On View: Radio No. 1 (1960)
Visitors to the Nasher Sculpture Center this summer will have the rare opportunity to see – and hear – Radio No. 1 (1960), an early example of kinetic sculpture by Swiss artist Jean Tinguely (1925-1991). Tinguely came to prominence in Paris in the late 1950s as one of a new generation of artists, sometimes called New Realists or Neo-Dada, who sought to bring the objects of everyday life into their art and to solicit the active engagement of viewers. Tinguely first gained notoriety for his “meta-matic” motorized sculptures, which contained spools of paper along with pens or paints and brushes. When operated by viewers, the machines sprang to life, creating in jerky mechanical movements a series of marks that seemed to parody the emotionally agitated canvases of Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism.
In 1960, Tinguely arrived in New York for an exhibition of his sculptures at the Staempfli Gallery, and he was invited by the Museum of Modern Art to create a temporary work. Thrilled with the energy and activity of the city, Tinguely spent days combing through junkyards to obtain materials for Homage to New York, a gigantic machine that would, he proposed, “self-destruct” in the museum’s garden. In the process of gathering bicycle wheels, motors, and a variety of other materials, Tinguely met numerous artists sympathetic to his work, including John Chamberlain and Richard Stankiewicz, but none more so than Robert Rauschenberg, well-known for his Combines, collaged amalgams of painting and sculpture that also drew materials from the city streets. On the day Tinguely was constructing Homage at the museum, Rauschenberg arrived with Money Thrower for H.T.N.Y, a small sculpture with spring-loaded dollar coins that would be flung in all directions – a sly commentary on the high-spirited expenditure of Tinguely’s grand project. Some twenty-seven feet high and twenty-three long, with fifteen motors working on eight timers, Tinguely’s Homage to New York sent up a weather balloon (which burst), released tinted smoke, created and destroyed meta-matic paintings, and sent bottles crashing, all to a soundtrack of a player piano, drums, a radio broadcast, and other sounds, before the fire department put an end to it prior to its complete collapse.
Radio No. 1 mixes salvaged elements from Homage to New York (such as the baby carriage wheel at the composition’s center) with the inner workings of a radio. When activated, the sculpture’s engine produces a tremulous back-and-forth movement and powers the discordant sounds of the radio constantly changing stations. Today, with the radio unable to pick up existing frequencies, the sounds issue from an MP3 file prepared in accordance with the specifications of the Museum Tinguely in Basel, Switzerland. The work’s current installation at the Nasher places Radio No. 1 in close proximity not only to the reclaimed automotive parts of Chamberlain’s Zaar and welded mufflers and pipes of Stankiewicz’s Untitled XXXII, but also to the playfulness movements of Alexander Calder’s Spider and Isamu Noguchi’s Gregory, with its precisely interlocking parts. At rest, Radio No. 1 appears as a work of assemblage, its composition arrayed in a loose grid structure; activated, the work springs into life as a rickety, rocking jolt of motion in the otherwise quiet confines of the museum.
Reportedly made in Rauschenberg’s studio, Radio No. 1 remained in his collection for the rest of his life. At the time of its creation, it signaled an important step in an ongoing conversation between Tinguely and Rauschenberg about the relation of art and technology, the role of the artist and viewer, and the seemingly unlimited potential of materials available to use in works of art. In the 1959 Combine Broadcast, Rauschenberg embedded three working radios. Through Tinguely, he met and began collaborating with the engineer Billy Klüver, who would assist Rauschenberg in further experiments with the intersection of sound and sculpture. In its compact form, Radio No. 1 offers visitors to the Nasher a window onto the joyously chaotic, experimental world of Tinguely’s – and Rauschenberg’s – work at the threshold of the 1960s, a period of great fascination with the ease and dangers wrought by the ascendance of technology in daily life.