“Force Fields: Phases of the Kinetic”

Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA)

Kinetic art suffered the unhappy fate of a flash in the pan. Drawing crowds and saturating the art market for a brief moment in the mid-’60s (at least in Europe), it faded from sight as rapidly as it had burst on the scene. Behind the quick demise was the confusion with Op art in the mind of the public, fueled by exhibitions such as “The Responsive Eye” (MoMA 1965). Because kinetic art was (wrongly) perceived as an art based almost entirely on easy optical tricks, it would soon be trashed as utter kitsch, on a par with such risible by-products as the Courrèges dress and the lava lamp. The kiss of death was the awarding of the Grand Prize for painting at the 1966 Venice Biennale to Argentinean artist Julio Le Parc, followed two years later by Nicolas Schöffer winning the prize for sculpture: Through the official success of these two mediocre artists (though it should be said that Le Parc did produce some interesting work at the very beginning of his career), kineticism came to be seen as an art of gadgetry.

Guy Brett stands out among the very few critics who never lost faith, in great part because he had done his homework In Kinetic Art: The Language of Movement (1968) he completely dissociated its topic from the discotheque bedazzlement offered by Op. Unfortunately, Brett’s slender volume appeared too late in the game for anyone to notice. The main protagonists in his story were Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, and David Medalla (Brett, more than any other critic, has helped further the reputation of these three artists); Pol Bury, Sergio de Camargo, Gianni Colombo, Liliane Lijn, Mira Schendel, Takis, and Jean Tinguely were the supporting cast. The same names show up in “Force Fields: Phases of the Kinetic,” the superb exhibition Brett recently curated for the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, where I saw it, and for the Hayward Gallery in London, but many others have been added, forming a wholly unexpected constellation The result is revelatory: At least bad timing will not prevent Brett’s voice from being heard.

It should be noted here that what’s at stake for Brett is less “movement” per se than “energy”—the specific desire of a tremendous number of artists in the twentieth century to materialize energy, to give form to something that is eminently nonvisual. Movement, in this account, is only one of several formal possibilities in this quest, but a particularly efficient solution; no matter how concrete, movement can always be expressed as an equation, like energy itself. The qualities that defme movement (slow/fast; continuous/discontinuous; regular/irregular; accelerating/decelerating; etc.) are shared by every object or being that produces and expends energy. This very universality, which is an abstract quality, makes of movement an ideal metaphoric switchboard: Every work exhibited in “Force Fields” alludes to either the organic, the mechanic, or the cosmic—in all cases concepts of energy that we, as human beings, have learned to apply in our daily life without a second thought. One of the premises of the exhibition, writes Brett, is that “artists, no less than scientists, make ‘models of the universe.’” Some of these “models” are dinky, others grand, but their vast stylistic range underlines all the more how serious and steady such a metaphoric impulse has been.

The visitor to “Force Fields” enters the exhibition by moving through Jesús Rafael Soto’s Penetrable, thousands of thin plastic tubes hung from the ceiling (a re-creation, in fact, of the artist’s great invention of the late ’60s): The room’s atmosphere becomes vibratile, and one is transformed into a passerby from Boccioni’s States of Mind: Those Who Stay, walking through solidified rain. On each side of Soto’s piece replicas outdo their originals: The viewer can at last see Duchamp’s 1920 Rotary Glass Plates (Precision Optics) at work (the fragile original, at the Yale University Art Gallery, is only on rare occasions set in motion), and László Moholy-Nagy’s Licht-Raum Modulator (Light-space modulator), 1922–30, is exhibited according to its author’s intentions (at least to one version of his specifications)—that is, rather than being enthroned, inert, in the middle of an evenly lit museum space, as it is in the Busch-Reisinger Museum at Harvard, it is a prop projecting its multiple cast shadows on the surrounding walls of a large room (the fact that the room is circular in Barcelona, accentuating the distortion of shadows, significantly helps deflect our expectations). One feels grateful that these two famous automata have had some of their disquieting goofiness restored. But there is more: On exiting Moholy-Nagy’s circular room, one immediately stumbles upon an extraordinary series of colored Plexiglas and wire objects, as well as several paintings, realized by Georges Vantongerloo after World War 11. Rarely exhibited, these garlands of prisms and translucent loops—not to mention one of the few figurative works in the show, The Comet, 1962—remind us that the Paris-based Belgian artist developed a deliberately childlike vein after his De Stijl years that makes him the Douanier Rousseau of the Space Race era. Though three neighboring early ’30s Calder mobiles are in no way insignificant, the Vantongerloo ensemble steals the show and sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition.

After this debut, chronology is not the major issue, though Brett’s foray is tinged with nostalgia, particularly for work from the ’50s and ’60s. It is clear that he endeavored to rescue from oblivion a whole array of artworks (though his lifeboat was not directed toward the artists themselves, as some of the show’s heroes didn’t produce much of interest after the period). Brett succeeded with utmost brio, and I can foresee the pile of dissertations that will stem from the exhibition. His strategy was simple: Instead of overkill, he selected the best works and, through startling juxtapositions, electrified them. For example, the slo-mo of the early Burys—particularly Ponctuation (points blancs), 1964, in which the movement of one among tens of thousands of tiny white dots, always unforeseeable, mercilessly teases the viewer—is set against the jazzy effect of Francois Morellet’s 1958–60 grids. The latter are in turn compared, in a magnificently eye-opening move, to Henri Michaux’s obsessive drawings, realized under the influence of mescaline roughly around the same time as the Morellet pieces. Not far from this, the psychedelic, ever-changing mandala of James Whitney’s animated films (Yantra, 1950-57; Lapis, 1963-66), projected on a large screen, echoes the silent, almost bucolic perpetuum mobile of the three Liquid Reflections by Liliane Lijn nearby (in which one or two balls slide on a large rotating Plexiglas plate sprinkled with water; spotlighted in an otherwise dark space, the high-tech water lily floats). In another room, four Soto reliefs, dating from 1959-61, are on display; the works combine an informel look (heavy impasto, brushwork, a tangle of mesh wire) with the parallel striations to which the artist owes his trademark moire effect. Brett reminds us that Soto was once as inventive as Piero Manzoni (most prominently represented by several polystyrene-pellet Achromes) and Lucio Fontana (the dark, punctured, glitter and sand Concetto spaziale is one of the best I’ve seen), who in fact greatly admired the Venezuelan. As for Tinguely, his Meta-Matic and Baluba sculptures, on view in the exhibition, make us forget the artist’s vacuous production after his self-destructive Homage to New York in 1960 (documented here by a video).

Brett’s staged confrontations work because they are never dogmatic—and never marred by pseudomorphism. He could have chosen, for example, to hang Gordon Matta-Clark’s cartoonlike doodles of fighting arrows alongside Fontana’s touchingly clumsy cosmic diagrams on paper or Vantongerloo’s swirling spirals on canvas. Instead they adorn the antechamber of a room where Hans Haacke’s Sphere in Oblique Air-Jet, 1967, conspicuously defies gravity and Takis’s Signals, 1964, blinks at us as if trying to convey a message in Morse code sent from God knows where.

Sometimes an artist is given a whole room: Takis, whose magnetic fields pulse in an astounding variety of ways (producing sound, making balls bounce, asynchronically jolting the needles of compasses on a sci-fi dashboard), is an example; another is Gego, whose metallic spiderwebs, spanning the immaculate white cube, make consenting prey of us. In some other cases, a single work, by virtue of its sheer size, dominates a whole space, such as Haacke’s mesmerizing Circulation, 1969, in which water courses through a complex circuit of plastic tubing sprawled across the floor; the liquid, like some colorless blood, is endlessly propelled at enormous speed by a mechanical heart. But such isolates are rare. Even when large pieces are grouped because of obvious space limitations, Brett points to a link between them by adding a smaller work: Haacke’s oceanic Narrow White Flow, 1967-68, for example, a huge piece of white fabric whose animal-like undulation (one thinks of the bloated abdomen of a termite queen) is produced by a powerful blower, is found a few yards away from Len Lye’s orgasmic Blade, 1967-76, a pendulum that gradually escapes inertia every ten minutes, accelerating the rhythms of its oscillations to reach a furious, noisy climax before retreating to its quiet existence as a dull geometric sculpture perched on a pedestal. In both works, the conversion of the strictly mechanical into the sexual or at least the bodily is obvious, but their humor might have been lost on the spectator if Brett had not offset their somewhat overstated metaphors with David Medalla’s modest, funky Sand Machine,1964, whose deliberately lumpish movement underscores the absurdly grotesque bombast of the neighboring machines.

Not only was this show by far the best I’ve seen this year, but it reopened a chapter in the history of postwar art that was too promptly closed and forgotten. It did so with exquisite taste and rare intelligence, and without the now common pretense of the curator-as-artist-as-entrepreneur. Brett visibly loves the objects he has unearthed. One can only hope that he has future exhibitions in mind.

Yve-Alain Bois is Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., Professor of Modern Art at Harvard University and a contributing editor of Artforum.