Jean Tinguely

(Fribourg, 1925 – Bern, 1991)


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.

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 studied painting and sculpture at the Basel School of Fine Arts from 1941 to 1945, showing an early interest in movement as an artistic medium in his work there. Growing dissatisfied with the staid artistic climate of Basel, Tinguely moved to Paris in 1953. He then began to construct his first truly sophisticated kinetic sculptures, which he termed métaméchaniques, or metamechanicals. 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. 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.

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