Kinetic art is art that depends on motion for its effects

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  • Alexander Calder, 'Antennae with Red and Blue Dots' c1953
    Alexander Calder
    Antennae with Red and Blue Dots c1953
    Aluminium and steel wire
    © 2015 Calder Foundation, New York and DACS, London
  • Naum Gabo, 'Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave)' 1919-20, replica 1985
    Naum Gabo
    Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave) 1919-20, replica 1985
    Metal, painted wood and electrical mechanism
    object: 616 x 241 x 190 mm
    Presented by the artist through the American Federation of Arts 1966The Work of Naum Gabo © Nina & Graham Williams/Tate, London 2011
  • Julio Le Parc, 'Continual Mobile, Continual Light' 1963
    Julio Le Parc
    Continual Mobile, Continual Light 1963
    Mixed media
    object:1575 x 1600 x 505
    Purchased 1964© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002
  • Jean Tinguely, 'Metamechanical Sculpture with Tripod' 1954
    Jean Tinguely
    Metamechanical Sculpture with Tripod 1954
    Board and metal
    object: 2360 x 815 x 915 mm
    Purchased 1984© The estate of Jean Tinguely
  • Bruce Lacey, 'The Womaniser' 1966
    Bruce Lacey
    The Womaniser 1966
    Mixed media
    displayed: 1500 x 1650 x 730 mm
    Purchased with funds provided by the Knapping Fund 2001© Bruce Lacey
  • Rebecca Horn, 'Concert for Anarchy' 1990
    Rebecca Horn
    Concert for Anarchy 1990
    Painted wood, metal and electronic components
    unconfirmed: 1500 x 1060 x 1555 mm
    Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund and the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1999© DACS, 2002
  • Jake Chapman, Dinos Chapman, 'Little Death Machine (Castrated)' 1993
    Jake Chapman, Dinos Chapman
    Little Death Machine (Castrated) 1993
    Mixed media
    displayed: 1384 x 742 x 943 mm
    Presented anonymously 1997© Jake and Dinos Chapman
  • Rebecca Horn, 'Overflowing Blood Machine' 1970
    Rebecca Horn
    Overflowing Blood Machine 1970
    Mixed media
    unconfirmed: 1650 x 700 x 430 mm
    Purchased with assistance from Tate Members 2002© DACS, 2002

Introduction to kinetic art

The word kinetic means relating to motion. Since the early twentieth century artists have been incorporating movement into art. This has been partly to explore the possibilities of movement, partly to introduce the element of time, partly to reflect the importance of the machine and technology in the modern world and partly to explore the nature of vision.

Movement has either been produced mechanically by motors, as in kinetic art pioneer Naum Gabo’s Standing Wave of 1919–20; or by exploiting the natural movement of air in a space – referred to as mobilesAlexander Calder began to create mobiles from around 1930.

Kinetic art became a major phenomenon of the late 1950s and the 1960s. In the 1960s artists such as Bridget Riley and Victor Vasarely experimented with geometric shapes that distort the viewer’s perception, creating artworks which, although static, give the impression of movement. (See the glossary definition for op art)

Bridget Riley, 'Fragment 3/11' 1965
Bridget Riley
Fragment 3/11 1965
Screenprint on perspex
image: 615 x 797 mm
Purchased 1970© 2006 Bridget Riley. All rights reserved.

Kinetic artists in focus

Alexander Calder

Calder’s suspended wire sculptures in the 1930s, which could be moved by hand or by small electric motors, were given the name ‘mobiles’ by Marcel Duchamp. They consisted of several abstract shapes, normally in a palette of primary colours, black and white.

Who is Alexander Calder?
Find out about his key works, his thoughts about sculpture and how his pieces were transported. 

Watch this short film about Calder Piece, a 1963 musical colloboration between composer Earler Brown and Alexander Calder. Percussionists play on Calder’s mobile Chef d’orchestre, working with the unpredictability of the structure whilst staying true to the original score.

Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture
This online exhibition guide for this major exhibition of the artist’s work at Tate Modern from November 2015 until April 2016, reveals how motion, performance and theatricality underpinned Calder’s practice.

Lost Art: Alexander Calder
Find out about Alexander Calder’s Bent Propeller 1970, a piece which was lost in the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York, in this article from The Gallery of Lost Art project.

Poem of the month: Butterfly Antennae
Read James Midgley’s poem inspired by Alexander Calder’s Antennae with Red and Blue Dots.

Naum Gabo

Naum Gabo, 'Model for 'Construction in Space 'Two Cones''' 1927
Naum Gabo
Model for 'Construction in Space 'Two Cones'' 1927
object: 86 x 108 x 124 mm
Presented by the artist 1977The Work of Naum Gabo © Nina & Graham Williams/Tate, London 2011

Naum Gabo was a Russian constructivist artist, who pioneered new ways of making sculpture from plastic, glass and metals. He started making constructions in Moscow in around 1915 alongside Antoine Pevsner and Vladimir Tatlin. His piece Standing Wave of 1919–20, originally made to demonstrate the principles of kinetics to his students, reflects the artist’s belief in a sculpture in which space and time were active components.

Naum Gabo exhibition guide
Explore this online guide to the Gabo exhibition at Tate St Ives in 2002, which displayed Gabo’s sculptures, models and sketches for a number of major works.

In this TateShots video Nina Williams, daughter of Naum Gabo, shows us how to use Constructivist Ballet a kinetic toy her father made for her during World War II. A plastic semi-spherical dome with some tiny off-cuts of coloured plastic are transformed into a miniature theatre stage with ballet-dancers.

Naum Gabo: Discovering the Archive
Listen to art historian Christina Lodder introduce Gabo through his correspondence, writings, sketches and models, from Tate archive.

Lost Art: Naum Gabo
This feature looks at Construction in Space: Two Cones, an abstract sculpture that combined geometry with a sense of movement. The original and replica are not able to go on display, due to the condition of the plastic caused over time.

The Gabo archive
Browse works the Gabo collection in Tate Archive by date, keyword or theme.

Fischli and Weiss

Artist duo Fischli and Weiss made use of chain reactions to create their kinetic artworks. Watch a video excerpt from The Way Things Go, a film documenting the causal chain of a precarious 70-100 feet long structure set in motion by a spinning rotating bin bag:

The way things went
Read this Tate Etc. article, where Patrick Frey explains his documentary on the Fischli/Weiss film The Way Things Go.

Kinetic art in detail

Jean Tinguely, 'Débricollage' 1970
Jean Tinguely
Débricollage 1970
Steel, mixed media and electrical mechanism
© The estate of Jean Tinguely

Audio Arts: Jean Tinguely, Sculpture at the Tate Gallery
What does kinetic art sound like? Find out by listening to this recording of thirteen of Jean Tinguely’s sculptures which were displayed at the Tate Gallery in 1982. 

Replicas of László Moholy-Nagy’s Light Prop
This Tate Paper looks at László Moholy-Nagy’s Light Prop for an Electric Stage, 1930 and its replica, commissioned by Tate in 2006, and how the work stands between the intersection of the histories of kinetic art, of the machine aesthetic, and of material innovation.

Naum Gabo and the Quandaries of the Replica
This Tate Paper focuses on Naum Gabo’s replicas, his use of materials, and how his work created new ideas of space and time in sculpture.

Kinetic art for kids

Alexander Calder, 'Standing Mobile' 1937
Alexander Calder
Standing Mobile 1937
Painted metal, steel and wire
object: 2280 x 2030 x 2600 mm
Accepted by H.M. Government in lieu of tax and allocated to Tate 2002© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2002

These blog posts and activites are a fun and simple way to introduce kinetic art to kids, whether in the classroom or at home.

Who is Alexander Calder?
This blog post on Tate Kids is an excellent introduction to the man who made modern art move! 

Make your own circus
Get kids making their own wire sculpture circus acts in the style of Alexander Calder. 

Alexander Calder: Acrobats
Kids can submit their stories inspired by Calder’s Acrobats. On that note, what’s it like to be an ariel performer in a circus? Find out in this Tate Kids interview with Romy Bauer from Circus Starr.

Related glossary terms

Mobile, sculpture, constructivism, Zero, op art