History of Kinetic Art: Focus on Movement and Perception

Art in the age of machines and computers

Whether with wind, gravity, motors or computer-controlled: Kinetic art manifests the human fascination with physical movement. The 20th century brought rapid social changes and new kinds of technology. Kinetic art is an expression of this change − and it is far from being at the end. On the history of a fairly young art form with a great future.

by Marius Damrow, January 16, 2023

Kinetic art is usually expressed in three-dimensional sculptures that are movable. The Greek word kinesis (κῑ́νησῐς) means movement. The work of art can be driven by the wind, gravity, machines or computers. Some art theorists also count Op Art as kinetic art: here, when viewers move around the work, an object also appears to be set in motion. This is based on optical illusions, which is why most theorists identify Op Art as a separate art form.

The beginnings of kinetic art

The beginnings of kinetic art can be traced back to the end of the 19th century. Famous painters such as Claude Monet dealt with nature in flux. His series of 33 paintings of Rouen Cathedral (1892-1894) shows the building in various light situations. It is representative of the emerging interest in movement and the passage of time. In the course of industrialisation, which promoted the development of numerous new machines, and of film, art also reflected the beginnings of social change.

A precursor of kinetic art is Marcel Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel (1913/14). The ready-made contains a moving element − the wheel − but is not intended as a permanently moving construct. Although the first visitors to the exhibition were invited to turn the wheel, for Duchamp the aspect of the found object as a work of art was paramount. The senselessly turning wheel rather emphasises Duchamp's satirical and socially critical statement.

Pettibone appropriated Duchamps work

Richard Pettibone

Marcel Duchamp, 'Bicycle Wheel', 1913-14

Found at Christies, New York
Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Sale, Lot 252
13. May - 13. May 2022
Estimate: 40.000 - 60.000 USD
Price realised: 50.400 USD

In addition to Duchamp, it was above all Constructivism and Dada that had an impact on kinetic art. The Russian sculptor Naum Gabo developed his Kinetic Constructions around 1920. Electrically powered motors set steel objects in motion. Gabo worked against the background of the October Revolution in his homeland. His novel sculptures are part of the search for a new, utopian society in which traditional art no longer had a role.

Kinetic art in its heyday

Like many revolutionary approaches to art in the 1910s and 1920s, kinetic art did not initially rise above its experimental status. The Second World War hindered artistic and social developments and led back to conservative views, especially in the latter case. Starting in the USA, abstract painting then in turn ousted the favoured figurative painting from the galleries in the 1940s and 1950s. The progressive attitude towards art benefited kinetic art.

»Just as one can compose colors, or forms, so one can compose motions.« − Alexander Calder

Two of its best-known representatives were very active at this time: the US American Alexander Calder earned worldwide fame with his mobiles and took part in the first three editions of the documenta. He hung his structures, reminiscent of tree branches, and then exposed them to the currents of the wind. The metal constructions appear as if their centre of gravity is in the upper part of the sculpture. They play with the human perception of heaviness and lightness through the propulsion of the wind. The Swiss painter and sculptor Jean Tinguely also decisively developed kinetic art with his machine-like sculptures. Today, he is regarded as one of the main representatives of this art form.

Kinetic art reached its peak in the 1960s. The artists Julio Le Parc and Nicolas Schöffer won important prizes with their kinetic works at the 1966 and 1968 Venice Biennales respectively. But with recognition and acceptance, the movement lost its focus on content as a radical new direction for art. The avant-garde spirit faded, the anti-establishment ethos became increasingly lost in the general trend. Ironically, it was precisely the worldwide success that led to the decline of the movement.

Examples by Calder and Tinguely

Alexander Calder - Mobile [Maquette]
Contemporary Art Day Auction
May 2016
Sothebys, New York
Est.: 600.000 - 800.000 USD
Realised: 706.000 USD
Jean Tinguely - Précision
Art Contemporain
December 2014
Christies, Paris
Est.: 30.000 - 40.000 EUR
Realised: 73.500 EUR

The end of kinetic art?

Carsten Höller's works from the 1990s serve as an example of the unsuccessful search for current powerful statements that could be made with kinetic art. His sculptures and carousels, reminiscent of playground equipment, only expanded kinetic art with obvious aspects. A merry-go-round that takes a quarter of an hour to turn − whether the time is lost or gained for the recipients is up to them.

The rapid technological development of the second half of the 20th century is reflected in new kinds of artworks. While motor-driven works were called kinetic art a few decades earlier, today the term robotic art has become established. According to art theorists, kinetic art no longer exists in its original form. Individual artists are trying to revive the term with contemporary technologies. Most recently, Beeple created HUMAN ONE, which he described as a kinetic sculpture. Here, NFT art combines with classical elements of kinetic artworks such as the moving metal construction. Whether Beeple, who at the same time wants to help the NFT hype reach new heights, has also initiated the return of kinetic art?



Found at Christies, New York
21st Century Evening Sale, Lot 7 A
9. Nov - 9. Nov 2021
Price realised: 28.985.000 USD
»Machines have replaced the transcendental spiritualism of past eras.« − László Moholy-Nagy

What is certain is that it is impossible to imagine artistic practice without moving artworks. Robots and artificial intelligences will determine people's everyday lives too much for art not to reflect this. William Kentridge attempted a new beginning in kinetic art with several Bicycle Wheels, extensions of Duchamp's work. They are equipped with speaking tubes and refer to an art form that is overlooked today and is more current than is generally believed.

And a development is also emerging in the auction market: Kinetic artworks from the early 20th century have seen significant price increases of over 100% in some cases over the last ten years. Even if the art style is no longer active in its original form, kinetic art is still showing signs of life in today's scene and market.Art.Salon

Reference to Duchamp from 2016

William Kentridge

South African kinetic Sculpture (Bicycle Wheel)

Found at Sothebys, London
Modern & Contemporary African Art, Lot 88
16. Oct - 16. Oct 2018
Estimate: 70.000 - 90.000 GBP
Price realised: 81.250 GBP
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