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Abraham Palatnik, Pioneer of Kinetic Art

An Interview with Abraham Palatnik

Eduardo Kac

This interview was originally published in the Ilustrada section of the newspaper Folha de São Pãulo on 14 October 1986 (p. 38). The interview appeared on the day of the opening of Palatnik's latest (and, most likely, last) solo exhibition of kinetic art, at Galeria Aktuel, in Rio de Janeiro, where Palatnik still resides.

Abraham Palatnik, the first Brazilian artist to explore the creative use of technology in art, continues to develop his research with light and movement. He also seeks to explore new possibilities in the use of traditional materials in his reliefs and paintings.

Two exhibitions of Palatnik's work are occurring simultaneously in Rio de Janeiro. At Galeria Aktuel, Palatnik is showing new kinetic objects, and at the Gravura Brasileira he is exhibiting new paintings. At the exhibition at the Gravura Brasileira, one will find canvases in which the rigorous treatment of the surface coexists with a mathematical progression of lines with only one curve, succeeding one another sequentially. At Aktuel, Palatnik is showing pieces he developed in the 1980s, a body of work first started in the 1950s that projected him as one of the pioneers in the expressive use of light and movement. The show is comprised of "cinechromatic" machines "that project compositions of color light forms moving on semi-clear surfaces," as Mario Pedrosa wrote. The show also includes other kinetic pieces that go beyond the rigid pictorial elements of static painting.

Abraham Palatnik was born in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil, in 1928. Between 1943 and 1947, he studied at two schools in Tel Aviv: Hertzlia and Montefiori. At Montefiori, he specialized in combustion engines. At that time he also studied with artists Aron Avni (Painting and Art History), Sternshus (Sculpture), and Shor (Aesthetics). In 1948 he returned to Brazil, where he met art critic Mario Pedrosa. Pedrosa had a strong influence on Palatnik's development---in fact, he was a key influence on the whole avant-garde scene in Brazil from the 1940s through the 1960s. In 1948, Palatnik joined Almir Mavignier (later a professor at Ulm) and Ivan Serpa to form the first nucleus of abstract/constructivist artists in Rio de Janeiro (and in Brazil). He began to develop his own innovative research the following year.

In 1951, Palatnik shocked the jury of the First International Biennial in Sao Paulo with his first "cinechromatic" art machine. From 1953 to 1955, he participated in the group Frente (Front), engaging in contemporary discussions on abstract art. During the 1960s, Palatnik started to produce art machines in which color pieces moved unexpectedly and harmonically as parts of a complex system of motors and gears.

Kac: What was the nature of your contact with Mario Pedrosa? What was the influence that he, as an avant-garde art critic, had on your creative process?

Palatnik: I first met Mario Pedrosa in 1948, through friends such as Ivan Serpa and Almir Mavignier. Mario strongly supported my research, which was absolutely nontraditional. At that point, I had already done painting but once I started my new experiments, I abandoned the brush and started to explore possibilities that had nothing to do with the traditional concepts of art. At that time, what I was doing could not be considered art and I had several problems by the time of the First Biennial. My work could not be judged, I couldn't participate in the Biennial, and there wasn't a section for my kinetic art. Mario Pedrosa invented a name for one of my machines, which since then started to be called "cinechromatics." That really stimulated my investigations with light and movement.

K: What happened during the First Biennial? Was the first cinechromatic machine seen as a revolutionary work of art, or was it considered as a curiosity without major future consequences?

P: In reality, it was luck that got me into the Biennial. At first, my machine was rejected, because it wasn't a painting, a sculpture, a drawing, or a print. The Japanese delegation failed to send on time the work they had committed to the Biennial. Then, someone, I don't know who, remembered my work and suggested it be put in the place vacated by the Japanese. I remember that Almir came to me and said: "Abraham, you will exhibit at the Biennial! They will put you in the place of Japan." As a result, the international jury was surprised with the work, and made special remarks about it. From this event came the recognition that the work was an "important manifestation of modern art," as they said.

However, even then, in the forthcoming Biennials I received invitations to show my work, but under the condition that I would agree not to compete for any award, since they did not have a section for the type of artwork I was making.

K: What was the repercussion of your work in the 1950s, when you were conducting pioneering research in kinetic art?

P: Years after participating in all Sao Paulo Biennials, I was invited to participate in the Venice Biennalle. There, I was also lucky to be approached by a Swiss art critic. After providing him proof that I started to work with light and movement in 1949, and that the results of my first experiments were shown in 1951, he corrected the information in Europe. That was necessary because the available information at the time was that the precursors of art with light and movement were only Malina and Schoffer. On the occasion of the First International exhibition of Kinetic Art, the correct information was already evident in a diagram published by the Denise Rene Gallery in Paris.

K: Besides light and movement, you also investigate the use of magnetism in art. To what extent does your interest in scientific phenomena contribute to your artistic research?

P: In reality, all of nature's physical forces are of interest to me. Magnetism is so fascinating that it could never have escaped my aesthetic curiosity. I've made some magnetic pieces, one of which I'm showing at Aktuel. I sent a multiple of this piece to "The New Dimension of the Object," a group show currently in exhibition at the University of Sao Paulo's Museum of Modern Art, in Sao Paulo. It is an object that explores the nature of the positive and negative poles of magnets, in terms of attraction and repulsion.

K: Today, electronic art is constituted by new forms of aesthetic manifestations that have emerged through artists' mastering of new technologies. How do you see the work being done in art and technology today?

P: It is the understanding of the importance of form, not only in the external world but also at the unconscious roots of human activity, that allows us to dissolve the commonly created oppositions between art, science, technology, and communication. Technology, in the context of human evolution, acquires meaning and becomes evident to the extent that it allows the senses a conscious access to the mechanics of the natural forces. I'm particularly interested in new technologies and would like to work with some of them. If I were starting in art today, I would undoubtedly be doing research with holography and computers, for example. I haven't been following closely what is being done in Brazil, but this year I was at the opening of the Brazil High Tech exhibition, where I could see several interesting experiments. Artists researching new media are the ones that can bring us into contact with the unexpected, giving life to what we call creativity.

Translated by Ruth Kafensztok.

First posted November 1997.

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