530 West 21st Street, New York
November 6-December 19, 2015
by MARK BLOCH, FEB. 2016
The discovery of nineteen magical, noisy, undulating machine-works by Jean Tinguely at Barbara Gladstone in Chelsea at holiday time was refreshing. Perhaps I had visited one too many shows of predictable, uninspiring contemporary art in the neighborhood. But simply entering the spacious 21st Street, 21st century gallery made me an unexpected witness to art as well as life, traveling almost in unison, in gentle pursuit of each other, not overwhelmingly, not a cause for indigestion or exhaustion, but in a simple, pleasant but mischievous game of cat and mouse from another era. The jerky, playful motions of the Swiss-born Tinguely’s contraptions were the perfect antidote to corny window displays on Fifth Avenue and The Art of Our Time seen all over town. These Tinguely machines made between 1954 and 1991 cured my art world blues.
Scooter (1960) was just that—a scooter with a single wheel rotated by a motor concealed in a helmet base. The Swiss-branded Raichle Nr.1 (1974) was a pair of ski boots topped with shears snipping away at the air. These pieces similarly wielded an anarchic, satirical attitude via their use of slightly wrong familiar articles while Trüffelsau (1984), featured less familiar materials. The skull of a boar with its jaw chomping and a driftwood tail rotating slowly should have been cause for consternation but were not.
Even a young 8 year-old girl already in the gallery with her father when I arrived seemed to understand that this was art created for amusement and fun. These were machines as well-made as any other the little girl had probably ever seen but with a perplexing purpose: to have no agenda other than their own ability to enchant; to be visual but not static if she chose to engage with them.
That left the delighted child, her father, the other gallery goers and me on a level playing field: there was nothing us to do but step on the foot operated buttons that were randomly placed around the gallery, near the contraptions they playfully controlled and surrender to our smiles.
The giant, undulating L’Odalisque (1989) was a 6-part composition, one of Tinguely’s signature light fixtures creating confounding complications. There were at least four other lamp pieces from the late 70s and early 1980s, all employing whimsical combinations of colorful lights and colorful feathers. The gallery not only spun, buzzed and whizzed, it also glowed and shined.
This month, Dada celebrates its centennial. One hundred years after its birth in Zurich (like Tinguely, born in Switzerland), we are still feeling the recombinant reverberations of that rebellious art movement just as Dada-“ism” itself was still reeling a few years later, from an upheaval set in motion by the tinkering of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso at the turn of the century, in which they began to glue down pieces of newspapers and other found materials, erasing boundaries between art and life in what they called Cubism. Unbeknownst to the pair, they were embarking on an expandable 20th century voyage that would be all about collage; all about new combinations of old things; all about turning readymade life into objects of art, whether it was, with the pointing of an artist’s finger, “choosing” an object to be art or via the addition of a commercial sign-maker’s painting of a pointing finger to a fine art canvas already in progress. By the time that century was over, all of us had the license to be an artist and many had responded to the challenge. Mash-ups of existing art and new art forms in the “Intermedia” cracks between more established others have been all the rage ever since.
I bring up Cubism when we are discussing the birth of Dada and, more to the point, Tinguely because, for their accomplishment, Arthur Danto called Picasso and Braque “the Wright Brothers of a new artistic era.” It reminds me of the 1912 Paris Salon d’Aviation when Marcel Duchamp remarked to Constantin Brancusi and Fernand Léger, looking at a striking fabrication innocently presented for its utilitarian qualities, "Who can do better than this propeller? Tell me, can you?" And that reminds me of Tinguely.
Duchamp, Brancusi and Léger were browsing the aviation show when they happened upon the aeroplane prop display. The carved-wood form convinced Duchamp that painting was “washed up.” Duchamp, already making analytic cubist paintings about machines in muted browns and grays, created and “chose” his Bicycle Wheel the next year, 1913, while fifteen years later Brancusi responded to the propeller with Bird in Space (1928). Léger recalled “Marcel, who was a dry type with something inscrutable about him, walked around the motors and propellers without saying a word. Suddenly he turned to Brancusi,” and made his comment which could also be linked to Léger’s own paintings heralding the machine age, even including propellers, in 1918.
So if Picasso and Braque were the Wright Brothers, as Danto said in The Madonna of the Future: Essays in a Pluralistic Art World, and Leger. Brancusi and Duchamp circling the aviation show, were three “Magi”–a triad of prophets each on a mission, each motivated by their own aesthetic concerns but collectively destined to turn Modern Art on its head like characters in a fable, what of Tinguely? His position has become wedged between late Surrealism and AbEx. Along with the Art Brut of Jean Dubuffet and his fellow Kinetic artist Calder, Tinguely remains important and well known but has spawned no discernable “school.”
Yet Tinguely was a largely unacknowledged reference point for Fluxus, the Dada-influenced collective, in the form of Joe Jones' self-playing "symphonies," Nam June Paik’s video installations and more directly his robots, the contraptions of French trixter Jean Dupuy and Tinguely even evokes James Tenney’s and Alison Knowles’ creation House of Dust, but only when we hear it (rightly) described as of the world’s first “computer generated poem.” Indeed, perhaps all video, computer-generated and even light-based installations owe a digital tip of the mechanical hat to Tinguely.
From Tatlin to Ant Farm to Mark Pauline, the creator of Survival Research Laboratories in San Francisco (and GX Jupitter-Larsen who created their soundtracks) to Genesis P. Orridge’s Temple of Psychic Youth, there exists a rich history of art with origins in the movements that emerged in the 1910s: not just Dada but also Constructivism. From Louise Bourgeois to Rauschenberg to Jason Rhoades, from yet another Swiss artist, H. R. Giger, to the very American Burning Man festival, art and entertainment as Spectacle reveal subtle and not-so-subtle hints of Tinguely’s sublime but giant hand-made gizmos.
If there had to be a list of followers cobbled together who have “borrowed” from Tinguely it would include artists as diverse as Sam Kusack, Angela Bulloch, Rebecca Horn, Jon Kessler, Tim Lewis, Miltos Manetas, Steven Pippin, Antoine Zgraggen, Andreas Zybach, and even Olafur Eliasson; not to mention the spin paintings of Damien Hirst.
But unlike so much contemporary art that tries too hard, the anti-utilitarian constructions of Tinguely took their cues from Dada, not just in whimsy but also simplicity. Tinguely’s journey mocks the potential of technology to improve life. His is an elegant journey from idealized modern machinery into the realm of clunky Rube Goldberg-like contraptions that do nothing but spin and rumble for their own sake.
Tinguely physically manifested Duchamp’s and Tristan Tzara’s Dada opposition to the paradigm of Science as Utopia. The much younger Tinguely matched every nuance of the oeuvre that the Dada collective created with mechanical and optical counterpunches, elevating play and humor in collaboration with movement to perform a highly skeptical cultural critique without words.
Dada had pointed to the disarray lurking beneath the thin membrane we call civilization. Then in the 1950s, Jean Tinguely, under the spell of Duchamp, pushed the boundaries of Dada to make challenging, outrageous, and engaging artworks out of the stuff of modern life: powered by old motors from 78rpm phonographs, Tinguely’s sculptures either entertained or agitated audiences with their unpredictable and non-repeating movements. His dynamic constructions of chance, accident, and inconsistency-made-manifest hobbled into the future like a grandfather clock on the fritz.
Speaking of clocks, in this show the earliest work on view was the 1954 Meta Malevich relief, constructivist white geometric shapes in front of a black background propelled by a hidden pulley and rubber band system moving in non-repeating arrangements reminiscent of a clock that trumpets the movements of a picture plane instead of time.
Jean Tinguely (May 22, 1925 – August 30, 1991) was born in Fribourg, Switzerland. Two months later passing through Bulle with his mother he arrived in Basel where he grew up, attending school until he was 16 and then beginning an apprenticeship as a decorator. In 1944 he attended a general trade school and three years later moved into the circle around Basel anarchist Heiner Koechlin. Tinguely married fellow Swiss artist Eva Aeppli at age 26 and moved to France with her the following year to pursue careers in art.
A landmark exhibition of “kinetic art” called Le Mouvement at Galerie Denise Rene in Paris in 1955 attracted a wide international following for the new experiences with looking and more viewer interactivity it created. Traditional, handcrafted, static objects gave way to optical illusions and mechanical motion. While Tinguely was interested in employing actual movement, a split occurred when Victor Vasarely, trained by the Bauhaus and a career in advertising, promoted the optical effects and the illusion of movement that became the “Op Art” movement. His strategic grid-like arrangement of blacks and whites produced flickering in the eye and the brain and quickly attracted disciples such as Bridget Riley.
Meanwhile, Tinguely's Métamatics were machines in turn that produced their own art works, offering an alternative to the existing art structure and a broader post-war interest in redefining art by questioning the role of the artist as genius and critiquing the excessive commercialization of art and artists’ personalities as products. With this series of works Tinguely produced drawings that almost parodied mid-century gestural abstraction via a motor-driven arm that holds drawing tools of the viewer’s choosing against a piece of paper. The result, a random composition of lines and dots in colors chosen by the user, was taken seriously. Even Hans Hartung, whose gestural art was similar to the “product” being churned out, came to have a look.
The first major exhibition of these works took place in 1959 at the famous Galerie Iris Clert in Paris, which included a competition with jurists such as the Dada Jean Arp as well as Yves Klein and Pierre Restany who would figure in Tinguely’s next incarnation but only after these Métamatics widened Tinguely’s career outside of Europe. Four thousand drawings were pumped out and over five thousand people attended the exhibition. This led to Tinguely’s first U.S. exhibition in 1960 of five of the Métamatic sculptures at the Staempfli Gallery in New York.
His most famous Métamatic, no 17, was created especially for the 1959 Paris Biennale. This piece, powered by an engine, served as a prototype for what followed, including his self-destroying Homage to New York (1960), that he built and then only partially self-destructed in the garden of the MoMA but which created a cause célèbre and sealed his reputation as a major art world figure.
Tinguely was also one of the legendary artists who signed the New Realist's manifesto (Nouveau réalisme) in 1960. The term was first used when Restany wrote the original manifesto for the group, titled the "Constitutive Declaration of New Realism," in April 1960, proclaiming, “new ways of perceiving the real" to describe the works of Jean Tinguely as well as others exhibiting their work in the Apollinaire Gallery in Milan. Tinguely and the others who signed it including Yves Klein, Arman, Martial Raysse, Pierre Restany, Daniel Spoerri, and three Ultra-Lettrists, Francois Dufrêne, Raymond Hains, Jacques de la Villeglé, were joined in 1961 by César, Mimmo Rotella, and Gérard Deschamps as well as Tingueley’s future wife, Niki de Saint Phalle, becoming France’s unique version of both Pop and Fluxus. Christo also showed with the group before he bridged the gap and moved to the USA.
While Pop flourished, Nouveau réalisme lost momentum after the death of Yves Klein in 1962 and the group was dissolved in 1970. One year later, Tinguely married Niki de Saint Phalle. His previous marriage, which lasted nine years and produced a daughter, Miriam, ended in 1960. By 1963 he and de Saint Phalle had bought a house south of Paris, doing their own work as well as collaborating for 30 years.
In 1991 at the age of 66, Tinguely died after a heart illness in the Bern Hospital. Ms. de Saint Phalle continued to look after his legacy until her own death in 2002.
In October of 2016, an exhibition of sculptures including Tinguely’s “meta-matic” drawing machines will be on view along with his graphic works and artist’s books at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Tinguely remains one of Switzerland’s favorite sons with an immense Tinguely Museum in Basel which shows his own work as well that of de Saint Phalle, Duchamp, Picabia and other kindred spirits.
In our era of links to elephants making art that sells or contentious social media threads about the assistants of Hirst and Jeff Koons unashamedly churning out blue chip masterpieces, why has this art of machines faded from view? Tinguely’s art happens when the machine is running, making his works shine, twinkle and writhe with a love of life, with black humor as well as wit and poetry. After fifty years of Fluxus boxes with surprises inside, inspired by the farts, bells and whistles of musical jokes by Spike Jones and Bugs Bunny popping up (under glass) all over New York, and with the 100th anniversary of Dada on the horizon, thanks to Barbara Gladstone for priming the familiar, but largely forgotten, playful Tinguely pump as just the mechanical catalyst we need to pluck us from our pre-Holiday post-Post-Modern existential misery. WM
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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