Kinetic art is art from any medium that contains movement. By the viewer or depends on motion for its effect. Canvas paintings that extend the viewer's perspective of the artwork and incorporate multidimensional movement are the earliest examples of kinetic art. More pertinently speaking, kinetic art is a term that today most often refers to three-dimensional sculptures and figures such as mobiles that move naturally or are machine operated. The moving parts are generally powered by wind, a motor or the observer. Kinetic art encompasses a wide variety of overlapping techniques and styles.
There is also a portion of kinetic art that includes virtual movement, or rather movement perceived from only certain angles or sections of the work. This term also clashes frequently with the term "apparent movement", which many people use when referring to an artwork whose movement is created by motors, machines, or electrically powered systems. Both apparent and virtual movement are styles of kinetic art that only recently have been argued as styles of op art. The amount of overlap between kinetic and op art is not significant enough for artists and art historians to consider merging the two styles under one umbrella term, but there are distinctions that have yet to be made.
"Kinetic art" as a moniker developed from a number of sources. Kinetic art has its origins in the late 19th century impressionist artists such as Claud Monet, Edgar Degas, and Edouard Manet who originally experimented with accentuating the movement of human figures on canvas. This triumvirate of impressionist painters all sought to create art that was more lifelike than their contemporaries. Degas’ dancer and racehorse portraits are examples of what he believed to be "photographic realism"; artists such as Degas in the late 19th century felt the need to challenge the movement toward photography with vivid, cadenced landscapes and portraits.
By the early 1900s, certain artists grew closer and closer to ascribing their art to dynamic motion. Naum Gabo, one of the two artists attributed to naming this style, wrote frequently about his work as examples of "kinetic rhythm". He felt that his moving sculpture Kinetic Construction (also dubbed Standing Wave, 1919–20) was the first of its kind in the 20th century. From the 1920s until the 1960s, the style of kinetic art was reshaped by a number of other artists who experimented with mobiles and new forms of sculpture.
Kinetic art - art that depends on movement for its effects - has its origins in the Dadaist and Constructivist movements that emerged in the 1910s. It became a lively avant-garde trend following the landmark exhibition Le Mouvement at Galerie Denise Rene in Paris in 1955, after which it attracted a wide international following. At its heart were artists who were fascinated by the possibilities of movement in art - its potential to create new and more interactive relationships with the viewer and new visual experiences. It inspired new kinds of art that went out of the boundaries of the traditional, handcrafted, static object, encouraging the idea that the beauty of an object could be the product of optical illusions or mechanical movement. But the group was split between those such as Jean Tingueli, who were interested in employing actual movement, and those such as Victor Vasarely, who were interested in optical effects and the illusion of movement and went on to be more closely associated with the Op art movement. Kinetic art thrived for a decade and achieved considerable prominence. But Op art proved almost too successful in capturing the public's imagination, while Kinetic art eventually began to be seen as a stale and accepted genre. By the mid-1960s, these developments led to a decline in artists' interest in movement.
Kinetic art marked an important revival of the tradition of Constructivism, or Constructive art, that had been a presence in modern art since the 1910s. Parts of the movement also revived its optimism, talking once again of the potential for art to spread into new areas of everyday life and to embrace technology in ways appropriate to the modern world.
But the movement also borrowed much from Dada, and in this respect parts of it were highly skeptical about the potential of technology to improve human life. Artists who were inspired by Dada, such as Jean Tinguely, used their work to express a more anarchic, satirical attitude to machines and movement. They suggested that rather than being humanity's helpmate, the machine might become her master.
Although ostensibly fascinated by machines, some Kinetic artists developed a profound interest in analogies between machines and human bodies. Rather than regarding machines and human bodies as radically different - one being soulless and functional, the other being governed by the sensitive, rational mind - they used their art to suggest that humans might be little more than irrational engines of conflicting lusts and urges, like a dysfunctional machine. This idea has deep roots in Dada, and betrays Kinetic art's debt to that earlier movement.
How It Was It Invented?
Early experiments with movement in art began between 1913 and 1920, led by artists of the Dadaist and Constructivist traditions. Perhaps the earliest instance of kinetic art was Marcel Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel (1913), which consisted of a wheel inverted on a stool (the piece is also recognized as the first "readymade" sculpture). In 1920, Constructivist artists Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner used the term "kinetic art" in their Realistic Manifesto. And, later, Bauhaus artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy used the term "kinetic" to describe the mechanized movement of his piece Light Space Modulator (1930).
Although artists used the concept of kinetics intermittently for several years, it was not until 1955 that it was established as a major artistic movement, when the group exhibition Le Mouvement was held at Galerie Denise Rene in Paris. Central to this exhibition was Victor Vasarely; his so-called 'Yellow Manifesto' was published at the time of the show and came to serve as one of the movement's founding documents. Vasarely had been trained in Bauhaus ideas and had spent many years working in advertising. The graphic designs that he had initially used in advertising formed the substance of his new style. These took the form of a grid-like arrangement of black and white that produced a flickering effect. His style quickly attracted followers such as Bridget Riley.
But other aspects of Le Mouvement, those involving real movement as opposed to optical illusions, began to attract the interest of artists across the world. This movement could be effected by air or touch, as in the case of Alexander Calder's mobiles: his Arc of Petals (1941) combines subtle lines and biomorphic forms with natural movement to examine the behavior of an object in space. Or, as was more often the case, the movement was mechanized. Nicolas Schoffer's desire to introduce a sense of dynamism to his geometric Constructivist sculptures initially involved merely lending them a complex sense of space. But he eventually introduced mechanized movement to these works, which he called Spatio dynamic sculptures, and this led to his interest in fusing electronics and art.
Concepts and Styles
The Legacy of Constructivism. The Kinetic art movement emerged out of what was widely perceived as the decline of the tradition of geometric abstraction in the post-war period. Due to the legacy of Constructivism, De Stijl, and the Bauhaus, geometric abstraction had initially been associated with revolutionary attitudes to art and society. Its austere and conceptual language of lines and flat planes, and simplified color palette, made it seem appropriate to the modern world. The philosophy that grew around it also encouraged the belief that it might provide a language in which art might filter into everyday life, decorating everything from architecture to ceramics. But as these hopes receded, geometric abstraction came to be seen as a somewhat academic art form concerned with little more than old-fashioned notions of composition.
The Kinetic art movement represented a revitalization of that tradition, by utilizing mechanical or natural motion to bring about a new relationship between art and technology. The movement introduced Kineticism across several forms of art, including painting, drawing, and sculpture, and many of its artists aspired to work with ever newer and more public media in order to bring Kinetic art to a wide audience.
The Legacy of Dada
Kinetic art also drew heavily on the Dada movement, which had inspired some of the earliest instances of movement in art, such as Marcel Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel (1913) and Roto-Reliefs (1935-65). The motivation for these was less an interest in uniting art and technology than in breaking with the conventions of the traditional static artwork. Instead of the experience of the artwork being entirely determined by the artist in advance of exhibition, Kinetic art objects suggested that movement and the viewer's own impression of that movement - something out of the artist's control - was more important. Indeed the Dada tradition brought to Kinetic art a skepticism about the value of technology in modern life. Jean Tinguely's amusing self-detonating construction, Homage to New York (1960), was typical of this skepticism, since the mechanical contraption ultimately destroyed itself in a violent performance of sound and light. Dada and Surrealism also informed the work of another prominent kinetic artist, Alexander Calder. His mobiles, such as Arc of Petals (1941), used the natural movement of the air to animate an assortment of biomorphic forms. Rather than use movement to suggest modern technology, he used it to conjure a wistful, calming mood, one that suggested a happy union of nature and humanity.
The mid-1960s brought considerable acclaim to the movement and its artists. Julio Le Parc was awarded the Grand Prize for Painting at the Venice Biennale in 1966, and Nicolas Schoffer won the prize for sculpture in 1968. Galerie Denise Rene celebrated ten years of the movement in 1965 with another group show entitled Le Mouvement 2. But the perception that the movement had ceased to be radical and was beginning to be accepted by the art world establishment discouraged a new generation from pursuing it. Much of the impetus behind the movement had derived from an avant-garde spirit - on the one hand a utopian optimism that modern art might find a wider public, on the other a critical, anti-establishment ethos - and the realization that the movement was settling down to become just another successful style of art contributed to its decline. The deathblow was delivered by the huge popularity of The Responsive Eye, an exhibition concentrating on the Op wing of the movement, which was held at the The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1965. Some critics attacked this Op work as "gadgetry" and as a collection of kitschy optical tricks whose only effect was to titillate the eye.
Since that period, artists have continued to use movement in their work, sometimes in ways that betray the influence of kinetic art, sometimes not. Rebecca Horn's sculpture sometimes fuses aspects of Dada, Fluxus, and Kinetic art; her Concert for Anarchy (1990) features a grand piano suspended upside down from the ceiling, from which, every few minutes, the keys are thrust out. Yet the playground slides, carousels, and interactive sculptures created since the 1990s by Carsten Höller owe little to Kineticism, despite the importance of movement to them. Today, the Kinetic art movement seems less a pressing influence for artists than a resource for ideas.
Kinetic Sculptures with Wood
The only sound in David C. Roy’s gallery is the melodic click of wood on wood as his sculptures swoop and swirl in hypnotic patterns. Two gull-like figures glide around one another in Frolic, while bowed fans give the illusion of latticework unfolding and collapsing in on itself in Labyrinth.
The pieces are self-powered, sustaining their movement through mechanics the Connecticut-based sculptor developed by drawing upon his study of physics and his interest in engineering. “I was fascinated by the pendulum swinging inside the clock,” says Roy (CAS’74). “I wanted to make motion.”
Roy inherited his aptitude for mechanics from his father, a jet engine designer. “I can look at machines and understand them very quickly,” he says. When he is ready to transform his pieces from dream to design, he sketches them in Adobe Illustrator, animates models in After Effects, and finally cuts and assembles the pieces in his workshop.
“I kind of know how they’re going to work, and then engineering is getting specific—it’s finding the right materials and techniques,” he says. He starts with processed wood from birch trees that grow only along the Baltic Sea (it’s more stable and solid than American plywood). His process involves inventing parts along the way, like the brass weights he developed to balance his sculptures’ wooden wheels. Depending on size and complexity, each sculpture is composed of dozens—if not hundreds—of components. A recent work, Evolution, has about 65 pieces, including 24 wooden parts, a few plastic spacers and washings, and approximately 30 metal bearings, springs, screws, nuts, shafts, brass weights, and pins. On the other end of the spectrum, Roy’s most complex sculpture—Silver Symphony, a freestanding chime piece—has at least 300 parts.
As a physics major with an engineering scholarship, Roy never gave art a second thought until he visited his childhood friend Marji, then a sculpture major at the Rhode Island School of Design—and now his wife of 42 years.
“I had no idea you could be an artist if you couldn’t draw,” Roy says. Through Marji’s work—specifically a wooden chain and gear wall sculpture that turned when cranked—he realized art was about more than sketching and painting. Roy was full of suggestions for how Marji could develop more efficient and exciting motion in her work, but she just gave him a smile and told him to make his own sculptures.
It would be a few years before Roy would take her up on the suggestion. After graduation, he worked as an insurance programmer, but was so bored that he quit after nine months. He began working with wood. His first project, Xylo, was a small tabletop piece reminiscent of a xylophone, composed of wooden slats that revolved like propellers when set in motion. His work was popular at craft shows, but customers requested pieces that could run longer—Xylo spun unaided for about five seconds. He began to experiment, focusing on making sculptures he’d want to hang on his own walls.
The key to the motion in Roy’s kinetic sculptures is a spring he learned about during a side gig as an independent toy designer selling concepts—spinning airplanes, see-sawing clowns—to toy companies in the 1980s. (After about seven years, he became disenchanted with the final products the companies produced—too generic, he says; he prefers to manage the creative process from beginning to end.) A Playskool designer showed him a spring he kept in his office as a curiosity. While it was too expensive for toys, the designer thought the spring might come in handy for powering his sculptures.
The spring was new to Roy, but its function appealed to the engineer in him. When wound around two small spools, the spring stores energy. In Roy’s sculptures, wheels and levers regulate the release of this energy, setting—and keeping—the works in motion.
David Roy's Work
A recent piece, Dimensions, features two wheels comprising curved spokes. The front wheel rotates clockwise, while the back wheel rotates counterclockwise, creating the impression of a trellised circle spinning into itself like a portal to another world. To set the sculpture in motion, Roy gives the back wheel a little push. It rotates until it loses steam and falls backward to rotate in the other direction. This change trips levers that release a small amount of energy stored in the spring, pushing the wheel back into its original rotation and keeping the sculpture moving without a hitch.
“All my pieces are the controlled release of energy,” Roy says. “The art is making the motion interesting.”
As he honed the mechanics, his sculptures began using energy more efficiently, and running longer. His early pieces swooped along for approximately 20 minutes, while Dimensions, his longest-running piece, moves continuously for 40 hours.
They’re running more quietly, too. In the beginning, his sculptures produced a noticeable “thunk.” Now, he has become adept at modifying the clicking of the wood and even creating soundless sculptures. “Getting things simple is much harder than making them complex,” he says. “You can do a lot of levers and things and it looks neat, but it’s inefficient.”
Once Roy has the engineering down, he has to think about how the pieces actually look on the wall. And paying attention to design presents its own challenges. For example, he is working on a new freestanding chime piece; while he’d already perfected the mechanics in a previous iteration—the six-foot-tall Silver Symphony—he is trying to develop a smaller version that will fit comfortably in his home. “I have gone through several complete redesigns that would have worked mechanically, but didn’t look right,” he says. “This is an extreme case, but shows how solving the mechanical problem was relatively easy for me compared to making it into an aesthetically pleasing machine that still behaves as I’d like it to.”
David Roy's Work
Each piece needs so much testing and modification—some sculptures require as many as five major overhauls before Roy is satisfied—that he produces sculptures in limited editions so he can refine them and keep his prices reasonable for collectors. (“As a result, we have the most interesting-shaped kindling,” Marji says of his experimentations.) Roy has his customer in mind from the start; his mechanics are straightforward so anyone can take a sculpture out of the box, hang it up—and keep it running. “I’ll hear from people who have had them up for 25 years,” he says. “It feels good that they’re still working.”
David Roy's Work And Marji
What started in a craft show booth is now an international business. Roy’s sculptures have been displayed in science and art museums, art galleries, and corporate and private collections around the world. Customers find his work through word of mouth, his website, and YouTube videos; some grew up with one of his sculptures and saved up for their own. For “many people we sell to, it’s the only piece of art they have purchased or will ever purchase,” Marji says. “We like that a lot.”
“This was always a shoestring operation,” Roy says of his career. When he started out, his only goal was to stay out of debt. “If I was going to do this, it had to support us,” he says. “I wasn’t going to be a starving artist. I wasn’t going to work as an engineer during the day and do this on the weekends.”
Roy and Marji
Roy and Marji have not only managed to remain debt-free, but have built a house and gallery/workshop, raised two daughters, and sustained a four-decade marriage and business partnership.
Roy And Marji
Roy’s pieces are as familiar to his children and grandchildren as a favorite chair (“They think everybody’s grandpa does this,” Marji says), but to the uninitiated—and even longtime collectors—his softly clicking sculptures propelled by nothing more than wood and springs are feats of engineering art.