PRINT May 1966

Kinetic Sculpture At Berkeley

“. . . kinetic sculpture must be seen and judged by the continually changing esthetic criteria of form and content.”
—Peter Selz, catalog preface to “Kinetic Sculpture.”

OF SOME EIGHTEEN SIZABLE EXHIBITIONS of kinetic art presented during 1965, only four were held in the United States, and at least two of these four contained no work by Americans at all. For his current exhibition, “New Directions in Kinetic Sculpture,” Peter Selz could rustle up barely five Americans among his fourteen participants. The figures reflect the rather naked fact that kinetic sculpture has aroused little interest in this country, either as a way of reflecting the technological revolution or of confronting the esthetic dilemmas of modernist sculpture.

One would suspect that the reasons for this indifference might be a considerably more sophisticated awareness by the Americans both of technology and of the esthetic difficulties which modern sculpture has so long faced. With regard to the latter one can only suggest this: at no point in the 20th century, perhaps, could painting have been subjected to so remorselessly systematic an exposure of its hackneyed paralysis as Lawrence Alloway was able, almost casually, to subject sculpture in his essay, “Sculpture as Cliche.” Here, what was known in all the advanced studios was plainly and openly stated: that contemporary sculptural forms were trite, dead and boring, and that merely cataloging them—“tip-toe poses,” “the sick (or avenging) birds of the ’40s and ’50s,” “birth-debris draped single pieces,” “furniture and hardware,” “mutilations. and injuries”—was good for laughs. All these might bring forth guffaws or yawns from advanced sculptors, but to return to the studio and attempt to make a viable sculpture from this debris was no laughing matter. Forced by the clarity of their own insight into the helpless condition into which modern sculpture had fallen, American sculptors began the methodical re-examination of the forms of sculpture itself which we are now experiencing, testing each assumption of the medium anew, tapping for a little life among the dried tubers. A sculpture which has so painstakingly come to the point where all vestiges of the dumb imitation of nature have been discarded is not now about to capitulate all it has gained by commencing a similarly dumb imitation of machines.

The issue of kinetic sculpture as it might have presented itself to an advanced American sculptor was not “What is my relation to Einsteinian physics?” or “How can I reflect the new technology?” but “Is movement a possible way of breathing life into this half-dead art?” The negative answer that has so far been given is in many ways not unlike the refusal to employ optical devices in the work of the line of painters which includes Newman, Reinhardt, Kelly, Stella, Noland, Louis, Bannard, Williams, Zox, etc., and indeed, kinetics can be seen to stand in the same sterile relationship to real sculpture as Op art stands to real painting—an irrelevant distraction. For those sculptures in which the movement is the content (Haacke, Boriani, Takis, von Graevenitz) are as empty of significance as those paintings in which the optical flicker is the content.

It appears to be an assumption of kinetic art that if an indeterminate, never-repeating pattern of events (say, with moving colored lights, or discs sliding about on a shifting magnetic field, or the movement of an overturned bottle of colored water) can be achieved, monotony is impossible and a true dynamic art has been created. This assumption is repeatedly proven false in the Berkeley exhibition; the fact that the sliding discs never form the same order twice, that the colored water and oil never bubble up in the same pattern twice, that shifting grains of metallic sand never form the same configuration twice turns out to be not so important as that they provide an interesting configuration but once. The great lesson of these pieces, indeed, seems to be that monotony is perhaps the inevitable result of a pattern of indeterminate movement and that nothing is so tiresome as movement for its own sake, the endless perpetuation of insignificant change.

An equally manifest failure attaches to those sculptures which simply impose movement on the same old quasi-organic, quasi-landscape, hackneyed forms (Pol Bury, George Rickey, Boriani). These serve only to demonstrate that movement makes nothing happen. Bury’s organisms are as boring when they twitch as when they don’t twitch, and Rickey’s stalks are as dull when they wave as when they don’t wave.

For many of the artists who avoid either making the movement the content or imposing movement on a moribund content, still other difficulties arise to prevent their work from breaking through into the clean air of a new art. The work of Charles Mattox, for example, typifies an awkward and unforeseen dilemma which arises when the nature of a finite, programmed cycle of events suddenly imposes upon the viewing of sculpture a structure which does not blend pleasingly with the basically contemplative nature of the art. In Mattox’s Act of Love, for example, a small red-tipped wire detaches itself from a parent ball, extends to a smaller, neighboring ball, “crawls around” on the latter, and then returns into the opening out of which it came. The cycle stops and begins again when the viewer steps on the starter button. The structure of this event is basically the literary, or dramatic structure of beginning-middle-end, and weds awkwardly to an art form which we ordinarily contemplate in no such sequence. The literary structure assumes, and is designed for, repetition, and beginnings, middles and ends of books, movies and plays are filled out with a rich complexity of incident to assure not only that boredom will not result from this repetition, but that, on the contrary, the work will reveal itself even more richly upon repeated viewings. Most kinetic sculpture which is structured in this fashion, is so simplistic, however, that we are never tempted to “see it again” (in the sense in which we “see a movie again”). Its content is quite exhausted after one or two “performances.” In the case of Mattox, we find ourselves paradoxically, returning to the work and preferring to view the pleasing shapes in repose rather than step on the button and start the cycle. But few kinetic artists have Mattox’s witty and sure sense of form.

If those kinetic works which are programmed to a known, finite cycle of activity fall into an uncomfortable and dissatisfying wedding with the structure of the novel or the drama, those which are programmed to a relatively random or open-ended kind of activity tend, similarly, to approximate the forms of the dance, and here, too, the imposition of the structure of the dance, although looser, does not tend to enrich the art of sculpture. The waving, reed-like forms of George Rickey, or the twirling (ballerina-like) Moving Light Line of Heinz Mack are suggestive of the movements of dancers, but without the purposefulness or continuity of that art; the evocation of the dance in these pieces only serves to accentuate the essential aimlessness of the moving forms. Similarly, in the work of Takis, the string-held balls and magnets slowly moving around an electromagnetic spool become a kind of sterile and endless pas-de-deux.

The esthetic solution to the problems raised by these abortive and inconclusive evocations of the forms of the dance or of drama may very well have been provided by Jean Tinguely—the star to which the wagon of the entire kinetic movement has for so long been hitched in what may yet come to be regarded as the high point of the history of kinetic sculpture. In programming his “Homage to New York,” in 1961, not to the interminable repetition of a few simple movements, but to the destruction of the work itself at the completion of the “performance,” Tinguely at once unharnessed the mixed team of kinetics and drama or dance, and brought kinetics into line with a new, and much more congenial art form—the Happening. “Homage to New York” exists, in photograph and in memory, more vividly than most kinetic sculptures which are still plodding their weary cycles around.

“. . . Lessing’s neat distinctions between the arts of time and the arts of space, could no longer hold once Einstein’s theory of the space-time continuum, in which time is a coordinate of space, had been accepted.”
—Peter Selz, Catalog Preface, “Kinetic Sculpture.”

“My initial interest in kinetic sculpture was stimulated by a desire to explore aspects of our technology and apply them to art forms.”
—Charles Mattox, Catalog Statement, “Kinetic Sculpture.”

“The theory of information, the Gestalt theory, experimental psychology, semiology, experimental esthetics, as well as cybernetics, mathematics, the combination of geometry, technology and industrial techniques, all now constitute a vast repertory of working possibilities and demonstrative rules.”
—Davide Boriani, Catalog Statment, “Kinetic Sculpture.”

“Every slot machine is more complicated, technically, than all kinetic sculpture.”
—Harry Kramer, catalog statement, same catalog.

That most kinetic artists did not seem to grasp the fruitful possibilities of Tinguely’s elegant solution may, perhaps, be a consequence of the extraordinary ego of the movement. The logic of self-destruction, or of one-time presentation in a specific context could not be immediately appealing to an art which clothes itself in the rhetoric of Einsteinian physics, information theory, cybernetics and higher mathematics. In several other ways, one suspects, the over-blown rhetoric of kinetic sculpture has done its practitioners more harm than good. The heavy atmosphere of TECHNOLOGY that’ seems to dominate so many kinetic exhibitions, sets up, quite naturally, expectations of an art which has been able to put to its own uses the most sophisticated mechanical, electronic or magnetic advances of the technological age. In such an atmosphere, the puniness of the actual technology employed becomes emphasized to the point of hilarity.

The catalog of the “Kinetic Sculpture,” exhibition, for example, contains a “Chronology of Kinetic Art” which soberly lists as corresponding developments in the sciences, the publication of Einstein’s theory of special relativity, Heisenberg’s “Uncertainty Principle,” Wiener’s “Cybernetics,” and Hoyle’s steady-state theory of the origin of the universe. Within the pressure of such a context, Takis’ swinging magnets, Haacke’s little plexiglass boxes of oil and water or Bury’s twitching nails become hilariously inadequate. Removed from the context of this rhetoric, the pieces have, at least, a fighting chance.

The nature of progress in science and in art is not a parallel one, nor are developments in one area reflected on a simple one-to-one basis in the other. The sculpture of David Smith, Giacometti or Robert Morris is not somehow “pre-Einsteinian,” as Dr. Selz’s remark, quoted above, might imply, and no discoveries about the constant state of motion in which sub-atomic particles happen to find themselves dictate an immediate corresponding response in esthetic attitudes. To the extent that the rhetoric of motion sculpture attempts to justify itself esthetically with portentous references to quantum mechanics, to that extent does it deserve little more than to be dismissed out of hand. The tragedy of so specious an emphasis on a kind of bogus scientism is that it tends to deflect the attention of practicing artists from esthetic problems no less complex and sophisticated than the technology they so breathlessly admire and so dismally fail to reflect. The result is that the measure of our technological age is more accurately taken in a Warhol soup can than in all the kinetic sculpture from here to Dusseldorf.

The single artist in Dr. Selz’s exhibition who seems to transcend all the confusion—esthetic, mechanical, rhetorical—of kinetic sculpture is Len Lye, whose work manages to compress so ferocious an energy that the viewer stands paralyzed, gripped by an emotion almost of terror. Lye’s elements are supremely simple: hanging strips of stainless steel, six or seven feet long, are set to spinning around at very high speeds. The whiplash strain on the steel produces a series of frightening, unearthly sounds in perfect accord with the mood of barbaric energy that seems to have been released. Installed by itself in a black-painted room, the viewer comes upon Lye’s Trilogy as he would upon a volcano. The effect is beautiful, frightening, utterly beyond the petty limitations of the other artists in the exhibition.

“ . . . this exhibition attempts to bring some kind of order into the bewildering diversity and proliferation that now exists in kinetic sculpture.”
—Peter Selz, Catalog Preface, “Kinetic Sculpture.”

Whether the corresponding, and simultaneous, exhibition of kinetic sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Art is also designed to bring some kind of order to the subject is not easy to ascertain, nor is it easy to imagine why two exhibitions (nine of the San Francisco Museum’s seventeen participants are included in the Selz show) are called for. Press releases, substituting for a catalog, provide the information that the exhibition is one of a series sponsored by the Museum’s Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art, and that the selection committee, in consultation with John Humphrey and Peter Selz, consisted of “Jack Schafer, Division Merchandise Manager of Capwells in Oakland; Robert Bransten, Western Can Company vice president; Joseph Eichler, president of Eichler Homes; Hugh Gee, head of Investment Security Associates in San Francisco and Howard Jacobs, Director of Marketing at Stromberg Carlson Corporation.” In addition to the nine artists shared with the Berkeley exhibition, the San Francisco exhibition includes several artists working with light, a work by precursor Calder, several Latin American artists, several additional German artists, Nicholas Schoffer and Ernest Trova. Somehow, it is difficult to bring to this exhibition the same enthusiasm of critical interest that the Berkeley exhibition so admirably elicits.

Dr. Selz has, indeed, brought some kind of order to his exhibition. He has, with admirable honesty; refused to pad his presentation with peripheral figures, or with the works of artists who are not truly involved in the kinetics movement. Thus, one does not find a Rauschenberg or a Kienholz or any other of the artists who might have been included in an “if it moves, include it” approach. The focus of the exhibition is sharply on those artists to whom movement, in the context of one or another branch of kinetic theoretics, is a primary concern, and as such provides a lucidly clear picture of what the movement is all about.

Other self-imposed limitations on the exhibition are similarly sensitive. Aware of the hazards of an historical survey at this time, and doubtless wary of the validity of seeking “precursors” so early in the game, Dr. Selz has chosen to refrain from including figures who, at the present moment at least, appear as “fathers”: Duchamp, Gabo, Calder, Rodchenko, etc. (This kind of editorializing has damaged many an exhibition in recent years; one need only think of the scramble for Pop “precursors” that ranged from Chardin to Duchamp.) Similarly, Dr. Selz has refrained from including any of the kinetic artists working with moving light on the quite reasonable grounds that this area may very well call for an exhibition of its own.

In the opera bouffe atmosphere of the Bay Area museum world, any exhibition which “attempts to bring some kind of order” to its subject is a source of considerable gratification. Great hopes for sane, competent, adventurous and professional museum direction in the Bay Region seem at last to have been fulfilled by Dr. Selz’s arrival at the University of California. Secure in the knowledge that a professional intelligence has selected, cataloged** and presented the exhibition, the viewer of “New Directions in Kinetic Sculpture” may take the greatest pleasure in engaging the challenges of the exhibition and even offering a few challenges in return.

Philip Leider



*Artforum, Volume II #4, October, 1963, page 26.

**What might amount to a slight impropriety—the selection of one of the participants in the exhibition, George Rickey, to write the catalog introduction—may easily be excused on the grounds of Rickey’s growing emergence as a leading theoretician of motion sculpture. Quite inexcusable, it would appear, is Rickey’s use of the occasion for a gratuitous attack on Alexander Calder, from whom, more than any other artist in the exhibition, Rickey’s own work so obviously derives.