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Jean Tinguely: Homage to New York

March 17, 1960: The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Homage to New York by Jean Tinguely

Billy Klüver talking to the fireman during the performance of Homage to New York at MoMA, 1960. Photo: David Gahr

In early January 1960 Billy Klüver received a letter from Pontus Hultén that Jean Tinguely was coming to New York and that he should help him. Klüver was at that time working at Bell Laboratories doing theoretical and experimental work on free electron beams and lasers. He had already met Tinguely in Paris a few years earlier. Pontus had introduced him as "the man who made anti-television sets."

The opening of Tinguely's first show in New York at the Staempfli Gallery, January 25, 1960, was packed with people. Not quite knowing what Hultén had in mind, Klüver asked Tinguely what he could do for him. Tinguely explained that he wanted to make a machine that destroyed itself and that he needed bicycle wheels. The Museum of Modern Art in New York invited Tinguely to build his self-destroying machine in the garden of the museum.


Klüver found a bicycle dealer in Berkeley Heights, NJ where he lived, who happened to be cleaning out his basement. He loaded as many wheels as I could into his car, which was a convertible, and drove them to the museum. Tinguely had set up shop in a Buckminster Fuller dome set in the garden. He wanted more wheels, so Klüver took him to the Newark dumps. He found wheels of all kinds, also parts of old appliances, tubs, and other junk, which they hauled to the museum and threw over the fence into the garden from 54th Street at night. They were not allowed to work openly in the garden during museum hours. So Tinguely was confined to the Bucky Fuller dome. 

Klüver enlisted the help of a colleague at Bell Labs, and they built a timer that could close eight electrical circuits every three minutes or so during a 27 minute period. Each circuit triggered an event or an action that contributed to the destruction of the machine. In order to make the main structure collapse, a colleague devised an ingenious scheme of embedding a resistor in Wood's metal. When the circuit closed the resistor would overheat and melt the Woods metal, so that the supporting member would collapse.

On March 17, the day of the destruction, they were finally allowed to haul the various parts of the machine from the Bucky Fuller dome out into the garden. It had been snowing all night. The last few hours of the day were frantic. Jean insisted that they shouldn't test anything. Instead he kept adding new stuff to the machine. Not until 6 o'clock did they get a cable for the electricity. The event was scheduled from 6:30 to 7:00. Robert Breer helped to build the machine and also filmed the event.


A small bassinet had been filled with ammonia. When they closed the switch to start the machine, Robert Breer's task was to pour titanium tetrachloride into it. The combination of ammonia and titanium tetrachloride this case white smoke, which poured out of the bassinet, until it finally engulfed the specially invited, elegantly dressed audience.

Tinguely had decided that he needed a piano and Klüver found a dealer who sold him one for ten dollars if he took it away. During the performance, the piano began playing. Tinguely had reversed the belt for his big meta-matic painting machine, which was the centerpiece. The painting on a long roll of paper was supposed to spill out over the audience. Sometime later the weather balloon was supposed to blow up and explode but there was not enough gas in the tank, so it ended up hanging limply. The piano had a candle on the keyboard, which in the third minute was lighted by an overheating resistor. Three minutes later a bucket of gasoline above the candle was tipped over and the piano began to burn gloriously while it was furiously playing away. Underneath the piano you could see a small carriage. In the 23rd minute it shot out with terrific speed and with its horn blaring. It stopped in front of a ladder on which the Paris Match correspondent was standing. The correspondent turned it around and it proceeded into NBC's television equipment, while spewing smoke and fireworks.

The day before the performance Tinguely had asked Klüver to get bottles of liquids of the worst smells he could find. He went to a chemical company in Manhattan and came away with several bottles of various stinks. But the mechanism for releasing the bottles to slide down the gutter and break didn't work during the performance. The following morning at the clean up it did, and the museum garden was stinking for several days.

Robert Rauschenberg, who had been following the work during the building of the Machine offered what he called a "mascot" in the form of a money throwing machine, which flung out a dozen silver dollars into the audience. It was all over in 27 minutes. The audience applauded and descended on the wreckage for souvenirs. Tinguely called the event Homage to New York. The next morning the event was covered by several New York newspapers.

Preparations and Technical Elements


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