Top bunk! Matthew Sperling enjoys an exhibition that views Paolozzi as a collagist across many media.
6 July-13 October 2013
Pallant House Gallery, Chichester
Catalogue by Simon Martin
ISBN 9781869827120 (paperback), 24.95 [pounds sterling]
(Pallant House Gallery)
The most famous presentation of the collages of Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005) offers a seductive origin myth for Pop Art in Britain. In April 1952 at the ICA, Paolozzi delivered a quick-fire lecture in front of a projection of the images he had been creating since the late 1940s from American popular magazines. Juxtaposing Kool-Aid and Dr Pepper, home appliances and fast cars, muscle men and domestic goddesses, space robots and canned wieners, these fragile works of thin paper and glue were an energetic challenge to austerity Britain and the hierarchies of its official culture (Fig. 2). Contemporary accounts vary. For architect Colin St John Wilson, it was 'the first time images had been shown--Blam, Blam, Blam--with no order or link'. For photographer Nigel Henderson, what was striking was Paolozzi's 'sheer drive and virility, the gut reaction, which was missing in the English scene'. Paolozzi himself recalls the 'disbelief and hilarity' with which his breakthrough work was met.
These images did not become widely known until they were made into a portfolio of screenprints entitled Bunk! in 1972, by which time Paolozzi was in his 40s and already the subject of a full retrospective at the Tate. But in many ways they inform all of his subsequent work. The argument of this major retrospective at Pallant House is that the technique of collage unifies Paolozzi's work across all his chosen media--from the scissorwork of his childhood scrapbooks to his mature screenprints, from sculptures cast in bronze or welded together from ready-made machine parts, to textual cut-ups, ceramics, textiles, and large-scale works of public commission. (Londoners can enjoy three of his greatest monumental works for free, or at least for the price of a tube journey, in the shape of Piscator (1980) outside Euston Station, Newton (after Blake) (1995) at the British Library, and Jazz (1984; see Fig. 3), the 1000[m.sup.2] of mosaics that adorn the underground platforms at Tottenham Court Road.) Paolozzi himself made the importance of collage clear, claiming on separate occasions that 'All human experience is one big collage' and that 'Making collage can be a symbolic act, like life itself--a tangle unravelled'.
Paolozzi found his range early. After training at the Slade and the Ruskin, by his early 20s he was producing talented drawings and sculptures in what he called a 'Picassoid' vein. From 1947 he spent two formative years in Paris, where he met Leger, Arp, Braque, Brancusi, Balthus, Giacometti and Tzara, and discovered Existentialism. It was on his return to London that he first began to extend the possibilities of Surrealism by incorporating images from popular culture and advertising into his assemblages.
The continuum between popular culture and fine art was not just an aesthetic position for Paolozzi but also a matter of practice. His first teaching post was in the textile department at the Central School of Art and Design, and during the 1950s the all-over compositions of his collages and screenprints, featuring dense assymetrical patterns of organic, man-made, and semi-abstract imagery, were well adapted to fabrics and wallpapers, even being used for cocktail dresses produced by Horrockses.
Collage, in the extended sense of the juxtaposition of disparate materials, also informed the period of Paolozzi's most original work as a sculptor in the 1950s. Fascinated by mechanical parts and images, he had discovered in prints such as Machine Head (1954) how the human figure could be assembled, Arcimboldo-like, entirely from engine parts, and this became the keynote for a series of sombre existential explorations into the sculptural limits of the human figure. Paolozzi began using the technique of lost-wax casting for his bronze sculptures, whereby a negative form was made by pushing objects into clay, and the wax sheets produced from this impression were then manipulated before being cast in bronze. The results resemble the pitted and textured figures of Giacometti, reborn as robots. Martin Harrison describes them as 'the ultimate existential sculptures, functionless technomorphs devised by Paolozzi for a cold-war society'. But Paolozzi's characteristic wit is not submerged under the Sartrean gloom, and perhaps the stand-out sculpture from these years is Large Frog (1958), an endearingly plump amphibian on coffee-table legs with a set of piano keys for a crooked smile.
Paolozzi's best work of the 1960s is as printmaker. The silkscreen was then still chiefly used for commercial printing, and Paolozzi's portfolio As Is When (1964-65; Fig. 1), made up of 12 screenprints drawing on elements of Ludwig Wittgenstein's life and work, is rightly regarded as one of the first masterpieces of the medium, pushing the philosopher's picture theory of language to the limits of verbal-visual communication. Paolozzi's prolific print work has several recurrent obsessions. The screenprinted artist's book Metafisikal Translations (1962) is one of the less striking artefacts on display in this exhibition, but it is one of the most instructive about Paolozzi's processes. It serves as a sort of repository for the images that dominated the artist's imagination, listed in abrupt textual fragments: 'Close up / Space monkey / Grinning / Pathos / Distorted lunatic cat / Whiff of anti-war / Bottom of rocket / Hybrid mutant boiler head attached to a winged clown's mask'.
Paolozzi's visual trademarks are all found in the large print B.A.S.H. (1971), which he said stood for 'Baroque All-Style High'. It is a work of such dense imagery that parts of it had to be printed on additional transfers and stuck on. Marilyn Monroe's skirt is blown up by the wind above a computer circuit board into which a human heart is plugged; on one side of her, a space rocket is about to take off, while a robot is saying 'Ha Ha' to the other. It is fair to say that Paolozzi is not an artist of notable subtlety, but the energy and invention of such works bear out J.G. Ballard's claim that 'if the entire 20th century were to vanish in some huge calamity, it would be possible to reconstitute a large part of it from his sculpture and screenprints'. And this exhibition provides most of the materials which would be needed for that reconstitution.
Matthew Sperling is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Reading.
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|Title Annotation:||Eduardo Paolozzi: Collaging Culture|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2013|
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