Jean Tinguely: “A Magic Stronger Than Death”

Jean Tinguely

Shortly after the staged event ended in a tangle of crushed metal and hot ashes, with smoke and steam still rising from the charred ruins, one woman spectator claimed it was a major success. “It was like being in the Twenties again,” she enthused. New York Times art critic John Canaday, a more dispassionate observer, did not get so caught up in the hysteria of a performance billed as a “machine that destroys itself.” He wrote that the artist “makes fools of machines, while the rest of mankind permits machines to make fools of them.”

A half century after Swiss artist Jean Tinguely unleashed his self-immolating art piece Homage to New York in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art on a freezing winter night in mid-March of 1960, art historians still debate: was it an act of pure Neo-Dadaism, a Luddite’s protest against industrial age technology, a daring, self-promotional con job—or a watershed moment hovering at the cusp of Postmodernist Art?

“Homage to New York,” 1960.
“Homage to New York,” 1960.

Tinguely himself seemed a benign enough provocateur, not at all the madcap, re-incarnated spirit of his Dadaist progenitors. He had spent the previous week creating the child-like Tinkertoy twenty-seven foot high assemblage of 80 bicycle wheels, bottles, saws, hammers, fire extinguishers, a bathtub, a baby carriage, a go-cart, a playing piano, even an ominous weather balloon rising like a sentinel over the unwieldy edifice. Several years before the label of “Happening” broke into the art world, the 250 specially-invited and privileged art patrons witnessed an event that at the time may have seemed little more than an art hipster’s in-joke. Not only was it documented on film by the cinema-verité team of D.A. Pennebaker and Al Maysles, but an art legend also was being born—akin to the notorious Paris premiere of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” Unlike that ballet of 1913 where Stravinsky, Diaghilev and conductor Pierre Monteux were jeered, the boos and catcalls at Hommage to New York were aimed at the hapless city fireman who tried to contain the conflagration after part of it toppled toward a news cameraman.

It is difficult to find the Maysles/Pennebaker film intact but there is a 5-minute excerpt that appears to have been recorded off a projection screen. After an introduction by Tinguely who struggles with his English, we are launched into the main event--the sculpture's death march. The clip ends with the artist talking to the fireman and then examining the still smoking aftermath.

The Dennis Cooper Gallery published a written record of the event; it includes the memory of fellow artist Billy Klüver:

The piano began playing. Jean had reversed the belt for his big meta-matic painting machine, which was the centerpiece. The painting on the long roll of paper was supposed to spill out over the audience. I could very easily have reversed the belt, but he took my arm away and said "Don't touch, Billy." He had decided that whatever happened should happen. Some time later, the weather balloon was supposed to blow up and explode but there was not enough gas in the gas tank we had bought, so it ended up hanging limply. The piano on the right side had a candle on the keyboard, which in the third minute was lighted by an overheating resistor. Three minutes later a bucket of gasoline above the candle was tipped over and the piano began to burn gloriously while it was furiously playing away. A small bassinet had been filled with ammonia. When I closed the switch to start the machine, Robert Breer's task was to pour titanium tetrachloride into it. The combination of ammonia and titanium tetrachloride produces, as you all know, white... in this case white smoke, which poured out of the bassinet, until it finally engulfed the specially invited, elegantly dressed audience. It was all over in 27 minutes. The audience applauded and descended on the wreckage for souvenirs. Jean called the event “ Homage to New York.” 

Somehow, out of all that rubble fragments survived; one of them is now in the permanent collection of MoMA, an irony that must have amused the artist. You can spy this fragment at 2:30 in the film.

Fragment from “Homage to New York,” MoMA.

After the New York event, Tinguely’s stock continued to rise in the art world and, as inevitably happens, the young iconoclast morphed into an established, even revered, figure who had major retrospectives (one of which I will discuss here a bit later) and eventually his own museum in Basel, in his native Switzerland.

Tinguely’s own statement about the Hommage to New York event casts light on his artistic intention beyond the MoMA showpiece.

It wasn’t the idea of a machine committing suicide that fascinated me primarily; it was the freedom that belonged to its ephemeral aspect – ephemeral like life, you understand. It was the opposite of the cathedrals, the opposite of the skyscrapers around us, the opposite of the museum idea, the opposite of the petrification in a fixed work of art.

A 1960 newsreel clip concentrates only on the Dadaesque aspect of Tinguely’s early work, asserting that, “its only function is to have no function.”

The playful quality is evident in Narva from the following year.

“Narva,” 1961

Though Tinguely’s work is often seen in museums and galleries, he has always fancied and has accepted commissions for installations in parks and public spaces. This reached its apotheosis in installations of fountains that he created with fellow artist Niki de Saint-Phalle, whom he met in the late 50s and married in 1971.

Niki Saint-Phalle and Jean Tinguely, 1966 photo by Jacot Klein.

During the decades following the MoMA event, Tinguely’s work became even more ambitious; the construction of the sculptures began to look more industrial, much less ephemeral, even as they maintained their ecstatic clockwork attitudes. The video of one sculpture, the Méta-Harmonie, shows in detail the acoustic (musical) element that is often a key part of the pieces.

Another one, from 1967, the Requiem Pour Une Feuille Morte, is an early example of the more reductive but more majestic sculptures that began to occupy him. The silhouette light in this Centre Pompidou installation presaged the artist’s concern with mood as crucial elements.

This piece could easily lurk in the railroad station’s darker corners of the film Hugo.

Public, exterior sculpture is often indifferent, even irritating to the site for which it was commissioned. This latter mood is epitomized by Richard Serra’s intimidating 1981 steel sculpture, Tilted Arc, installed in the Federal Plaza in downtown Manhattan, and, after demonstrations and lawsuits— destroyed. Tinguely’s whimsical pieces, however, seem to be endlessly charming when set into nature. Especially at the shore of Lake Zurich, with the water and dramatic snow-capped peaks in the background, the installation titled Heureka resembles, in a still photo at least, a flamboyant French topiary.

“Heureka,” installed lakeside, Zurich.

A subversive video that begins and ends as a tourist’s view of Zurich and its public art, gets gob-smacked in the middle by the mechanical playfulness of Heureka, just as the video’s opening rococo music yields to the ambient sounds of the sculpture’s grinding metal.

Tinguely’s outsized machines are not very approachable to traditional art collectors; like the environmental artists Christo and Jean Claude, Tinguely also made drawings and prints for the commercial market, sometimes based on his sculptures—but also freely exploring his own dictates.

A Drawing, 1982.

In the summer of 1987, I was in Venice on a film related event. Near the hotel I saw a kiosk poster for a Jean Tinguely retrospective at the Palazzo Grassi, which is one of the newer of the signature palazzi along the Grand Canal. During most of the 80s its director was Pontus Hulten who, as founding director of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, knew Tinguely and his work intimately. Hulten was also founding director of MOCA in Los Angeles.

Palazzo Grassi on the Grand Canal, Venice.

The two floors of the exhibition contained the full range of the artist’s work, including the most recent. Tinguely was to die only four years later in Bern, age 66. I hardly ever save receipts from concerts, plays or art exhibitions, but while doing research for this essay I found the torn entry ticket for the retrospective tucked into the exhibition catalog as a bookmark, a measure of how deeply I had been moved by his art.

My Entry Ticket to the Tinguely Exhibition.

The title of the catalog and exhibition is A Magic Stronger Than Death.

Exhibition Catalog “A Magic Stronger Than Death.”

Tinguely’s most recent work seemed to be obsessed with the motif of death. There was none of the playfulness of the fountains or of his earlier work. The amped up dynamics of those pieces was reduced to an almost funereal pace; the steel and industrial sculptures now incorporated animal bones and skulls as kinetic momenti mori.

The Ram

A photograph of Tinguely’s studio floor shows a cow skull in the foreground.

Tinguely's Studio Floor

In a small piazza adjacent to the Palazzo Grassi is the small parish church of San Samuele. It served as an annex space to the main exhibition. The somber mood inside the abbreviated nave, with little ambient light and a faint sense of Gregorian chant under the creaking wheels and armatures of the articulated sculptures, cast an otherworldly mood to the whole space. Being here was like being in a slow motion, medieval Totentanz. At the end of the nave (if I can recall correctly some 25 years later) were several pieces that looked like a primitive culture’s offertory altar, one of them titled Cenodoxus.

The "Cenodoxus" Altar,1981.

Cenodoxus is the title figure of a 17th century miracle play written by a German Jesuit priest. Cenodoxus was a “good man,” whose body is carried into the cathedral after his death. During the next three days, his corpse moves once a day on its stone bier and cries out, finally saying, "Oh, My God, My God, My God, I have been damned to Hell Eternal." This seems an unjust self-pronouncement by a man deemed by all to be saintly. The actual design of the Cenodoxus sculpture is an homage to the painter Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, France.

Clearly, the temple of death I now found myself in, was not the most congenial place for an apostate like me. I was, and likely remain, the product of an impressive and rigorous Jesuit education: but here, I felt like just another lost soul, the scent of brimstone lurking somewhere in his unconscious.

I also realize standing here that there is something disquieting about all of Tinguely’s work; even the early pieces that some find to be so whimsical or absurdist, exude a melancholy aura of the fragility of life. Perhaps it’s something as simple as the tenuous way these sculptures move, as fragile as an over-bred animal, rickety and liable to fail at any moment, even more unlikely as ambulatory denizens than Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests. The immobility of imminent death seems to be lurking in the deep shadows for Tinguely’s seemingly invulnerable steel creatures. Even a sculpture like the innocently titled “The Fantastic Paradise” seems a mockery of its name. The snow setting of its photo may look innocent and pure, but the dark silhouette of the scythe-like blade anticipates the visit of the Grim Reaper.

“The Fantastic Paradise,” 1972.

I also think of another great sculptor of steel, the American David Smith, one of my personal touchstone artists, whose protean output and work ethic closely parallels that of Tinguely. The wintry snowfield that blankets Tinguely’s outdoor pieces reminds me of Smith’s sculpture field on the sloping hill outside his studio at Bolton Landing near Lake George.

David Smith in his Sculpture Field, photo by Ugo Malas.

Last June, I posted an essay on Smith’s sculptures for a LACMA exhibition.

John’s Bailiwick—“David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy at LACMA” blog link

Several millennia of sculptural history are almost devoid of metal works, unless they are somehow associated with arms and armor. Aside from the tradition of bronze castings (which normally echo their stone or plaster twins) metal sculpture is mostly a 20th century phenomenon, often traced back to Julio Gonzalez and Picasso as antecedents. Jean Tinguely’s kinetic sculptures embody the fantasies, dreams, and nightmares of the Cubists, Dadaists, and Surrealists, exploiting the materials of the industrial age—especially its detritus. And Tinguely infuses it all with a hovering metaphysics that, had he lived, he may have achieved in these unlikely steel hulks the hieratic plane of the medieval religious masters for whom he was an unlikely heir.

Tinguely and Saint-Phalle in Jerusalem, 1972.


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