Kinesthesia: Latin American Kinetic Art, 1954-1969
(August 26, 2017—January 15, 2018)
Over the past few decades, the term “analog” seems to have acquired new significance, often tinged with nostalgia for a bygone era. That all of the kinetic art on view in the Palm Springs Art Museum’s Kinesthesia: Latin American Kinetic Art, 1954-1969 hearkens back to this “analog” period is part of its charm. There is tangible sense of the mechanical throughout the exhibition, often accompanied by an audible whir of miniature motors or the hum of incandescent bulbs. The exhibition, however, is not merely a trip back through beloved modernist tropes. Rather, it opens the door to the reexamination of a movement that remains largely unrecognized in the United States: the perceptually perplexing abstractions of Kinetic Art.
The inspiration for Kinesthesia first struck curator Dan Cameron after viewing Real/Virtual: Argentine Kinetic Art of the 1960s at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Argentina five years ago. The visit introduced the experienced curator to myriad artists previously unknown to him. Cameron began to explore the broader story of Kinetic Art in Latin America, looking for artistic connections, experiences and shared influences which led to the multi-national exhibition currently on view.
Though ultimately Cameron found little evidence of international discourse among the various kinetic artists working in different parts of Latin America, there were many similar characteristics, including a shared rejection of representational illusionism and embrace of Constructivism and Concrete Art. Additionally, the kinetic movement also provided a means to disrupt traditional boundaries between painting, sculpture and other artistic disciplines, as demonstrated by Jesús Rafael Soto’s Vibración (Vibration) series. Kinesthesia opens with optical-kinetic works by Venezuelan-born Soto that betray the close alliance of Kinetic Art with the popular Op Art movement. Upending expectations from the start, it is worth noting that none of Soto’s geometrically patterned artworks actually move. Instead, the perception of movement is created as the viewer moves physically around the work, producing a dizzying sensation of vibrations that destabilize the viewing experience.
If it were possible to identify a singular work of art responsible for catalyzing the emergence of Latin American Kinetic Art, it would likely be the multi-colored, luminescent installation carved into a wall by first-generation Brazilian artist Abraham Palatnik at the inaugural São Paulo Art Biennial (1951). The first of 33 such works, the piece was described by the artist’s colleague and writer Mário Pedrosa as “kinechromatic,” or “frescoes of light.” Hidden within the wall-mounted construction, underneath the luminous façade, is a complex Geppetto-meets-Edison contraption composed of extensive wiring, colored light bulbs and cut forms driven by miniature motors. Lit from within, these shape-shifting polychromatic forms epitomize the artist’s desire to capture light and motion in pictorial art, while also capitalizing on his background in engineering.
Beyond the didactics and history, Kinesthesia offers a truly visceral experience. While some of the artworks maintain a delightfully vintage aesthetic, others seem surprisingly contemporary. Such is the case for a series of light-refracting works of revolutionary Argentine-born artist Julio Le Parc. Rays of white light flicker throughout the darkened room, the secrets of their continual rhythmic movement revealed by their exposed industrial mechanics. In contrast to Soto’s viewer-activated vibrations, the visitor observes and absorbs Le Parc’s continual flux of light from a fixed position, placing the viewer, in the artist’s words, “in the center of a phenomenon.” By contrast, the patterned flickering light squares of Italian-born, Argentine-based Gregorio Vardánega revel in their ’60s roots: patterned squares of light flicker on and off with a sort of “Star Trek” panache, as if striving to predict future technologies with what was then state-of-the-art machinery. Also giving off a distinctly retro-futuristic vibe is the immersive Hydrospatial City by self-taught Czechoslovakian born, Argentine artist Gyula Kosice, whose spherical mixed-media maquettes embody the artist’s ecologically driven concept of future cities hovering over the sea. This shared concern for technology and use of industrial materials is equally prevalent in kinetic explorations of Argentine artists Martha Soto, Horacio García-Rossi and Venezuelan Alejandro Otero, whose architecturally scaled kinetic sculptures changed the cityscape of Caracas.
Part of the larger Getty Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative, Kinesthesia illuminates the oft-overlooked legacy of Kinetic Art in Latin America. Although it is not, strictly speaking, an examination of any specific dialogue between Latin American artists and Los Angeles, it is not hard to locate parallels between the Kinetic movement and their Light and Space counterparts in LA. More specifically, it is hard not to relate the chromo-saturation rooms of Venezuelan-French artist Carlos Cruz-Diez to the Light and Space explorations of James Turrell. Although the artists clearly worked in isolation from one another, the work itself highlights a shared desire to challenge academic traditions, practices and materials. Instead of paint, canvas and marble, the kinetic artists turned to industrial materials, technology and light to fundamentally transform prevailing notions of art and perceptions of reality.