Kinetic Art        Radical Art              

Kinetic Art, Chapter I: Movement of Rigid Bodies

"The least you can demand from a painting, is that it hangs still."                   
Pablo Picasso

"Mondrian didn't like the idea."                   
                                                 Alexander Calder


Marcel Duchamp: Bicycle Wheel (1913).

To add:

Demonstration of the motion detection mechanism of the human eye, by means of a spinning black & white disk (J.F. Schouten).

Tinguely/Klein collaboration: spinning monochromes (high speeds).


Ray Staakman: Moving steel wall. (Early nineteensixties.)

   Simultaneous Rotations.

Jean Tinguely: Méta-Malevich Series (15 pieces), 1954


Front / Back

Snapshot / Multiple Exposure

Méta-Kandinsky I (Wundermaschine), 1956

"... 'meta-mechanical paintings', reliefs of a kind, in which simple geometrical shapes painted in the primary colours move about slowly in front of a surface. (. . .) It is theoretically possible to calculate the periodicity of the reliefs. One of them, for instance, ought to repeat the same configuration after about a year, if it ran continuously. But the couplings slip a bit; as a result, the shapes might reach the same position already after two months, or it might not happen for hundreds of years."

Hultén, 1955, p. 26.

"I am an artist of movement. Initially I did painting but I got blocked there, I found myself stuck. I was handicapped by the whole history of art and the Ecole des Beaux Arts. I got hung up in the pictures, on the pictures – finally all I could do is wait until they were tired; I could never find their end. So I decided to introduce movement. I started from Constructivist elements, taken from the vocabulary of the Russian Suprematist painter Malevich, and from Kandinsky and Arp and a few others. I re-used their elements and set them in motion. I was trying to get away from the imperative, the power of these artists, also from Mondrian. I began to use movement simply to make a re-creation. It was a way of re-doing a painting so that it would become infinite – it would go on making new compositions by means of the physical and mechanical movements that I gave it."

Tinguely, 1982

Cf. also: Gerhard von Graevenitz (early nineteenseventies): Panels with rotating strips.

". . . puisque le tableau ne se laisse pas terminer, il n'y a qu'à le rendre interminable. Interminable parce que mis en mouvement, et par là perpétuellement recombiné, jamais plus le même, jamais plus "pétrifié" en lui-même. (. . .) Le principe de mise en œuvre sera simple. On peut le résumer ainsi: j'hésitais entre plusieurs configurations, le mouvement va me les donner toutes. Il suffira de découper dans la tôle des formes simples, et de les faire tourner indépendamment en les plaçant sur des axes entraînés par un moteur."

Michel Conil Lacoste: Tinguely. L'Énergétique de l'Insolence. Vol. I, p. 14. Paris: Éditions de la Différence, 1989.

Assignment (Algorithmic Art): Make computer simulations of the Méta-Malevitch's and Méta-Kandinsky's, and integrate them in a Méta-Tinguely-program. Make sure the program is based on an explicit mathematical model. Describe and motivate the model in an accompanying essay.

Compositions with Movement:
Alexander Calder's "Mobiles à Moteur".

Calder (...) says that during a visit to Mondrian's studio, in the rue du Départ in Paris, he received a vision of a new art form (...). Mondrian's studio was an extraordinary room, with small, movable red, blue and yellow rectangles on the white walls, and a large, red, cylindrical gramophone in the middle of the floor (..). Calder writes: "... the light coming from two facing windows met in the room, and I thought how beautiful it would have been if everything had started to move, but Mondrian didn't like the idea." (...)

 Hultén 1955, p. 19. [Cf. also: Calder, 1937.]

Calder did not heed Mondriaan's advice, and developed a form of "kinetic constructivism" in his "Mobiles à moteur" (1931): different elementary shapes: line, spiral, circle, ball; different elementary colors and black/white/grey; different elementary movements: rotation, pendulum, virtual translation; rotation-axis in the picture-plane or orthogonal to it.

Calder describes one of these works as follows:

 • Dimensions: 2 x 2.50 m.

 •  Frame, 8 cm., neutral red.

 •  The two white balls rotate at a high speed.

 •  The black spiral rotates at a lower speed and appears to be constantly climbing.

 •  The tin disc turns even more slowly, the two black lines appear to be constantly climbing.

 •  The black pendulum, which is 40 cm. in diameter, climbs to 45° on each side with 25 strokes a minute and swings outside the frame

Mobile à Moteur
"Red Frame",

Mobile à Moteur
"Black Frame",

Man Ray:

Alexander Calder:

Alexander Calder:

Natural Chance: Alexander Calder's "Mobiles à Main".

Calder's later "mobiles à main" use organic-looking shapes, hung in balanced constructions which can rotate freely. They are very light; the slightest breeze of air creates (unpredictable) motions.

The "mobile à main" has the mechanical structure of a planetarium: nested rotary relations. But its movements are different: horizontal pendulums with unpredictable speeds and amplitudes, rather than uniform rotations. We are in Arp's world rather than Mondriaan's.

An almost readymade version of this idea had been carried out Man Ray a decade before: a construction of cloth-hangers. (Cf. Duchamp: bottle-rack, coat-racks. Cf. Armand: accumulations.)

Calder found that a motor forced repetition on the movement: if the mechanism was not rather complicated there was a danger of the movement becoming monotonous. (...) With his 'mobiles à main' Calder found the simple, perfect way of giving his constructions mobility, by the use of equilibrium, as fundamental a principle as Duchamp's rotary movement. These wires, suspended interdependently and moving their frail elements in space, offer an inexhaustible range of possibilities. (...) Calder took the history of mobile art a step forward by the introduction of endless variation, the fact that the movement of a mobile never repeats itself exactly. It is now possible to create endlessly complicated combinations, eternal change. As I see it, everlastingly varied rhythm is one of the assets of mobile sculpture, without which it is in danger of becoming more boring than static sculpture.

Hultén 1955, pp. 21-22.

Hultén thus distinguishes:

  •   the number of configurations that may occur
       (finite or infinite);

  •   the sequence of configurations
       (fixed or not);

  •   the nature of the movement
       (uniform or varied).

A combination of different of different periodic movements yields an infinite, non-cyclic sequence of configurations, iff the periods of some of the movements are incommensurable; but its a deterministic well-ordered process, and it is experienced as such. In Calder's "mobiles à main", the sequence is non-deterministic, because the motions are caused by unpredictable external influences.

Cf: Jean-Paul Sartre: "Les Mobiles de Calder," Carré, 1946.

Mechanical Chance

Jean Tinguely's earliest kinetic works, discussed above, are based on painterly examples. (Méta-Malevitch, Méta-Kandinsky, Méta-Herbin). The elements of these "kinetic paintings" are simultaneously rotated with different speeds; this creates an infinite variety of possible configurations.

Tinguely's next step is the construction of machines which are no longer concerned with painting, but with movement per se. These "moving sculptures" consist of motors, wheels, belts, cogs, and crank-shafts. Their movements are irregular because of the machine's imperfections. This irregularity has nothing in common with the unpredictability of Calder's mobiles à main: it is not organic but anti-mechanic: jerking, jamming, jittering epicycles of periodic rotations and translations. [slippen, haperen, stokken] (Rubato: Gustav Leonhart, Thelonious Monk.)

"Tinguely discovered an almost inexhaustible source — a mechanism whose goal was not precision but anti-precision, the mechanics of chance." [Pontus Hultén 1975, p. 8.]

"In machines intended for practical use the engineer tries to reduce the irregularities as much as possible. Tinguely is after the exact opposite. His objective is mechanical disorder. His cog-wheels are so constructed that they jump the cogs continually, jam, and start turning again, unpredictably. (. . .) The same movement can appear ten times in succession and then, apparently, never be repeated again. This creates an unusually acute sense of time." [Hultén 1955, p. 26.]

"Le mot "asynchrone", dit Tinguely, tu peux l'écrire mais en petit. C'était plutôt un défaut mais j'ai découvert que la création était là, la combinaison infinie: ce n'était plus calculable." [Conil Lacoste 1989, p. 33.]

In the "Schéma des Dispositifs", Tinguely gives an inventory of his techniques. The construction of chance by means of imperfections is a recurring theme in this text.

Les Courroies en cuir [le peaux des les les Vaches - Veaux  tire coupé en ficelles au kilomètre ...... ] Glisse bien = distributeur du HASARd (...) Les Courroies Trapezoidales  Glisse aussi (...)       1953     le "META" est LA mais "le Jolie" Meta-MECANIQUE c'est l'ENGENAGE "Libre" & hésitant –  en fil de fer tousjour "en panne" permanent   Stabilité du Hasard.   (...) la "FAbricAtioN" du HASARd & de l'IRRéGulaRité VARiAble }  le MetA d'Abord       le "CHAOS" stable

[Tinguely: "Schéma des Dispositifs". In: Conil Lacoste, 1989, pp. 27-31.]

"Tinguely (...) uses an old-fashioned technology in his machines. He likes ordinary, conventional motors (...). As yet, with the exception of the components from radio-sets used in his sculptures around 1962, he has never employed electronics or other more up-to-date techniques." [ Pontus Hultén 1975, p. 307.]

"There was nothing new in the idea of deliberately introducing chance as an element in art. (. . .) In Tinguely's case, however, it was no longer a matter of the role of chance in the act of creation, nor of a static display of something that had come about by chance, but of chance in action." [Pontus Hultén 1975, p. 8.]

"With their unrepeatable and unique movements and sequences, Tinguely's machines exist in an enviable freedom. Their vitality, spontaneity, and lyricism bring to us ecstatic moments of life divorced entirely from moral precept or inhibition, from good and evil, right and wrong, beautiful or ugly. His machines are a piece of pure existence, eternally changeable, and they do not have to mean anything or refer to anything. But one is mistaken to believe that their artistic message is innocent or harmless. They subvert the established order and convey a sense of anarchy and individual liberation which would otherwise not exist." [Hultèn 1965, pp. 13/14.]


"Métamatic and Métaméchanique – In the work of Jean Tinguely (Swiss, 1925 – ), machines programmed electronically to act with antimechanical unpredictability, jerking erraticly, sometimes scribbling on rolls of paper. Tinguely was influenced by Klee, Miró and Duchamp. His most famous work was Homage to New York, 1960, an assemblage including an old piano, a pram, a meteorological balloon, and various machine parts; it self-destructed with pyrotechnics before a crowd; its remnants now at the Museum of Modern Art, NY. See automata, Dada and Surrealism."


Exam question: This text from contains one very bad mistake. Discuss it.

Für Statik

Es bewegt sich alles. Stillstand gibt es nicht. Lasst Euch nicht von überlebten Zeitbegriffen beherrschen. Fort mit den Stunden, Sekunden und Minuten. Hört auf, der Veränderlichkeit zu widerstehen. SEID IN DER ZEIT – SEID STATISCH, SEID STATISCH – MIT DER BEWEGUNG. Für Statik, im Jetzt stattfindenden JETZT. Widersteht den angstvollen Schwächeanfällen, Bewegtes anzuhalten, Augenblicke zu versteinern und Lebendiges zu töten. Gebt es auf, immer wieder «Werte» aufzustellen die doch in sich zusammenfallen. Seid frei, lebt!
Hört auf, die Zeit zu «malen». Lasst es sein, Kathedralen und Pyramiden zu bauen, die zerbröckeln wie Zuckerwerk. Atmet tief, lebt im Jetzt, lebt auf und in der Zeit. Für eine schöne und absolute Wirklichkeit!

Düsseldorf, März 1959                                    TINGUELY

Pamphlet released in 150.000 copies from an airplane above Düsseldorf, March 14, 1959. A more extensive manifesto along the same lines was presented in Tinguely's lecture "Art, Machines and Motion" at the Cyclo-matic Evening, ICA, London, November 12, 1959.

[Cf. Pontus Hultén, 1975, pp. 77, 114-119, 327; Hulten 1987, p.67.]

For Stasis

Everything moves. Rest does not exist. Don't let yourself be controlled by obsolete notions of time. Away with hours, seconds and minutes. Stop resisting change. EXIST IN TIME - BE STATIC, BE STATIC WITH THE MOVEMENT. For stasis, in the now occurring NOW. Resist the anxious impulse to stop what moves, to freeze moments and to kill what lives. Give up constructing «values» that always collapse anyway. Be free, live!
Stop «painting» time. Give up building cathedrals and pyramids, that fall apart like sugar-candy. Breathe deep, live in the now, live on and in time. For a beautiful and absolute reality!

Düsseldorf, March 1959                                  TINGUELY

Essay topic: Analyse Tinguely's pamphlet. For instance: investigate connections with Bergson's psychology of time; with Wittgenstein's statement that "living in eternity is living in the present" (Tractatus); with Duchamp's "aesthetics of indifference" (cf. Pyrrho and other Stoics); and with Tinguely's art.

Footnotes about Tinguely:

   Automatic painting.

In 1959, Tinguely's Metamatics become autonomous painters themselves. We devote a separate page to this pioneering work in automatic image generation.


Tinguely's machines were often interpreted as demonstrating "uselessness", but they didn't seem to mind. Around 1964, their behaviour tends to get less cheerful and more predictable. Mechanical, regular motions. Sisyphus-labor, joyless sex. Cf: Pontus Hultén 1975, p. 278.


Make a computer simulation of Calder's kinetic work (both periods: "mobiles à moteur" and "mobiles à main").

Make a computer simulation Tinguely's work (both periods: "Méta-Malevich" and "fabrication du hasard")

Write an essay about what you did and why.

Results sofar:

Erik Borra (Mobiles à Moteur and Méta-Malevitch)

Thematisation of movement

  •   Pol Bury: slow motions and quiet rustling.

  •   Jan van Munster: sudden events.

  •   Gerrit van Bakel: imperceptably slow uniform movement.

  •   Yves Klein & Jean Tinguely: "Vitesse Pure" (high speed spinning monochrome disks).


"From Leonardo to Calder" (Thematic description of an overview exhibit)


Alexander Calder: "Mobiles." In: Myfanwy Evans (ed.): The Painter's Object, Gerold Howe, London, 1937.

Michel Conil Lacoste: Tinguely. L'Énergétique de l'Insolence. Vol. I. Paris: Éditions de la Différence, 1989.

Karl G. Hultén: Den Ställföreträdande Friheten eller Om Rörelse i Konsten och Tinguelys Metamekanik. (Substitute Freedom or On Movement in Art and Tinguely's Meta-mechanics.) Special issue of Kasark, October 1955. (English translation in: Pontus Hultén, 1975.)

K.G. Hultèn: "Jean Tinguely." In: Jean Cassou, K.G. Hultèn, Sam Hunter & Nicolas Schöffer:
"Two Kinetic Sculptors: Nicolas Schöffer and Jean Tinguely." New York: October House / Jewish Museum, 1965.

Pontus Hulten: Jean Tinguely. A Magic Stronger than Death. New York: Abbeville Press, 1987.

K.G. Pontus Hultén: Tinguely. 'Méta'. London: Thames and Hudson, 1975.

Jean-Louis Prat: L' Art en Mouvement. Fondation Maeght, 1992

Jean-Paul Sartre: "Les Mobiles de Calder," Carré, 1946. [OnLine with an English translation.]

Jean Tinguely: Radio Conversation, Radio Télévision Belge, Brussels, 13 December 1982. [In: Hulten 1987, p. 350.]

Remko Scha – November 22, 2002