Jean Tinguely, "Radio No. 1" (1960). Metal construction with motor. 29 ¾ x 26 ¼ x 13 ¼ inches. (All images courtesy Sperone Westwater)

Jean Tinguely, “Radio No. 1” (1960). Metal construction with motor. 29 ¾ x 26 ¼ x 13 ¼ inches. (All images courtesy Sperone Westwater)

Radio Waves: New York “Nouveau Réalisme” and Rauschenberg at Sperone Westwater is a long-overdue exhibition revolving around the enigmatic Swiss artist Jean Tinguely (1925-1991), who is best known for his self-destroying kinetic sculpture, “Homage to New York,” which imploded in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art on the night of March 18, 1960.

This event (which is the subject of Robert Breer’s delightful animated film, Homage to Jean Tinguely’s “Homage to New-York,” 1960, also on display) signaled to Robert Rauschenberg that Tinguely was a kindred spirit, and the two artists, who were introduced by a heavyweight lineup of Dore Ashton, Marcel Duchamp and Richard Huelsenbeck, began a long friendship.

All of the artworks in the show, which also includes pieces by Niki de Saint Phalle, Per Olof Ultvedt, Martial Raysse and Arman, were gifts to Rauschenberg or exchanges with him. There are also a few works of his own that he kept in his personal collection for the special meaning they held for him, such as the sound-activated kinetic sculpture “Dry Cell” (1963) or the prop shoes  — encased by Arman in polyester resin bricks — he wore in an Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T) performance of “Map Room II” (1965).

“Radio Waves” installation view: from left, Jean Tinguely, “Saint Phalle” (1961), wooden stool, metal, and pigments, 28 ½ x 14 x 16 ½ inches; Jean Tinguely, “Untitled” (1962), metal, plastic, and electrical wire assemblage with
electric motor, 57 ½ x 20 x 18 ½ inches; Per Olof Ultvedt, “Drawing for Project” (1962), pencil on paper, 19 x 28 inches; Niki de Saint Phalle, “Element of Tir tableau pour DYLABY (Roller Skate)” (ca. 1962), painted metal and leather,
4 ¼ x 11 ¼ x 3 3/8 inches.

Also on view, and inscribed to Rauschenberg, is a rare preparatory drawing for Tinguely’s “Homage to New York,” in which a network of lines, scribbles and arrows suggests an intuitive, almost organic approach to the making of a mechanized artwork. It also provides a portal into a quality in Tinguely’s work that this concentrated exhibition, beautifully curated by David Leiber, brings to the fore: the beguiling sense of inevitability that the sculptures achieve in spite of their components’ apparent randomness.

Some of the works on display — an untitled construction from 1962 made up of nothing more than a pole, a few wires and a motor, or “Saint Phalle” (1961), a “portrait” consisting of a paint-spattered stool and a twist of wire — would be challenging in their ungainly, minimal gestures if encountered in a Bushwick gallery today.

Others, such as an untitled, feather-and-steel-bedecked brick from 1962, or the ramshackle “Radio No. 1” (1960), seem to presage the animated mechanical characters found in the films of Jan Švankmajer or the Quay Brothers.

“Radio No. 1,” which gives the exhibition its title, is a working (if, at the moment, non-operational) radio that exults in the chaotically DIY lo-tech jumble of its constituent parts. It is a visual object, full of wires, wheels and tubes, that takes its form from what it does — its beauty lying in the tangled steps leading to its functionality.

Nouveau Réalisme, according to an essay by Jean Paul Ameline excerpted in the exhibition’s color brochure, is a term for artworks that “were presented as closely as possible to their reality, as John Cage had already sought to do in 1949 in order ‘to change the way of seeing, to open the eyes, to make us see what is there to see, not more.’”

It is more than appropriate to invoke Cage at this point (whose own work with random radio signals is well known), in that the deceptive innocence and whimsy of “Radio No. 1” and the other pieces in this show mirror the simple measures Cage took to open music to a sound-world that’s too bristling, elaborate and unpredictable for conventional forms to contain.

Nouveau Réalisme invites us to examine the mottled, abraded, knotty mess we call reality, and Tinguely’s works of construction and destruction, augmented by the dimensions of time and motion, are compact chunks of that immeasurable beauty.  They are also a timely recurrence of a ragged, ageless radicalism that greets transience — of art, of humankind — with an existential shrug.

Radio Waves: New York “Nouveau Réalisme” and Rauschenberg continues at Sperone Westwater (257 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through November 2.

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Thomas Micchelli

Thomas Micchelli is an artist, writer, and co-editor of Hyperallergic Weekend.