No Preservatives: Conversations about Conservation

No Preservatives | Jean Tinguely’s Last Major Artwork–20 Years Later

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Last week I helped install the IMA-organized exhibition, “Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial,” at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC. Working on this show has been one of the best experiences I’ve had in my career, but I was just as excited to be in Charlotte so I could visit Jean Tinguely’s 1991 installation, Cascade, in the lobby of the Carillion office tower. The 40-foot tall work has 15 motors and a dizzying amount of parts and light bulbs all suspended from chains and moving above a small reflecting pool.

Cascade was Tinguely’s last major artwork (he lived from 1925 to 1991) and only his second monumental installation in the United States.  His other work, Chaos I, was created in 1974 and located in Columbus, IN. Chaos I was recently restored inside a new Koetter Kim & Associates building, The Commons.

The Bechtler family commissioned Cascade in 1991 as the centerpiece for their new office tower on West Trade Street in Uptown Charlotte. The lobby of the building also contains Sol Lewitt’s Wall Drawing #683, which easily makes the building as interesting as any office lobby anywhere.

Sol LeWitt's "Wall Drawing #683," 1991. Photo by Richard McCoy.

The Bechtler family have been long-time supporters of the arts in Charlotte, and like Tinguely have Swiss roots, so it seems quite natural that they had him complete a work there. The Bechtler family’s generosity in the city of Charlotte is punctuated by Andreas Bechtler’s somewhat recent creation of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art.  The building, which was designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta, opened in 2010.

Out in front of the Bechtler is L’Oiseau de Feu Sur L’Arche by Niki de Saint Phalle, who, not coincidentally, was Tinguely’s wife.

"L’Oiseau de Feu Sur L’Arche," 1991, by Niki de Saint Phalle out in front of the Bechtler. Photo by Richard McCoy.

Last year the Bechtler put together a small exhibition titled “Remembering Cascade: Tinguely’s Last Sculpture.” There wasn’t a catalog produced for the show, but a webpage and the video featured at the top of this post remain.  Many of the folks at the Mint and around the city are fond of Cascade and were eager to tell me about it when I asked.

With a little effort I was able to track down Kit Kube, a kinetic artist based in Charlotte and the man who helped restore the piece for the 20th anniversary.  The Bechtler family sold the Carillion building many years ago and apparently the new owners let Cascade fall into a less than ideal state of operation.

For the 20th anniversary, Kube worked with advisement from the Tinguely museum in Basel, Switzerland to restore the work.  He replaced all fifteen motors, cleaned all of the components, and generally gave Cascade a lot of tender loving care.  “There was a historic movie from the 1990s that I watched to get a sense of how fast all of the motors turned,” Kube said.

A few conservation-minded papers have been written that discuss the complications of restoring kinetic artworks by Tinguely or similar artists. Unlike a painting that hangs on a wall, Tinguely’s artworks usually move, make noise, and occasionally have light elements.  These kinds of works require continued maintenance to operate correctly; and those like Cascade that are not in museums but in public spaces and are owned by private companies, can have more complications.

Kube clearly worked hard to balance the interests of all of those involved.  It’s clear that he’s become an even bigger fan of Cascade after spending so much time working on it.  While the piece can appear a bit haphazardly assembled the first time you visit, it’s actually well reasoned and complex. Kube observed, “Tinguely was extremely meticulous in his design. There’s a lot of richness in Cascade that you can only see if you spend time looking at it.”  Kube also said he has been engaged to maintain the installation for the next three years.

There are three other kinetic works by Tinguely in the collection of the Bechtler Museum; I had a chance to see two of them operate when I was there. I can count on one hand the number of U.S. museums that have kinetic works by Tinguely (are there others besides the Met, MoMA, and the Bechtler? I know The Nasher used to have one …). Each time I see a Tinguely working right, I’m thrilled.

A gallery of Tinguely artworks at the Bechtler Museum. Photo by Richard McCoy.


  1. Steve Colton says:

    I too am thrilled to see there are properly operating Tinguely’s in the US. About 10 years ago I restored one for a private collector in NY and took great pains to get the motion, lighting and water features as correct as possible. Not an easy feat as the European motors are 220v/50 Hz and conversions to US standard 60 Hz get the action incorrect. And nozzles and such were surplus,or scrounged, and certainly generally now unavailable items. Wear and tear, like rust, never stops, even with careful or reduced usage. Maintenance is a continual set of issues, but luckily the owner loves it.

    I may be wrong but I believe that the Nasher had two they use to put out on a lawn during the summer for kids to play under the spraying water. Sadly, a serious problem exists that the electrical and open belts always used to run these artworks presented problems that cannot be very easily solved without affecting the integrity of the art. In a private setting this can be somewhat more easily monitored though some danger still exist. That may well be part of the experience I think was intended.

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