PARIS — Takis, a key postwar figure known for exploring magnetic field energy, was one of the avant-garde artists of the ’60s that was most able to mix art with science, paving the way for all sorts of artistic directions in the ensuing decades, right up to our electro days (electromagnetism belongs to all bodies for all time). Thus fittingly, the technically daring Takis retrospective Magnetic Fields, at the Palais de Tokyo, pulls us much closer to his European contemporaries Yves Klein and Lucio Fontana. Like they, Takis (also something of a seer/philosopher/priest/magician/poet) explores the invisible but real. The 90-year-old artist (whose full name is Panagiotis “Takis” Vassilakis) is also now exhibiting at the Menil Collection in Houston, the first survey of his work by a US museum. In Athens, the Takis Foundation (Kete) permanently exhibits his work.
Born 1925 in Athens, art student of Yannis Tsarouchis, Takis relocated to Paris during the 1950s, becoming a philosopher of science inspired by pre-Socratic philosophy, Hippocratic medicine, and Ancient Egypt. His sculptural practice was then influenced by Alberto Giacometti (and less so by Joan Miró and Alexander Calder), as well as by the invention of radar and the general technological landscape, which at the time was very much connected to mystifying ideas of technological transcendence.
In 1955 Takis constructed his first group of abstract, elongated “Signaux” sculptures, made from taut iron rods that look like antennae. Takis thought up these sculptures during long waits at Calais for the train to Paris where he became fascinated by the signaling mechanisms that controlled train traffic. Takis, who had made wrought-iron, Cycladic-inspired figures, began furiously producing these freestanding, elongated vertical forms, now free of any anthropomorphic characteristics. The sculptures’ vibration-collecting, antennae-like resemblance would form the symbolic basis of his career. Soon, the rods became flexible, able to sway when touched; their tips mounted with long, horizontal pendulums, electronic pieces, radio transformers, shrapnel, or brushes. Thereafter, he began crowning the sculptures with blinking lights, forming stop signs that constantly switch on and off, possibly symbolizing a form of resistance. It was an enjoyable reward to see these sculptures all grouped together like some kind of elaborate UFO chorus line.
Around 1958, Takis, fascinated by radar, first tried to capture invisible forces and materialize electricity through magnetic attraction. His experiments flourished with his poised “Mur magnétique” (Magnetic Wall) monochrome paintings — paintings that use strong magnets behind monochrome canvases to hold metal objects in graceful suspension just above the surface, such as “Mur magnétique blanc n°8” (1961) and “Mur magnétique n°9 (Rouge)” (1961). Each metal object is attached by a slim wire hooked to the ceiling, and, although concealed, the magnets slightly obtrude upon the canvas surface, forming bumpy swellings that hold onto the tethered magnetized objects. This suspension gives his art the impression of being part of a space age that defies gravity.
In Takis’s work, everything exposed to the earth’s magnetism is symbolically charged. Thus his art is not a question of content versus form, and/or form versus content, but of contemporary possibility and sensibility.
His electro-magnetic works represent a resistance to the coming pull of a globalized, homogenous pop culture. Indeed in an interview with Pierre Restany, he said “space is to free oneself from the earthly gravity. [As such] it is the dream of the whole of humanity.” This powerful idea of defying gravity can be traced back to some of El Lissitzky’s “Prounen” paintings and three-dimensional installations, and to works of László Moholy-Nagy such as his 1947 seminal book Vision in Motion, in which he is seen levitating a chisel with compressed air. This kind of levitating (Christ-like) spatial obsession with gravity-free transcendence is, of course, also typical of Yves Klein, as publicized with his 1960 “Leap Into the Void.”
During this time, Takis writes his anti-nuclear war “Magnetic Manifesto” and makes body art about men in space. In “L’Impossible, un homme dans l’espace” (“The Impossible, A Man in Space”) (1960) poet Sinclair Beiles recited one of his poems, “I am a Sculpture,” while being held suspended in the air by magnets. This took place at the Iris Clert gallery, where Takis was associating with New Realists Yves Klein and Jean Tinguely. It is a curious historical fact that “Man in Space” was performed six months prior to Yuri Gagarin’s great feat as the first human to journey into gravity-free space to complete the first earth orbit in April 1961.
To accept that everything within the pull of gravity is more or less charged is to recognize that all bodies relate to one another — echoing Einstein’s theory of relativity. This recognition is supposedly suggested with Taksis’s, much less interesting, Télélumière 1961 series that uses oddly anthropomorphic, mercurial cathode devices such as vacuum-sealed lamps where mercury serves as a conductor for electrodes. These hefty, plump light bulbs give the eerie impression of having been discarded from an early electronics laboratory. I found that this mediocre work typically lacked sensuality. But in one narrow gallery there is a rather sinister installation evocative of Franz Kafka’s In The Penal Colony: just above sculptures of torn apart human body parts (including female genetalia) lamps sit on what look like discarded printing machines or old electrical appliances. Still, this spooky, sexist, dystopian representation is quite inferior to the abstract “Signaux” sculptures that characterized the sculptor’s breakthrough work.
In the 1960s many European artists became interested in what was then was known as audience participation. Takis generally animated his art through magnets, but in some cases the spectator was invited to become an actor in the sculpture. Such was the case with the (now hands-off) “Antigravités” (1969) work, an electromagnetic game that invited viewers to toss iron nails or filings onto a magnetized picture plane. The work, however, pales when compared to the work of the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV), like Julio Le Parc, who had an outstanding retrospective in 2013 also at the Palais de Tokyo.
But besides the hovering “Mur magnétique” works, the next best work in the show was “Wall of Musicales” (2002), an elegant room of electromagnetic music producing wall reliefs. This captivating work appears to be a kind of fruition of Erik Satie’s idea of “Furniture Music” as revived by John Cage in his theory of minimal/experimental/avant-garde music. The visual proposition is very straightforward. Takis installed an electromagnet beind a series of white monochrome surfaces that attract and repel dangling needles as they move over stretched musical wires connected to sound amplifiers. All this produces a collective resonance that, I must say, is evocative of profane ritual. By vibrating alone or together the different parts generate a humming chtonic sound that gently filled the curved room (and me) with a mild ecstasy akin to serenity.
As magnets are about attraction, the representation of human sexual attraction seems a natural subject for Takis and he tackled it very successfully with his titillating, erotically charged sculptures from the mid-1970s. Like with the “Mur magnétique” pieces, floating, dazzling metallic elements hover just above the surface of magnetized, seductive, naked human figures that attract the objects towards different parts of their bodies. The most compelling of these metal figures is the brazen “Sebastian” (1974), who has an impressively extended erection that compliments the pull of the magnetic field.
Magnetic energy, for Takis, is a fourth dimension. His art objects not only remind us that the earth’s attractive field is an immense magnet enveloping us all but conjure up an invisible reality suited to the polycentric structure of contemporary power.
Takis: Magnetic Fields continues at the Palais de Tokyo (13 Avenue du Président Wilson) through May 17.