If you’ve visited the Carillon Tower on West Trade Street, you’ve likely been delighted or perplexed – maybe both – by “Cascade,” Swiss artist Jean Tinguely’s enormous sculpture that dominates the lobby.
“Celebrating Jean Tinguely and Santana,” now on view a few blocks away at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, is worth seeing whether you know nothing about this pioneer of kinetic art or crave a deeper understanding of his work.
Tinguely (the pronunciation varies, depending on your native language, but ‘tang-glee’ won’t embarrass you) is best known for his machine-like sculptures. And while the machines are the stars of this exhibition, they are few in number, since most are too fragile or big to transport.
Prints, drawings, works from fellow artists and more round out the show. Along with copious wall text, they present a compelling – if not always flattering – picture of the artist and his work.
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Curator Jennifer Sudul Edwards brought her love of collage and expertise on Niki de Saint Phalle, Tinguely’s longtime romantic and creative partner, to bear on this exhibition, providing a refreshing perspective on Tinguely’s work.
If you’re a Bechtler regular, you’re familiar with its displays of artists’ correspondence and doodads. Here, a particularly lovely wall includes personal notes and exhibition announcements that have elements of collage, an art form Tinguely was introduced to by Saint Phalle. The influence of collage can be seen in his later machines, in which seemingly random objects are pulled together to create something entirely new.
While the machines here are small in number, they are great in range, from an elegant early work to absurd later ones.
“Meta-Malevich,” from 1954, which incorporates clock elements, is quiet and subtle. It is dramatically different from the later machines, such as “Le Buffle” (1989-90) and “L'exécution” (1990), which entertain and provoke.
“Santana” (1966) is visually refined, but intense when in motion. Unlike the other machines, which repeat the same limited motion, it has a spontaneous, interactive quality. If you press the button briefly, its movements are jittery, but if you continue pressing, the wheel at its center spins at an almost scary speed. Only a committed viewer will get the full effect.
Tinguely used the finest motors he could buy, but otherwise, his machines are made mostly of salvaged materials: animal skulls, pulleys, bells, horns, carriage wheels among them. Much of this is held together with tape, which in these works is a much-loved art material, not an afterthought.
Video/film is an important component of the show, giving viewers access to works that cannot travel or no longer exist. One of Tinguely’s méta-matic machines is not here in the flesh, but there is an engrossing video, supplemented by actual tokens used to operate the machine and a drawing it created.
With its fire, smoke and stench, “Homage to New York” was a stunning and hilarious display of ambition, mayhem and willful obliviousness. But it also had a deeper meaning ...
D.A. Pennebaker’s film “Breaking it Up at the Museum: Jean Tinguely’s ‘Homage to New York’ ” is essential viewing. Just six minutes long, it documents the March 17, 1960, debut and demise of one of Tinguely’s self-destructing machines. With its fire, smoke and stench, “Homage to New York” was a stunning and hilarious display of ambition, mayhem and willful obliviousness. But it also had a deeper meaning: It was an expression of Tinguely’s frustration with American art institutions and their collective condescension toward European artists.
In addition to the five machines by Tinguely are two by North Carolinians. A wonderfully weird scale model of “Cascade,” built by local model maker Gene Hopkins, sits in the museum lobby, where it will remain on permanent display.
And then there is Asheville sculptor Hoss Haley’s impressive “Drawing Machine.” Growing up on a farm, Haley had long been interested in machines, but seeing Tinguely and Saint Phalle’s “Stravinsky Fountain” in Paris inspired him to incorporate them into his work. Because this massive work is motion-activated and Haley tweaks it every time it is presented in a new location, it has an element of chance or inconsistency, making it an appropriate complement to Tinguely’s work.
This show has a lot to take in, which sometimes makes for a baggy viewing experience. But there is so much richness, inspiration … and fun. Bring your friends, be entertained – but be mindful of the depth beneath the humor.
‘Celebrating Jean Tinguely’
“Celebrating Jean Tinguely and Santana” is on view through Sept. 10 at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art; bechtler.org; 704-353-9200. (Note: Some of the machines are operated by museum staff for limited times; others are viewer-operated. You can view everything in motion at 3:30 p.m. on Fridays.)