Covering the 1960s, this exhibition focuses on Italian kinetic art, one of the most groundbreaking movements to appear in post-war Italy, and the artists and groups associated with it. The exhibition includes 19 works of historical significance shown in the UK for the first time by leading exponents of this neo-avant-garde movement including Getulio Alviani, Giovanni Anceschi, Marina Apollonio, Alberto Biasi, Davide Boriani, Gianni Colombo, Gabriele De Vecchi, Edoardo Landi, Enzo Mari, Manfredo Massironi, Bruno Munari and Grazia Varisco.
This is the first UK exhibition to provide a valuable insight into Italian arte cinetica – which the theoretician Umberto Eco also termed as arte programmata (or ‘Programmed Art’) in the catalogue of the eponymous 1962 exhibition – and to situate it as one of the most active and significant bastions in Europe for artistic research into the interrelationship between art, science and technology. While this interest spread across Europe in the late 1950s and 1960s, and manifested itself locally through the work of art collectives such as Gruppo Zero in Germany and GRAV (Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel) in France, it found fertile ground particularly in Italy, where the research work and experiments carried out by Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni acted as an impetus for a younger generation of artists. United by the belief that art must be kinetic and participatory, their aim was to create interactive works and spaces that abolished the boundaries between painting, sculpture and installation, and artist and public. The exhibiting artists were active between Milan and Padua but found a common ground in Galleria Azimut, an experimental space founded in Milan in 1959 by Manzoni and Enrico Castellani, which provided an invaluable network and source of information on similar experiments being undertaken around Europe.
The majority of the artists in this exhibition belonged to either Gruppo T or Gruppo N, the two major artist groups active in Milan and Padua respectively. Movement and challenges posed to perception are key to the works of Giovanni Anceschi and Gianni Colombo, two of the co-founders of Gruppo T and key collaborators with Galleria Azimut. Anceschi’s Struttura tricroma (1963) creates optical illusions with coloured light and a motor-powered blade that filter through a perforated metallic sheet. His Strutturazione cilindrica virtuale (1963) is a horizontal platform with a series of motorized vertical rods positioned on it that spin round at a high speed to create, as the work’s title suggests, virtual cylinders. Meanwhile, Gianni Colombo’s Strutturazione pulsante (1959) – a motorized wall of blocks that pulsates according to a random sequence and which was first exhibited at Galleria Azimut and at the 1964 Venice Biennale – represents one of his earliest artistic experiments with kinetic sculpture, and applies the principles of kinetic art to an area similar to one of Piero Manzoni’s achromes. Experimenting with movement and participation, Grazia Varisco’s Tavola magnetica a elementi lineari 5B 5N (1959) situates the public as a prime participant, allowing visitors to freely move basic geometric shapes across a magnetic table.
Providing a visual parallel with Anceschi’s colour and light experiments, Davide Boriani’s constructions challenge visual perception. PH-scope (1964) is a generator of ever changing programmed luminescent images. Originally conceived for the seminal 1962 exhibition Programmed Art, commissioned by Olivetti, the leading Italian producer of typewriters, for its shops in Milan, Rome and Venice, the piece works with UV light as its prime material, making the invisible visible through a constantly changing and gradually dissolving diorama. Similarly, Gabriele de Vecchi’s structures aim to disorientate the viewer through the ambiguous relationship between real and virtual images created by the play of light and shadow.
Works by the founders of Gruppo N – Alberto Biasi, Manfredo Massironi and Edoardo Landi – question the traditional concept of painting by focusing on retinal experiments and visual effects. Exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1964, Biasi’s Light Prism (1964) uses mixed media such as prisms, light, mirrors and electric motors to create a shifting composition made of rays of light that continuously appear and disappear. Vision and perception are equally subtly explored in Manfredo Massironi’s illusory installation Structure (1960) and Edoardo Landi’s Cineriflessione sferica variabile (1967-69), which consists of a blue square ground with 16 circular depressions that allude to Minimalism’s obsession with pure geometrical shapes and the grid. Landi’s piece usurps the grid to create an ever-changing optical effect, by inserting glass spheres into the depressions that reflect the bright colours of small circles of coloured cardboard with which they are overlaid.
While members of neither group, Marina Apollonio and Getulio Alviani share many of their concerns for challenging perception and constructing experiential pieces. In her op art paintings, Apollonio applies centuries-old lessons of linear perspective to abstract compositions in order to create illusory effects. Exploiting the hypnotic effects of black and white lines and the kinetic properties of circles, Dinamica circolare cratere II (1968) animates the surface with movement and an illusionistic sense of depth and relief, defying the stillness and flatness of the painted surface. Through a game of reflection and refraction, Alviani’s Superficie a testura vibratile (1962) creates an entire visual experience.
The artists who contributed to arte cinetica shared a disinterest for the concerns and values of the art market, and this is particularly the case for Enzo Mari and Bruno Munari, who applied their vision to both art and industrial design. Mari’s ascetic vision is exemplified in Struttura n.1065 (1965), a set of small square modular units that sit on a flat plane in increasing depressions to create an optical illusion of movement, shift in colour and depth. Considered to be the spiritual father of arte cinetica thanks to his contribution to design and advertising, Bruno Munari’s Polariscop (1966), one of a set that was exhibited at the 1966 Venice Biennale, creates static patterns of light slowly changing colours and continues his research into an immaterial and dynamic art.
Arte Programmata: Italian Kinetic Art from the 1960s provides a rare chance to, not just see, but actively engage with some of the key works that came to define the historic arte cinetica movement. Radically experimental when they were first made and exhibited, they are a natural precursor to the fusion of art and technology and to the participatory practices that have become cornerstones of contemporary art.