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89-Year Old Magnetic Art Pioneer Debuts in U.S.

Fabled Greek artist Panagiotis "Takis" Vassilakis opens his first-ever U.S. museum survey at Houston's Menil Collection.

by Matthew Levine
Jun 15 2015, 7:15pm

Installation view of Takis: The Fourth Dimension on view at The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester

A nail clashes against wire via electromagnetic forces and is captured by a guitar pick-up in Musical – M. 013 (2000), one of 25 pieces that comprise the first ever U.S. museum survey of Greek artist Panagiotis "Takis" VassilakisTakis: the Fourth Dimension. Entering the main building of Houston's Menil Collection, the dull, grinding dissonance of Musical pierces the museum's stillness.

Takis was born in Greece in 1925, fleeing to Paris after World War II and the Greek Civil War. There, the fledgling artist taught himself the basics of sculpture which, along with his social connection to readymade sculptors such as Calder and Duchamp, would later reveal its influence in his artistic styles as an affiliate of the kinetic art movement.

Often championed for his work in bridging the art and science world, Takis "consider[ed] himself scientist, an intuitive scientist," Toby Kamps, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Menil Collection, explains. Fascinated by the invention of the radar in 1954 and the growing studies of electromagnetism, Takis utilized these scientific developments and their themes in his works. The Fourth Dimension refers to fundamental interaction—nonvisible forces that underlie much of our understanding of physics, electromagnetism in particular—but additionally, kinetic energy and sound. 

Installation view of Takis: The Fou
th Dimension on view at The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester

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The exhibition's breathtaking central piece, Ballet Magnetique I (1961), showcases the electromagnetic forces' striking effect on art. Almost human-like, a pair of strung spherical orbs—one black and electromagnetic, one white and not—circle haphazardly around the polar base, randomly jumping and disrupting the hypnotic loop at the sudden burst of magnetic force, to Musical’s Cage-ian "naked sound."

Flanking the walls of the exhibit, Takis' artistic experiments with magnetism are also on display, albeit more subtly. From a distance, the iconic yellow painting Magnetic Painting No. 7 (1962) and its neighboring Tele-Peinture (1966) come across as simple sculptural works, sparsely adorned with metallic objects held in position by strong wires. A closer look though reveals the pieces' fourth element: those wires are nylon strings, and ultra-strong magnets hidden by the work are drawing the attention of the metallic pieces like hawks.

As a longtime friend of the de Menil family, Takis relationship with his patrons' museum was an additional highlight for Kamps to consider when curating the show. "We have the biggest collection outside of Europe and that goes back to the founders meeting him in the ‘50s through the art dealer Alexander Iolas," Kamps explained to The Creators Project. "They bought a lot of his work and they were important supporters early on... Takis says they saved him from the [art] market." 

A glass cupboard of metallic humanoid sculptures, with influence from contemporary Alberto Giacometti and the ancient Cycladic styles, hone in on Takis' understanding of primordial forms. Another glass cupboard with several 1957 editions of the sculptural series Espace Intérieur—large metallic orbs with flowing, non-linear engravings—offers a more tangible approach to visualizing the invisible forces of kinetic energy.

Admittedly, the show could not have been complete without Takis' renowned Signals series. Drawing inspiration from radar, the towering and minuscule pieces were often constructed with mechanized vehicle scraps that seem to be beaconing and sending communications far out into the blackness of space.

Yet even with cold, robotic, and mechanistic surfaces that reflect the mood of the late ‘50s, Signals conveys a sense of playful organic forms echoing those of Calder's mobiles. Insect (1956) with its anthropoid-like cilia, feels like it can come to life at any second or recoil slightly from a puff of breath. 

Installation view of Takis: The Fourth Dimension on view at The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester

The first of its kind in America, the Menil survey of Takis offers a wide array of the groundbreaking artist's work, even if it lacks some of his other revolutionary pieces, like the Télélumières or Kafka series. The main thesis behind much of Takis' work is an undying fascination with fundamental interaction and the mystique of nature. Takis was interested in "the big stuff—the universe’s fundamental forces, " Kamps explained. "These are things like magnetism and gravity that hold us on the planet and in orbit around the sun, you know, the vast and powerful energies that shape reality, rather than the 'oh gee wow' screen-based consumer electronics world that we live in now." 

Takis work has touched on "sending the first man to space" and utilizing the tools of science to create art. Contemporaries including as the proto-flying city architect Tomás Saraceno represents a spiritual successor to Takis. Artists like Saraceno also visualize invisible forces in their work with a curiosity of scientific inquiry.

If anything, seeing the exhibit reveals a waning curiosity, one that drives the works of past and present in pursuit of a greater comprehension of the world. If you aren't too focused on your smartphone screen, the curiosity may resonate within you, too.

Installation view of Takis: The Fourth Dimension on view at The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester

Takis: the Fourth Dimension is on display at the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas until July 26, 2015.

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