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Homage to Frank J. Malina :
Kinetic Artist, Editor, Research Engineer and Humanist By Roger F. Malina



It has often been remarked that contemporary society segregates the various types of creative activity so that the twentieth century has become the time of the specialist. The Renaissance is often singled out as a period when there was a kind of unity of world view and experience which made it possible for a man such as Leonardo da Vinci to express his genius in many fields in the arts and sciences. It is sometimes pointed out that the accumulation of scientific knowledge makes it very difficult today for an individual to become expert in many fields. And in fact at the social level, artists and scientists are often hostile to each others' point of view. Students often select their professional careers based on this view of arts and sciences as conflicting activities. My father Frank J. Malina is a refreshing counter-example to this, an individual who in his life worked as a research engineer, editor, administrator and visual artist.



Frank Malina was born in Brenham, Texas, U.S.A. on October 2, 1912. His parents were Frank Malina, a Czech immigrant, and Carolina Marek, also of Czech origin (1). He has one sister, Caroline Mercer who is a resident of Chappell Hill, Texas. In 1920, the Malina family returned to the new republic of Czechoslovakia, where they ran a hotel and restaurant. The travels through the devastation of Central Europe were important events in Malina's childhood.

In 1925 the family returned to Texas because the situation in Czechoslovakia was discouraging, and because Malina was showing exceptional academic abilities ; the family felt that they should return to the U.S.A. where suitable schooling could be found. He obtained a Bachelor of Science from the Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College which was then a small land grant college run on military lines. A perceptive Professor encouraged him to continue his education by attending the California Institute of Technology, and made this possible by loaning funds to the young Malina.

At Caltech, Malina obtained his Masters degrees in Mechanical (1935) and Aeronautical Engineering (1936), and a PhD in Aeronautics in 1940. Malina was a student of Theodore von Karman now regarded as one of the foremost applied mathematician of the century (2). Working with von Karman, Frank J. Malina became a pioneer of U.S. American rocketry (3). He participated in the intellectual ferment in the California Institute of Technology in the 1930's, and wrote several screenplays on futuristic themes for Hollywood companies. Rocketry and astronautics in the 1930's were very much stuff of science fiction, and by no means a respected academic discipline. The group around von Karman not only laid the foundations for many fields in aerodynamics, fluid mechanics and astronautics but many of them became business leaders in the new industries that grew from their work. Von Karman is particularly known for his systematic application of fundamental mathematics to various problems in engineering and the basic sciences and mathematics.

Under Frank J. Malina's leadership, the rocket research group carried out a program of theoretical analysis and experiments which led to the launching in 1945 of the Wac Corporal to a height of 240, 000 feet. With von Karman, Malina started the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, now Nasa's leading facility for planetary exploration, and served as its first Director. The rocket researchers also started a company, the Aerojet-General Corporation which is still a leading manufacturer of rockets in the U.S.A. . At the end of World War II, Malina made a decisive decision to join UNESCO, at its' Director Julian Huxley's invitation. Malina had been part of the teams that had toured Europe and he decided to join the new organisations seeking to rebuild a saner world. From 1947 to 1953, Malina worked in various projects in international cooperation ranging from projects in the Negev desert to the Hylean Amazon, from arid zone research to international computing centers. As a scientist he dreamed of extending the international cooperation that had developed in science to a much larger field of activity. In 1953, he married an English woman, Marjorie Duckworth and raised two sons. After leaving UNESCO in 1953, Malina remained involved in international collaborations projects. He was a member of the founding committee of the International Academy of Astronautics in 1960 and Chairman of the Lunar Laboratory Committee and the Committee for Manned Research on Celestial Bodies.



In 1953, Malina decided to leave UNESCO and to paint full time. He started working in conventional media, but often incorporating a subject matter familiar to scientists, ranging from the test tubes and electronic circuits of the laboratory to the technological landscape of electric pylons and rocket trajectories. He stated : "In regard to subject matter, there is still a strong entrenched belief that only certain aspects of life and of the Universe are "poetic". Since most artists are encultured by a literary type of education, it is perhaps not surprising that so few venture away from landscape, pots and pans and animals"(4).


After experimenting rapidly with a large number of styles, he began incorporating mixed-media in his work. The impulse for this came from a figure of a chess horse he was painting. Finding no satisfactory solution to the design of the background behind the horse, he cut the horse head out and suspended it from the frame by strings. He created assemblages including string, electric wire and wire mesh. The use of wire mesh immediately led him to experiment with the "Moire" effect, and this to a whole series of experiments in creating optical effects. This again was a revelation to him, for suddenly he realised that his experiments in art could make use of the research in visual effects that were being studied by psychologists, yet which were ignored by artists at the time. His works from this period would now be called Op'Art.


Another revelation occurred one day when Malina was having trouble getting enough contrast in the "Moire" effect of one of his wire mesh pieces. In frustration, he held a 50W light bulb behind the mesh; he wrote : "What I saw gave me the feeling of ecstasy that one experiences as an art medium"(4). However, in a few minutes the heat from the lamp caused a column of smoke to rise from the painting ; he concluded that after all electric light was unsuitable for us in art objects. A few months later, in his studio, he noticed the string of electric lights that had been removed from the Christmas tree and realised the solution to the problem. He made his first electric light picture in 1955 ("Illuminated Wire Mesh Moire").


The next ten years were an exciting and feverish period of discovery, similar in intensity to his years as a rocket researcher. Suddenly, he glimpsed that all the tools of technology could be viewed as potential new art media, and that a systematic research program was needed. Very clearly in Malina's mind the work of discovery in both art and science could both be viewed as similar research activities, although the goals and determination of merit were very different.

The work in illuminated wire mesh was followed by the use of blinking and flashing lights in static works. The composition "Jawzz" (1955) had eight bulbs actuated by thermal interrupters, which illuminated eleven shapes for about a second. The eleven shapes could then appear in 2048 different combinations. When played with jazz music in the background, most viewers were convinced that the visual and sound were connected. Malina showed his electropaintings in the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in 1955 and held a one-artist show in the same year. It was the first exhibition of Kinetic art using electric light held in Paris.


Malina immediately started searching for ways to include more complex motions into the electropaintings and started using small clock motors which were readily available. Works involving electric light and motion had in fact being carried out by Thomas Wilfred in 1905, and Scriabin in 1910, but these works were no longer exhibited and none of the museums or galleries in Paris showed work of this type. Working with electronic engineer Jean Villmer, Malina developed an electromechanical system which he called the "Lumidyne " system (5).

In the Lumidyne system, motion was introduced by rotating plexiglass disks interposed between electric lights and a series of two screens. The system was designed to be mounted on a wall like a conventional painting. A practical advantage of the system was that the depth of the case was only 13 cm. The composition was created by painting directly on the plexiglass disks and screens. The system proved to be versatile allowing various complexities of motion to be introduced in a controlled and planned manner, and allowing a wide range of artistic styles to be used in the composition using conventional painting methods. A number of other artists including Nino Calos and Vic Gray made use of the system.


Malina himself often used imagery from outer space as subject matter, although many viewers could not recognise the inspiration of the compositions. In "Away from the Earth" (1966), for instance, the basis of the composition is the trajectory of the Apollo capsule from the earth to the moon. Malina stated : "The exiting of a representative of earth's civilisation into outer space can, for significance, be compared with our ancestors' descent from the trees. The psychological and philosophical consequences of this move may be tremendous for the future development of mankind... What canvas will hang on the walls of space ships ploughing space's waves ?".

One interesting observation Malina made about kinetic works of art, was that viewers poorly trained to observe moving rather than static images would rarely recognise repeating compositional patterns. A repetition period of one minute was usual by so long that most viewers had either moved their attention elsewhere or did not have the ability to recognise a pattern they had seen before. It was clear to Malina as a scientist that artists would have to become conversant in the work of psychologist studying the human perceptual system to be able to exploit and analyse the potential of kinetic art.


In addition to the Lumidyne system, Malina developed a number of variations which enlarged the range of achievable effects. These included the Reflectodyne system where reflective elements were used to reflect images into the screen ; the Polarydine system where polarising sheets were used to cause the color changes in the images, and also audio-kinetic system where the motion of the disks was coupled to microphones which picked up ambient sound. Throughout the nineteen sixties, Malina exhibited and sold his kinetic works whilst the art world recognised, and for a few years paid attention to this new art form that was kinetic art. However, unlike the art world, Malina did not feel that kinetic art represented just another passing style in art. Rather the artists of today suddenly had at their disposal the ability to introduce real motion as a plastic medium into art works. It was his conviction that the art of the future world take advantage of the unexplored possibilities of this new medium, whether through kinetic art works of his own type, or other kinetic systems, or trough the computer or television screen.



As Frank J. Malina worked as professional artist, he could not help but notice how the working conditions and environment of the artist differed from those he had experienced as a scientist and engineer. Working scientists always wrote about their own work in professional journals ; they were always the first interpreters of their ideas. In art, there seemed to be no professional journals where artists were allowed to write about their work. Malina felt that he had new and valuable ideas in his Lumydine system, yet in the art world he would have to find a critic to write about the work and often artists were very secretive about their techniques. As he started working in the new medium of kinetic art, he wanted to research the technical inventions of other artists, but there were no journals where artists exchanged such useful information. Indeed, it was very difficult to even find the work of predecessors in the medium such as Thomas Wilfred. These artists were footnotes in art history and were rarely even mentioned in art books.


As an engineer, he had been trained by von Karman to apply ideas and techniques from all the available disciplines of science, yet artists seemed to be totally isolated from all the other major intellectual developments of the century. Lord Snow's characterisation of the Two Cultures had validity at a very practical level. New discoveries in materials sciences, psychology of vision, physics, and technology surely were relevant to the art of the future, yet art journals were devoid of any discussion of these topics. Artists rarely read the work of aestheticians, philosophers or historians as there seemed to be no connections to the work of professional artists. And whereas in the technical fields, professional societies existed to allow individuals with similar research interests to exchange views, in the arts there were societies of critics but not meaningful societies of working artists. In the sciences every scientist felt part of an international enterprise, while in the arts artists rarely had any contact outside their own circle of friends. In effect, artists were marginalised, and totally at the mercy of the commercial and museum system. It was not a situation which accorded with his view of the role of the artist, or the future of art.


These ideas led Malina to found the new art journal "Leonardo" in 1967. This was to be a journal for contemporary artists where the artists themselves would write about their own work. It would be a journal of ideas where artists could exchange information and obtain information. There would be articles by researchers in all other disciplines which had bearings on the arts and the journal would have an international scope. He took the idea to Robert Maxwell owner of Pergamon Press ; Maxwell was publishing the journals of the International Academy of Astronautics and trusted his visions. Leonardo has now been published for 20 years and is still the only journal which addresses these issues. It is the only journal which champions the use of new technologies in the arts.





I have been honored to be asked to write a tribute in the memory of my father Frank J. Malina at this colloquium of Rome in the celebrated Academia dei Lincei. At this meeting, I have met a number of people working to create a vision of the art of the future that my father would have recognised. This gathering is international in scope, brings artists and scientist together as well as thinkers from many disciplines. I think that such gatherings are very important and we must take every effort to support synthesis from all the ideas we have discussed. I look forward to participating in future events of the European Academy of Arts and Sciences.


It seems clear to me that there are unlikely to be individuals like Leonardo da Vinci who today can really make major contributions in so many different spheres of human activity. Today, achievements of this kind are more likely to arise from teams of individuals working together. This will require new ways or working together, new professional structures and educational systems. In the sciences more than ever this is becoming the norm. In the arts, this is less common, although at this meeting we have seen the original work of Vladimir Bonacic and his colleagues working as a team.


At the same time, there is always a vital need for individuals with vision to drive forward to new solutions and creations. The generation of my father was traumatised by two World Wars, and many of them have identified themselves as survivors and dedicated themselves to creating the structures for a different world. Their vision is often illogically optimistic and generous. Many, like my father, have the courage to careers, to reeducate themselves in new fields and to work towards a better future in a present which in many ways is threatening.



I would like to thank my mother Marjorie Malina for her help in this essay and for the work still under way in archiving the works of Frank J. Malina. I would also like to thank Giorgio Careri for his hospitality and support of the memory of my father.






(1) A complete bio-bibliography of Frank J. Malina has beeb published in LEONARDO , 20, p. 417, 1987. His personal papers are archived at the U.S. Library of Congress. Selected papers were microfiched by the California Institute of Technology and have been published by Microforms International, Fariview Park, Elmsford, N.Y. His major publications about his artwork have also been reprinted in the issue of LEONARDO  cited above.

(2) H.L. Dryden, The Contributions of Theodore von Karman : a Review, Astronaut. Aerospace. Eng., 1, p. 12, 1963. See also von Karman's autobiography The Wind and Beyond, T. von Karman (with L. Edson), Little, Brown and Co, Boston (1967).

(3) For attribute to Frank J. Malina's work in astronautics see"A Tribute to Frank J. Malina ", G.S. James and F.H. Winter, Acta Astronautica , 10, p. 231, 1983


[Biographie résumée] - [Biographie complète ]- [Galerie virtuelle]
[Bibliographie relative à l'oeuvre de F. Malina] - [
Souvenirs, Témoignages]
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"Frank J. Malina's Memoirs" (3 volumes)]

Document mis à jour : Thursday, February 17, 2011 02:11 PM

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