On Jan. 3, 1969, the Kinetic artist known as Takis marched into the Museum of Modern Art. He entered an exhibition called “The Machine at the End of the Mechanical Age” and, with the help of several friends, removed his “Tele-Sculpture,” a compact work from 1960 involving two painted spheres attached to wires revolving around an electromagnet and a small motor.
Takis said he had not been asked about including the sculpture, which had been in the Modern’s permanent collection since 1962, in the show. He also said he took the action to “stimulate a more meaningful dialogue between museum directors, artists and the public,” according to an account in The New York Times the next day.
The incident sparked meetings among artists, critics, filmmakers, writers and museum staff. The meetings led to the creation of the Art Workers’ Coalition, of which Takis was a founding member.
Over its three-year existence, the coalition staged protests and lobbied museums to be more communicative with living artists whose work they owned; to be more open and inclusive, especially to artists of color and female artists; and to take a moral stand on the Vietnam War.
The mini-revolt was Takis’s last burst of influence in New York: His visibility was waning as Kinetic Art and Op Art, a closely allied tendency, were being swept aside in the United States by the increasing dominance of Minimal and Conceptual Art. His final solo show in New York took place in 1970, at the Howard Wise Gallery, according to the Takis Foundation.
But in the years before his death, Takis, who died on Aug. 9 at 93, was able to witness a resurgence of interest in his work and that of other artists of the European avant-garde of the 1950s and ’60s.
His death was announced by the Takis Foundation, which did not say where he died.
He had his first North American exhibition in 45 years when the Menil Collection in Houston staged a small survey of his art in 2015. A major Takis exhibition took place in Paris at the Palais de Tokyo that year. And just weeks before he died, a full-dress retrospective of his work opened at the Tate Modern in London. (It runs through Oct. 27.)
Takis, who was self-taught, was one of the first artists who emerged in the 1950s to create Kinetic sculpture, pieces involving moving parts. His works could resemble do-it-yourself lamps, science projects or simply unfinished constructions; they looked strange, but when they were activated, their movements could startle, educate and entertain.
Calling himself “an instinctive scientist,” Takis frequently said he was most interested in making the invisible forces of the universe visible. Energy was both the subject and the primary means of his art.
Takis belonged to a generation intent in the aftermath of World War II on redefining art by making it less focused on personal expression and more on tangible facts and objective reality. The Op and Kinetic artists turned to scientific principles regarding color, pattern and motion.
While the canvases of Op painters like Richard Anuszkiewicz, Victor Vasarely and Bridget Riley presented optical patterns that seemed to move, the Kinetic artists concentrated on sculptures activated by wind, touch or small motors. The Kinetic group — which included George Rickey, Jean Tinguely and Carlos Cruz-Diez, who died in July — found inspiration in the work of Marcel Duchamp, the Russian Constructivists and Alexander Calder.
Takis was a maverick, prone to mixing media and to improvisation. He made his first kinetic sculptures in the late 1950s after being mesmerized by the flashing lights, steam and rolling stock at the Calais train station while traveling from London to Paris. He titled these efforts “Signals”; they consist of lights and machine parts attached to the tops of tall and flexible antenna-like rods. He would go on to use magnets, electromagnets, gravity and radar, and to incorporate sounds into his works.
For a time he used the “Signals” in performances in the streets of Paris. In 1960, at Galerie Iris Clert in Paris, he used magnets to make a friend, the South African poet Sinclair Beiles, hover briefly in the air.
He also worked as a composer, music director and theater designer. He collaborated on performances with Nam June Paik and Charlemagne Palestine
Takis was born Panagiotis Vassilakis on Oct. 29, 1925, in Athens, the sixth of seven children of Athansios and Alexandra Vassilakis. His father was a realtor, and his mother descended from a wealthy merchant family. The couple lost most of their property in the aftermath of the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-22.
Takis grew up in Athens during the dictatorship of Ionnis Metaxas and the German occupation. He joined the resistance in 1942 and then fought in the Greek Civil War of 1946-49, on the Communist side. That turned out to be the losing side, which earned him a six-month prison term at the war’s end.
He educated himself primarily by reading books on science, philosophy, mythology and the arts. His closest brush with art school was lessons from a blacksmith who taught him to weld and forge iron, skills that would be essential to his art and enable him to support himself by working for ironmongers.
In the late 1940s Takis decided to be a sculptor after learning about the work of Picasso and Giacometti. He made traditional busts in plaster and clay influenced by classical Greek sculpture, but soon absorbed the tenets of Cycladic sculpture, Egyptian art and Giacometti’s attenuated figures. In 1954 he moved to Paris, where he soon met Giacometti and Calder and younger artists like Yves Klein and Tinguely.
He spent the next few years alternating between Paris and London. During this time he had two children with different women. In 1958 his daughter, Rosy-Anne Fell Vassilakis was born to the British painter Sheila Fell, whom he met in 1953. In 1959 he met the American artist Liliane Lijn in Paris, and in 1960 they had a son, Athanasios Vassilakis. They married in 1961 and later divorced. Information on survivors was not immediately available.
Takis had his first solo show, “Figures in Plaster and Iron,” at the Hanover Gallery in London in 1955. His first solo show in New York was in 1960 at the gallery of the Greek dealer and collector Alexandre Iolas, who would show Takis in his galleries in various European cities until 1976.
In the 1968-69 school year Takis was a visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies in Cambridge, Mass., which put him within striking distance of the Modern during its “Machine” show.
But he had his greatest success in France, where most of his exhibitions were staged and where he regularly received commissions, for public works, among them the decoration for a new metro station in Toulouse.
In 1980, he created “Takis’s 3 Totems — Musical Space,” an immense installation in the atrium of the Centre Pompidou, which involved long railroad beams, sizable spinning spheres, his “Télélumières” light sculptures, magnets and wood hammers.
In 1985, the French government granted Takis the use of the Esplanade de la Défense for “Luminous Forest,” a temporary installation of 39 “Signals,” some as tall as 30 feet. Takis returned to Greece in 1986 and founded what is today the Takis Foundation Research Center for the Art and the Sciences, which served as his studio and housed his work.
In 1995 Takis represented Greece at the Venice Biennale. Declaring himself “a citizen of the world,” he decided to exhibit his work in front of the Greek pavilion rather than inside it, as a stand against borders in art.
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