Abraham Palatnik, a visionary artist and a tireless inventor, passed away this weekend in Rio de Janeiro, a victim of the COVID-19 disease that has taken so many lives and holds the world on pause. At the outstanding age of 92, Palatnik remained active, keeping busy with artistic experiments up until his very last days.
His Kinechromatic Apparatus S-14, a machine from 1958 that set abstract painting in motion, currently hangs at the Museum (albeit behind closed doors) as part of Sur moderno: Journeys of Abstraction—The Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Gift. Every morning before public hours, during routine gallery inspections, I would check on Palatnik’s Apparatus to make sure it was connecting successfully to the electricity source, and running properly. Sitting and watching the piece make its complete seven-minute cycle became a daily exercise in observation and awareness. As I listened carefully to make sure the piece ran silently, without any thumping or knocking or clicking of its internal components, I was mesmerized by the spectacle before me: a slow choreography of light changing from fuchsia to purple, bright green and white, then suddenly going dark, only to light up again. Drawn to this multicolored specter moving behind the screen, I wondered about the work’s internal mechanism: its vintage light bulbs and motors, held by rods and controlled by timers still producing a vibrant image 60 years after its creation. Kinechromatic Apparatus S-14 belongs to a series of radical constructions that Palatnik debuted in 1951 at the First São Paulo Biennial, where his work was deemed unclassifiable and rejected by the selection committee—though it was ultimately distinguished with a special mention by the international jury.
The fragility of this mechanical artwork requires special care and attention. With the help of Museum electricians, security guards, and conservators, we would take turns observing the work run throughout the day, making sure it went off temporarily and came back on in time, directing visitors’ attention to the work while it was active, and rejoicing in their marveled reactions. As is often the case with technological art, Palatnik’s device made us think about the artwork in terms of its livelihood, forcing us to consider its mortality and need for rest and repair. While the Museum is temporarily closed, Kinechromatic Apparatus remains dormant, quietly awaiting its reactivation. As we bid farewell and honor the artist’s seven-decade-long career in the art of playful inventions, we look forward to future encounters with his art in the galleries, where Palatnik will continue to illuminate us through the presence of his work, and the memory of his absence.