New York

Abraham Palatnik, Objeto cinético (Kinetic Object), 1968/2006, wood, Formica, magnets, metal, motor, industrial paint, 79 7⁄8 × 45 1⁄4 × 16 1⁄8". From the series “Objetos cinéticos,” 1966–2006.

Abraham Palatnik, Objeto cinético (Kinetic Object), 1968/2006, wood, Formica, magnets, metal, motor, industrial paint, 79 7⁄8 × 45 1⁄4 × 16 1⁄8". From the series “Objetos cinéticos,” 1966–2006.

Abraham Palatnik

Abraham Palatnik (1928–2020) seems to have always been ahead of the curve. His studies as an engineer in Tel Aviv during the mid-1940s would have put him in touch with nascent cybernetics and systems theories that later figured into the design and production of his kinetic sculptures. On another front, his art-school training as a painter would have introduced him to the cultural avant-garde and factored into his later receptivity to Constructivism and Concrete art—hot topics among the artists of midcentury Brazil, where he was born and eventually returned, in 1947, from Israel. Rio de Janeiro in the 1950s was enjoying a golden age. Like Paris in the ’20s, the city was creative, cosmopolitan, and truly transformative, especially for Palatnik.

He joined the influential Grupo Frente, and later—with Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, and others—became a member of the Rio-based Neo-Concrete movement, which advocated for experiential dimensions in art. His kinetic objects and paintings, begun in the late 1940s and early ’50s, broke new ground and were among the first responses from his milieu to the works of László Moholy-Nagy, Alexander Rodchenko, and Vladimir Tatlin, who experimented with the materialization of light, space, and movement. Palatnik debuted his motorized light boxes, known as “Aparelho cinecromático” (Kinechromatic Devices), in 1951 at the inaugural São Paolo Biennale, where his work was deemed unclassifiable.

Synchronous with the light boxes (or “painting machines,” as they were frequently called), are a series of mechanized “Objetos cinéticos” (Kinetic Objects), 1966–2006, that expanded relational possibilities for painting and sculpture to engage viewers more fully. Incredibly, he made his mark all over again by turbocharging geometric painting with vibrational intensity, becoming an Op art pioneer in the Americas. A long-overdue retrospective of Palatnik’s work at Nara Roesler, “Seismograph of Color,” brought together some forty pieces (including many of his delicately detailed working drawings) and featured three of his famous Objetos cinéticos (from the mid- to late ’60s). Their affinity with Alexander Calder’s graceful, whimsical sculptures is apparent, but their mechanization results in a continuous choreographed movement that activated the exhibition space. The show also included one of Palatnik’s kaleidoscopic wall-mounted light boxes, Aparelho cinecromático (Sequência vertical S-30) (Kinechromatic Device [Vertical Sequence S-30]), 1950. Nestled in colored fabric and encased behind plastic, its bulbs are programmed to blink hypnotically, cycling from bright to dim to dark at varying speeds. The glowing sculptures, with their lush undulating chromatics, exude a cinematic ambience.

The exhibition also included selections from various series of Palatnik’s intensely retinal paintings, whose optics deliver high-velocity wave patterns, a range of frequency modulations, and oscillations that connote speed and dynamism. Meticulously crafted from wood, veneer, canvas, cardboard, string, and rope, these relief-like objects are mesmerizing. We might not know the science in-volved in their construction, but we can certainly feel the visceral impact of their radiant energy.

In addition to his avant-garde ventures in painting and sculpture, Palatnik also made art for the masses. In 1954, he and his brother opened a factory in Rio de Janeiro called Arte Viva that manufactured art furniture—including glass-topped tables and chairs, both of which featured elements handpainted by the artist. In 1970, they opened Silon, another Rio-based enterprise that produced a menagerie of small Lucite animals designed and signed by Palatnik: a veritable Noah’s ark of birds and beasts. The artist even developed a special technique to animate these forms by sandwiching a patterned print that corresponded to a given creature’s natural markings between layers of plastic. Surely these endeavors were ideologically consistent with a Constructivist agenda of making art for the people. Palatnik’s expanded practice championed the ideal of art for all through multiplicity. It’s time to acknowledge the breadth of his legacy and the democratizing relations he sought to engender.