‘His series, Pages, 1969-70, sets humanity against hardware; the matt, fleshy medium of soft, stuffed, stitched canvas replaces the vacuum-formed plastic of previous series.’
(Michael Compton and Marco Livingstone, Tilson, L’Agrifoglio Editions, Milan, 1993, p.9.)
Language and communication have always been at the forefront of Joe Tilson’s art. From works created in the 1950s, when fresh out of the Royal College, through to those created in the past twelve months, even now, in his 90s, the artist continues to push boundaries and explore new visual possibilities. Born in 1928 Tilson worked as a carpenter and joiner before going to art school. To many he is an artist best known for his association with British Pop Art of the 1960s – and whilst he was a key figure in these golden years, including exhibiting at the 1964 Venice Biennale – his work has always remained separate from contemporaries such as David Hockney and Peter Blake. Through his paintings, he pushed past Pop to engage with mass and popular culture in an intellectual way that few of his contemporaries did, resulting in the most original of artworks.
Through his own visual vocabulary Tilson explores ideas of materials and cultures, both contemporary and ancient. This visual exploration evolved into a series of works of the late 1960s known as the Pages. In the late 1960s Tilson, together with his wife Jos, became increasingly involved in the cooperative anti-authoritarian movement. In a decade of great social, cultural, political and sexual shift, there emerged a new counterculture, with anti-establishment underground publications such as Muhammad Speaks, IT (International Times) and Black Dwarf (from which the present work takes its title). With a palette and format that immediately evokes newsprint, Tilson challenged the manipulation of the media, and the, what was then, only means of news dissemination through the broadsheet newspapers. In these works he referenced counter-culture icons such as Che Guevara and Martin Luther King, and drew on the poetry of James Joyce, Ezra Pound and, as seen in the present work, Robert Duncan, one of the 'New American Poets'. It became, as Michael Compton writes, ‘an art of affirmation’ (Michael Compton and Marco Livingstone, Tilson, L’Agrifoglio Editions, Milan, 1993, p.10).
The very medium of the Pages series challenged modern mass production, with wooden construction elements (drawn from his years as a carpenter and joiner) and screen-printed canvas, stitched and stuffed by his wife Jos. As with all of Tilson’s art – and indeed the work of all great artists – we are not presented with straightforward questions or answers. Instead we are encouraged to challenge the accepted and to look for meanings, however well hidden, in order to make sense of the work around us. It is these challenges that make the present work as relevant now as it was upon its creation half a century ago.
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