NEW YORK — Alexander Calder became synonymous with kinetic sculptures when he began crafting his mobiles in the 1930s, but he was not the first to create these moving works of art. Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko, among others, explored the form’s possibilities before Calder entered the picture. Stemming from the Greek word kinetikos, which means “of motion,” kinetic sculptures are three-dimensional works made with a wide range of techniques and materials. The key detail they share in common is that they move.
Jean Tinguely (Swiss, 1925-1991) gained fame for his whimsical assemblages that relied on found objects and what might normally be considered junk. He called his works “metamechanics,” and the sculptures highlighted the relationship between the viewer and the art as well as the interconnectivity of the individual mechanical pieces in the overall sculpture.
“Tinguely was fascinated by motion and how it could affect the way an object is viewed, hence he loved attached motors … in order to cause the objects to spin and maybe even be destroyed,” according to the MAD (Mechanical Art & Design) Museum in Warwickshire, U.K. One of his welded kinetic sculptures, a work from 1961 known as Sans titre (Baluba), attained €130,000 (about $141,705) plus the buyer’s premium in June 2020 at Cornette de Saint Cyr Brussels. This sculpture featured a motor, iron rods, cowbells, painted metal and various objects.
George Warren Rickey (American, 1907-2002) excelled at painting as well as sculpture. His namesake foundation states that throughout his career and across mediums, he explored color, movement, relationships and scale. His earliest works were similar in form to Calder’s mobiles, using counterbalances and wind power. By the 1950s, however, he was making elaborate sculptures that served almost as performance art, allowing viewers to experience a piece in the round as it moved about freely and in unpredictable ways. One of his late-in-life works, Twenty-Eight Rotors Two Solids, sold for $55,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2021 at Rago Arts and Auction Center. The stainless steel sculpture from 1991 is small, measuring about 10 by 15 by 12in, but its complexity captures Rickey’s fascination with exploring relationships as well as movement. Each rotor, with its highly polished and reflective surface, can be considered on its own as well as part of the work overall. Viewers form their own relationships with the sculpture, and their motions can affect its motions.
Harry Bertoia (1915-1978) rarely signed his work, but it was so distinctive that he really didn’t need to. From his Sonambient sculptures in the 1960s and 70s to his curvy fountain-like sculptures, his kinetic work was inventive and truly flowed. A key example of this quality is a Willow kinetic sculpture that brought $40,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021 at Abington Auction Gallery. Featuring steel wires bundled with a steel stem and turned upside down, the 55in-tall Bertoia sculpture was inspired by the weeping willow tree and creates a strong sensory experience for the viewer.
Lin Emery (American, 1926-2021) made her reputation with lyrical sculptures that were inspired by nature, such as Flower Dance from 1990, which realized $36,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2020 at Neal Auction Company. The 52½in-tall piece made of stainless steel and using acrylic paint featured a custom pedestal housing a motorized base. Her works are almost as much a part of the city’s landscapes as pralines and Mardi Gras, even though the native New Yorker didn’t settle in New Orleans until 1949. She took up welding and blacksmithing to create her pieces. The gender-neutral name she chose for herself helped mask her identity at first, but the skill and ingenuity in her pieces won over any who might have thought her incapable of what was often deemed man’s work. She produced massive public installations that charmed audiences, and her smaller pieces are coveted by private collectors.
The Argentine-French sculptor Julio Le Parc (b. 1928-) is still active and working in France. He earned recognition for helping propel the fields of Op Art and kinetic art to new heights in the 1960s. Surprisingly, his career suffered a downturn in the 70s, especially in the United States, despite his continuing to create fresh work. A museum retrospective in 2016 at the Perez Art Museum in Miami raised his profile and, at last, gave him his due.
Long interested in surveying how audiences engage with his kinetic works, Le Parc aimed to create pieces that would, in his words, “demystify art.” Continuel Mobile 1966, a kinetic sculpture of his, made $17,000 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2022 at Le Shoppe Auction House. The three-dimensional vertical work has three interchangeable aluminum backgrounds with six color options: red, green, black, white, gray and mirrored silver. The sculpture contains pull-out drawers that hold interchangeable hanging square mobile units that also have six color options — red, blue, clear, blue, white and mirrored silver. The range of colored pieces available allows the structure to be displayed in many combinations.
Kinetic sculpture literally and figuratively embodies ever-changing ways of looking at the art. No two pieces appear — or move — the same way. Whether they are animated by the wind, water, motors, magnets or ball bearings, each is unique and has its own way of dancing. Never static and never truly stable, kinetic sculptures reflect the wonders of modern life while also encouraging viewers to question it.