Jean Tinguely
Biography of Swiss Kinetic Artist and Sculptor, Famous for "Homage to New York".

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Heureka (1966) by Jean Tinguely.
Zurich-Seefeld. This large kinetic
sculpture consists of steel wheels,
metal bars and pipes, and various
electric motors.

Jean Tinguely (1925-1991)

The Swiss sculptor and pioneer of Kinetic art Jean Tinguely was a highly ingenious individual who explored several avant-garde art movements of the 21st century, including Constructivism, as well as Neo-Dada and Surrealism. His main focus was with movement and machines, which often satirized technological civilisation. A friend of the short-lived conceptual artist Yves Klein (1928-62), Tinguely became part of the French New Realism movement in 1960. His most famous examples of abstract sculpture include Homage to New York (1960, Museum of Modern Art, New York), a self-destroying sculpture, and Stravinsky Fountain (1983, Pompidou Centre forecourt) - the latter completed in partnership with his wife, the sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002). One of the most innovative of 20th century sculptors, Tinguely pioneered the combination of junk art, kineticism and sculpture, out of which arose his quirky performance art and unpredictable happenings.

Le Cyclop (1970)

See: Art of Sculpture.

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For a list of top artists, see:
Greatest Sculptors.

Early Life

Tinguely was born in Fribourg, in 1925. He went to school in Basel, and spent much of his childhood investing the local woodlands. There, he found inspiration for his future plastic art - including the use of chance and movement, the various sounds created by speeding water and the temporary life expectancy of artwork. At the age of 15 Tinguely became an apprentice shop-window decorator. Between 1941 and 1945 he studied art at the Kunstgewerbeschule, Basel. During this period he became a fan of the Bauhaus Design School and in particular the works of Kurt Schwitters and Paul Klee. Schwitters was working in several media, including painting, sculpture, graphic design, typography and sound - what would eventually become known as installation art. In 1944 Tinguely began experimenting with movement, creating machine-like kinetic sculptures equipped with electric motors, which made them spin around at high speed. He termed the sculptures metamechaniques, or metamechanicals.

For a list of sculptors like
Jean Tinguely, see:
Modern Artists.

See: History of Sculpture.

See: Greatest Sculptures Ever.


In 1951 Tinguely moved to Paris where he joined Robert Rauschenberg's International Happenings. In 1954 he had his own first solo show at the Galerie Arnaux. He exhibited works at the 1959 Paris Biennale and associated himself with the new art group ZERO. Zero started in post-war Germany, where the notion of a 'usable' past was bitterly remote.

The artists wanted to distance themselves from recent German history, and thus declared a starting point of zero. Otto Piene pioneered the group, which soon moved throughout Europe, embracing artists like Tinguely and Klein and also Italian artists Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni. The movement shared many similarities to American Minimalism which was popular at the time. Meanwhile, Tinguely had also joined the modern art group Nouveau Realisme (New Realism) founded in 1960 by Pierre Restany and the painter Yves Klein. Inspired by Dada, Nouveau Realisme is seen (by the French) as a forerunner of Pop Art. Other members included Martial Raysse, Pierre Restany, Raymond Hains, Niki de Saint Phalle, Gérard Deschamps and the artist Christo. It was arguably one of the first movements of postmodernist art.


In 1961 Tinguely married the artist Niki de Saint-Phalle, with whom he collaborated on numerous projects, including a climbable female sculpture Hon (1966, Moderna Museet, Stockholm) and the Stravinsky Fountain (1983, Pompidou Centre forecourt). Tinguely first achieved serious recognition with his self-destructing sculptures (see below), and his monumental works for urban settings. The latter were welded together from scrap metal, and seemed to pay homage to the decline of the 19th steam engine. In 1970 he created Le Cyclop, a giant walk-in structure created with Bernhard Luginbühl, Larry Rivers, Niki de Saint Phalle and Daniel Spoerri.

Note About Sculpture Appreciation
To learn how to evaluate modernist kinetic sculptors like Jean Tinguely, see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture. For earlier works, please see: How to Appreciate Sculpture.

Self Destructing Sculptures

Tinguely also experimented with sculptures that were designed to explode, thus pioneering a type of performance art. In 1960, Homage to New York, was a sculpture which was supposed to self destruct in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art, New York - except it failed to destroy itself as programmed, and started a fire instead. In collaboration with other pioneer postmodernist artists and engineers, among them Robert Rauschenberg, Tinguely created a mechanism which performed for 27 minutes during a public performance for invited guests. In the end, the public were invited to study the remnants and take parts home as a souvenir. These works paid homage to a city that has an ability to constantly renew itself. In 1962 Study for an End of the World No. 2, blew up in the presence of an audience in the desert in Nevada. La Vittoria, was a giant golden phallus which exploded in front of Milan Cathedral, marking the 10th anniversary of the Nouveaux Realistes. The popularity of Tinguely's work owed much to his underlying wit, charm and irony.

Later Years

Tinguely's most famous work is perhaps his Stravinsky Fountain (also called the Fontaine des Automates), on Place Stravinsky, which he created with Niki de Saint-Phalle. It was created in 1980, and is situated just outside of Pompidou Centre in Paris. It features 16 whimsical moving and water-spraying sculptures, which represent themes and works by the composer Stravinsky. By now acclaimed as one of the great abstract sculptors, during the 1980s Tinguely continued to create sculpture groups, fountains and arrange exhibitions, and had exhibitions in several of the best art museums in America and Europe. He died in Bern in 1991.

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• For more about contemporary sculpture, see: Contemporary Art.

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