Tinguely, de Saint Phalle and Rauschenberg,1961,Shunk-Kender ©  Roy Lichtenstein Foundation

On the occasion of the exhibition “Robert Rauschenberg: Gluts” organized by the Peggy Guggenheim Collection Venice, the Tinguely Museum in Basel also presents the collaborations between Robert Rauschenberg and Jean Tinguely. The fiery iconoclasts shared the belief that life and art should be closely connected. Their joint projects in the sixties, which combined different art forms, sent shock waves through the art world.

There are currently at least three reasons to visit the Tinguely Museum in the heart of Basel. The first one is that the museum currently hosts an exhibition presented by the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice on “Gluts”, Rauschenberg’s ironic 3D commentaries on the excesses of consumerism.

During a visit to his native Texas at the height of the petrol crisis in the mid-eighties, Rauschenberg was struck by the grim effects of a recession brought on by a an overproduction in the oil market. He decided to use the very symbols of excessive consumption to build works of art.

Using discarded traffic signs, bikes, street name plaques and hubcaps salvaged from scrap yards, he built wall and free-standing sculptures in the late eighties and early nineties, around 40 of which are shown in Basel, many of them of paradoxal grace.

“It’s a time of glut. Greed is rampant. I’m just exposing it, trying to wake people up,” he commented to explain the title of his works. He died just over a year ago, but his observations remain strangely topical.

The second and perhaps most important reason to visit Basel is the display physically wrapped inside the space dedicated to “Gluts”: as if to explain Rauschenberg’s artistic genesis a quarter of a century earlier. The Collaboration of Jean Tinguely and Robert Rauschenberg documents the joint projects of the two artists who were renowned as junkyard enthusiasts, but who were purveyors of total art as well.

“Both artists were looking to collaborate with other artists. They wanted to achieve multi-sensory experiences in order to bring art closer to life and reality” says Annja Müller-Alsbach, who co-curated “Collaborations” with the recently-appointed director of the TInguely Museum, Roland Wetzel.

Key events in the history of modern art have been skillfully documented by the curators. In 1960, Jean Tinguely was invited by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York to build “Homage to New York” an elaborate kinetic construction the size of a room that was to “commit suicide” in the sculpture garden of the museum.

Homage to New York

Rauschenberg contributed the lucky-charm mascot, a toaster that cheerfully popped silver dollars into the audience, which, not surprisingly, were never to be seen again.

“The intensive life of the machine is the cause of its destruction,” says Tinguely at the end of the film that captured the happening (on view in Basel). The machine had actually caught fire and been doused by the fireman in attendance.

What had impressed Peter Selz, the young MoMA curator who insisted on inviting Tinguely, against the opinion of his board, was the humor in Tinguely’s Méta-matics. “Art hasn’t been funny for a long time,” he explained.

The Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp, had at last found rightful heirs to his own playful Readymades and he was to follow Tinguely and Rauschenberg closely both in France, where Tinguely lived, and in the US, where he resided. The term Neo-Dada or Meta-Dada to define the artists’ output was in fact coined in tribute of this artistic continuity.

Humor was evidently a binding force between Rauschenberg and Tinguely, one that was to permeate their other joint ventures over the next two years on both sides of the Atlantic. True to their belief that art should combine different art forms, they mounted “Variations II: Homage to David Tudor”, with the eponymous pianist and composer, which was performed in the theatre of the American Embassy in Paris in June, 1961.

Niki de Saint Phalle, whose joyful “Nanas” were about to transform public spaces throughout the world and who had become Tinguely’s companion, contributed with her shooting paintings, bags of paint that burst onto canvasses after being shot on site.

In another interdisciplinary production, “The Construction of Boston” was given on a single night in May, 1962 in an off-Broadway production in New York. Directed by the choreographer, Merce Cunningham, and including two of his dancers, the “staged schizophrenia”, as Tinguely later called it, contributed to shaping what was to become the avant-garde theater of the late sixties and art happenings all over Europe. “Don’t worry, we’re real artists” Rauschenberg told the worried organizers.

The last direct collaboration between Tinguely and Rauschenberg took place in Amsterdam at the Stedelijk Museum in late summer of the same year. “Dylaby” (Dynamic Labyrinth) comprised of seven “carte blanche” environments by seven different artists. Tinguely justified the ephemeral and chaotic project as “ridding museums of their museum status”.

“Today’s technology allows artists to go further, but in my opinion what happened in the sixties was more intense,” says Annja Müller-Alsbach, whose erudite passion is present throughout the remarkable catalogue that accompanies the exhibit.

How a French-speaking Swiss Catholic from Fribourg (Tinguely, 1925-1991) and a Texan from the Protestant Bible belt (Rauschenberg, 1925-2008) were to experience a short lived, but powerful artistic alliance and an enduring trans-Atlantic friendship of deep mutual admiration is something that the expo in Basel highlights well.

And for those who have never been to the Tinguely Museum before, the third reason to do so is to discover museum architecture at its best. The handsome building by Ticino-born Swiss architect Mario Botta is a superlative showcase for Tinguely’s articulated machine-sculptures, some more than a story tall: they look as if they are about to fly out through the walls.

The museum owes its creation in 1996 and continued existence to Roche, the pharmaceutical company. The two temporary exhibitions end on January 17, 2010.

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, trained as a journalist, became an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London before moving to Switzerland, where she now covers the art beat and presides several associations.

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