of air. That is why Calder is, at the same time, a forerunner of kinetic art and its officially recognised representative.

Kinetic art: A fact sheet

Landmark works

When speaking of kinetic art, people often mention artists whose works contained optical illusions. There was nothing moving, spinning, or squealing: the effect of movement resulted from careful selection of colours and sizes of colour spots. Their combinations made the picture seem vibrating, moving, or even three-dimensional. An example is Victor Vasarely, a painter of optical experiments, and also an art theorist who wrote the Yellow Manifest for the exhibition Le Mouvement. The special terms op art and kinetic art would be invented later, in the sixties. But so far, in Parisian studios, the cosmopolitan company of young mavericks were experimenting with motion, and for them everything came in handy — motors as well as geometrical puzzles.

Still, nowadays, kinetic sculptures, in a strict sense, are those that do rotate, produce sounds and light, pump water, or, at the very least, slightly sway. Among such, there are iconic works, the true landmarks of kinetic art.
Homage to New York
Jean Tinguely
In 1960, Jean Tinguely assembled a huge machine from parts found on a scrap heap: motors, steel pipes, details of bicycles, empty fuel tanks, troughs, radio-sets, and even a piano. This monster, set ablaze, destroyed itself before the audience of 200 people (among them, by the way, was the abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko — indeed, the clash between kinetic artists and abstract Expressionists seems a sort of exaggeration). By the end of the performance, there was no machine. A few fragments of it are now kept, for example, in the Museum of Modern Art (New York City) and in Tate Modern (London). Tinguely made no secret of the message of the show: it is a hell of a job to make a commercially pointless object that, once made, is destined to return to the scrap heap where it originated.

One of Jesús Rafael Soto’s Penetrables in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Photo from: www.nytimes.com
Penetrables
Jesús Rafael Soto
Works made by kinetic sculptors are generally non-durable — and are not supposed to be so. Being constantly on exhibition, they cannot but wear out. Today’s museum curators and directors have to choose whether to preserve these objects or to follow the ideas the authors put into them. Jesús Rafael Soto designed his penetrables as objects a viewer could literally come inside. The colour cube consisting of long multicoloured threads is a sculpture as well as an activity zone: touching it, listening to the sound of the shimmering threads, walking inside — all this is not only allowed, but necessary.
The labyrinth made by the artistic company GRAV. 1962. Photo from: www.kunstzolder.be
Labyrinth
Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV)
In 1963, when kinetic art was surging in popularity, the company of artists called Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel, or simply GRAV ("Research Art Group"), produced a big labyrinth for the Third Paris Biennial. The structure had twenty locations where viewers could (and sometimes had to) interact with different objects. Light installations, mirrors, mobile bridges, reliefs — everything was part of a large interactive art object created by the eleven artists. "Our labyrinth is just an initial experiment deliberately aimed at the elimination of the difference existing between the spectator and the work. […] We want to get the spectator to participate. We want him to be aware of his participation. […] It is forbidden not to participate. It is forbidden not to touch. It is forbidden not to break," wrote the authors of the most monumental collective artistic project — the GRAV members.

Artists whose works were created within the movement: Marcel Duchamp, László Moholy-Nagy, Vladimir Tatlin, Naum Gabo, Jean Tinguely, Alexander Calder, Yaacov Agam, Jesús Rafael Soto, Pol Bury.

You are an expert if you:
— while hanging a bees-and-mice mobile over your baby’s cot, feel silent gratitude to Alexander Calder for the invention;
— when planning a visit to Paris, mark on your map not only the Louvre, but also the Stravinsky Fountain (next to the Centre Pompidou) designed and built by Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint-Phalle;
— despite the strict museum rules, understand that there are pieces of art that not only can, but are supposed to, be touched.

You are incompetent if you:
— are sure that there are no museums where visitors are by any means allowed to touch things, and especially to press any buttons.