"Force Fields: Phases of the Kinetic"

By Bois, Yve-Alain | Artforum International, November 2000 | Go to article overview

"Force Fields: Phases of the Kinetic"


Bois, Yve-Alain, Artforum International


MUSEU D'ART CONTEMPORANI DE BARCELONA

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 Courreges 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 Schoffer 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, Helio 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 define 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 exh ibition, 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 Jesus 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 Laszlo 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 sur rounding walls of a large room (the fact that the room is circular in Barcelona, accentuating the distortion of shadows, significantly helps deflect our expectations). …

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