Utilitarian Intentions

Bicycle Wheel by Marcel Duchamp, 1913.
Bicycle wheel on a wooden stool.
Located at Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Movement: Kinetic Art
Started: 1954

Kinetic art is the expression of the fascination with movement and describes a whole swathe of modern art from Impressionism to the present day. Works of art that move, or give the impression of movement – from mobile, mechanical sculpture to Op art paintings which trick the eye into seeing rotation or vibration – Kinetic artists offered the viewer some of the most quintessential expressions of presentation rather than depictions of reality. After the Second World War, Kinetic art grew into an avant-garde following the genre-defining exhibition Le Mouvement in 1955. After a decade interest in the style faded but its idea was carried forward by subsequent generations of artists and continues to provide a rich source of creative concept and technical effects.

Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave) by Naum Gabo, 1920.
Metal, painted wood, and electrical mechanism.
Located at Tate, London, UK.

The Kinetic art movement was the first movement to offer works that extended in time as well as space with creations that relied on the presentation of motion for effect. Tis was a revolution in art as it introduced a new dimension to the viewing experience and expressed the fascination with the interrelationship of time and space defining modern intellectual culture.

Kinetic artists presented works that relied on mechanized movement or which explored the drive towards mechanization and scientific knowledge which reflected modern society. Other Kinetic artists expressed, influenced by Constructivism, the process embracing the machine, and art becoming integrated with everyday life and taking a focal role in the Utopian species of the future. Artists influenced by Dada used the mechanical processes in a satirical, anarchic way to express the potential enslavement of humanity by technology and science in the name of capitalist production.

Arc of Petals by Alexander Calder, 1941.
Painted and unpainted sheet aluminium, iron wire, and copper rivets.
Located at Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, Italy

Kinetic artists were interested in analogies between machines and the human body/ Rather than seeing the two entities as radically different – one being soulless and functional, the other governed by intuition and insight – they used their art to imply humanity was little more than irrational engines of conflicting lusts and urges. This concept has its roots in Dada but can also be related to the concepts of cybernetics of the mid-20th century.

Kinetic Art expresses a foundational concern of modern art in general with its focus on capturing the dynamism of its subject matter. Many critics cited Post-Impressionist artists as the first Kinetic artist but the first examples of modern art which actually incorporate movement or movable elements date from the 1910s and were created by artists working in the Dadaist and Constructivist traditions. It is suggested that the earliest piece of Kinetic Art is the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel in 1913, which consists of a wheel placed upside down on a stool; this is also recognized as the first readymade. In 1920 the term Kinetic Art was used in the Realistic Manifesto of Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner. In the same year, Gabo completed his Kinetic Construction, the first modern artwork to primarily focus on the expression of movement.

CYSP 1 by Nicolas Schõffer, 1956. Painted steel and polychrome aluminium, rollers, electronic sensors and motor

Even with these early expressions of the ideas underpinning Kinetic Art, it was not fully established as a coherent movement until 1955, when Le Mouvement exhibition was held at the Galerie Denise René in Paris. The work of the Hungarian artist Victor Vasarely was central to the show. Vasarely’s Mainfeste Jaune was published to coincide with the exhibition. Trained in the traditions of Bauhaus, Vasarely had spent many years working in commercial design before turning to fine art. His work rapidly attracted followers including Bridget Riley. Other works featured in Le Mouvement exhibition required real rather than implied movement. In some works, the movement was initiated by air or touch, such as Arc of Petals by Alexander Calder. More often the movement was mechanized.

Blaze by Bridget Riley, 1964.
Screen print on paper.
Located at Tate, London, UK

Kinetic Art emerged from the perceived decline of geometric abstraction of the post-1945 period and revitalized the tradition, utilizing mechanical and natural motion to establish a relationship between art and technology. Kineticism was introduced across art media, including painting, drawing, and sculpture. Many Kinetic artists worked with ever newer and more public media to bring the style to a new and wider audience. Artists such as Naum Gabo, László Moholy-Nagy, Bridget Riley and Victor Vasarely were broadly associated with a Constructivist approach to kinetic art.

Kinetic art draws heavily on the Dada movement that inspired some of the earliest works of modern art employing motion, including works by Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel (1913), and Roto-Reliefs (1935-65). The motivation behind such works and the artworks in Kineticism that were influenced by them was a desire to break with the conventional constraints of static artworks. Kinetic artists made the movement of the work and the viewer’s perception of that movement a vital and unpredictable element of their encounter with it.

Vega III by victor Vasarely,1567-59.
Oil on canvas.
Located at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA

The post-Dada influence in Kinetic art is partly responsible for the skepticism of technology as a cultural expression of progress that defined elements of the movement. Jean Tinquely expressed the skepticism forcefully with his self-destructing sculpture Homage to New York (1960), a mechanical contraption designed to set itself on fire and disintegrate in a hail of sound and light. Artist such as Alexander Calder was influenced by post-Dada and Surrealism and his interest in change, contingency and biomorphic abstraction was arguably placed in the Dadaist wing of the movement.

The constructivist tradition was inspired by a technological ideology of life and this became evident in the work of the Kinetic artists influenced by it using concepts from physics, cybernetics, and optics. Arguably the prototype of all Kinetic art, Naum Gabo’s Kinetic Construction (1920) was designed to express the standing wave – a type of wave-motion creating the illusion of a static, curvilinear form. At the same time, the Op Art pioneer Victor Vasarely’s visual tricks were based on studies of the ocular perception of line and colour. Generally speaking, the broader conceptions of the relationship between time and space, theorized by scientists such as Albert Einstein, provided the ambient context for the explorations into movement evident in Kinetic art.

The most striking expression of science and Kinetic Art is considered to be the Spotiodynamic sculptures of Nicolas Schõffer in the 1940s-50s, machines with intelligence whose movements and physical activities altered based on their environment and changes within it. Influenced by the new scientific field of cybernetics that hypothesized a series of analogies between artificial and human intelligence

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s