New York

View of “Jean Tinguely,” 2015. Photo: David Regan.

View of “Jean Tinguely,” 2015. Photo: David Regan.

Jean Tinguely

View of “Jean Tinguely,” 2015. Photo: David Regan.

Jean Tinguely (1925–1991) was a Swiss-born artist of singular though shifting reputation. His special place in American art owes much to his close connection, both stylistic and personal, to our great neo-Dadaists: Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. The elevation of the found object and the devotion to chance, key procedures in the work of both those artists, unexpectedly achieved an apotheosis in the tinkling piano of Tinguely’s own Homage to New York, 1960, a piece that, at its premiere in the gardens of the old Museum of Modern Art, New York, famously collapsed into flames—the unanticipated Götterdämmerung of a vital new mode.

Tinguely’s international reputation began at Galerie Arnaud, Paris, where his first Métamatic reliefs were shown in 1954. Most were black rectangles upon which tiny metal scraps of elemental geometric shapes turned slowly, transforming these abstract arrangements into new configurations. One such work, Meta-Malevich, 1954—the earliest piece in this virtual retrospective of nineteen sculptures—clarifies Tinguely’s Dadaist/Constructivist ambitions. Joshing Suprematism, the work also brings to mind the work of Tinguely’s compatriot Paul Klee, particularly the latter’s exquisite Twittering Machine, 1922. Tinguely’s insistent, at times irritating, drift toward humor never failed him, even as his works grew ever larger, more calligraphic and cacophonic, his oeuvre yielding vast agglomerations of lighting fixtures, windows, furniture, wheels, auto parts, and ornamental architectural elements—more colorful, more lit-up, more aggressively “techy,” bigger.

But bigger, as we all know, is not always better. And Tinguely’s work, moreover, eventually came to embody a signaturized mode—the status of art born of success—rarely bearing the traces of spontaneity and invention, the vivifying improvisation keyed to poverty. By the end of the 1950s, Tinguely was creating his Métamatic drawing machines that started up when a coin was dropped in, spastically marking back-and-forth scrawls. None of these are included in this show, but their inspiring trope—the machine that not only makes but is art—remained a constant through the ’80s, by which time primitivist organic material such as feathers had also entered the artist’s arsenal. For Untitled, 1990, included here, Tinguely made use of an antelope skull, as if in eerie anticipation of his own death the following year.

Much of the attraction of Tinguely’s work was underscored by the media glamour of his wife, the heiress Niki de Saint Phalle—herself an artist whose coy “Nanas” are huge multicolored doll-like creatures that today populate children’s playgrounds. Equally important was Tinguely’s grand friendship with the legendary curator Pontus Hultén; both artist and museum dynast shared the belief that abstraction should not be rarified and difficult, are hence a fearful experience for a benighted “working class,” but rather should be “fun”—as if the “blue collar” worker was ever excluded from the putative lucubration germane to modernism. This hoary canard contradicts modernism’s early efforts to speak to the “working class,” often in ways informed by rather romantic ideals (see, for instance, the Constructivists’ efforts to intervene in the class struggle). Indeed, it is the very linkage of Tinguely’s Dada Constructivism to “fun” that has led to the current discounting of his achievement. Thus, for a while, it may be difficult to see Tinguely’s work anew, to see it simply in terms of its sheer dispersed material existence and the ways in which that experience works upon us. Gladstone Gallery’s impressive selection in measure allowed for this new beginning.

Robert Pincus-Witten