Artists have been fascinated by movement for centuries, especially as modern society develops new technologies that make the transport of people and ideas faster and easier. Kinetic art, or art related to motion, is rooted in the Impressionists’ exploration of light and in photographic realism. Edgar Degas, especially, revealed his interest in movement by depicting horse races and ballet dancers in a multitude of works. The study of motion is also linked to several 20th century art movements.
What is Kinetic Art?
Kinetic art is built upon the foundation created by Constructivism and Dada, both of which established new and socially-conscious ways of creating art. Marcel Duchamp’s iconic readymade sculpture “Bicycle Wheel,” is considered the first kinetic work of art. On the conception of the piece the artist once said, “In 1913, I had the happy idea to fasten a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool and watch it turn.”
Throughout the 20th century, artists incorporated movement into their works in various ways. Jackson Pollock’s unique style of painting revealed his desire to depict motion; the artist placed his canvas on the ground and dripped paint onto it, moving around the piece as he layered. More obvious examples were created either with motorized components or by relying on natural air flow to change the piece’s orientation throughout the day.
Kinetic art’s popularity peaked in the 1950s and 1960s. At that time, artists were making mechanical sculptures while others explored the way our eyes perceive motion, an artistic movement known as Optical art (Op art). Like the Impressionists, Op artists sought to test the way our eyes see the world; however, rather than doing so through rough depictions of everyday life, they created optical illusions that disrupt the viewer’s perception.
Below, delve deeper into the history of kinetic art by examining the careers of its most prolific artists.
Naum Gabo (1890-1977) was a Russian Constructivist sculptor and painter. In 1912, the artist (born Naum Pevsner) began studying engineering in Munich. By 1915, he was experimenting with motorized constructions. Gabo and his brother, sculptor Antoine Pevsner, coined the term Constructivism to describe their industrial, angular works. They wrote the group’s manifesto in 1920 in collaboration with other artists like Wassily Kandinsky, Vladimir Tatlin, and Kazimir Malevich. Gabo was a kinetic trailblazer: his work “Standing Wave,” created in 1919-20, utilized a motor to oscillate, thus creating the illusion of a twisting, three-dimensional object.
Alongside Russian Constructivists Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko, Alexander Calder (1898-1976) is known as one of the originators of the mobile. Calder’s first kinetic works, made in 1931, used a system of cranks and motors. Soon, he abandoned the mechanized elements and began fashioning hanging and standing mobiles out of wire and painted metal that moved on their own via air currents. Most of these structures were abstract, but some were designed to look like animals – typically a cat or a fish.
Lygia Clark (1920-1988) was at the forefront of Brazilian modernism, working with the Brazilian Constructivist movement and co-founding the Neo-Concrete Movement. Clark was interested in finding new ways for participants to interact with her works, resulting in projects like the bichos, or “critters.” These hinged metal sculptures are intended to be reshaped by passersby. On her kinetic, organic pieces Clark stated, “Pollock has his ritual, but it only serves for him to express himself…While the bichos offer ritual to the viewer as the first experience.”
Jean Tinguely (1925-1991) was a Swiss painter and sculptor best known for the “Métamatics” he created in the 1950s. These mechanical pieces evolved from the tradition of Dada and aesthetically referenced the Industrial Revolution. Tinguely’s goal was to critique the overproduction of consumer goods. To that end, some of his large-scale motorized pieces were designed to self-destruct, signaling the ruination of society.
George Rickey (1907-2002) is known for his large-scale stainless steel kinetic sculptures, which rely on air currents to move. Rickey was a painter for many years, until his experience as an engineer in the Army Air Corps during WWII and his introduction to Calder’s mobiles inspired him to begin sculpting. By the early 1950s, Rickey had eliminated color and organic shapes in his work in favor of sleek, geometric objects meant to focus the viewer’s attention on movement.
Jesús Rafael Soto
Jesús Rafael Soto (1923-2005) moved from his native Venezuela to Paris in 1950, where he was associated with kinetic artists like Yaacov Agam, Jean Tinguely, and Victor Vasarely. Five years later, he participated in Le mouvement at Galerie Denise René, an exhibition that launched kinetic art as a serious discipline. Soto’s works contained both geometric and organic forms. In the 1960s he created the installations for which he is best known today: linear structures made from industrial materials like nylon, Perspex, and steel intended for the participant to walk through.
Julio Le Parc
Argentinian artist Julio Le Parc (b. 1928) was prominent in both the Kinetic and Op art movements. After training at the Academy of Fine Arts in Argentina, Le Parc moved to Paris in 1958 where he was connected to Soto and Vasarely, as well as gallerist and proponent of kineticism Denise René. Le Parc’s work in the subsequent years experimented with light: creating images by layering planes of Plexiglas over a light source, drawing in relief, and constructing ceiling mobiles.
Yaacov Agam (b. 1928) was born in Rishon-le-Zion, Palestine in 1928. He moved to Zurich and then Paris to study art, where he was inspired by Kandinsky’s writing on abstraction. Agam worked astride the line between optical and kinetic art. Like Calder, Tinguely, and Soto, he was a part of the the first exhibition of kinetic art at Galerie Denise René. His work incorporated light, sound, and viewer participation – especially in public works commissioned by institutions like Elysée Palace in Paris and Ben-Gurion University in Israel.
Op artist Bridget Riley (b. 1931) began her career painting figural subjects inspired by Impressionism and Pointillism. Like many other artists in the Opto-Kinetic sphere, the 1960s was a pivotal decade during which Riley honed her style into a dynamic exploration of optical phenomena. These works develop geometric shapes like circles and stripes into optical illusions meant to disorient the viewer. In her paintings, Riley produced a physical effect based on the perception of movement and light that references more typical kinetic sculpture.
Rebecca Horn (b. 1944) comes from a background of performance art that explores the relationships between bodies and space. In later pieces she replaces the human form with kinetic sculptures constructed from a variety of objects, including violins, feather fans, metronomes, and funnels. Each of Horn’s installations have a distinct point of view. Her monumental works are often installed in charged spaces, marking historically or politically significant sites in an attempt to recognize the difficult history of 20th century Europe.
Sources: MoMA Learning | Tate Art & Artists | Guggenheim Artwork | Calder Life | Guggenheim Artwork | BBC Culture | Getty Art | Julio Le Parc | Guggenheim Artwork | Tate Art & Artists | Rebecca Horn | David Zwirner Exhibitions