Settling in Paris in 1953, the artist produces his first machines, mobile, ironic and absurd works of art. Kinetic constructions, sculptures made of iron and ramshackle reliefs mark the early years of his artistic career. Tinguely becomes friends with the famous art historian Pontus Hulten, who will support the artist and years later mount the most extensive retrospective ever devoted to him.
In 1958 he does his first collaborations with Yves Klein, with whom he founds the New Realists group in 1960. He constructs his Méta-matics, automatic drawing machines run by an internal combustion engine that spits out its fury in plumes of smoke. The same year, pushing to its logical conclusion his conception of the work of art that springs from life and movement and goes towards death through destruction, he pieces together in the courtyard of New York’s Museum of Modern Art a backfiring, self-destructive machine called Hommage à New York (Homage to New York). This assemblage of bicycle wheels, found objects and scrap metal bursts apart after thirty minutes of wildly uncontrolled movements.
Around the same time he also begins a long relationship, both passionate and professional, with the sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle, whom he had met in 1955. Tinguely creates a world of fantasy in metal, machines that function only for themselves, for the pointless and pleasant contemplation of their movements, for the rattle of their dance. His sculptures are akin to the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art, which simultaneously engages hearing, seeing, touch and even smell.
Through his work on machines, Tinguely seizes on some of the mythologies of our postindustrial world, roughs them up, brings them to light and points up the poetry in them. Jean Tinguely died in 1991, leaving behind an immense body of work which is regularly exhibited around the world in such prestigious museums as London’s Tate Gallery, Dusseldorf’s Museum Kunst Palast and Paris’s Georges Pompidou Centre. Basel is home to the museum dedicated to his work, which opened in 1996.