Originality has an inside and an outside. Understanding the nature of originality in sculpture requires an understanding of both—of the inside, what it is in the sculptor’s life that created her artistic personality, and the outside, what sets her work apart from that of other artists of similar inclination. In Lin Emery’s case, there is a strong connection between these two sides of originality: the personal dynamic of her artistic evolution explains her place in the history of kinetic sculpture. There is a consistent element of autonomous discovery in Emery’s artistic life, as well as a highly personal mix of philosophical and artistic influences. In some ways, her work constitutes a logical part of the tradition of kinetic sculpture that descends from Constructivism. But her sensitivity to natural forms and modes of movement sets her work apart and enriches that tradition.
It all started one day in Paris in 1949 when the 21-year-old Emery entered the studio of Ossip Zadkine. Writing for a newspaper at the time, Emery was seeking information on the making of sculpture, but once inside the studio, she was seduced by the earthy smell of wet clay. Challenged by the imperious Zadkine, she signed up for a group course. Emery had led an independent, peripatetic life since the age of 15 but found in Zadkine’s studio the activating principle for the rest of her life. That principle became tied to a location when she returned to the United States and settled in New Orleans. Given her restless, inquiring, and culturally open view of the world, it is quite natural that Emery found a sympathetic home in New Orleans, and she would play an important role in its cultural life.
Having come late to sculpture, Emery had a ravenous appetite to learn its techniques. Over the years, the International Sculpture Conferences were a source of new technical ideas. The Sculpture Center in New York became not only her basic training school, but also the site of her first important shows. There, Emery learned to cast metal and to weld and came under the influence of the work of David Smith, Herbert Ferber, Ibram Lassaw, and, particularly, Seymour Lipton. Because the SculptureCenter offered only minimal casting facilities, in 1962 she enlisted three other sculptors to build a full-scale foundry in New Orleans.
In her broad-ranging and avid sculptural explorations of the 1950s and early ’60s, Emery built the technical and conceptual foundation for her career. She also established the modes of her practice: hands-on, inventive, craftsman-like, and assiduous. Her work during this period spans a vast diversity of forms, materials, and techniques, from figurative religious pieces in plaster to welded and cast metal abstractions. Any common characteristics within the diversity of Emery’s early work reveal something fundamental to her vision, whether conscious or not. Her ecclesiastical sculpture, such as Pietà (1955), reflected Zadkine’s advocacy of Egyptian simplicity as well as her own response to the Romanesque; an essential purity of form and tightness of composition would be prevailing characteristics of all of her sculpture. A certain lightness of being also stands out across many of Emery’s early works, including an elongated and ethereal, welded steel Ballet Dancer (1952). Flight 1963, which takes floating and open forms up a notch, seems desperate in its desire to levitate from its base. All of this anticipates Emery’s discovery, a decade later, of a more dramatic way of capturing the ethereal qualities of lightness—and motion—with her kinetic work.
For the creative mind, accidents are often the best stimulus for invention. In 1954, when Emery was washing dishes in her small kitchen in New Orleans, she noticed water dripping onto a spoon balanced on the edge of a cup and rocking the spoon up and down. Seeing that mundane event, she envisioned a kinetic sculpture powered by water. Her first water-driven sculptures were playful, toy-like objects that soon evolved into more substantial works, including an important series of fountains for civic and corporate clients.
From an early age, Emery had been a student of non-doctrinaire forms of spirituality. She responded to the tenets of theosophy (as did Kandinsky and Mondrian) and anthroposophy and studied in a school based on Rudolph Steiner’s educational philosophy. In thinking about the philosophical aspects of water, she was influenced by Theodor Schwenk’s Sensitive Chaos.1 Schwenk’s pantheistic ideas would affect not only Emery’s water-based works, but also the kinetic sculptures that followed. As she moved from aquamobiles to wind-driven sculptures, she carried with her the swirling forms and energies of flowing water. The result, in her wind-driven work, is a kind of liquefaction of movement.
Given Emery’s response to nature, it is not surprising that she was most deeply influenced during her formative years by Isamu Noguchi, and they eventually became good friends. There are similarities at multiple levels between the two artists. For both, their youth was a time of rootless restlessness and inquisitiveness that led them to explore alternative conceptual structures. Both were outsiders—Noguchi as a Japanese American during World War II, Emery as a woman entering the male-dominated world of public sculpture. More telling is the similarity of philosophical attitude expressed through their work. They both attempted to delve below dogmatic belief to an underlying reality intertwined with the structures and forces of nature.
In 1973, Emery won a competition to create a large sculpture for the atrium of the South Central Bell Telephone Company’s headquarters in Birmingham, Alabama, (now the AT&T City Center building). Always the risk-taker, she decided to use a new fiberglass fabric for the pod-like elements of her 30-foot-high sculpture. In this unprecedented work, two vertical clusters of pods rise from the floor and descend from the ceiling, moved by magnets in unseen rotating disks in the floor and ceiling. (Since water is difficult and inconvenient as a motivating force, Emery switched to magnets in the mid-1960s, using them to produce seemingly spontaneous movement.) The upper and lower sections aren’t connected; attracted by magnetic force, they almost touch in the most emotionally charged empty half-inch of the entire two-story composition. The organic shapes of the pods, the lightness of the composition, and the sculpture’s slow movement make it seem as though the elements were caught between falling and floating in a soft breeze. Emery discovered the means to achieve even more spontaneous and natural movement in the late 1970s when George Rickey introduced her to ball bearings. Emery had become a friend of Rickey’s in 1955 when he came to New Orleans to chair the Tulane art department. Not only did Rickey represent a link to the Constructivist origins of kinetic sculpture, but he also served as a role model for Emery in his integration of engineering and art.
With the addition of ball bearings, Emery’s sculptures became entirely free of mechanically driven movement, and, responding to the wind, they entered nature’s realm. Over the next 30 years, she produced a series of continually inventive works ranging from tabletop size to the 36-foot-high Honoo-no-ki at the Osaka Dome in Japan. Several species comprise the genus of her work. Some, like Undine, combine a compositional thrust with literal movement of the elements. Most were fabricated from polished aluminum and reflect the sky and clouds, but others, like Amli, have strategically painted surfaces, often in Emery’s favorite Ferrari red, that seem to reflect something colorful in the environment.
In Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913), Umberto Boccioni deployed abstraction to capture the spirit of movement. Seven years later, Naum Gabo, in “The Realistic Manifesto,” renounced “static rhythms” and affirmed “kinetic rhythms” as the “basic forms of our perception of real time.”2 Sculpture was bidden to move, to create continuity in both space and time.3
In their advocacy of movement as a subject of sculpture, and in their embrace of metal as the quintessentially modern material for sculpture, the Constructivists were Emery’s artistic forebears. But her work is also independent of that tradition in fundamental ways. It is likewise independent of Alexander Calder, whose whimsical, romantic spirit places his mobiles outside the pure Constructivist mold. Emery’s sculptures are mechanical devices, as sober in their materials and mechanisms as any Constructivist contraption or work by Rickey. But they derive their forms and movements from nature, which elevates them into the realm of the ideal. Many of the components use the shapes of pods, leaves, or birds. Also, nature’s hidden energies are made visible by the sculptures’ wind-driven movement. These two aspects of nature are closely related. Just as the shapes of a bird’s body and wings are dictated by natural forces and the requirements of efficient motion through the air, so too in Emery’s sculptures, where form and movement are dictated by natural laws.4
The uniqueness of Emery’s lyrical kinetic sculpture resides in an inspired combination of qualities. The elements are pure and minimal; the workings are fine-tuned machines; the movement is baroque, unexpected and bravura; and the evocations are romantic. Each of these characteristics is part of a distinct artistic tradition, but Emery synthesizes them in works of absolute coherence and integrity.
Throughout her career, from the early days of learning to weld to pouring metal in her own foundry and shaping aluminum on an English wheel, Emery has savored the mechanical aspects of creating sculpture. Machines are a passion. Once, when her mother gave her a mink coat for Christmas, Emery traded it for a band saw. She identifies so completely with her art that any mechanical failure is cause for despair.
The first flowering of kinetic sculpture in the late 1950s was prematurely withered by post-Vietnam disillusionment and post-Modernism. In the mid-1960s, concerned about the value of art in a troubled and technological age, Noguchi wrote, “Where all we see is change, I like to think that sculpture may have…a special role—as an antidote to impermanence—with newness, yes, but with a quality of enduring freshness relative to that resonant void.”5 When kinetic sculpture re-emerged in the 1990s, Emery’s work was there, exemplary, evoking natural energies, and enduringly fresh.
1 Theodor Schwenk, Sensitive Chaos: The Creation of Flowing Forms in Water and Air (London: Rudolph Steiner Press, 1965). The title derives from the 18th-century German romantic writer, Georg Philipp Friedrich von Hardenberg, who took the nom-de-plume Novalis.
2 Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner, “The Realistic Manifesto,” in Stephen Bann, editor, The Tradition of Constructivism (New York: Da Capo Press, 1974), p. 3. First published on August 5, 1920, to accompany an open-air art exhibition in Moscow.
3 The case could be made that when Marcel Duchamp mounted a bicycle wheel on a stool in 1913 and sent it spinning, he created the first modern kinetic sculpture. But Duchamp’s work is in a category of its own, as much a provocative jeux d’esprit as a work of sculpture. The motor-driven, rotating sculptures using painted glass that he made in the 1920s also count as isolated experiments.
4 There is a rich body of Emery’s work not covered here that involves other kinds of movement. These theatrical installation works sometimes include robotic figures.
5 Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor’s World (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), p. 40.