Ways to support us
About The Art Story a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Org
Jean Tinguely Photo

Jean Tinguely

Swiss Sculptor and Painter

Born: May 22, 1925 - Fribourg, Switzerland
Died: August 30, 1991 - Bern, Switzerland
"Currently, my machines are black and sometimes gentle, if not sexy or exuding a contained violence; I finally found the technical means for accomplishing this."
1 of 6
Jean Tinguely Signature
"You can't expect the end of the world to end the way you want it to."
2 of 6
Jean Tinguely Signature
"I am an artist educated by Duchamp."
3 of 6
Jean Tinguely Signature
"The world has been experiencing a whole pattern of auto-destruction. Whether in environmental disasters like Chernobyl or health disasters like AIDS."
4 of 6
Niki de Saint Phalle Signature
"To an engineer, good enough means perfect. With an artist, there's no such thing as perfect."
5 of 6
Alexander Calder Signature
"The freedom of every artist is essential."
6 of 6

Summary of Jean Tinguely

Jean Tinguely first began creating assemblages composed of found-objects, but soon thereafter, intrigued by the current debate regarding the effect of mechanization and industrial innovation on modern society, he completely altered these static works by putting them into motion. Tinguely was intrigued by the effect of these moving constructions on the spectator and devoted the rest of his career to its exploration. The resultant oeuvre, on both a small and large scale, in works that generated corollary works of art and those that self-destructed, instigated spectator reaction and forever challenged the concept of a static experience of viewing art.


  • Tinguely updated the Dada practice of creating sculptural assemblage composed of found-objects, most often scrap metal that might easily have been considered junk, by actually mechanizing them. The revolutionary step of putting a work of art into motion would become known as Kinetic Art.
  • Also following the lead of Dada artists, who used various means to make fun of society, Tinguely's mechanized creations were intended to mock the "improvements" of the industrial revolution and modern reliance on technology.
  • Tinguely challenged the assumption of the artist's monopoly on creation with his metamatics, mechanized assemblages fitted with a drawing stylus chosen by any given spectator. The works of art that resulted were given significance on their own, separate to that of the original construction.
  • The self-destructing assemblages took the concepts explored in his earlier mechanized sculptures to a new level. Providing an actual spectacle for the viewers, a one-off experience with a defined beginning and end intended not only to be seen but in addition, to evoke their reaction, these assemblages illustrate Tinguely branching out into more interactive art whose effect simulates a performance.

The Life of Jean Tinguely

<i>Heureka</i> sculpture on the shores of Lake Zurich by Jean Tinguely in Switzerland

Declaring, "The only stable thing is movement," Jean Tinguely pioneered Kinetic Art. He was also a leader of many other artistic directions in his powerfully prolific, creative life.

Important Art by Jean Tinguely

Progression of Art

Metamechanical Sculpture with Tripod

Tinguely used the term "Metamechanics" to describe how he set his assemblage sculptures into motion with some form of motor or system of mechanics. The artist's development of this field, otherwise known as Kinetic art, is exemplified by Metamechanical Sculpture with Tripod. In this early example the artist assembles simple, found objects of the type elevated to artistic status by the Dada artists by whom he was influenced earlier. Wire wheels, to which are connected organically-shaped flat cardboard pieces, painted white on one side and black on the other, are strategically intertwined with stick-straight elements in an interlocking system. The assemblage is balanced above an iron tripod, whose legs echo the linearity of the straight elements assembled above, and the whole fragile assemblage is set into motion. The piece stands nearly 7 feet tall, making its effect quite impressive.

The idea to put assemblages such as this into movement was significant as it evoked an interactive relationship between the spectator and the object. No longer looking at a static collection from a fixed point but instead, moving around in order to get a better look at which parts of the construction were moving, the spectator's experience was actually integrated into the overall effect of the work itself.

Interestingly enough, although the work seems to laud the overall effect of mechanization, by expanding its effect on the spectator, there is some suggestion that instead, it exhibits Dada skepticism regarding the potential of technology to improve human life. By taking on human aspects, simulating limbs that move, for example, the mechanized assemblage itself challenges the concept that machines are necessarily superior to human beings, questioning whether mechanization is actually progress.

Steel, plastic, cardboard, mechanical motor - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom


Metamatic, no. 17

Metamatic, no. 17 was created especially for the 1959 Paris Biennale. It is a sculptural work composed of a number of differently-shaped found objects, primarily black metal wires, wheels, belts, cogs and crank-shafts - all driven by a small engine. When mechanized, the elements - irregular in nature - rotate in different directions and at varying speeds; their movement is bumpy and jagged.

This work is an excellent example of Tinguely's Kinetic artwork and pushes even further his interest in involving the spectator. The viewer is invited to choose a drawing tool (color, charcoal, or pencil) and place it in the special holder mounted on the assemblage. Paper can be seen cascading down the side of the structure, suspended from above an elevated section of the work. When put into motion, the turning wheels would activate the chosen drawing tool, moving it along a piece of paper. The result would be a work of art in itself. The artwork created was of a necessarily unforeseen nature, differing each and every time, and directly affected by the random movement of the asymmetrical mechanical device.

Tinguely's Metamatic, no. 17 altered the already challenging nature of his earlier metamechanical works by introducing a product directly affected by the spectator. No longer just watching a process, the viewer, by choosing an artistic instrument, plays a role in the creation of an entirely new work of art. In effect, the artist's work challenged the centuries-old tradition of artistic creation: taking part of the art-making out of the hands of the artist and placing it in those of the spectator. Beyond blurring the line of the role of the artist/viewer, here we see the beginnings of interactive art, a practice that is now highlighted by dozens of artists and takes center stage at many museums.

De Lairesse, Amsterdam


Homage to New York

On March 18, 1960, Tinguely unveiled what would later be considered his most famous work in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A number of artists and engineers collaborated on the project, including Robert Rauschenberg. The massive sculpture stood twenty-seven feet tall, was twenty-three feet wide, and was painted primarily white. Built out of various pieces of metal, bicycle parts, self-operating motors, a go-cart, a bathtub, a piano, all jutting out into space at odd angles and creating an absolute tangle of abstract forms. The original idea was to set the mechanized elements into motion, allow the audience to watch and figure out its changing path of movement, and then set off an explosion that would destroy it. The work was to be a masterpiece of self-destructing Kinetic art. However, 27 minutes into the premiere, one of the processes within the moving parts misfired and sparked a flame that engulfed the entire machine in a blazing fire. The spectacle to which this esteemed audience (including the Governor of New York) was subjected became as much a part of the artistic experience as the original work itself.

The launch of this intricate, self-destructing sculpture changed the nature of Tinguely's art. Although he had already harnessed active viewer interaction in his Metamatics, this work's significance was to be even further enhanced by the experience of being present as it self-destructed. In total, the work was to assume an alternative symbolism, suggesting, for example the organic nature of New York City - known for both destruction and reconstruction, exhaustion and renewal.

A "fragment" of the original sculpture exists in the permanent collection of the MOMA.

Found objects, motorized elements - The Museum of Modern Art, New York


Santana Bascule

In Tinguely's Santana Bascule a thick, flat black wooden wheel attached at a point to a thin semi-circular metal piece take center stage. This sculpture is balanced by a special pedestal made of a compilation of concave metal strips that rocks from side-to-side while hurling around the central elements in an unpredictable fashion. This work differs from the artist's earlier assemblages by abandoning the more colorful found-objects, previously seen in works by Dada artists and restricting itself to an entirely black palette. The result is a far more austere, minimalistic work. The resultant movement is also more focused in nature, limited to the pivot beneath and the spinning wheel above. Like his other mechanized assemblages this one again serves as commentary on the debate regarding the effects of mechanization on modern society.

Metal, wood, mechanical motor - Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, Charlotte, NC


Stravinsky Fountain

The artistic cooperation between Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle resulted in some of the most intriguing artworks of the modernist movement. Stravinsky Fountain is an example of their successful collaboration. Located directly above the archive of Igor Stravinsky's compositions, housed in the IRCAM offices (Research Center for Contemporary Music) underground beneath the fountain, the work necessitated a specifically lightweight construction. Devoted to the composer's musical compositions, this fountain praises the achievements of creativity outside of mechanization. Completed in 1983, it features sixteen sculptural works erected above a shallow basin. Tinguely's mechanized black iron elements, many squirting water, are placed alongside, under and between Saint Phalle's more light-hearted, brightly painted, organic elements in a manner that supports but never overwhelms. They work together to create a contrapuntal rhythm, like that found in musical compositions.

Tinguely intended for the multiple elements to stick up above the surface of the water and "perform" like figures in a circus. Throughout his later years, Tinguely continued to design assemblages that specifically interacted with sources of water. Saint Phalle's use of extremely bold colors and a charismatic sense of levity on inflated anatomical elements and animal motifs characterizes her mature works.

Metal, fiberglass and various mechanical elements - Public work in Place Stravinsky, Paris, France



Cascade is a massive 40-foot mixed media sculpture, suspended above an inlaid fountain in the main lobby of the Carillon office tower in Charlotte, NC. This motorized mobile is obviously influenced by those made famous earlier by Alexander Calder. Tinguely encountered his work first in Paris and was delighted to exhibit alongside him at the Galerie Denise Rene in 1955. Calder provided inspiration for a generation of sculptors interested in Kinetic art.

Cascade features an array of found objects that slowly rotate around one another. Included are antlers, a car hood, various light bulbs, planks of wood and metal pieces. The variety, color, and haphazard nature of the collected objects suggest a return to the artist's original interest in the Dada aesthetic. Here he abandons the more subdued and minimalistic assemblage which characterized his works mid-career.

The use of numerous, interlaid mechanisms creates a busy experience for the viewer. Affecting both those who've come specifically to view the project or those walking through the corporate office building on their way to work, the assemblage reaches different strata of society. This work was commissioned by Tinguely's loyal patron, the Bechtler family, and was the last created before his death in 1991.

Various found objects, metal, wood and mechanical motors - Carillon Office Tower, Charlotte, NC


Le Cyclop

Tinguely began construction on Le Cyclop in 1969 at the Milly-la-Forêt (Milly Forest) in France. Although it's nominally a one-eyed cyclop of the kind found in Greek mythology, it's actually composed of multiple whimsical elements which negate any lingering feeling of the horror associated with its name. Included are staircases, mezzanines, and passageways; its tongue is a sliding board (almost a children's slide), which ends in a pool of water.

In the beginning, the idea was that there would be no architect or blueprint for the work other than a small model Tinguely had created in 1970. The completed structure, which eventually stood 74 feet high and weighed 350 tons, was to be an example of aesthetic collaboration by a number of artists. Like other of Tinguely's projects, its realization stretched out over the course of years, 25 to be precise, and combined the creative genius of more than ten of artists, including Arman, Cesar, Daniel Spoerri, Bernhard Luginbuhl, and Niki de Saint Phalle. Their contributions, enhancing and altering quite significantly Tinguely's original idea, include a mirrored mosaic by Saint Phalle, a huge flipper (whose activation demands two spectators) by Bernhard Luginbuhl, and a sculptural work devoted to the subject of the deportation by XXX.

Le Cyclop invites viewers to experience its numerous nooks and crannies, whether visiting the theater where the brain of the cyclop's head should be, exploring the machinery of scrap iron gears or simply making their way through the maze-like interior. The experience of the viewer is not limited to an assessment of the parts assembled but instead, includes his journey through, around and inside of the large sculpture as a whole.

Concrete, iron and a mirrored mosaic facade - Public work in Milly-la-Forêt, France

Biography of Jean Tinguely

Childhood and Education

Tinguely was born on May 22, 1925 in Fribourg, Switzerland but his family moved to Basel shortly thereafter. Being the only child of two working class parents, Tinguely spent a considerable amount of time in solitude, exploring his bucolic surroundings. In 1940, at age fifteen, he began designing storefront window displays as an apprentice. The following year he began his studies at the Kunstgewerbeschule (Arts and Crafts School), where he stayed until 1945.

Tinguely was initially influenced by artists such as Kurt Schwitters and Marcel Duchamp. In particular, he was attracted to their use of "found objects" (or objet trouves), a key component of the Dada movement. He was intrigued by the tendency to rebel against societal structures and formalities that had long existed in the art world and society at-large. Tinguely combined found- objects, of the type noted in Dada works, with the new emphasis on installation then developed within the Bauhaus Design School by artists such as Paul Klee, creating his own personal aesthetic.

Early Period

In 1951, having recently married Swiss painter and sculptor Eva Aeppli and intent on forwarding his career, Tinguely moved to Paris. He enjoyed great success there with his first solo exhibition in 1954 at the Galerie Arnaux. During this period he also participated in a number of exhibitions organized around cutting edge groups. The first was in 1951 when he showed with International Happenings. Soon thereafter he began to exhibit with a group known as ZERO that was founded by Otto Piene in Germany and aesthetically favored the notion of Minimalism. ZERO artists sought to distance themselves from the events of WWII and instead to find a context for their art based on modern society. During this period Tinguely also exhibited with Nouveaux Realisme, a group formed by Pierre Restany and Yves Klein that included works of other modern artists such as Christo, Raymond Haines, Martial Raysse and Niki de Saint Phalle.

Mature Period

Gradually Tinguely began incorporating self-operating and self-destructing elements into his work, making it a type of performance art. One example of this was a machine that mass-produced abstract paintings that debuted at the 1959 Biennale of Paris. Based on their autonomous functionality, these machines were known as "Metamatic." Tinguely's goal was to reflect the tension that existed within industrialized society regarding creativity and human expression. Critics and contemporary abstract expressionists considered these works sardonic.

Influenced by his passion for motorcar racing, Tinguely began to incorporate the idea of high risk, unpredictability into his works. Homage to New York, premiering on March 18, 1960 at the Museum of Modern Art, is the most prominent example of this interest. This set the stage for other self-destructing works like Study for an End of the World (1962) and La Vittoria (1970). Although they were composed of seemingly random found objects, oddly configured mechanisms and cacophonous sound effects, these works exhibited a sense of humor and irony. The artist viewed each piece as a living, breathing entity - speaking and moving of its own accord. Tinguely took pride in knowing that viewers could be amused by the forthright humor and playful elements he used to mask his dark commentary on mass production and the greater industrialization of society.

In keeping with his playful antics and spirit of rebellion, Tinguely participated in the Kuttlebutzer, a collective of artists that acted as the unofficial creative committee for the largest annual "Fasnacht" carnival in Basel, Switzerland. This committee of artists, known for being anti-establishment, took it upon themselves to solidify the creative direction of the festivities. Tinguely's participation, first in 1974, lasted almost twenty years.

The wit and charm of his personality manifested in his artwork helped him foster significant relationships with dignitaries and socialites that led to generous commissions and patronage opportunities. A lasting example of this is his friendship with the Bechtler family, a wealthy Swiss family whose vast art collection is on display at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in Charlotte, North Carolina. Many of the found objects that later appeared in his works, including a set of antlers, were originally seen on display at the Bechtler home.

Tinguely initially met Niki de Saint Phalle through common artistic circles. At the time they were both married to different people. Despite the significant generational gap between them and differences in social background, he was from a working-class background and she a French aristocratic family, their friendship eventually developed and led to marriage. Comparable to other artist couples of the era, they each had a strong sense of individuality, which came through on the occasions they collaborated. This was quite different from the male dominated collaborations among most of the artist couples at the time such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Christo and Jean-Claude, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner. They are known as the "Bonnie and Clyde" of modern art.

The foundation of their relationship, rooted in their shared interest in creating art, inspired many collaborative works over their decades together. One of the first major collaborations, exhibited at the Moderna Museet, consisted of a massive reclining figure of a woman - one of the several works of the theme known as 'Nanas' that Saint Phalle produced - with legs splayed enough to allow the entry of visitors. Inside the figure was a kinetic sculpture designed by Tinguely which he described as the "orgasm machine." The couple also collaborated on several other monumental sculpture installations such as the Stravinsky Fountain in Paris and Le Paradis Fantastique in Stockholm. When they weren't collaborating, the two artists helped one another with the production and installation of their respective works.

Later Period

In the 1970s, Tinguely moved back to Switzerland alone while Saint Phalle stayed in France. They would get together at her house in France when working on a collaborative project. During this period, and up until his death in 1991, he continued to produce self-destructing works as well as large public projects. In 1970, Tinguely built a gigantic phallus which he exploded outside of Milan Cathedral. Among these later works are a number of collaborations with Saint Phalle and others. As he and his wife had supported one another throughout their respective careers, it was no surprise that the same held true after his death. Niki de Saint Phalle oversaw the completion of his Le Cyclops, a massive collaborative work whose construction spanned twenty-five years, and was also responsible for donating several of his works to major museums and collections, continuing the legacy of one of the most revolutionary sculpture artists of the modern art movement.

The Legacy of Jean Tinguely

Jean Tinguely's work was part of the movement of New Realism that emerged in the 1960s and sought an alternative expression of the new world order. They tended to take bits and pieces from life and combine them in new ways in order to infuse art with new significance. They stood in opposition of figurative art and abstraction and influenced the Fluxus movement noted for synthesizing a number of media in new, innovative, and consistently energized, ways.

Tinguely's mechanization of found objects greatly influenced the British artist Arthur Ganson. Ganson's oeuvre, primarily machines created from parts put into motion, provoke viewer participation of the type noted in Tinguely's earlier works. British artist Michael Landy has taken Tinguely's self-destructing works one step further. His Break Down (2001), in which he destroyed all of his possessions, was the ultimate reflection of what Tinguely had begun to explore in his self-destructing works. Both of these artists' works embody the interaction of the viewer which Tinguely's works insisted upon, taking performance art of the nature explored by the Swiss artist to another plane.

Museum Tinguely, located in Basel, Switzerland, commemorates his legacy.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Jean Tinguely
Influenced by Artist
Open Influences
Close Influences

Useful Resources on Jean Tinguely

Similar Art

Do more

Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Caroline Igra

"Jean Tinguely Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Caroline Igra
Available from:
First published on 22 Jun 2016. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]
The Art Story
TheArtStory.org - Your Guide to Modern Art
a 501(c)3 Nonprofit