Talking Kinetic and Optical Art with Alexander Alberro

By Joanne A Calitri   |   September 6, 2022

Art historian Alexander Alberro, PhD presented his research on Kinetic, Op and Participatory Art at Mid-Century at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art on August 31. He has written about this topic in his 2017 book titled, Abstraction in Reverse: The Reconfigured Spectator in Mid-Twentieth-Century Latin American Art. He is a Virginia Bloedel Wright Professor at Barnard College and Columbia University.

Joanne A Calitri interviewing Alexander Alberro, PhD at his Columbia University Faculty office in New York City over Zoom (photo by Joanne A Calitri)

On a fundamental level, kinetic-op art is defined as art that depends on physical, implied, or perceived motion for effect. Many kinetic artists collaborate with physics, optics, and cybernetic technos, who remain unnamed, to make this work.

Kinetic art arguably started with Duchamp’s “Bicycle Wheel” in 1913, Gabo’s “Standing Wave” in 1920, and Moholy-Nagy’s “Light-Space Modulator” in 1930. One finds the largest kinetic art nod to Alexander Calder’s 1941 “Arc of Petals,” due to his use of natural forces to elicit movement in his mobiles. Jean Tinguely used found junk with attached motors for his sculptures, and art that self-destructed. He is most famous for his art collaboration called “Homage to New York” in 1960 at MOMA, and his “Méta-matic” drawing machines that created infinite sequences of drawings.

Optical (Op) art, kinetic’s baby, logistically started with Vasarely’s black and white checkerboard patterns of optical illusion in 1957-59, giving birth to larger movements of op art in France. One also finds the values of kinetics in the canvases of Monet, Manet, Degas, Warhol, and Pollock.

No matter how one laser cuts the pie, like Tamara Kvesitadze’s “Ali and Nino” 2007 (Man and Woman) two eight-meter-high moving metal sculptures that become one when they pass through each other, Alberro postulates that kinetic and op art only work with the role of the spectator. So, is it art if the spectator is not there? 

Here is my Zoom interview this week with Alberro in his NYC Faculty office:

Q. Why is the spectator a key element to creating kinetic and op art?

A. We can start with Seurat’s art, because the dots on the canvas move to make forms only in the retina/eye of the spectator, so there you have movement from what is on the canvas to what the spectator sees; he mobilizes movement in the production of the picture. For Degas’s images of people that were moving out of frame, or Manet’s paintings, these are a representation of movement. Keep in mind that Duchamp cites Seurat as his most important predecessor for his motorized works, the same way Seurat mobilizes the spectator, in the realization of the art object. My area of expertise is contemporary art, and in order to understand it I had to go back 150 years to these earlier movements that led to a situation where a lot of work is participatory and requires the spectator to bring it into being.

Did the artists have directives for the spectator?

The initial impetus for the participatory art movement is the understanding that the spectator plays as much of a fundamental role as does the art. The art is produced in a triad of the artist, the object the artist creates, and the object the spectator realizes. As Duchamp said, the artist offers molasses, the spectator realizes the sugar. 

It is what I call the aesthetic field, all need to be operative for the aesthetic to be realized. It is a very different notion than the idealistic aesthetics of the Enlightenment Period where the aesthetic object can be produced and exists regardless of the spectator. What happens in the modern period is that belief is seen to be faulty and the spectator is fundamental to the art. 

What is the importance of the period to photography as art?

The modern period begins with Manet, the experiments of the 1860s, and photography/cinematography. The art after photography takes on a new raison d’être; it adjusts to the challenges photography posed to the art world. Prior to photography, an artist could make a photo-realistic image, and that would be considered art. After photography, that no longer would be enough to say it’s art, and this is something even today Western artists have to work through.

I have to explain that we need to separate the figural from the literal. The figural is the metaphor, the classical tropes, that which is more than what you have, a rose can stand for love, a rose can figuratively have another meaning, and in fine arts that is exactly what happened. The literal is where a rose is a rose, and oil paint on a canvas is oil paint on a canvas, not a landscape of a province in France. What one has in these experiments in the mid-twentieth century is this attempt to literalize artist production. 

Kinetic art and op art are not that different from Minimal or Conceptual Art, it’s a literalization of the artwork so that kinetic art is against metaphor, it’s about movement itself, it is not about movement to generate an allegory to something else. Op art is about optical responses to art.

Once the classical fine arts media of painting, sculpture, and drawing reverted back to the literal and that the literal is a fundamental part of art experience, then photography, which was literal, could by the 1960s finally be considered as something that belongs in the context of fine art museums, galleries, and discussions. Film is kinetic movement.

What was the main purpose of creating kinetic and op art? 

It was to factor in the fourth dimension – i.e., time – in art. There was a belief that factoring in time in art would enhance the spectator’s engagement with the artwork. 

Please discuss the collaboration of these artists with scientists.

Artists and scientists collaborated more than ever in the mid-twentieth century. There are plenty of earlier examples of such collaboration in art history, from Leonardo to Georges Seurat. But the pursuit of a literal art object in the mid-twentieth century led artists to science and mathematics. Studies of physiology, especially as they pertain to the retina, and topology, especially as they pertain to the relationship between objects and spectators in space, proliferated in art practice during these years. 

What is relevant about this type of art in 2022?

Many artists today work in the legacy of kinetic and op art. There is much art that moves today. Video and film, for instance, would not be recognized as art without the kinetic turn in the mid-twentieth century that I describe in my book, Abstraction in Reverse. Ditto for much installation art. MoMA, the Centre Pompidou, Tate Modern, and many other major modern art museums have excellent holdings in kinetic and op art.   



You might also be interested in...