Art in Motion: Kinetic Sculpture

Contre-Reliefs (1914) by Vladimir Tatlin. Image courtesy of Virtual Russian Museum.

When we think of art, we usually think of still images on canvases or sculptures frozen in time. However, kinetic art takes it to another level by adding the element of motion. As one of the prominent artists in kinetic art once said, kinetic art attempts to “lift the figures and scenery off the page and prove undeniably that art is not rigid.”

The term kinetic stems from the Greek word kinesis, which translates to “movement.” This art form commonly uses three-dimensional structures that have an element of movement—hence the name kinetic art.. Kinetic art is heavily inspired by the Dada movement, which uses art as a way to challenge societal norms and purposely make art controversial and invoke some kind of reaction. 

Kinetic art was around during the 1920s-1960s. The first mobile sculpture was created by Vladimir Tatlin, a Russian artist titled Contre-Reliefs (1914). Tatlin created a series of suspended reliefs as an “intend to break completely with all bourgeois artistic practices.” Unfortunately, only a few of the reliefs still exist today and are currently being preserved in Moscow and St. Petersburg. 

Arc of Petals (1941) by Alexander Calder. Image from Guggenheim.

Even though Tatlin has the honor of being the first artist to create mobile sculpture, Alexander Calder was given the title as the pioneer for kinetic art. In the 1930s, Calder created McCausland Mobile, a hanging mobile piece, in which Calder chose to incorporate shapes that other artists wouldn't normally choose for their sculptures. And then, in 1941, Calder created his famous artwork titled Arc of Petals. This art piece uses “large, heavy, mature shapes sway[ing] serenely at the top, while small, undifferentiated, agitated, new growth dips and rocks below.” Calder created a piece that works harmoniously together despite the difference in sizes. “Disparity in form, color, size, weight, motion, is what makes a composition,” Calder said. 

Another addition to kinetic art sculptures is the incorporation of junk, which was pioneered by Swiss painter and sculptor Jean Tinguely. Tinguely is known to be the godfather of kinetic art. Did you know he was only 12 years old when he created his first kinetic art? That is quite an impressive resume. People who have witnessed his artworks often described it as whimsical, and even unpredictable, due to the fact that some of his sculptures self-destruct once motion is added. An example of this was his performance piece Homage to New York (1960). This huge sculpture was presented at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that ran for twenty-seven minutes before completely destructing. The performance piece was described as “a violent performance of sound and light.” 

Radio Drawing (1963) by Jean Tinguely. Image from Museum of Fine Arts Houston.

I honestly had the privilege to witness Tinguely’s motorized artworks at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFAH) in Houston, Texas. Unfortunately, these artworks are no longer in motion, but the museum provided a video compilation of how it would look if motion was added. I personally think that these motorized artworks are clever, unique, and totally outside of the box. One of my personal favorites by Tinguely would be the Radio Drawing (1963) because not only does it produce motion, but it also produces sound once motion is incorporated. Putting a piece together that has both motion and sound requires some sort of scientific knowledge. With Tingluey’s art pieces, he attached motors so that the artworks were automated instead of needing to be operated manually. And with the Radio Drawing, Tinguely not only added one motor but two to keep this piece running and constantly making sounds out of the two radios he used.

Jesús Rafael Soto's kinetic work. Image courtesy of ArtNet.

Not only did I see Tinguely’s kinetic artworks at the MFAH, I’ve also had the privilege to witness Jesús Rafael Soto’s kinetic art. Soto is a Venezuelan artist known for a different kind of kinetic art—optical illusion artworks. This form of kinetic art adds an illusion that a particular artwork is in motion even if it is standing in one place. Soto’s artworks focus on the way vibrations may be perceived when viewers move from one angle to another. This side of kinetic art that focuses on illusions emerged during the late 1960s, which was considered to be the “golden era” of kinetic arts.

The art world is constantly changing with time, and by the 1970s, digital art forms started to emerge and kinetic art has since slowed down—but not completely gone. Kinetic art throughout the years will always be seen as a gateway to non-traditional artistic practices, and from there, art will continue to evolve. 

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