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The light revolution

Two pioneers of kinetic art show how the movement anticipated concepts that would not spring to life until contemporary times

Sphère bleue (Blue sphere), an installation by Julio Le Parc, on exhibit at the Nara Roesler Gallery in São Paulo

PUBLIC DOMAIN IMAGESphère bleue (Blue sphere), an installation by Julio Le Parc, on exhibit at the Nara Roesler Gallery in São PauloPUBLIC DOMAIN IMAGE

There are many reasons why kinetic art, from its beginnings in the 1950s until the present, has been exhibited so rarely throughout the world. The decreasingly material art form that explored visual effects through physical movement was championed by avant-garde artists who scorned market demands. This year, however, large exhibitions have been devoted to two of its pioneers—the Argentine Julio Le Parc and the Brazilian Abraham Palatnik—and it now seems clear that, despite having been eclipsed by concretism and pop art, it was an art form ahead of its time.

Le Parc, a Buenos Aires native known for his uncompromising political stances, turned down major invitations, including one for a solo exhibition at the Paris Museum of Modern Art. After receiving the Grand Prize for painting at the Venice Biennale in 1966 (edging out dark horse Roy Lichtenstein), he spoke out against American pop art. At the age of 85, he came in person to inaugurate two concurrent exhibits in Brazil, shortly after the international success of an homage presented by the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and visited by over 180,000 attendees. “I think museum directors bow to the wishes of the market,” he said in São Paulo at the opening of an exhibition at the Nara Roesler Gallery, which had been transformed by installations that change according to the movement of the body and the eye—not those of the artist, but of the spectator. The works have arrived in town with an air of mission accomplished. Le Parc’s goal was to transcend geometry (which dominated the concretist movement in Latin America) and propose an interaction through the instability of the viewer’s eye.

strips of wood lend an optical effect to the surface in the series Progressões (Progressions), which Abraham Palatnik began in the 1960s

PUBLIC DOMAIN IMAGE strips of wood lend an optical effect to the surface in the series Progressões (Progressions), which Abraham Palatnik began in the 1960sPUBLIC DOMAIN IMAGE

As in the case of Le Parc, some say that Abraham Palatnik, a native of the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Norte, anticipated 3D. His strategy of using the retina to recreate a feeling of space is characteristic of both his and Le Parc’s work. Palatnik is one of the highlighted artists of 30 x Bienal, a retrospective of three decades of the São Paulo Biennial, which is currently on exhibit at the institution’s pavilion in Parque do Ibirapuera, São Paulo.

Both artists, however, went far beyond the illusionism that sustains virtual technology laboratories. Le Parc threw himself into a political undertaking once he successfully achieved an artistic product whose outcome always depends on the target public. That was what he wanted when he exhibited in the streets as a young man in 1960s Paris. It was during that period that he created GRAV, a group influenced by key modernist figures such as Victor Vassarely and Piet Mondrian. It was about more than overcoming the mathematics of concrete art. Le Parc wanted to grasp the immateriality of art. And light began to take control, playing an increasingly prominent role in his work.

Below, one of his kinechromatic devices, from 1955

RÔMULO FIALDINIBelow, one of his kinechromatic devices, from 1955RÔMULO FIALDINI

A similar transformation occurred in the case of Palatnik. Less politically combative than his Argentine colleague but equally connected to painting on canvas, the son of Russian Jews abandoned his paintbrushes and devoted himself to making playful machines in the early 1950s. He called them kinechromatic devices, after becoming acquainted with the works of inmates of the Pedro II Psychiatric Hospital in the Engenho de Dentro neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. Introduced to the insane asylum by critic Mário Pedrosa, Palatnik experienced a kind of creative collapse. He stopped painting and shut himself in at home. Months later, he got rid of his painting materials and began working on objects that have recently traveled around Brazil in a sweeping retrospective organized by ArtUnlimited and exhibited by the Banco do Brasil Cultural Center in Brasília and Belo Horizonte. The piece currently representing him at the Bienal’s historical exhibit had been rejected by the jury for the then-recently-created event in 1951. “They said there was no way to categorize the work,” he commented in a statement published in the text of the catalog that accompanies the exhibit. Aparelho cinecromático (Kinechromatic device), a set of gears equipped with colored electric lamps, was ultimately included in the first São Paulo Biennial when the Japanese delegation failed to appear.

The political dimension of Le Parc and the poetic quest of Palatnik spanned more than half a century before they arrived at major exhibition centers with a freshness typical of contemporary artists. Moving against the mainstream, they, like few others, closed in on trends that now guide the lives of their artistic descendants: dematerialization, interaction and participation. And they started doing so at a time when the virtual environment did not even exist as an idea.