Kinetic Fine Art

As a graduate student at 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 Fine Art by the private business sectors, the government, and the general public. The Kinetic Fine Art form that this Field Project is concerned with is kinetic painting. In order to give a concise explanation of this art form, it must first be put into context. Although there are a multitude of kinetic art forms, there are only three categories of Kinetic Fine Art, and they all coincide with the major technological advances of our modern times.

The three major technological areas of advances 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. Without these categories it becomes impossible to distinguish between such terms as kinetic art, machine art, laser art, communication art, light art, computer art, and the list is much larger and growing.


The first major category that evolved also created 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 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, 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).” He was a constructivist and his work evolved into kinetic art. "Moholy Nagy, although his output in sculpture was small, is ranked very high among the constructivist” (Greenhill 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 focuse was with kinetic sculptures that implied, or had a virtual motion. The use of some type 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 constructivists 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. 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. 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 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 the visual arts began overtaking Machine Aesthetic. At this point Kinetic Fine Art became well known.


The color organ began the 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. The art form called light art is another source of confusion in Kinetic Fine Art. In order to be a Kinetic Fine Art the art form must have some type of motion. Early neon light art forms had no motion implied, virtual or actual.

The South American Gyula Kosice introduced the Light Art there. Popper points out that by 1910 George Claude invented the vapor-tube filled with neon gas…. In the 1930’s a few artists used neon tubes for decorative purposes (Art of the Electronic Age 17). “Credit for the earliest attempt to use neon light as a principal material of sculpture is usually given to Gyula Kosice, who produced his Luminous Structures in Buenos Aires in 1946” (Popper, Art of the Electronic Age 17). Gyula Kosice was a great experimenter with different art forms. He was also a kinetic artist. But, his Luminous Structures have no implied, virtual, or actual motion. So it is not Light Aesthetic. Light Aesthetic pertains to some form of motion. This illustration of light art is a contributing factor to some of the confusion surrounding kinetic art. This one of many reasons to elevate the term to Kinetic Fine Art, to separate it from technological art. Not all technological art pertains to motion.


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). This is when Light Aesthetic really took off. 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 in 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.


The computer is the third major advance in technology within our modern times to influence Kinetic Fine Art. Computer art is often thought of as static digital images on a computer screen. For example, any digital image created in Photoshop is thought to be computer art. This is another reason to elevate the term computer art to Computer Aesthetic when in reference to 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, even before the transistor, 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' Video Synthesizer may actually mark the start of the Computer Aesthetic.


I find Kowalski’s experimentation with Light Aesthetic to be an excellent example of this transformation. His artwork evolved from pure Light Aesthetic to Computer Aesthetic. Kowalski began with neon light and then his art evolved into installations using an early form of cybernetics in the form of electronics, and that evolved into environmental light shows. “Kowalski has also created such environmental works as Field of Interaction (1983) in which the physical interactions of the spectators modify the structure of luminous elements in a simulation of urban space (Popper, Art of the Electronic Age 21). He is just one of many pioneers for the creation of the Computer Aesthetic. 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 art form. But for it to be Kinetic Fine Art, it must have some element of motion: actual, virtual, or spectator.

Now that I have explained the progression of Kinetic Fine Art through the major technological advances of our modern time, it would be appropriate to briefly explain the different types of motion employed in Kinetic Fine Art: actual, virtual, and spectator motion. Motor, wind, and water are some examples of actual motion. Virtual motion is an illusion of movement that is nonexistent in physical terms (Roukes13). Op art is an example of virtual motion. An early form of virtual motion was an implied motion in sculpture used by the constructivist. Spectator motion can utilize virtual motion by use of the moving moiré pattern, or reflective materials. As the spectator moves from side to side, lines of motion are created through over-lapping screens, or any shaped reflective material that can reflect the surrounding area. Also, an early form of spectator motion was uesd in minimal art. As the viewer moved from side to side the shadows in the art form would also move.