The dynamism of kinetic art

[19 Apr 2010]


Kinetic art goes back a long way. Its origins – from a multitude of groups and movements – go back to the 1910s and 1920s, an era highly impregnated by the cult of progress and the myth of the machine. Europe, the United States and Latin America were the main cradles for the development of an abstract language that eschewed static art and sought to emulate or trigger movement, whether real or virtual.During the last decade (2000-2010) kinetic works have gained considerable value. Inflated by their first 7-figure results, the price index climbed 128% over the period.

A decade of recordsToday, kinetic art has the wind in its sails more than ever before. One the movement’s key figure, Victor VASARELY, signed his two best ever results in the first quarter of 2010 including a spectacular record for his painting Altaï III. The work, created between 1955 and 1958, came from the Lenz Schönberg collection that was dispersed by Sotheby’s on 10 February last. It fetched nearly five time its low estimate at a final hammer price of £470,000 ($734,000) more than doubling the artist’s previous record of approximately $300,000. This high quality sale, organised around the Zero group, generated a number of records including one for the Dutch artist Jan SCHOONHOVEN who signed his first ever $7-figure result (Weißes Strukturrelief R 62-1 sold for £660,000).
Three months before the dispersion of this collection, Yaacov AGAM’s new record had prepared the ground. His historical work 4 Themes Contrepoint (1959) generated an excellent result of $270,000 at fives times its estimate and double his previous record (on 24 November 2009, Sotheby’s). Another father of the kinetic art movement has also seen spectacular inflation: Naum GABO, who described the movement for the first time in the Realist Manifesto 1920, signed his first $7-figure sale on 5 February 2007 with Linear Construction in Space No.3, with Red which fetched £1.1m ($2.1) twice its low estimate at Sotheby’s.
In fact the first kinetic art result above the $1m line marking the start of this inflationary trend dates back to 2002. That was for Marcel DUCHAMP’s famous Roue de bicyclette dated 1913. This precursor work had kinetic potential… but was clamped to a kitchen stool for a pedestal. In May 2002, Phillips de Pury & Company sold the wheel on its stool for $1.6m in New York. According to Duchamp, it is the reflection of the viewer that must be kinetic, in constant movement in front of artworks. This enthusiast for optical physics also created Rotoreliefs boxes (1963) which fetch between €2,000 and €3,500. Each box contains 6 optical disks of silkscreen printed cardboard.

Among the more contemporary creators, motorised sculptures by Jean TINGUELY and mobiles reacting to air currents by Alexander CALDER also fetch millions: Métamatic No.7 by Jean Tinguely sold for £920,000 ($1.8m) on 1 July 2008 at Sotheby’s and Alexander Calder’s mobile Baby Flat Top fetched $4.2m on 10 November 2004 at Christie’s NY (from 10 February – 16 May 2010, fans of kinetic art can see their living sculptures at the Tinguely Museum in Basel during the exhibition entitled Movement. From cinema to kinetic art).
However, the most spectacular prices are generated by the works of Bridget RILEY, whose primary market is in London. Heiress to Victor Vasarely’s optical effects, Bridget Riley beat Alexander Calder with an auction result of $4.5m on 1 July 2008 with her Chant 2 (1967). Bridget Riley is indeed the most sought-after Op artist on the international scene. Her works produced 7 results above the million-dollar line between 2006 and 2009 and only a few small format gouaches are still affordable at $10,000 to $15,000.

Latin America revivalThe last decade also brought a number of Argentine and Venezuelan artists to the fore via major exhibitions such as Inverted Utopias (Museum of Fine arts in Houston Texas, 2004), L’œil moteur, art optique et cinétique de 1960 à 1975 (Strasbourg Museum of Modern Art in 2005) and La Utopia Cinetica (Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid in 2007).
Latin American artists are now commanding higher prices and over the last two years they have been closing the price gap versus their European peers. Leno by the Venezuelan Jesús Rafael SOTO fetched €430,000 ($555,000) on 12 February 2009 at Casa de Subastas Odalys in Madrid; Alejandro OTERO’s Coloritmos fetch between $130,000 and $340,000 (vs $20,000 in the 1990s); his compatriot Carlos CRUZ-DIEZ signed an auction record of $210,000 for his Fisicromia on 18 November 2008 at Sotheby’s; Julio LE PARC set a new record of $260,000 in May 2008 for his Ordination d’une surface, vitesses progressives de rotation, and the Argentine Hugo DEMARCO has a top auction price of $55,000 for his 1966 Relief à déplacement continuel (30 May 2008, Sotheby’s).