Jean Tinguely: useless machines and mechanical performers, 1955-1970



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This dissertation examines the cultural contexts of Jean Tinguely’s sculpture from 1955 to 1970, emphasizing the concepts of “useless machines” and mechanical performance. Chapter 1 demonstrates the roots of Tinguely’s work in an early modernist fascination with both machines as performers and with the relationship between movement, time, and space. Chapter 2 discusses his metamatic drawing machines within a specific mid-century artistic context and literary revival of interest in the absurdist painting machines of Alfred Jarry and Raymond Roussel. Chapter 3 examines Tinguely’s self-destructing sculpture Homage to New York, explicating the differing receptions of his work in Europe and the United States and establishing the impact of various misappropriations of the term Dada. Chapter 4 discusses these self-destructing mechanical performances in relation to Tinguely’s interest in anarchism as well as the highly politicized context of the 1960s. Chapter 5 examines how his fascination with the aesthetics of nineteenth-century industrial equipment and their modes of display served as a foil to the growing artistic interest in cybernetic systems, highlighting Tinguely’s deliberate use of older industrial models as a statement on contemporary society’s problematic relationship with new technologies. This text recovers the mid-century context for Tinguely’s kinetic art, with implications for the movement as a whole. Analyzing the complex web of agendas of critics and curators, this dissertation demonstrates essential differences between American and European interests. This is the first investigation of K. G. Pontus Hultén’s important role in historicizing Tinguely’s work and shaping the history of European kineticism. An examination of Marcel Duchamp’s relationship with Tinguely reveals the older artist’s unwitting position in both the promotion and criticism of kinetic art during this period. This study also underscores the political content of Tinguely’s work, showing that he was actively engaged in anarchist ideas and rhetoric, thus establishing a relevance and seriousness to his work that has previously been under-recognized.