To Londoners, Eduardo Paolozzi is best known for a number of monumental public sculptures made late in life, of which the hefty bronze memorial to Isaac Newton (1988) outside the British Library is the most famous. The Whitechapel Gallery offers a more nuanced view. Its survey explores the 50-year career of an artist considered by many to be the founder of British pop art, and who deserves to be remembered for his invention, irreverence and lightness of touch.
From the outset, his approach was highly experimental. At 22, in 1946, he was making sculptures out of concrete – then a material deemed unsuitable for works of fine art. A year later, he was making collages mixing trashy magazine cut-outs with war-time postcards and American adverts, which prefigured the work of more famous American artists such as Roy Lichtenstein by over a decade. In an influential lecture titled “Bunk!”, which he gave in 1952, he discussed the low-brow nature of the materials he used as well as their cheap production values – curling edges, scratched or visibly stuck together with glue. British pop art celebrated the democratic nature of popular culture, but also pointed out the gap between America’s consumerist dream and the hardship of life in post-war Britain.
Paolozzi rapidly started other kinds of experiments in ceramics, commercial screenprints, textiles (there are two gorgeous couture dresses in the show) as well as the more “traditional” medium of sculpture, which he approached from a decidedly unorthodox angle. He rejected the smooth, curved, idealised forms then championed by Henry Moore and made bronze assemblages out of irregular pieces with pockmarked surfaces. Not all of his experiments were successful: frustrated by what he came to think of as pop art’s vacuity, he would eventually disown the movement he had done so much to create.
His path to artistic success was similarly unconventional. He was born in 1924 in Leith, Scotland to working-class Italian immigrants, who expected him to take over their small ice-cream business. But the war intervened: his father, an admirer of Mussolini, was interned, and died when the ship he was travelling on to Canada was sunk by a German U-boat. Paolozzi was conscripted in 1943 and sent to the Pioneer Corps in Slough. After a year he managed to persuade his superiors he was “psychologically unfit” and enrolled at the Slade School of Art. But his rebellious spirit prevailed. Although he took lessons at the Slade and the Ruskin School of Art, he was in many ways self-taught, learning more by studying museum collections – including the ethnographic pieces at the Pitt-Rivers in Oxford – than from his lecturers. When he moved to London, he was deeply taken with Picasso, of whom his tutors disapproved. He would become friendly with painters including Lucian Freud, William Turnbull and Francis Bacon, but was equally influenced by architects and photographers.
The Whitechapel’s exhibition shows his quick-wittedness and anti-elitism. We see pieces which explore the tension between the hand-made and the machine-made; his love of abstract pattern and brilliant colour; his experiments with advertising and found objects; his interest in music, literature and film; and his exuberant murals. Was he a pop artist? A surrealist? An expressionist? An early conceptualist? Part of the reason he has proved hard to pin down is because he was a bit of everything. What he was not was the establishment figure that works such as “Newton After Blake” – and the knighthood he accepted in 1989 – suggest.
“Fisherman and Gulls” (1946)
Paolozzi might have upset some of his tutors, but his abilities were quickly recognised by the London avant-garde. In 1947, at the age of only 23, he was offered a solo show at the influential Mayor Gallery, which had championed Francis Bacon just over a decade before. This was one of the works in the sold-out exhibition. The scene – two fishermen with nets, squabbling gulls and a basket of fish – was inspired by the fishing village of Newhaven, near Leith. It showed his early interest in portraying the lives of working people, which later fed his enthusiasm for the potential of pop art to democratise culture. As with the concrete sculpture “Seagull and Fish”, also in the 1947 show, the materials are cheap: Chinese ink and patched-together paper, which he makes no attempt to hide.
“Large Frog” (1958)
This is an extraordinary beast: the size of a squat footstool, it is assembled from pieces of dark bronze that have been strangely indented, scored and marked. In fact, Paolozzi was using an old technique – lost wax casting – in a new way. He would press found objects – cogs, bicycle chains and the like – into slabs of clay, then remove the objects and pour wax into the depressions in the clay. The wax pieces could then be cut, slashed, torn and reassembled, before being encased in a plaster mould. When bronze is poured into the mould, the wax melts and the metal takes its place. Paolozzi uses a traditional, high-end material to reveal the work’s origins in the scrapheap.
“As Is When” (1964-1965, series of 12)
This screenprint was inspired by two very different sources: Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Paolozzi’s childhood in his parents’ ice-cream parlour, where he was surrounded by commercial packaging. He employed the services of Chris Prater, a master printmaker, to create a series of prints, “As Is When”. With their super-high production values, they look more like the work of an engineer or a commercial artist than an artisan. Frank Whitford, an art historian, called the series “one of the masterpieces of pop art”: the combination of the commercial printing process, the hard-edged, brilliant colours, and the obvious references to the glamourous worlds of cinema and advertising was revolutionary. This print, “Wittgenstein in New York”, reflects Paolozzi’s interest in his philosophy of language. Just as sounds combine to make words, and words combine to make sentences, the multi-coloured squares in this print build on each other, until, pushed through the intestine of the red figure, an orange cube emerges from his mouth.
“Untitled (Broken Open Dummy Skeleton)” (1970)
By 1970, Paolozzi was a visiting professor at the art-history department of UC Berkeley, California, and was struck by the contrast between the horrors of the Vietnam war and America’s increasingly consumerist society. Disillusioned with American culture, Europe’s complicity and with the potential of pop art to say anything meaningful, he returned to Britain. According to the curator Daniel Herrmann, he “began to explore the dark depths of everyday culture” with his friend J.G. Ballard, a novelist with whom he shared a fascination for surrealism. This print is from the series “Conditional Probability Machine”, which was made from found images of medical and robotic experiments and crash-dummy stress tests (and is believed to have influenced Ballard’s novel “Crash”, published in 1973). It shows a crash-test dummy lying on what appears to be a hospital gurney. To make it, Paolozzi distorted a found photo using an etching process known as photogravure, a technique that produces often creepy images and which emphasised his alienation from the crisp, upbeat world of magazine photography.
“Pop Art Redefined (Lots of Pictures – Lots of Fun)” (1971)
It was Paolozzi’s rejection of the pop-art movement he had done so much to create that led to the next phase of work. “Pop Art Redefined” is – there’s no pretty way of putting it – a piss-take of pop art itself. The artist is a Disneyfied elephant onto whose back a kitsch puppy has leapt. Though Paolozzi was a master colourist, his palette here is deliberately crude. The Ben-Day dots are a reference to Roy Lichtenstein, the soup cans belong to Andy Warhol and the flags to Jasper Johns. For Paolozzi, pop art had become the new orthodoxy, intellectually bankrupt and commercially hyped. With “Pop Art Redefined”, a critique of the art market, Paolozzi made it clear that he was “cashing in”. The work was sold in a huge edition for fine art: 1,000 copies.
“Study for Tottenham Court Road Underground Station Mosaics” (1982)
It is hard not to feel the spirits lift on encountering Paolozzi’s joyful, tiled murals, which were installed at Tottenham Court Road tube station in London in 1985. Paolozzi loved the idea of making public art; his anti-elitism ran deep and he never felt entirely comfortable with the British establishment. This design for the mosaics shows some of Paolozzi’s recurring themes: the lively, modular, abstract forms he developed in series such as “As Is When”, and surrealistic “cut-outs” like the butterfly. For a man who loved to work with art students, it must have pleased him that for 25 years, Tottenham Court Road was the station nearest St Martin’s School of Art, used every day by its alumni.
Eduardo Paolozzi Whitechapel Gallery, London, until May 14th