Process Art       Kinetic Art       Radical Art            

The Mechanics of Expression

Tinguely's Meta-matics

Jean Tinguely's earliest kinetic works (Meta-Malevitch, Meta-Kandinsky, Meta-Herbin) realise an infinity of "constructivist" images by means of constructions whose elements rotate with different, incommensurable speeds. (They are discussed in our kinetic art chapter on rigid bodies.) The Meta-matics (1959) are meta-artworks in a different sense: they are machines which automatically create infinite sequences of drawings. They also have a different style –– they operate in the context of late-1950's gestural expressionism.

Meta-matic no. 8 (Meta-Moritz)

"Brevet d'Invention" issued by the French Ministry of Industry, Service de la Propriété Industrielle (requested on June 26, 1959 and granted on June 17, 1960) for an "appareil à dessiner et à peindre":

"La présente invention a pour objet un appareil de construction simple permettant de dessiner ou de peindre d'une manière qui, en pratique, est entièrement automatique, l'intervention humaine étant limitée au choix d'un ou de quelques paramètres, et éventuellement, à la fourniture de l'énergie motrice."

(Hultén 1975, p. 84.)

The principle of these machines is the Lissajous figure: the superposition of different harmonic oscillations. Carried out in a very precise way, such movements result in stark geometric images with pretty Moiré-effects. (This is what we see in many early computer-generated graphics.) But the mechanical imperfections of Tinguely's machines creates an abundance of irregularities, deviations and interruptions; this results in a suggestion of expressive human gesture.
The Meta-Matics present a pastiche of the abstract-expressive painting of the 1950's. Their position in art history may be compared with Jackson Pollock's all-over's, Franz Kline's gestural minimalism, and Georges Mathieu's theatre performances; rightly famous oeuvres which all, perhaps unwittingly, parody the expressive gesture. Another parallel is the increasingly popular art of painting monkeys in the early 1960's.

Meta-matic drawings vary enormously, entirely according to how the machine is set up and used. No two drawings are ever completely identical. How close the felt-pen, or whatever is being used, is fixed to the paper, is an important factor, but the fluidity or otherwise of of the colouring agent, or the texture of the paper, will also play a part. The operator can use pencil, ballpoint, airmail stamps, invisible ink . . . The decisive thing is how long the machine is allowed to run without interference, and how long with each separate colour. But however it is set up, it is impossible for the machine to produce an ugly drawing.

Hultén 1975, p. 82.

en créant
vos œuvres d'art

du 1er au 31 juillet 1959    avec
les machines à peindre
« meta - matics »
  de    tinguely
galerie iris clert  
3 rue des beaux arts
paris 6  dan. 44-76

ouvert de 11 à 13 h
et tous les soirs
de 16 à 23 heures

à l'occasion de cette manifestation sera décerné le prix iris clert, dôté de 50.000 f. à la meilleure œuvre produite avec les «meta-matics».

venez exécuter vous-même vos œuvres
du 1er au 31 juillet 1959
en collaborant avec les machines à peindre
« meta - matics »
de tinguely
 à la galerie iris clert, 3 rue des beaux arts, paris 6 
  de 11 à 13 h et tous les soirs de 16 à 23 heures

do it yourself  

and create

your own abstract painting


« meta - matics »
  (a machine producing

from the 1st to the 31st of july
iris clert gallery    3 rue des beaux arts
paris 6  dan. 44-76
open 11 - 13, 16 - 23 h

a prize of 50.000 f. is offered by the gallery to the best painting made on tinguely's «meta-matics».

Painting by Meta-matic No. 12
in collaboration with J. Kosics.

Painting by Meta-matic No. 20
in collaboration with Klara Hulten.

Painting by Meta-matic No. 18
in collaboration with Klara Hulten.

Mechanical Chance

The Meta-matics (just like Tinguely's other "moving sculptures" of this period) consist of motors, wheels, belts, cogs, and crank-shafts. Their movements are irregular because of the machine's imperfections: jerking, jamming, jittering epicycles of periodic rotations and translations.

"Tinguely discovered an almost inexhaustible source — a mechanism whose goal was not precision but anti-precision, the mechanics of chance."

[Pontus Hultén 1975, p. 8.]

"In machines intended for practical use the engineer tries to reduce the irregularities as much as possible. Tinguely is after the exact opposite. His objective is mechanical disorder. His cog-wheels are so constructed that they jump the cogs continually, jam, and start turning again, unpredictably. (. . .) The same movement can appear ten times in succession and then, apparently, never be repeated again. This creates an unusually acute sense of time."

[Hultén 1955, p. 26.]

"Le mot "asynchrone", dit Tinguely, tu peux l'écrire mais en petit. C'était plutôt un défaut mais j'ai découvert que la création était là, la combinaison infinie: ce n'était plus calculable."

[Conil Lacoste 1989, p. 33.]

In the "Schéma des Dispositifs", Tinguely gives an inventory of his techniques. The construction of chance by means of imperfections is a recurring theme in this text.

Les Courroies en cuir [le peaux des les les Vaches - Veaux  tire coupé en ficelles au kilomètre ...... ] Glisse bien = distributeur du HASARd (...) Les Courroies Trapezoidales  Glisse aussi (...)       1953     le "META" est LA mais "le Jolie" Meta-MECANIQUE c'est l'ENGENAGE "Libre" & hésitant –  en fil de fer tousjour "en panne" permanent   Stabilité du Hasard.   (...) la "FAbricAtioN" du HASARd & de l'IRRéGulaRité VARiAble }  le MetA d'Abord       le "CHAOS" stable

[Tinguely: "Schéma des Dispositifs". In: Conil Lacoste, 1989, pp. 27-31.]

"Tinguely (...) uses an old-fashioned technology in his machines. He likes ordinary, conventional motors (...). As yet, with the exception of the components from radio-sets used in his sculptures around 1962, he has never employed electronics or other more up-to-date techniques."

[ Pontus Hultén 1975, p. 307.]

"There was nothing new in the idea of deliberately introducing chance as an element in art. (. . .) In Tinguely's case, however, it was no longer a matter of the role of chance in the act of creation, nor of a static display of something that had come about by chance, but of chance in action."

[Pontus Hultén 1975, p. 8.]

"With their unrepeatable and unique movements and sequences, Tinguely's machines exist in an enviable freedom. Their vitality, spontaneity, and lyricism bring to us ecstatic moments of life divorced entirely from moral precept or inhibition, from good and evil, right and wrong, beautiful or ugly. His machines are a piece of pure existence, eternally changeable, and they do not have to mean anything or refer to anything. But one is mistaken to believe that their artistic message is innocent or harmless. They subvert the established order and convey a sense of anarchy and individual liberation which would otherwise not exist."

[Hultèn 1965, pp. 13/14.]

The Significance of the Meta-matics

"These machines are to a certain type of abstract or nonfigurative art, what the invention of photography was to the realism of the nineteenth century. Just as the academic exasperation of realist painting was stopped by photography, [...] so too will these extraordinary machines [...] now stop very happily this kind of abstract art that has for several years dangerously precipitated a whole generation toward [...] what is the moral plague of the West, the hypertrophy of the ego of the personality."

[Yves Klein, 1959.]

"One may justifiably compare his meta-matic drawing machines to Marcel Duchamp's ready-mades for richness of meanings, among others a rather devastating critique of the automatic and "informal" art of the 1958 period (. . .). Any dissertation could only fail to exhaust the significance of his creation. The drawing machine adds another question mark after the question: Is art possible? Above all, it is a hallucinating vision of the position of art in the future."

[Hultèn 1965, pp. 13/14.]

"The drawing machine is an invention of the same, barely assimilable significance as the Ready Made. (. . .) The meta-matic has no more to do with any one particular style than had the Ready Made. It is rather a matter of a new approach to reality, an approach using art as a means of achieving its ends. Undoubtedly the drawings produced by the metamatics made a certain ironic comment on the tachisme that dominated abstract art in Paris in 1959, but it was a mistake, and one frequently made, to single out this aspect of them as their principal significant feature (. . .). The meta-matic is art as an object for metaphysical meditation; the aesthetic framework is widened. It is impossible for another artist to copy directly the idea of the meta-matic, just as it would have been to copy the idea of the Ready Made, but the possibilities that it might implant in the mind of another artist are all the greater. (. . .) We have reached a new concept of art, we judge works of art by what they produce, and not by how they look (. . .). Self-creative works of art possess the beauty of the very simple and thus truly great ideas. Machines that manufacture art touch the very kernel of our civilization."

[Hultén 1975, p. 80.]

"Métamatic n° 1 est une machine à faire des dessins, ou plutôt des gribouillages inutiles.
C'est une machine artiste qui ne sert à rien, une sculpture absurde."

                                                             [Yves Michaud: Les Apories de la Sculpture]

Related Work

Animals such as donkeys, monkeys, cats or elephants naturally move their tails, paws and trunks with a noisy regularity which is not unlike the Metamatics. (Ignace Schretlen has used the Meta-matic owned by the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum as a simulation device in his research on the drawing of monkeys and human infants.)

The electric sabre-saws which constitute the automatic guitar band  "The Machines"  used the Meta-matic approach to develop a graphical oeuvre. Their "Machine Drawings" are made by two cooperating sabre saws: one moves the paper, the other one moves a pen.

A somewhat perverse version of this approach was implemented by the IAAA Department of ArtiFacial Expression in the "muscle control drawings" project: muscles in the hands and arms of a passive human person are triggered in rhythmic patterns; one hand holds the paper, the other holds the pen.

Simulating Pollock

Richard Taylor, Adam Micolich and David Jonas: "Fractal expressionism." Physics World 12, 10 (October 1999).

One of Jackson Pollock's drip paintings is compared with images from nature, and with images generated by a chaotic pendulum. Its statistical uniformity is established, and the fractal dimension of its different layers is calculated.


(1) Make a computer simulation of Tinguely's Meta-matics. Also write a program that makes machine drawings, and a program that makes muscle control drawings. Discuss differences and common features between these programs.
(2) Develop a simulation of the drawing motorics of humans an higher animals.


Anon.: Métamatics. Les sculptures qui peignent. Galerie Iris Clert, Paris, 1959.

Anon.: "Un Marlo Brando suisse invente une machine à fabriquer l'art abstrait." Jours de France, 27 June 1959.

Anon.: "Progrès décisif pour la peinture non figurative: le chef d'œuvre peut se faire à la machine." Le Figaro, 25 July, 1959.

Dore Ashton: "Art: Machine-like work." New York Times, 28 January 1960.

Edith Auerbach: "Do it yourself." Weltkunst, 15 August 1959.

Paul Berg: "Abstract paintings at touch of button." St Louis Post – Dispatch, 6 March 1960.

Michel Conil Lacoste: Tinguely. L'Énergétique de l'Insolence. Vol. I. Paris: Éditions de la Différence, 1989.

Pierre Descargues: "Tinguely à inventé la machine à faire des tableaux." Tribune de Lausanne, 26 July 1959.

Guy Dornand: "Des 'Nouvelles Réalités' à la peinture des robots." Libération, 30 July 1959.

Guy Dornand: "En attendant le salon des robots." Le Hors-côte, 5 August 1959.

Emily Genauer: "Machine-made abstraction is clever, but is it art?" New York Herald Tribune, 14 February 1960.

Karl G. Hultén: Den Ställföreträdande Friheten eller Om Rörelse i Konsten och Tinguelys Metamekanik. (Substitute-Freedom or On Movement in Art and Tinguely's Meta-mechanics.) Special issue of Kasark, oktober 1955. (English translation in: Pontus Hultén, 1975.)

K.G. Hultèn: "Jean Tinguely." In: Jean Cassou, K.G. Hultèn, Sam Hunter and Nicolas Schöffer:
"Two Kinetic Sculptors: Nicolas Schöffer and Jean Tinguely." New York: October House / Jewish Museum, 1965.

K.G. Pontus Hultén: Tinguely. 'Méta'. London: Thames and Hudson, 1975.

Pontus Hulten: Jean Tinguely. A Magic Stronger than Death. New York: Abbeville Press, 1987.

Alexander Watt: Jean Tinguely — kinetic constructions and drawing machines. Staempfli Gallery, New York, 1960.