straight up
"The Museum of Modern Art invited Jean Tinguely to build his self-destroying machine in the garden of the museum. "
Homage to New York self-destructing at the Museum of Modern Art.


Click to play video Homage to New York film

Homage to New York <1960>

I asked Jean what I could do for him. Jean explained that he wanted to make a machine that destroyed itself and that he needed bicycle wheels. I found a bicycle dealer in Berkeley Heights where I lived, who happened to be cleaning out his basement. I loaded as many wheels as I could into my car, which was a convertible, and drove them to the museum. Jean had set up shop in a Buckminster Fuller dome set in the garden. Jean was as excited as a child when we carried the bicycle wheels through the empty museum at night. He wanted more, he said, so I took him to the Newark dumps. He found wheels of all kinds, also parts of old appliances, tubs, and other junk, which we hauled to the museum and threw over the fence into the garden from 54th Street at night. We were not allowed to work openly in the garden during museum hours. So Jean was confined to the Bucky Fuller dome.

I enlisted the help of a colleague at Bell Labs, Harold Hodges, along with the artist Robert Breer, and we 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, my 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, we were finally allowed to haul the various parts of the machine from the Bucky Fuller dome out into the garden. Needless to say it had been snowing all night.

The last few hours of the day were frantic. Jean insisted that we shouldn't test anything. Instead he kept adding new stuff to the machine. Not until 6 o'clock did I get a cable for the electricity. The event was scheduled from 6:30 to 7:00. At 7:30, I asked Jean "On va?" Jean answered, "On va." and I closed the switch.

The piano began playing. Jean had reversed the belt for his big meta-matic painting machine which was the centerpiece. The painting on the long roll of paper was supposed to spill out over the audience. I could very easily have reversed the belt, but he took my arm away and said "Don't touch, Billy." He had decided that whatever happened should happen. Some time later the weather balloon was supposed to blow up and explode but there was not enough gas in the gas tank we had bought, so it ended up hanging limply. The piano on the right side 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.

A small bassinet had been filled with ammonia. When I 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 produces, as you all know, white... in this case white smoke, which poured out of the bassinet, until it finally engulfed the specially invited, elegantly dressed audience.

It was all over in 27 minutes. The audience applauded and descended on the wreckage for souvenirs. Jean called the event "Homage to New York."