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When Tinguely met Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg, Money Thrower, the start of his friendship with Tinguely

A meeting in New York not only led to an artistic collaboration between two big names of the post-war art scene, it also resulted in a lifelong friendship.

Although different in many ways, the Swiss Jean Tinguely and the American Robert Rauschenberg were united by the wish to bring art closer to real life. Their cooperation is documented at an exhibition at Basel's Tinguely Museum.

A second display, Gluts, charts Rauchenberg's later artistic period and his fascination with scrap metal sculpture.

Tinguely, having left behind what he considered the staid confines of Basel, arrived in New York in January 1960 for a solo show at the renowned Stämpfli gallery.

His reputation was already established among the city's art scene - which included Rauschenberg, his contemporary Jasper Johns, and Dada master Marcel Duchamp – through his Méta-Matic kinetic drawing machines.

A few months later Tinguely staged his Homage to New York in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art. This huge mass of metal recycled scraps was the Swiss artist's first self destructing sculpture.

"Robert Rauschenberg contributed a little piece to this, the money thrower, which was part of this happening," said Roland Wetzel, the director of the Tinguely Museum and co-curator of the exhibition Robert Rauschenberg – Jean Tinguely. Collaborations.

Toaster and fire

This "toaster" – a centrifugal money catapult - threw out silver dollars into the audience.

The homage unfortunately declined to fully self destruct and caught fire – the flames were doused by some anxious New York firemen. Nevertheless, it set the stage for a fruitful collaboration between the two artists over the next two and a half years.

At first glance the men seemed quite different. "He liked mechanical things such as engines," Rauschenberg once said of Tinguely. "I preferred hedonistic things such as bathtubs."

Tinguely was a sculptor and experimental artist. Rauschenberg had made a name for himself with his "Combines", paintings and sculptures which used non-traditional objects. His early works are considered a precursor of pop art.

But they had certain things in common. "One of the most important artists for both was Duchamp. They also meet artistically in using scrap metal found objects and electronic parts in their work," Wetzel told swissinfo.ch.

The two, who were both born in 1925, were trying to push back the boundaries of art. The post-war period had seen the development of abstract painting among a small and elite circle.

"For Rauschenberg and Tinguely it was very important to bring art closer to normal life. They looked to close this gap and they tried to involve the public more in their works," Wetzel explained.

Accolade for Tinguely

In 1961 Rauschenberg dedicated one of his "Trophies" to his friend: Trophy 111 (for Jean Tinguely). It is just one of five he made – the others were for the choreographer Merce Cunningham, Duchamp, the experimental composer John Cage and Johns.

"Tinguely was in the middle of all these famous names and that shows how important he was at the time," Wetzel said.

The artists worked together on several artistic projects, but never actually worked on any joint pieces. Their last venture was the group exhibition "Dylaby" (Dynamic Labyrinth), in Amsterdam in 1962.

Considered rather revolutionary at the time, Dylaby gave the participants carte blanche to design exhibition rooms to engage the audience with art.

Tinguely, for example, filled a room with coloured balloons. Rauchenberg made four installations from found objects on an urban theme.

After Dylaby Rauschenberg reverted to painting, while Tinguely began an intense period of artistic creation.

"Their friendship lasted a lifelong and they met probably for the last time in 1988 in Zurich where Bob Rauschenberg had his solo show at the Jamileh Weber gallery," said Wetzel. Tinguely died three years later.

Scrap metal art

During the 1980s, Rauschenberg had been working on a series of pieces, for which he used scrap traffic signs, exhaust pipes, radiator grills and other items. Many of the resulting works are on show in a parallel exhibition: Robert Rauschenberg: Gluts.

"Gluts, meaning a surplus, came about from an experience of Rauschenberg's when he had gone to Texas in 1986 and he had noticed that the city was in an economic slump, as there was too much oil in the market," said Susan Davidson, a senior curator at the Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and jointly responsible for the show.

"When he returned to his home in Florida he remembered this devastation with its closed gas stations and burned out buildings. It was the nature of the artist, he always took inspiration from his environment," she told swissinfo.ch.

One such work is Sunset Glut, a combination of metal awnings which have been turned into rays of sunshine. It also includes a dashboard and a tripod.

"It's an unusual way of making a humorous and poetic association of found or discarded material," Davidson said.

Rauschenberg was a forward thinker and was often a step ahead of his contemporaries. He was also tremendously influential on the next generation of artists, according to co-curator David White, from the Estate of Robert Rauschenberg.

Socks and cardboard

The artist died last year in Florida at the age of 82.

"He said there was no inappropriate material for making art, he said that it's just as unusual to use oil on canvas as it is to use a pair of socks or a piece of cardboard," White explained.

The Gluts exhibition came to Basel after being hosted in Venice. For the Tinguely Museum it was an ideal opportunity to explore the link to the Swiss artist.

"The Gluts are very colourful and almost look like paintings somehow and in Collaborations you can see Tinguely at his best, when he was famous," said Wetzel.

"You can discover a lot of things that Tinguely and Rauschenberg had in common, it's beautiful to have them together."

Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Basel, swissinfo.ch

The exhibitions

The shows run at the Tinguely Museum in Basel until January 17, 2010.

Robert Rauschenberg - Jean Tinguely. Collaborations presents prestigious works on loan from New York, Los Angeles, Sydney and Stockholm, as well as photographic, film and text documentation.

Robert Rauschenberg: Gluts presents a little known body of Rauschenberg's work in metal. The exhibition was first organised by the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice this summer. It also celebrated the artist who died in 2008.

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