Kinetic art is art that depends on motion for its effects
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 mobiles. Alexander 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)
Kinetic artists in focus
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.
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.
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 His piece Standing Wave of 1919–20, originally made to demonstrate the principles of kinetics to his students, reflects the artist’s belief in a sculpture in which space and time were active components.
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
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.