In February 1955 the Greek artist Takis stood bored on the platform at Calais train station. He was travelling back to Paris from London, where he had had his first solo exhibition, but his train was delayed. His eyes fell on a trackside signal, a metal upright pole with flashing lights at the top. Mesmerised, he began to mentally catalogue all the other signals, aerials and signs that scattered the terminal. When he eventually got home, and despite the success of his figurative sculpture to date, he resolved that his art would thereon include elements of movement and light.
Takis, who has died aged 93, was a pioneer of kinetic art, using electricity, magnetism, sound and other unseen forces to create work that ranged from sculpture and public art to performance. Signals became his best known work, a series of sculptures developed over the next five decades that would include motors, bulbs and fireworks.
“Before long, my Signals were transformed from railway signals into rockets, antennae and radio receivers. Travelling often by aeroplane, I was always delighted by the aerodromes and their giant radars which turned slowly, seeking out the metallic objects which glide in space. It is as though they were monstrous instruments intercepting cosmic events,” he wrote in 1961.
Triple Signal (1955) featured three tensile steel rods reminiscent of radio aerials. Firework Signal, a public performance in the streets of Paris in 1957, involved a giant sparkler mounted on a 3-metre pole. In 1987, 39 Signal sculptures, some more than 9 metres high, were installed permanently in the Esplanade de La Défense in Paris. The following year Takis was commissioned to make a similar work for the Seoul Games.
As well as light, magnetism was an enduring obsession. In 1963, his friend the American author William Burroughs wrote in an exhibition text: “Takis is working with and expressing in his sculpture thought forms of metal … you can hear metal think in the electromagnetic fields.”
The first of his Murs Magnétiques were made in 1958: a series of monochrome paintings in front of which hung cone-shaped or cylindrical steel objects from invisible thread. A magnet hidden behind the canvas would propel these mobiles towards the painted surface. An early version of his Sculptures Télémagnétiques, or Télésculptures, featured a nail suspended in mid-air by a magnet. In Magnetic Fields (1969), currently part of an exhibition of the artist’s work at Tate Modern in London, a pendulum swung by a gallery attendant sets off a wave of movement through a forest of floor-standing metal rods.
An argument in the late 1950s with Yves Klein over the French artist’s attempt to patent the use of magnets led to Takis staging The Impossible – Man in Space, at Galerie Iris Clert, in Paris. The performance involved a powerful magnet that suspended the South African poet Sinclair Beiles in mid-air. Beiles was to read an anti-nuclear manifesto, but fell to the ground after the first sentence: “I am a sculpture.” According to the critic Guy Brett, the performance “represented a kind of collision between three worlds: the world of art, that of science and contemporary reality”.
Born Panayiotis Vassilakis in Athens, Takis was the sixth of seven children of Alexandra (nee Leontaritsou) and Athanasios Vassilakis. His father had ran a successful property empire but the fortune was lost during the Greco-Turkish war. In 1942, as the Axis occupation solidified in Greece, the 17-year-old joined the resistance movement the National Republican Greek League, or EDES. After a year a rival resistance group, the more radical Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS) enlisted Takis to spy on EDES. By 1945 he had publicly switched sides to ELAS, to become a leader in its youth wing, which, as Greece fell into civil war, earned him a six-month prison sentence.
On release, with little in the way of formal education, Takis made his first artwork, two busts, inspired by seeing sculptures by Picasso and Giacometti at the American Cultural Center in Athens in 1951. As he fell into artistic circles, the political turmoil of Greece became increasingly frustrating to Takis: while his work, at this point derivative of Giacometti, was beginning to be exhibited, by 1953 he had had enough. “Greece is a prison,” he complained. With the help of the art patron Caresse Crosby, who was a regular visitor to Greece, Takis left for Paris.
Living in hotels in Montparnasse, he briefly joined the studio of the modernist sculptor Constantin Brâncuși, but gained more practical experience at a blacksmiths. His 1955 exhibition at Hanover Gallery in London was characterised by featureless iron and plaster figures. Soon after, he started to hang around the Beat Hotel on Rue Gît-le-Cœur and became friends with Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, as well as making his first Télésculptures. In 1961 the Greek dealer Alexander Iolas gave him a solo exhibition in New York. There he befriended the artist Marcel Duchamp, returning for a second show at the gallery two years later.
Following his marriage to the artist Liliane Lijn, Takis moved to London in 1964, the same year that Signals Gallery opened in the West End, taking its name from Takis’s work. He showed at the gallery later that year. In 1966 he had a show at Indica, in Mayfair, from which John Lennon bought a sculpture. Takis became friendly with the Beatles and Yoko Ono, but by the end of the decade had settled largely in the US, where he was a visiting researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There he began creating work using hydromagnetic force, inspired by “the perpetual moving bicycle wheel of Marcel Duchamp”.
In 1969 MoMA included a Télésculpture in a group exhibition without the artist’s permission. Takis’s reaction was typically bullish – he stormed the New York museum and removed the work. It was an action that led, a year later, to the formation of the Art Workers’ Coalition.
From the 70s onwards Takis began making his Sculptures Musicales, in which an electromagnet hidden behind a wooden panel attracted and repelled a needle which, in turn, struck a metal string. Over the decades, as well as regular shows in major institutions, and many public commissions, he began to move into set design and music composition for film and theatre.
In 1995, having moved back to Greece, and set up the Takis Foundation there, the artist was asked to represent his country at the Venice Biennale. Takis insisted on showing his work just outside the national pavilion, stating: “I am a citizen of the world.”
He is survived by his daughter, Anna, from a relationship with the artist Sheila Fell; by his son, Thanos, from his marriage to Liliane, which ended in divorce in 1970; by three grandchildren; and by a sister, Tita.
• Takis (Panayiotis Vassilakis), artist, born 29 October 1925; died 9 August 2019