Destruction, New Construction, and Then Again Destruction

Vacant Department Stores, Grinding Machines, Saab 900s, Andy Warhol, Mechanical Suicide, Embroidered Handkerchiefs, Robert Rauschenberg, Queen Elizabeth, Skyscrapers, The Trash Cans of MoMA, Neo-Dadaists, Nouveau Réalistes, Monet, Gauloises Cigarettes, The Cosmos
by Alexander Kauffman
Tinguely’s assistants and city firemen try to contain the Homage to New York piano fire raging in MoMA’s Sculpture Garden. Photo by David Gahr.

Destruction, New Construction, and Then Again Destruction

Alexander Kauffman
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“Oh great brotherhood of Jules Verne, Paul Klee, Sandy Calder, Leonardo da Vinci, Rube Goldberg, Marcel Duchamp, Piranesi, Man Ray, Picabia, Filippo Morghen, are you with it?”

—Alfred H. Barr Jr., from a broadside distributed at Homage to New York, ­Museum of Modern Art, March 17, 1960


A Fire in the Piano

On a frigid Manhattan evening last February, Chelsea’s Alexander and Bo­nin gallery welcomed a small crowd for the opening of British artist Michael Landy’s enigmatic show H2NY. Those familiar with Landy from his notorious February 2001 installation, Break Down, which enjoyed heavy international coverage, surely arrived ex­pecting a grand spectacle. Over the course of fourteen days, Landy systematically destroyed all 7,227 of his personal possessions in a va­cant department store in London’s Oxford Street shopping district. With the help of twelve operatives dressed in matching blue overalls, the cataloging of the items and their subsequent destruction in a grinding machine evolved as an in­exorable performance. Forty-five thousand visitors inspected the site of the destruction, many of them stunned shoppers who happened upon the department store window to witness what Landy has called an “island surrounded by the everyday world we know.” Among the items de­stroyed: all of Landy’s clothing, his Saab 900, and a valuable art collection including works by celebrated British artists Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst. Landy admits that he had originally considered recycling or giving away the items but later decided that their destruction was essential to the meaning of Break Down. (Emin, critical of the en­deavor, visited Landy during the performance to ask for the return of an embroidered handkerchief she had given him. The handkerchief had already been pulverized and Emin was given only its granulated remains.)

In an interview in the Independent, Landy claimed that Break Down was about “society’s romance with consumerism.” H2NY added an­other layer to Landy’s ostensible ro­mance with destruction even as it appeared, to those entering the Alexander and Bonin gallery on that February night, like a run-of-the-mill gallery showing of twenty or so framed drawings of fires and ma­chines. While the 2007 “break down” at Alexander and Bonin was less dramatic and overt, H2NY took as its inspiration a March 17, 1960, sculpture-based “machine suicide” orchestrated by Swiss-born French kinetic sculptor Jean Tinguely called Homage to New York. The show’s catalog revealed that the titles of Landy’s drawings were variants of the newspaper head­lines that ap­peared in conjunction with Tinguely’s machine: H2NY tinguely’s con­traption, Nation; H2NY gad­get to end all gadgets, burns out, New York Journal; and H2NY the tinguely machine, the Village Voice. The drawings themselves turn­ed out to be studies of the photographs that accompanied these articles. The H2NY catalog included these original photos in addition to several articles written about Tin­guely’s machine at or around the time of its brief existence. John Can­aday’s account of Homage to New York, published March 18, 1960, in the New York Times, and the March 27, 1960, edition of his weekly New York Times column, a meditation on destruction in art that centers on Tin­guely, are featured as reproductions from the original Times microfilm. Also included is an excerpt from “Be­yond the Machine,” an article by Calvin Tomkins that first appeared in the February 10, 1962, issue of the New Yorker and brought Tinguely some short-lived ce­lebrity in America. Tomkins tells how the sculpture, created over three weeks in a geodesic dome in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art, was composed of an old piano, a weather balloon, an addressograph machine, a bas­sinet filled with bottles of smoke-producing chemicals, and dozens of motors, gears, and bicycle tires, among other assorted refuse collected from dumps in New York and New Jersey. (Tomkins also detailed Tinguely’s plans for post-Homage works—fantastic visions of machines that destroy museums, machines that engage in a battle to the death with one another, and a car rigged up to paint a continuous abstract painting along the highway while another car follows and immediately washes away the paint, erasing all traces of the first car’s work. A final idea, more feasible than the rest, would place a Tin­guely machine in the front windows of a department store, sys­tematically de­stroying products sold inside. Tin­guely, whose father forced him to work in a department store as punishment for running away to join the Albanian resistance movement fighting Mussolini, always reserved a particular hatred for such regimented consumerism.)

One of Tinguely’s assistants, Billy Klüver, a Swedish researcher from the Bell Laboratories who would go on to develop tech­nology for artists such as Robert Rausch­enberg, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol, recounts how they were assembling the machine up to the moment of activation on the night of March 17. Klüver, requesting the French-speaking Tinguely’s permission to power the machine’s circuits, asked, “On va?” When Tin­guely smiled and said, “On va,” he brought the Frankenstein monster to life. Designed to do one thing—self-destruct—the mach­ine’s time-delayed circuits were syn­chronized to provide a mechanical death lasting one half hour.

Tinguely, however, was more artist than engineer; his machine, when activated, did not perform according to the plan (which had been scrawled on the back of his flattened pack of Gauloise cigarettes). Immediately an essential fuse, meant to power a mechanism that would “play” a Tin Pan honky-tonk on the piano, blew. From that point on, each element of the orchestrated self-destruction succeeded in failing. A fan meant to blow rolls of paper into the audience instead blew smoke, obscuring the view. The pi­ano caught fire as planned but the safety mechanism inside the piano, intended to set off a fire extinguisher before the piano’s flames grew out of control, was fatally singed by the fire. Fearing the extinguisher would explode in the heat, endangering the three hundred or so invited guests (including the governor of New York, the mayor of New York, and museum board members), Tinguely insisted that a reluctant fireman contain the fire. The audience booed as men with axes cut out the supports and ripped the remains of Homage to New York apart. In the smoking aftermath, audience members stormed the rubble and made off with souvenirs, leaving behind only a few recognizable mechanical features. Two small, motorized carriages that survived were prominently displayed at H2NY, on loan from MoMA and the Tinguely Museum.

Created to destroy itself, Ho­mage to New York did not aspire to an everlasting, static existence like the works that surrounded it in MoMA’s staid sculpture garden. Rau­schenberg, an attendee on March 17, explained, “It was as real, as interesting, as complicated, as vul­nerable, and as gay as life itself.”


Two Swiss Fellows Arrive in New York and Are Metaphorically Trampled.

Jean Tinguely, born in Fribourg, Switzerland, in 1925 and sometimes called the “poet of machines,” is overlooked by most modern art surveys, lost perhaps in the mythic autonomy of the postwar American art world. Despite his relative invisibility in the U.S., Tinguely enjoyed a long and illustrious career in Europe. The Museum Tinguely, which opened its doors in Basel in 1996, five years after Tinguely’s death, contains hundreds of machines from his forty-year ca­reer. Even if Tinguely failed to achieve name recognition with Am­erican museum-going audiences, his influence among his Am­erican contemporaries was un­ques­tionable. Ho­mage to New York pro­vided an event where the dominant New York School painters and the emerging neo-avant-garde could mingle, with a guest list that included Mark Roth­ko and Philip Guston as well as Marcel Duchamp and Raus­chenberg. (Rauschenberg even con­tributed a small element to Tin­guely’s mach­ine, a mechanized money-thrower.) Much of Rau­schenberg’s work from the late ’50s drew inspiration from the nouveau realistes, a French art group of which Tinguely, Yves Klein, and Christo were members. Tin­guely and his future wife, Niki de Saint Phalle, would collaborate with Rausch­enberg and Merce Cun­ningham on stage productions in the late ’60s.

Tinguely told Tomkins that Homage to New York was conceived during his January 1960 voyage to New York aboard the Queen Elizabeth. Tin­guely had been eager to visit America, and describes Homage as an em­bodiment of the concept of New York as it appeared in the popular imagination. Tin­guely illustrates just what was going through his head while he was waiting to arrive: “I saw in my mind’s eye all those skyscrapers, those monster buildings, all that magnificent accumulation of hu­man power and vitality, all that un­easiness, as though everyone were living on the edge of a precipice, and I thought how nice it would be to make a little machine there that would be conceived, like Chinese fireworks, in total anarchy and freedom.” Tinguely imagines the New York skyscraper as being “itself kind of a machine.” He adds, “The American house is a ma­chine.”

Tinguely’s famous countryman Le Corbusier (known as “Corbu”), who, like Tinguely, left Switzerland to live and work in France, often compared American cities to ma­chines and constantly spoke of their chaos and anarchy, long be­fore he had ever set foot in them. Tinguely’s sense of “uneasiness” in New York, “as though every­one were living on the edge of a precipice,” was echoed in Corbu’s critique of American cities (“A Noted Architect Dissects Our Cities,” January 3, 1932, in the New York Times, published three years before Corbu’s first American visit) when he described the United States as an “adolescent” with New York as her “ex­pression of ardor, juvenility, rashness, enterprise, pride and vanity.”

Corbu considered American cities uncertain machines, and neatly predicted the future failure of Tinguely’s homage to urban uncertainty decades before his machine, built for certain death, died in an uncertain way. Corbu wrote in 1932:

New York and Chicago are rather mighty storms, tornadoes, cataclysms. They are so utterly de­void of harmony. When a motor revolves it is harmonious, but if New York were a motor, that motor would not turn and as a machine would astonish even the man who invented it.

Le Corbusier had drawn much inspiration from the functional en­gineering of “American grain elevators, bridges, and factory buildings” in his modernist architecture and, like Tinguely, viewed the idea of the skyscraper as the foremost achievement of the American city. Unsurprisingly, Corbu did not like the skyscrapers he saw when he finally made his way across the Atlantic, spurred by a lecture tour and exhibition of his architectural drawings and models at the Museum of Modern Art. (He also hoped to garner sev­eral commissions in American cities, where he envisioned great interest in his “machines for living in.”)

Approaching New York harbor aboard the ocean liner Normandie on October 21, 1935, Corbu maintained the magnificent notion of the American cityscape that he had seen in so many films and photographs. From the harbor, the architect likened the outline of buildings to “a dream city hanging in the blue sky above the horizon of the water—a vision of enchantment.” When Le Corbusier arrived at the dock, he was appalled at the reality of the metropolis. As paraphrased in the New York Times account of his visit (“Le Corbusier Scans Goth­am’s Towers,” by H. I. Brock, November 3, 1935), Corbu compared the “wild barbarity” of Manhattan’s sky­scrapers to being trampled by a “herd of mastadons.” He quickly decided that this inefficient mess would have to be torn down to make way for his utopian skyscrapers. These would be extraordinarily high, using the limited urban space most efficiently. In his plan, buildings would take up only 12 percent of the space, freeing up the remaining land for recreation. Moreover, these towers would be elevated sixteen feet aboveground on stilts, allowing maximum freedom for movement. However, Corbu was not content merely to dic­tate the structure of our living. He wished to shape the stuff of life itself, proposing that these modern buildings be fitted with hermet­ically sealed double-paned glass to absorb the “types of noise recently introduced by wireless, phonographs and jazz… which have become a veritable nightmare.”

Tinguely also experienced New York as a land of wild barbarity and anarchy, but he found inspiration in the beautiful mess and did not, like Corbu, advocate for its wholesale destruction and re­moval. New York Times art critic Dore Ashton re­members meeting Tinguely at the pier as he de­scended from the Queen Elizabeth. The artist immediately showed Ashton his sketches relating to Homage to New York and insisted that the sculpture be activated at the Museum of Modern Art. “It has to end up in the garbage cans of the museum,” she recalls him saying.


MoMA Burns, Signs Up for More Fire

Klüver met Tinguely in New York not long after the artist’s arrival in January 1960—they were introduced through mutual friend Pontus Hultén, then director of Stockholm’s Moderna Museet. Klüver remembers Tinguely describing a ma­chine that would “do all kinds of wild things” before it committed suicide in front of an audience in a “large assembly hall on Manhattan.” (The neo-Dada group that Tin­guely had fallen in with since ar­riving, including Johns, Rausch­enberg, and John Chamberlain, had convinced Tinguely that MoMA was beyond his reach and that he would have to settle for a “rented assembly hall” or “an empty lot.”)

That MoMA eventually did agree to present the “self-constructive, self-destructive” machine in front of an audience of invited guests is astonishing for a variety of reasons. At the time, Tinguely was virtually unknown among American audiences. Surely his contribution to the Paris Biennale of 1959, a tall machine that made paintings in the popular “abstract expressionist” style, and his well-received January 1960 show at the Staempfli gallery in New York helped him gain approval for his project.

Typewritten notes from a meeting, uncovered at the Tin­guely Museum in a folder with the broadside distributed at Homage to New York, appear to reveal some of the internal discussions in February and March 1960 that led to the museum’s eventual approval of Tinguely’s performance. The anon­ymous note-taker records Ralph F. Colin, a museum trustee, asking “whether [Tinguely’s machine] is a freak or a work of art?” James Thrall Soby, another trustee, concludes that it is indeed art, but art  “of an eccentric nature.” Finally, it is Alfred H. Barr Jr., founding director of the museum, then in an advisory role as director of collections, who champions Tinguely and his machine. Barr points out that “the optimist might find it subversive. Yet… people watch the demolition of buildings in this city with pleasure.” He believes this work for “contemplation and thought” will symbolize New York by engaging in “destruction, new construction, and then again de­struction.”

Barr, discussing destruction in Manhattan at this 1960 meeting, was intimately familiar with the phenomenon. Just two years ­earlier, he watched the museum to which he devoted his entire career burn. On April 14, 1958, a drop cloth caught fire during work on MoMA’s air conditioning system. The subsequent blaze took the life of one electrician and destroyed a large Mo­net painting from the water lily series and Candido Portinari’s Festival, St. John’s Eve. Barr, who was in the museum at the time of the fire, used a chair to break through an office window so he and his coworkers could jump to safety on an adjacent roof­top as thousands of gawking pedestrians looked on, speculating about po­tential damage. Unknown at that moment was the fate of 156 Seurat paintings and drawings, including the large canvas work A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, alone valued at more than $1 million, that were currently on loan from museums around the world for a MoMA retrospective. If this collection had been destroyed, Seurat’s work would exist today only photographically. The image that illustrated the April 16 New York Times report depicts firefighters suspended over the crowd on ladders, using axes to smash windows on MoMA’s facade, letting the smoke escape.


The Pleasure of Demolition

Incredibly, after such terrific destruction, the museum seemed giddy with excitement, possibly as a result of the near tragedy that had, for the most part, been averted. Days later, Sanka Knox wrote in the New York Times that “the museum, despite its forlorn ap­pearance, exuded cheer.” One staff member happily tells Knox, “We’re not just cleaning up, we’re actually rebuilding.” A year later, fifteen key staff members and chairman of the board Blanchette Rockefeller assembled to determine the future of the museum. In the energetic spirit of reconstruction that arose from the fire, Barr called for “new blood” and “new imagination.” Within eight months, Tinguely would be welding and sawing away in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden. Barr called the machine an “apocalyptic far-out breakthrough” in the broadside distributed at the event. Many of the fifteen key staff members watched in horror as the machine dedicated to their grand city self-destructed, its flames creating a dramatic shadow play on the large glass windows of the museum’s ground floor. Photos from the night somehow missed MoMA trustee and modern architect Philip Johnson, who watched the whole affair through his thick black-rimmed glasses, unamused. The sculpture garden was his own 1953 design, and he had not planned for this sort of creative reuse. He likened the whole experience to a bad joke.

The MoMA administration stared at the all too familiar scene of a fireman descending with an ax into the garden. Museum staff may have been breathing sighs of relief, but the audience had been enjoying the “total anarchy and freedom” and were disappointed when the auto-entropy ended prematurely, re­turned to sa­fe­ty and security by mu­seum guards and city firemen. When the fire was finally extinguished, the three hundred or so onlookers hun­grily picked over the remains, sal­vaging the salvaged pieces of their city. Only days ago, the components of Tinguely’s machine had been cheap scrap piled high in city dumps. Now, they were charred cheap scrap splayed out in the garden between Maillol’s The River and Rodin’s Monument to Balzac. Barr had found his “new blood,” and the Museum of Modern Art entered the ’60s, whether it wanted to or not.


“A Great Work of Art”

One might see Break Down and H2NY as the bookends of a history experiment were it not for the interim de­struction of two major New York buildings on September 11, 2001. German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was viciously lam­basted for describing the event as “the greatest work of art im­aginable for the whole cosmos,” and while such a comment lacked taste (to say the least), to view the destruction in such terms was not an historic first, especially for a European. Michael Landy’s H2NY series of paintings and drawings, black-and-white demolitions, some ob­scured by great clouds of smoke and others finely detailed like blueprints for the re­construction of Tinguely’s mach­ine, show the wear on a city that has lived, for six years now, with a blocks-wide rupture. Landy is a man who pulverized his personal history by shredding all remnants of his past, including letters and drawings and studies for his own work. He now appears to be rethinking the importance of archival material. In creating H2NY, his own homage to New York, Landy tries to pick up the pieces and reconstruct a piece of New York that was essentially lost to history. And yet the question re­mains: how much can be reconstructed of something that has been in­tentionally destroyed? With the rupture that persists in downtown Manhattan,­ we negotiate the is­land’s history of mad urbanism, thickly layered beneath our feet. Are we frightened into a new kind of historicism, our en­chantment with the Manhattan of “destruction, new construction, and then again de­struction” finally quelled by the hor­rific intervention of 9/11?

In a November 3, 1935, New York Times article, architecture writer H. I. Brock described the city: “By thrusting forward and pushing up­ward, at whatever cost of blasting through, New York has come to be what it is. It is overwhelming, amazing, exciting, violently alive—a wilderness of stupendous experiment….” Tinguely’s 1960 self-de­structive machine Ho­mage to New York tells us that we must demolish the 9/11 stupor and reinvent ourselves with a new ex­periment.

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