The Evolution of Hypnotic Kinetic Sculptures

what is kinetic art

Art that contains movement perceivable by the viewer or that relies on motion for its effect—this is the definition of kinetic art. While the definition explains the practical notion, it doesn't emphasize the hypnotic capabilities of the artform. And though it comprises any medium, it's actually kinetic sculpture that most comes to mind when thinking of the genre.

So where did kinetic sculpture get its start? Believe it or not, the earliest traces are owed to Impressionists like Monet and Degas who tried to express human movement in their paintings. But it was actually during the first half of the 20th century, when artists like Alexandre Calder experimented with mobiles, solidifying the birth of kinetic sculpture.

While we often think of motion-driven artwork as the only examples of the art from, in reality, kinetic art can be divided into two categories. In the 1950s the term “apparent movement” was coined by art historians to encompass any sculptural artwork with moving parts. Instead, Op Art is used to describe kinetic art that relies on perceivable movement through optical illusion.

At either end of the kinetic spectrum, mathematic principles are paramount to the success of the art. After an explosion in the 1960s, artists working in the field continue to push boundaries. Whether powered by electricity or natural elements, formed from wood or LED lights, kinetic art is constantly challenging our perceptions. Get ready for a crash course in the development of kinetic art.

The movement owes its name to Naum Gabo, an early 20th-century artist who dubbed his sculptures “kinetic rhythms.”

Naum Gabo. “Standing Wave.”

Many consider Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel the first piece of kinetic sculpture due to its spinning wheel.

marcel duchamp kinetic sculpture

Marcel Duchamp. “Bicycle Wheel.” Image via Gagosian.

Alexandre Calder began making his mobiles in the 1930s. His work first used motorized or hand-cranked mechanisms, but then evolved to rely only on air for movement.

alexander calder kinetic art

Alexander Calder

Kinetic art isn't just about works in motion, it also includes art that portrays perceived motion or “Op Art.”

bridget riley op art

Bridget Riley. “Blaze.”

Swiss artist Jean Tinguely (1925 – 1991) was a pioneer in the field—known for creating sculptural machines.

Kinetic sculpture enjoys continued success, frequently used in large-scale public installations.

David Cerny. “K on Sun.” READ MORE: Giant Moving Head Steel Sculpture.

Poetic Kinetics. “Liquid Shard.” READ MORE: Magical “Liquid Shard” Canopy Shimmers and Undulates Above LA’s Pershing Square.

Now, artists are often commissioned by corporations looking to enhance their headquarters.

Breaking Wave from PLEBIAN DESIGN.

Some artists use natural elements—like wind—to propel motion in the sculptures…

While other artists use mechanical parts or computer programs to force movement.

jennifer townley kinetic sculpture

Jennifer Townley. “Asinas.”

kinetic sculpture

Ryan Kvande. “Flow.”

As kinetic sculpture continues to evolve, artists are always innovating what the artform means. This LED chandelier in St. Petersburg is meant to mimic a jellyfish.

Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Contributing Writer and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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