Jean Tinguely was born May 22, 1925, in Fribourg, Switzerland. After finishing school, he started an apprenticeship as shop-window decorator in a department store in Basel. From 1941 to 1945, Tinguely studied at the Arts and Crafts School Basel. During his studies, he had already started to focus on spatial movement as a theme, inspired by modernist projects in the context of Dada and Bauhaus. He was especially interested in the technical possibilities of an artistic fashioning of movement. The automatized creation of pictures was as fascinating to him as machine-driven, kinetic sculptures, and he started to develop special electric motors. In 1952, Tinguely moved to Paris with his first wife Eva Aeppli. He remained in Paris until 1968, when he moved to a former tavern in Neyruz, in the canton of Fribourg. After a fire destroyed the house, Tinguely moved his studio to a former bottle factory in La Verrerie, canton of Fribourg.
In 1954, Tinguely had his first solo exhibition at the Paris Gallery Arnaud. Early on, he engaged in new contacts and in friendships with numerous artists working in Paris at the time, for example, with Constantin Brancusi and, in 1955, with Niki de Saint Phalle who was to become his partner. Together with Yves Klein, he exhibited at the Gallery Iris Clert and, in 1958, showed Vitesse pure et stabilité monochrome. During his years in Paris, Tinguely also met members of the artist group ZERO whose involvement with serial picture arrangements, light structures, and dynamic spatial constructions was a familiar artistic domain for Tinguely.
In 1959, Tinguely participated in the Paris Biennale. His fantasy machines with programmed random elements, the socalled Métamatics – shown in Paris for the first time in 1959 – caused quite a sensation, last but not least, because of their deafening noise. Tinguely accompanied the astonishing, sometimes hulking, monumental objects with the manifesto »For Structural Statics« which he dropped from a plane flying over Düsseldorf. In the manifesto, he formulated his credo of mobility: »Everything moves, there is no standstill. Don’t let yourself be ruled by notions of time that are outmoded. Away with hours, seconds, and minutes. Stop resisting changeability. BE WITHIN TIME – BE STATIC, BE STATIC – WITH THE MOVEMENT. For statics. In the present that is happening NOW. (…) Quit building cathedrals and pyramids that crumble like candy. Breathe deeply, live NOW, live on and in time. For a beautiful and absolute reality!« Tinguely’s solidly built machines with their absurd repertoire of movement develop a life of their own, never showing themselves in the same way. They perform activities and movements that seem purposeful at first and thus lead the viewer astray. They may, however, also act in self-destructive ways, which shows the fluid transition from Object Art to Tinguely’s political, action-oriented forms of expression. One example was the group of sculptures entitled Study for an End of the World No. 2 that destroyed itself right in front of the audience in the Nevada desert.
In the early 1960s, Tinguely belonged, next to Arman, François Dufrêne, Raymond Hains, Yves Klein, and Daniel Spoerri to the co-founders of the artist group Nouveau Réalisme which became known mostly through the work of art critic Pierre Restany. In their manifesto, collectively published in 1960, the artists advocated a »new realism,« which they saw as a constructive continuation of Dada. Objects of urban, industrial everyday life and of the advertising world, scrap metal and found objects, were integrated into assemblages and installations in order to provide immediate access to social reality. Together with Robert Rauschenberg, Tinguely also participated in international Happenings. His works were shown at the exhibition »The Machine« at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1966), and he did the Swiss pavilion at the world fair in Montreal (1967, Requiem pour une feuille morte). Together with Niki des Saint Phalle, he also did the French pavilion: Le Paradis fantastique. With the 1968 exhibition »Dada, Surrealism and their Heritage« at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, he became known to a large public.
Tinguely’s constructions, made of welded iron parts, should be perceived as multi-layered. They not only follow the demanding and future-oriented impetus characterizing the artist’s short manifesto on movement and mobility. They also, in playful ways, represent cheerful and ironic comments on principles of causality, functionality, and on the economy of means at a time ruled by technology. According to this approach, Tinguely also persistently followed diverse strategies to expand established notions of art. He was fascinated by the idea of artistic collaboration and also called upon the audience’s participation in his works. A demonstration of this principle of collaborative artistic work was Le Cyclop in Milly-la-Forêt. Started in 1969, the monumental walk-in plastic emerged over the years in collaboration with Bernhard Luginbühl, Larry Rivers, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Daniel Spoerri. It was only completed in 1987 with the help of Tinguely’s assistants Josef Imhof and Rico Weber. Tinguely’s open and experimentally oriented notion of art also characterized his interaction with the audience. In the context of the exhibition »Débricollages« at the Zurich Galerie Bischofberger, he insisted on a specific form of audience participation by telling them to create their own work of art.
Among Tinguely’s works, his many sculptural and fountain projects in public squares and gardens – since the 1960s, mostly realized together with Niki de Saint Phalle or Bernhard Luginbühl – occupy a special position. The collaborative project of a walk-in female figure, a functional, ideal image of a woman, for example, links the respective focuses of the artist couple: Saint Phalle’s idea of the Nana, the colorful, voluptuous figure, and Tinguely’s interest in spatial sculptures and objects. It is the largest of Saint Phalle’s figures and is located at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm (Hon (She), 1966), with Per Olof Ultvedt as a third collaborator in the project. Tinguely realized his specific interest through his ironic outfitting of the figure’s interior with a cinema, a love-niche in the leg, a milk-bar in the breast, and a mechanical uterus in the belly. After projects like the Große Spirale or Doppel-Helix (Large Spiral or Double Helix) in the courtyard of the Institute for Immunology of the F. Hoffmann-La Roche AG (1971 — 73) in Basel, the monumental plastic Chaos No. 1 at the Civic Mall of Columbus, (1973 — 75), and the Fasnachtsbrunnen in Basel (Basel Carnival Fountain, 1977), Tinguely again engaged in collaborative works with Saint Phalle . One of these works is the well-known La Fontaine Stravinsky in Paris (1980/81) that has become a landmark for its location next to the Centre-Pompidou. Another example is the Fontaine Château-Chinon, commissioned by the French President and realized by the two artists in 1988.
Tinguely participated in the Documenta 3, 4, and 6, from 1964 to 1977. First large retrospectives took place in 1982/83, for example at the Zürcher Kunsthaus, at the Tate Gallery in London, at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, and at the Venician Palazzo Grassi (Große Meta Maxi-Maxi Utopia / Big Méta Maxi-Maxi Utopia).Tinguely’s last exhibition was »Nachtschattengewächse« (»Solanaceae«) at the Kunsthaus Wien.
Jean Tinguely died on August 30, 1991, in Bern, and Niki de Saint Phalle dedicated her kinetic sculptures, the Meta-Tinguelys, to him. In 1996, the Museum Tinguely opened in Basel.
Museum Jean Tinguely Basel, 2 Bde., Bern 1996
Violand-Hobi, H. E., Jean Tinguely. Biographie und Werk, München 1995
Jean Tinguely – A Magic Stronger than Death: Ausst.-Kat., hg. v. P. Hulten, Palazzo Grassi Venedig, London 1987
Jean Tinguely: Ausst.-Kat. Kunsthalle der Hypo-Stiftung, München 1985
Bischofberger, C.: Jean Tinguely, Werkkatalog Skulpturen und Reliefs, 1954 — 1968, Küsnacht/Zürich 1982