History of Kinetic Art
Oral presentation on May 2003 for a Master degree
As a graduate student from Highlands University in Las Vegas, New Mexico, and majoring in Media Arts and Computer Science, I often wonder why so few people know of kinetic painting. What is it? They often say, or what is kinetic? By now everyone has at least seen, even if they don't know it, a kinetic sculpture. Usually it is in front of an important building and is driven by a motor, or it is wind driven, or it gives the impression of movement due to the shape and or reflective properties of the materials used in the art form. This is the presently accepted form of Kinetic Art by the private business sectors, the government, and the general public. The Kinetic Art that this article is focused on is kinetic painting. Kinetic painting seems to be the neglected step-child of Kinetic Art. This article will explan the complicated progression of Kinetic Art by first changing the name to Kinetic Fine Art.
The three technological advances that directly relate to Kinetic Fine Art are within the realms of machine, light and computer. These realms of technology also constitute the three categories in Kinetic Fine Art: Machine Aesthetic, Light Aesthetic, and Computer Aesthetic. These terms do not replace machine art, light art, or computer art, or even kinetic art, but are a necessary elevation of terms in order to give a concise explanation of Kinetic Fine Art, and to focus on the essential kinetic painting.
The first major category that evolved came from the Industrial Revolution and it is the machine. Keep in mind that the development of Kinetic Fine Art was not linear. I explain it in linear terms for the sake of order and simplicity. Let us also keep in mind that each category of development of Kinetic Fine Art had an incubation period before it actually became recognized as an art movement. Machine Aesthetic had its most recent incubation period with the constructivist. In the words of my former Design Foundation instructor, Ulrich Niemeyer who is an artist and considers himself a constructivist, "Constructionism is a post-cubist movement which deals in part with sculpture by way of the machine originated aesthetic. In other words, the sculptures are not carved or modeled. They are constructed from wood, metal, paper, glass, or modern industrial materials such as steel, aluminum, or plastic, and then assembled." It is through the experiments of the constructivist that Machine Aesthetic was born. With that in mind let us start with "the Germans during the Industrial Revolution" (Popper, Origins and Development of Kinetic Art 95) who "adopted the term 'kinetic arts' for the arts of gesture." In this atmosphere of arts of gesture and expanding mechanical technology within the German culture, the Bauhaus was formed. Mainly thought of as an Art Design Institution, however, Bauhaus had many fine art artists as well. One of these artists had a major impact on the United States, "Lazlo Moholy Nagy, an instructor at the Bauhaus, established an American branch years later, in Chicago (Popper, Art of the Electronic Age11)."
Harvard University Museum,
Origins and Development of Kinetic Art
by Frank Malina
He was a constructivist and his work evolved into kinetic fine art. " Moholy Nagy , although his output in sculpture was small, is ranked very high among the constructivist" (Greenhill, Dictionary of Art 364). Naum Gabo also started as a constructivist. Then after becoming an instructor at the Bauhaus, he soon became a kinetic artist. But his early focus was with kinetic sculptures that had a virtual motion.
Naum Gabo ,
Head No. 2, 1916,
enlarged version 1964.
The use of motion and the machine aesthetics employed by the Bauhaus, used in reference to Kinetic Fine Art, was clearly brought into the physical realm by the constructivist experimenting with motion.
But the machine aesthetic artist were not only in Germany. They were in many European countries and in the United States as well. Pevsner, Marcel Duchamp, Thomas Wilfred, Alexander Calder and several others were also very active. "It was in 1920 that the word 'kinetic' was first used in connection with the plastic arts" (Popper, Origins and Development of Kinetic Art 95). There were many artists from many different places that were developing Machine Aesthetic.
Machine Aesthetic had an even earlier incubation period than the constructivists' experiments. The hydro-clock during the time of Ancient Greece is an ancient start of this incubation period. Also, during the middle Ages elaborate clocks were developed with a sequence of events unfolding. "In the seventeenth century we see the development of a new phenomenon, the human or animal automation which imitates lifelike appearances" (Popper, Origins and Development of Kinetic Art 122). So, although Kinetic Fine Art has been around for many years, it is in 1920 that most scholars agree that Kinetic Fine Art was born as a movement in the arts. It was Machine Aesthetic as the focus of this movement
The second major technology to evolve and influence Kinetic Fine Art is the evolving technology of light. As machine technology was in full bloom, light technology was being born. In 1905, Thomas Wilfred began to explore kinetic painting. "His components were no more than a cigar-box, a small incandescent lamp and a few pieces of colored glass" (Popper, Origins and Development of Kinetic Art 161). Later in 1919, Thomas Wilfred developed, the Clavilux , a color organ that was not only Machine Aesthetic, but Light Aesthetic as well.
seated in front of
Clavilux Jr. 1930
The Clavilux consisted of a keyboard that controlled a projection of light onto a translucent screen. Although Thomas Wilfred was an early pioneer in the incubation period for Light Aesthetic, he is a prime example of how Kinetic Fine Art did not develop in linear terms. The three forms of Kinetic Fine Art did not occur in a clearly linear fashion but looped and overlapped in their development in time.
Moholy Nagy's light machine, or Lichtrequisit, is a prime example of Light Aesthetic in the incubation period, which occurred nearly in the same time period (1923-30) as Thomas Wilfred's Clavilux. Popper explains that this machine was a moving sculpture made of polished metal, which reflected light (Origins and Development of Kinetic Art125). Reflected light is one of the many different ways to express the Light Aesthetic. But it wasn't until 1956 that Light Aesthetic as a recognized movement in Kinetic Fine Art began overtaking Machine Aesthetic. At this point Kinetic Fine Art became well known.
The color organ began the earlier incubation period for Light Aesthetic. Father Louis Betrand Castel, a Jesuit philosopher, is credited for inventing the first color organ in 1734 (Roukes107). "Father Castel was working towards a new art of light...Bainbridge Bishop developed a color organ in 1880 that projected lights onto a screen...Frederick Kastner developed a gas organ called the "Pyrophone" in 1869-73" (Popper, Origins and Development of Kinetic Art 156-157). The intricacies, in Kinetic Fine Art, are almost impossible to follow. Although, Thomas Wilfred was part of the machine aesthetic movement through a keyboard mechanical control of his Clavilux. He was also part of the incubation period of Light Aesthetic as well. However, it was in 1955, the experiments of scientist and artist Frank Malina heralded a remarkable renewal in the art of moving light (Popper, Origins and Development of Kinetic Art 165).
paints the rotors of Paths in Space, 1963
Art of the Electronic Age by Frank Popper
During this period Frank Malina incorporated virtual motion, spectator motion, actual motion, moiré effects, and artificial light into his work. Frank Malina's kinetic work called "Lighted Animated and Ever-changing Picture Arrangement" incorporates two categories: Machine Aesthetic and Light Aesthetic combined with the moiré effect. Then in his next stage of development as an artist Frank Malina incorporates the entire three categories of Kinetic Fine Art into one art form: Machine Aesthetic, Light Aesthetic, and arguably an early form of Computer Aesthetic into his lumidyne system series. This series of artwork is actually the start of the incubation period for Computer Aesthetic. Frank Malina used electronics and regulators extensively to control the movement of motors and light patterns in his kinetic paintings, and that constitutes early cybernetics. Cybernetic art is merely an attempt to control light effects with mathematical programming, electronics, and or a microchip. Through the experiments of Frank Malina, we can vividly illustrate the phenomena of Light Aesthetic growing out of Machine Aesthetic, along with an early beginning of Computer Aesthetic growing out of Light Aesthetic.
The computer is the third major advance in technology within our modern times to influence Kinetic Fine Art. Computer Aesthetic as a movement in Kinetic Fine Art began in an attempt to control the light effects in Light Aesthetic. As Light Aesthetic continued to grow, it developed through many forms of Kinetic Fine Art: reflected light, laser light, holography, and interactive environments. It was a natural form of progression to employ mathematical programming to control the effect, which gave birth to cybernetic art. "The word is derived from the ancient Greek 'kybernetike' meaning, roughly, 'steersmanship'" (Malina, Kinetic Art: Theory and Practice176). It is a term used in reference to control. An early form of control over the effects of light was through electronics. Before the microchip there was electronics. This use of cybernetics is the actual beginning of Computer Aesthetic. Some examples of this period of transformation are Jean-Pierre Yvarol "Interference", Nicholas Schoffer " Cybernetic Light Tower ", Piotr Kowalski's " Field of Interaction , and Nam June Paik's Video Synthesizer . Nam June Paik' s Video Synthesizer may actually mark the start of the Computer Aesthetic.
Cybernetic Light Tower (1972)
project for the Rond-Point
at La Defense in Paris
Art of the Electronic Age
by Frank Popper
Field of Interaction
at the Electra exhibition in
Art of the Electronic Age
by Frank Popper
Nam June Paik
First video synthesizer (1966)
Nam June Paik
One of his large scale creations is seen here:
Nam June Paik and Piotr Kowalski's experimentation with Light Aesthetic are excellent examples of this Kinetic Fine Art transformation from Light Aesthetic to Computer Aesthetic. They are but two of the many great pioneers for the creation of the Computer Aesthetic. The Computer Aesthetic, to put it simply, is the use of some form of mathematical programming, electronics, or a software program (such as an animation or video editing program) to control, or to create the motion art form.
In a nutshell, Kinetic Fine Art is a simplification of many overlapping events occurring with no special order. The use of evolving technology to explan Kinetic Fine Art gives order and simplification to a complicated series of events. Also, this article attempts to put the focus on the neglected portion of Kinetic Fine Art. This is the kinetic painter, Thomas Wilfred the pioneer of kinetic painting, and Frank Malina the greatest kinetic painter of the Twentieth Century.
by ISBN 0-9623544-9-x Revised and Published in 2005
Moire Tomas, Ed.D.
in 2003 for Master degree
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License
Please attribute legal copies of this work to Moire Tomas, Ed.D.
Also, some of the work(s) on this site may be separately licensed.
Apache Canyon Press
Veneration Publishing House
Espanola, New Mexico
Revised and Published in 2005