History of Kinetic Art

Enlightening: the History of Kinetic Art

“Kinetic art was created by artists who pushed the boundaries of traditional, static art forms to introduce visual experiences that would engage the audience and profoundly change the course of modern art. –Theo Jansen

Although its history is deep, Kinetic art wasn’t established as a major artistic movement until the 1950s. Kinetic Art has been around since the early 20th century but it did not become a modern art form until a few artists, including Naum Gabo and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy began to use electric machinery in their sculptures. In the 1950 and 60s however in Europe, Kinetic Art fell out of fashion because the mechanical age ushered in a digital era and artists began to experiment with computers, video, film and lasers.

Interest in Kinetic art concepts dates back to 1913 during the Dada and Constructivist movements. Artists like Jean Tinguely, a Swiss painter and sculptor, were fascinated by the possibilities of movement in art and the potential to create interactive relationships and visual experiences that went beyond the boundaries of traditional, static objects. Tinguely created sculptures that would have a more active presence both in the gallery and outside.

His signature pieces included anthropomorphic assemblages of motors and light as well as brightly colored metal wheels. He encouraged the idea that the beauty of an object could be the product of optical illusions or mechanical movement. The art form flourished for a decade, but because of the popularity of the Op art movement, many artists lost interest. In 1955, however, Kinetic Art became an international trend followed by artists such as Soto, Takis, Agam and Schoffer.

 Kinetic art is usually divided into two main categories:

  • Virtual movement: Sculptures that don’t really move; and
  • Real movement: Movement that occurs via an illusion or actually move through either independent means or view manipulation.  Most Kinetic artists, however prefer to use the forces of nature, i.e. Wind, solar power, gravity or magnetism to power their works.

In the early days, most kinetic works were moving geometric compositions. The group exhibition ‘Le Mouvement’ was held at Galerie Denise René in Paris and featured the “Yellow Manifesto” exhibit by Victor Vasarely. “Yellow Manifesto” is a black and white grid that produces a flickering effect. Other aspects of the exhibit involved real movement affected by air or touch and caught the interest of artists across the world.

Groundbreaking KINETIC ART works include:

Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913). It was seen as the first work of kinetic art because the wheel affixed to the stool could be spun.


Alexander Calder’s Arc of Petals (1941). This piece combined subtle lines and biomorphic forms with natural movement to examine the behavior of an object in space.


Bridget Riley’s Blaze (1964). Zigzaged black and white lines creates an alternating pattern that appears to shift back and forth.


Alexander Calder, http://www.calder.org/ the most acclaimed and influential sculptor of our time, is renowned for the invention of the mobile and his innovative genius to profoundly change the course of modern art. He developed a new method of sculpting: by bending and twisting wire and he essentially “drawing” three-dimensional figures in space.

Kinetic art explores how things look when they move. Most Kinetic art pieces are sculptured works, made up of parts designed to be set in motion by an internal mechanism or an external stimulus, by a motor, water, wind or even a button pushed by the viewer.

From 1926-1929, Calder attracted the attention of the art’s world leading figurers with his miniature wire circus sculpture and performance piece “Cirque,” a miniature circus fashioned from wire, string, rubber, cloth, and other objects. Calder traveled and performed with his “circus.” The sculptures, which were suspended in air during the performances were much like mobiles, a term coined by Marcel Duchamp.

“Just as one can compose colors or forms, so one can compose motions.” —-Alexander Calder

Like Calder, George Rickey (http://georgerickeyworks.com/) also was a leader in the field of Kinetic Art. Rickey, who regarded movement as the most critical element in sculpture, is known for his outdoor stainless steel pieces “Columns,” which are a result of his personal experiments with movement and his attempts to “see the wind.” He used movement as a form of expression much like a painter would use color.

During World War II, Rickey worked to improve the efficiency of aircraft weaponry. In his art, he made use of gyroscopes and ball bearings and adapted the gimbal, which is the device used on board ships to keep compasses and lights level while the ship rolls over waves. Rickey reversed this process and created sculptures with a stable base and moving components.