The Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely (1925-1991) worked in a manner that combined aspects of Dada, Constructivism, and kinetic art. His sculptures are capricious constructions made of a wide variety of materials, most often of junk. They are assembled to function as strange and often whimsical machines which are erratic in their performance and were at times designed to self-destruct.
Jean Tinguely was born in Fribourg, Switzerland, in 1925, the only child of a factory worker and his wife. In 1928 the family moved to Basel where Tinguely lived until 1951, when he moved to Paris. As a child he was a poor student but an avid reader and spent much of his free time perched in a tree thinking and reading. He created his first example of kinetic art at the age of 12 and still felt in the 1980s that this was his best effort in motion art. Tinguely had placed 30 small water wheels along the side of a stream. The axle of each wheel was connected to a shaft with randomly placed projecting arms or striking implements. Tin cans and other objects were struck by these arms as the wheels turned, creating a dissonance that the artist remembers as being weird and beautiful. As he recalls, his motivation was simply to do it for the sake of doing it. This project anticipated his fascination for construction as a process of creation, for motion or kinetics, for sound as an integral part of the working of his designs, and for the inclusion of randomness or chance as an animating factor. Tinguely once said of his mechanical assemblages that he allowed a sense of independence between himself and his work to the point of their having freedom or personalities of their own.
At the age of 15, while working in a department store, he enrolled in evening classes at the Kunstschule (Art School) where he studied under an innovative teacher, Julia Ris. She introduced Tinguely to the Dadaist collages of Kurt Schwitters. Dada was an intellectual and esthetic protest against society and its values by the establishment of an anti-art, often of "found objects" of junk. Schwitters' collages of discarded ticket stubs, pieces of old newspapers and magazines, buttons, gears, and other objects were assembled into compositions which at times had a relief-like quality. Tinguely developed this into the third dimension, as sculpture. Like Schwitters, he perceived junk as an essential part of the experience of an urban industrialized society and as a comment on the banality and insensitivity of it.
During World War II in Switzerland, a haven for refugees from across Europe, Tinguely came into contact with a wide variety of artistic and intellectual trends, notably the concept of universal dynamism that was integral to a number of artistic movements. He was intrigued by how motion can change the way an object is perceived or even make it seem to disappear, as would happen with an airplane propeller. Tinguely experimented with a variety of applications of dynamism, at times affixing furniture and even his own work to motors which spun the objects at varying speeds. Motion changed the appearance of the objects, and at times physically disintegrated them, creating an exciting spectacle. In his later work the principles of motion and disintegration were to be refined in assemblages of erratically moving asynchronous mechanical parts which were designed to have prolonged and spectacular self-destruction.
Tinguely and his wife, Eva Appli, whom he had married in 1949, arrived in Paris in 1951, where he made his life and career thereafter. The intellectual and artistic climate of Paris was a great stimulus to him, as was the vast flea market where Tinguely could find virtually any type of object or artifact. His predilections for the Constructivist principle of assemblage, the Dadaist use of cast-offs or "found objects, " and the use of motion by gas or electric motors had become constants in his work, even in his relief constructions. Tinguely quickly came to be recognized as a rebel and worked in directions at odds with most accepted forms of artistic expression. He was particularly opposed to static easel painting, in a response to which in 1953 he created his meta-matics—robots that moved about, made noises, and could be fitted to perform a number of tasks. At the Biennale de Paris of 1959 he designed a metamatic to make abstract paintings. Spectators who could start and stop it as well as change colors activated the machine. Almost 40, 000 paintings were produced in two weeks. The crowds that had come to see the Biennale were thoroughly entertained, but abstract expressionist artists were disgruntled by Tinguely, whom they considered a charlatan.
In 1960 Tinguely arrived in New York for the first American showing of his sculpture at the George Staempfli Gallery. He responded to that city as if it were a giant and powerful machine and immediately started planning a large work that would celebrate the vibrant spirit of life in New York. The Museum of Modern Art agreed to allow him to construct his work, Homage to New York, in the museum's sculpture garden. On March 17 of that year several hundred people gathered to observe the spectacle of his 23-foot high and 27-foot long assemblage perform and self-destruct.
Tinguely was always proud of the fact that most people seemed instinctively drawn to his sculptures, related to them, and often found them amusing. The erratic and therefore less than mechanically perfect manner in which they operate seems to eliminate the sense of separation that people experience between themselves and machines. In what many see as a cold, mechanized world, or a depersonalized world in which machines are servants to man's needs, Tinguely created machines that were as interesting and even as amusing as man himself. Cast-off machine-produced objects and parts, "artifacts" of industrial societies, are assembled in compositionally interesting and often whimsical ways to delight and often invite viewer participation. Days of work were discarded if the sounds produced were not interesting or pleasing. To Tinguely, the sounds made by his sculptures were like dissonant music or poetry. His works come to life with outrageous personalities, move about producing various noises, perform functions, and reach a climax, often of self-destruction. Tinguely's work has been likened to Neo-Dadaism, the "New Realism" of Yves Klein, as well as to performance and spectacle art.
One of his last major works prior to his death in August, 1991, was Le Cyclop (The Head), a sculptural project in the Fountainebleau Forest in France. There was a posthumous exhibit of his work in 1996 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, followed later that year by the inauguration of the Jean Tinguely Museum in Basel, Switzerland.
Calvin Tomkins' The Bride and the Bachelors (1977) is probably the most interesting and entertaining writing on Tinguely. See also Carla Gattlieb's Beyond Modern Art (1976) for a thorough background on the radical developments in contemporary art and Tinguely's relation to them. □