Olivier Mosset worked for Jean Tinguely when he was very young. A longtime fan of Mosset, I e-mailed him to ask him why he gravitated toward Tinguely at such a young age. What did Tinguely represent to him at that time? Olivier sent me this narrative, and it seemed rich in personal history. —Matthew Weinstein, whose review of Gladstone Gallery’s Tinguely show is available through this link
OK, this is the story. In ’62, I saw at the Kunsthalle Bern an exhibition, “4 amerikaner,” featuring Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Richard Stankiewicz, and Alfred Leslie. I was super impressed by Rauschenberg’s Monogram, the goat and its tire. If this was art, anything was possible. At the time, I was living in Neuchâtel and going to school (Gymnasium). I knew a couple of local artists, and I told them how impressed I was by that show. “These are American,” they told me. “This is not serious.” The artists they liked were the 2nd school of Paris. Serge Poliakoff, Gérard Schneider, Maria Helena Viera da Sylva, etc.—this was what contemporary art was supposed to be. But for me, the Kunsthalle was a museum, and this is what art was. They just had a small co-op gallery, which to me counted for nothing.
Now, I had earlier seen a Jean Tinguely exhibition at the same Kunsthalle (one maybe with Bernhard Luginbuhl). I don’t remember the date, but at the time I was living in Bern. I saw it with my mother, who was not interested in art, but walking in front of the Kunsthalle, she said there was something funny in there, a friend of hers had told her. A little after the Rauschenberg experience, I kind of ran away from home, stealing the household money I found. I took the train to Paris. At the Gare de Lyon, I found in the phonebook, under the heading “artists,” the address of Jean Tinguely, 11 Impasse Ronsin, and went there. He was not there. I think he was traveling in Japan. There were a couple of artists’ studios at 11 Impasse Ronsin. Brancusi had had his studio there, but not any longer, because he had bequeathed it to the Paris museum of modern art. Another artist who was there was James Metcalf (who right now has a show in New York at Miguel Abreu Gallery!). Metcalf told me that Jean was not around, but he also said that if I would help him with his sculptures, I could stay in his studio, which I did.
Then Tinguely came back and I started to work for him. Mostly we would go to dumps for scrap metal. But we talked. He made me read Bakounine, Kropotkine, Stirner. After a year or so, I went back to Switzerland to finish school (actually another school, which I didn’t really attend; I would go to movies instead, though I passed my exams). In ’64, Tinguely worked on Heureka, a sculpture for the National Exhibition in Lausanne. He contacted me (we had kept in touch), and I worked on that, putting a varnish on the rust, so it would not rust more. In ’65, I went back to Paris and saw him again, along with Niki de Saint Phalle, the New Realists, etc. I also worked for Daniel Spoerri for a while, and then met Daniel Buren, Niele Toroni, and Michel Parmentier. For Tinguely and de Saint Phalle I worked on some decors for a Roland Petit ballet (l’Eloge de la folie), and then on the project for the roof of the French Pavilion at the Montreal Expo, in ’67 (le Jardin Fantastique, which is now in Stockholm). In ’67, I went to New York for the first time, with the money I had made in Montreal. I met Andy Warhol (and heard The Velvet Underground) and then went back to France.
To answer your question more precisely, I think the fact that art could be junk, or made of junk, seems exciting and progressive. And, of course, we should not forget the early, more abstract works of Tinguely (Meta Malevichs, etc.) and the fact that the Homage to New York (before my time) was certainly an event. All of this, the machines that draw and the quality of his junk, make him a major artist. In fact for a time, in Switzerland, after Heureka had been shown, he was like Picasso, everybody knew his name, and now, of course, he has his own Museum in Basel.