May 22,1925-Aug. 30,1991...Switzerland
"The only stable
thing is movement."
Interior decorating does not typically lead to a career as a prominent visual artist. But that was the unlikely start for
the internationally known artist Jean Tinguely.
He got his first training at the School of Arts and Crafts in Basel, Switzerland. Soon, like most artists of the day, Tinguely
moved to Paris with his wife Eva Aeppli. They arrived in Paris in October of 1952 and quickly became friends with the influential
Parisian artists, like Yves Klein and Niki de Saint Phalle. At the Galerie Arnaud, on May of 1954, he had his first showing of his relief sculptures. Most of his works were
made from scrap metal and found objects and painted a uniform black. This work soon evolved into of machine-like sculptures.
Tinguely began exploring the idea machine-like sculptures. His Neo-Dada ideas were beginning to show his new found interest
in Kinetic Sculpture: movement in central to this art. One of the first series of works to show
this was his series of Méta-Matics beginning
in the late 1950’s. This was a unique series of drafting machines that produced works of abstract art. The most prominent in the series, Méta-Matic 17, combined
sculpture, painting, mechanization, sound, drama and dance to produce 40,000 abstract paintings in a three week span of time.
Powered by electricity, this work was a jab at the popular abstract artists, in particular, Jackson Pollock. Although Méta-Matic 17 was created as a working artwork, many of the other pieces in the
series were actually completely functionless but did appear to be working.
Tinguely’s next major work, Homage to New York, was unleashes at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in March of 1960. This object/event was set up in
the sculpture garden as a very formal affair. Guests came out to the garden that evening not exactly knowing what they would
see. Nothing would have prepared them for the shock of this work. Little did they know that Homage to New York was designed to be a self-destructing
machine sculpture. It would begin to move and tear it’s self apart until it would finally be detonated and exploded.
As the work smoldered Tinguely said from a formal podium, "Who gives a damn about
art!" and walked way. Strangely, this was not an original concept. Tinguely’s idea was
influenced by another artwork, Optical Device.
Homage to New York
Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray built
Optical Device in 1920. The two artists took a small engine that drove a grass blade
sculpture. As the sculpture began to destroy itself, it began to fly apart in the studio. As chunks of metal flew through
the air, Man Ray was almost killed by a lawnmower blade that almost hit him in the head. The legend
of this work that prompted Duchamp and Man Ray to never work together again for the fear of one of their immanent deaths if
they did, inspired Tinguely’s Homage to New York.
After a divorce in 1960, Tinguely would get into a long relationship with
French artist and collaborative partner, Niki de Saint Phalle. They would get married on July 13,
1961. Although they worked independently as artists, that would also work in collaboration. The most important of their collaborative
works was Homage to Stravinsky or Stravinsky Fountain. The fun filled fountain is built up of sixteen separate sculptures that are inspired by famed Russian musician, Igor
Stravinsky’s compositions. His ballet The Firebird from 1910 was the inspiration behind the fountain. The work
fuses Saint Phalle’s fun colored sculpture and design with the animation and metal work of Tinguely. The massive work
sits next to the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, France.
The pair would continue to make various works over the years, but an event was to impact Tinguely’s life. He was
in a six-week coma due to a lung problem caused by forty years of smoking cigarettes. After he woke up he smelled smoke. A
neighbor’s barn had caught fire and burned to the ground with all of the animals inside. This was his next inspiration
and a start to a chronic obsession with death.
His next work was called The Witches (or Snow White and the Seven
Dwarfs). These eight motorized figures are made from various found metal materials: wrought iron, axles, pullies,
bicycle frames and scrap. The work also includes various fabric pieces and animal skulls. It is said that those items were
largely collected from the site of that burnt farm. The works were animated, like most of his works, by electric motors. Like
a collection of animatronics like one could find at the mall during Christmas or Easter, the gruesome figures wobble, rotate
and move about like a set of Romantically mechanized monsters. This is obviously an odd way of looking at life and death,
and for Tinguely , the cause of death to his life.
Tinguely and Saint Phalle would eventually move from that
country home. The couple moved to an old bottle factory, called La Verrerie, that was renovated into a home and studio for
them to work. The pair worked their until Tinguely’s death in 1991.