It’s generally accepted that improvisation signifies humanness and, conversely, that perfectionism signifies its repression. But perfectionism is all too human. Perfectionism carries with it the inevitable defeat inherent in the striving for ideals. It can be an expression of humility or of colossal ambition. Perfectionism is not a mechanical thing. It is a human thing. Perfectionism spans the full range of being.
Cary Smith makes perfectionist paintings. They are a source of pleasure to those of us who I have always referred to as “edge and corner queens.” The often multiple borders around each composition are almost perfectly aligned with the painting’s outside edge, but not so perfectly that one has to ask how the artist did it. The colors are not quite straight out of the tube, but neither do they seem too special (Smith is spared the stale appellation of “colorist”). The shapes that the colors make are familiar but not overly familiar. They don’t demand that one parse their meaning, they simply guide one toward pleasant associations. It’s an oxymoronic description, but Smith’s paintings communicate a sublime neutrality.
Smith makes “types” of paintings. It often seems as though he is following a production model wherein new types are perfected and released at regular intervals. But Smith’s production departs from commercial production in that the earlier types are never abandoned; nothing becomes obsolete.
Smith’s measured control over his artistic development is a curiosity to those of us who have morphed more chaotically. In his current exhibition at Fredericks & Freiser there are paintings of intersecting straight lines, of ovals politely making room for each other, of multicolored squares lined up in neat rows on a monochrome background, of a funny splat that looks like a Matisse cutout on stick-figure legs, and of wobbly wagon wheels lined up like awkward children in a curtain call for a grade-school play.
Smith’s paintings are made out of happy sunshine. It’s a sunshine that carves the world into clearly divided shapes; it enhances colors; it simplifies and creates a lightness of spirit. The perfectionism of Ellsworth Kelly, whose work evokes expanses of cut grass and white skies, comes to mind.
As an artist, Jean Tinguely has long been difficult to situate. Perhaps that is not surprising, given that he once made an artwork that blew itself up in the courtyard of the Museum of Modern Art. In the U.S., Tinguely has long occupied an indeterminate space between art and not-art. You could say that Nam June Paik exists in the same territory. Warhol lived in this neighborhood for a while. Calder, also now so firmly understood as art, did too; his 1958 Pittsburgh mobile was once repainted in the colors of Allegheny County.
We Americans, perhaps the most entertained people on the planet, like to eat our art and our entertainment out of different bowls. Entertainment is not something one is supposed to fashion art out of. And it is the entertainment value of Tinguely’s sculptures that continues to keep his work on the borderline of good taste. An exhibition at Gladstone Gallery affords us an opportunity to see the extent to which these definitions are currently being exploded, by experiencing a selection of Tinguely sculptures (foot-pedal activated) from 1954 to 1991, the year he died.
Perhaps the most literal heir to Tinguely is the artist and inventor Mark Pauline, creator of Survival Research Laboratories in San Francisco in 1978. Pauline’s flame-shooting robots are genuinely dangerous, while Tinguely’s self-destructing machines (Homage to New York, 1960, the one that self-destructed at MoMA, and Study for an End of the World No.2, 1962), like Jacques Tati’s man at the mercy of progress or Charlie Chaplin and Lucille Ball taking jobs on an assembly line, are more hazardous to themselves than to anyone else. However, the implied violence and sexuality of the machine was certainly part of Tinguely’s narrative. He shared this with Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and the Futurists.
But Tinguely, like Pauline and unlike Picabia, was not so much an artist who referenced machines as he was an artist who was a machine impresario; a mechanically inclined Diaghilev. At Gladstone, Untitled (1991) incorporates an antelope skull and a clanking chain. The sound is unbearable, the skull is grotesque, but the piece’s absurdity resists melodrama. The poignant Scooter (1960) is a rusted scooter welded to a steel helmet. It has lost its front wheel, and its back wheel rotates slowly. It’s a beautiful image of devastation and loss. I am more attracted to these emotionally bipolar pieces than to his lamps, which feature spinning feathers and colored lights. They are masterful within Tinguely’s own terms but push the entertainment agenda too far in front of what makes his work important. Still, for those of us who like to watch things spin and blink, they are full of pleasure.
While not always loved, Tinguely, like Paik, is an influential artist. John Kessler employs performative machines to create mini spectacles. Rebecca Horn, in her later work, accesses the hypnotic sensuality of efficient and silent mechanisms. Both are in touch with Tinguely’s sense of the absurd.
Tinguely wasn’t the first artist to notice that pistons have sex and that hydraulics have even better sex, but I can’t think of another artist who articulated mechanical animism so brilliantly. The mistakenly optimistic yet ongoing dream of artificial intelligence is to create a human thinking machine that is aware of its environment. That this question continues is proof of our profound desire to merge with the mechanical, a desire that artists as diverse as J. G. Ballard, Richard Foreman, and David Cronenberg have addressed in their work. Tinguely was an early innovator: he recognized the darker aspects of this desire and made machines that charm us, even as they engineer their own doom.
Addendum: 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. Mosset’s piece is available through this link. —Matthew Weinstein