Saturday 28 July 2018


This review of the great British Pop artist combines responses to three exhibitions, at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, ‘Collaging Culture’, a much older show at Chichester’s Pallant House gallery and the Paolozzi sections of their more recent ‘Pop! Art In a Changing Britain’. (More of which to come.)

”Automobile advertisements were followed by a sequence of pin-up girls; arrangements of magazine cut-outs led to the covers of pulp science fiction journals. Aliens, Coca-Cola, strippers, cars, robots, gaudy colours and images popped up in rapid succession.”

Dreaming Of Plenty

The Whitechapel show had the wit to start at just the right place, so let’s do the same here. The first thing you see on stepping inside the gallery is a fast-running slideshow. Imitating one which accompanied a lecture Eduardo Paolozzi gave at the recently opened Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1952, which has been described as “the opening salvo of Pop Art”. 

The quote above’s from a contemporary description. Except the 'lecture' turned out to be just the slideshow itself, the artist opening his mouth not once. Instead he just let the slides do the talking. Instead of collaging some of those elements onto paper, he made their rapid succession a collage in time.

And in some ways the enigma of that silence, that disinterest on context or explanation, resounds to this day. People continue to tie themselves in knots asking whether Pop Art was a critique or a celebration of American consumerism. If no-one's hit on an answer yet that shouldn't worry us, for art isn't some cryptic crossword you pursue until you arrive at the solution. (And Paolozzi himself said “a metaphor should promote an endless amount of interpretations”.) But when there’s only two available answers, neither of which seem even slightly satisfactory, that’s the time to consider that it’s the wrong question being asked.

Of course the Pop generation often saw the mass media the way the Futurists had seen the urban environment. It had become so all-pervasive, it was the height of absurdity to feign you were somewhere above and beyond it. And besides, wasn’t its immediacy thrilling? Instead of elitist disdain, we should revel in the situation, bathe in the cathode ray bombardment. Paolozzi’s slideshow became the famous 'Bunk!' collages, for an example see ’Evadne In Green Dimensions’, 1951, below.

That title, given to the series by this work, might be taken as a dismissive term. But by adding the exclamation mark Paolozzi makes it something vibrant and immediate, like a comic book sound effect. An American word for what was often considered an America phenomenon, it may well be a red rag raised against self-styled notions of Britishness.

ForAmerican mass culture had the peculiar effect of uniting in opposition both conservatives, who considered it a debasement of our greatcultural heritage, and the left, who saw it as a low-key but pervasive form of cultural imperialism issuing from the world’s most clearly capitalist nation. Entering into a relationship with itbecame effectivelydisruptive, notmerelyaneffective provocation but a handy rupture with the culture of yore.

Paolozzi himself said “the American magazine represented a catalogue of an eclectic society, bountiful and generous… an art form more subtle and fulfilling that the orthodox choices of either the Tate Gallery or the Royal Academy.”

But there’s an all-important extra element. In 'Shock of the New', Robert Hughes said British Pop Art “saw the gross sign language of American cities with the kind of distant longing that Gauguin felt for Tahiti.” Paolozzi's first exhibition had been in 1947, when rationing was still in full swing. His ICA lecture happened only a year after it finally ended.

“Distant” is key; he saw the gaudy world of American consumerism from grey raincoat Britain, as a kiddie with his nose pressed to the sweet shop window - and it’s that perspective which is captured in his collages. American Pop Art, which arrived later and without that separating pane of glass, was quite a different and a very much inferior beast. John-Paul Stonard suggests the collages originated as scrapbooks, where from a relatively young age Paolozzi was simply collecting images which caught his eye.

And I feel I can glom on to this because, though my era might have been decades later, things weren't entirely dissimilar. The mindset of rationing took a long time to end. The British comics of my childhood had at most one spot colour, while American comics came in glorious technicolour. Naturally, I preferred them. 

Even the adverts seemed part of the enticement. I used to fantasise about the taste of Hostess Twinkies with… well... distant longing. Today I could buy one from a shop I can see from my front window, but of course I haven’t – they'll just be gak and tooth-rot. But the point was never the cheap consumer product, it was the displacement from it. The desirous dream just needed something to fixate on, so it might exist.

Furthermore, American culture itself then seemed rationed, like a controlled drug you could otherwise overdose on. There was a regulated number of American shows on TV. And those American comics advertising the Twinkies were harder to find than their drab British cousins, and so required hunting down. You’d hit on a load of them in some byway newsagents like a prospector striking gold. All of which added to their air of exoticness.

And back then, America seemed so futuristic it was already itself science fictiony. The fact that the space rockets took off from there, that surely proved that it was closer to outer space than the rest of the world. That was why things were released there first, then slowly spread round to the rest of us. The celebrated 'This is Tomorrow' exhibition of 1956, held in the Whitechapel Art Gallery, was opened by Robbie the Robot from 'Forbidden Planet'.

Paolozzi had studied art in Paris, and not just been influenced by Surrealism – he'd always insist he was a Surrealist. After all, Ernst had fast-flipped through magazines to create an auto-collage effect in his mind’s eye, an embryonic hand-held version of Paolozzi’s slideshows. Adrian Hamilton of the Independent, writing about the earlier Pallant House show, comments “his work was enormously varied…but it was always informed, in true Surrealist fashion, by the sense of juxtaposition.”

Well, except it wasn't. This just comes from the lazy notion that ‘juxtaposition’ is a more polysyllabic and therefore smarter way of saying ‘collage’. But here there’s no lobster telephones, no unexpected encounters between sewing machines and umbrellas, no domestic families cheerily chewing on bicycle parts.

Collage already surrounds us, it’s there in advertising images and magazine covers. It doesn’t break down norms, it is the norm. So, rather than try and screw with it, Paolozzi simply goes with it. He’s more disciple to Schwitters than Heartfield. His intent isn’t juxtaposition but accumulation, to bombard you with imagery until you reach information overload.

That’s why the slideshow, with one image being replaced by another almost as soon as you take it in, is such an effective way to see his work. Take for example the Bunk! collage below, built as a tumult of images pouring out at you from that open oven door, everything somehow in front of everything else. Many of his images are those collage-like magazine covers. An artist of subversive intent would sabotage their layouts, degrade their comprehensibility, whereas Paolozzi keeps them intact but then overloads them further. In essence, his collages take the source material and make it look more like itself than it already did.

And that might be the overriding thing about our perception of American culture - distance made it seem homogenous to us, in a way it never would to a native. From afar aliens, Coca Cola, strippers, cars and robots did go together, in fact there they all were. Even the Hostess Twinkies seemed part of the comics, not just ads which interrupted the story.

Rust And Flesh (Sculpture of the Machine Age)

Yet however good his collages are, it’s the sculptures which show Paolozzi at his strangest and most unique. They’re the opposite of the smooth, universalised sculpture of Moore and Hepworth, the generation before his. Paolozzi makes their attempts to evoke primitivism look timid, genteel and merely Classical.

But they are just as unlike the bright, clean surfaces most associated with Pop. They even look quite unlike Paolozzi’s collages, yang to their yin. Perhaps for this reason the Pallant House’s ‘Pop’ show barely included them. While with the collages he became aligned with the Independent Group, the sculptures were considered examples of the Geometry of Fear style, from a name coined by Herbert Read: “These new images belong to the iconography of despair, or of defiance... Here are images of flight, of ragged claws ‘scuttling across the floors of silent seas’, of excoriated flesh, frustrated sex, the geometry of fear.”

In their first show, the Pallant House described them as having “the qualities of an ancient sculpture pulled from the earth and reassembled.” African fetishes, designed for function not contemplation, soon became worn through use. Their magic purpose often involved hammering other objects into them, and the like. Paolozzi’s sculptures evokes this, they look worked, rough, abraded. See for example ’Icarus’, (1957), below.

But as ever their strength comes from being ancient and modern. Contemporary reviews often brought up Hiroshima, which is I think off the mark. The Pallant House comes much closer in seeing their rough, encrusted, corrugated surfaces as “evoking the brutalist architecture of the machine age.” We should also remember that Paolozzi’s sculpture often became public art, so was most widely seen among that new brutalist architecture.

They’re made by accumulating found objects then casting them in bronze, unifying those varying elements into one. And that transformation, from collage to single object, is important. Generally, we think of sculpture as something worked down from a single block, of wood or stone. We can accept assemblage sculpture when it foregrounds the parts it’s made from, as in Picasso’s ‘Baboon and Young’ (1951). Whereas Paolozzi creates assemblages which don’t look like assemblages.

In fact he sometimes did the very opposite. Cast sculpture cannot avoid marks of it’s production process, the holes used to pour the metal into and the plugs to hold it, marks which are normally removed like erased underdrawing. Whereas Paolozzi would leave them in. All of which leaves them irresolvable to the eye.

And this irresolvability gives them an indeterminate, ‘thing between’ nature. They can look like anthropomorphised machines or objects, such as ’Table Object (Growth)’ (1949, above), which might well scuttle off somewhere. The Whitechapel uses its expanse of floor space to great effect by clustering them, as if they’ve gathered in groups. They can look biomechanic, ‘Icarus’ starting off with rocky legs before turning to machine parts as it rises.

They can look like the practitioners of some fetishistic cargo cult, the marks of circuit boards and machine parts embedded on their bodies like scarification marks. (Further evidence of the influence of Dada and Surrealism on Paolozzi is his resemblance to Picabia’s biomechanic forms.)

Having Your Heads

We are made up of our surroundings. Archeologists can reconstruct the diet a person had from their bones and teeth, because our bodies are effectively built out of that diet. Similarly, what we consume culturally, the world we encounter, doesn’t just affect us but goes on to compose us. And Paolozzi’s screenprints can effectively x-ray all that, show us back to ourselves in all our constituent parts. See for example the two images below - ’Automobile Head’ (1954), where a head is composed of car parts, and ’Man Holds The Key’ (1972), which reworks the human body as a transmutational “chemical factory”.

But Paolozzi’s not yet done with the head…

As said after the Academy’s ‘Revolution: Russian Art’ exhibition, “we tend to think of the human head, representing individual identity while forming one of the most basic shapes, as one of the those irreducible ‘building blocks’ of art.”

We regard the head as the most indivisible part of us, the centre of the self, the part of us where ‘we’ actually reside - hence expressions such as “keep your head”. Even in collage, several different heads from different sources are normally combined to make a ‘complete’ one. Whereas, in works such as ‘The Return’ (1952, below) Paolozzi takes a whole head and chops and segmentises it like an apple.

But perhaps the real point is to combine those two notions. The indivisible self we once liked to conceive of is no longer, the accultured world we inhabit now interpenetrates between your synapses. The head of parts, the segments with spaces so open to input, has become our portrait. Brand names now enter our dreams at night.

Not that we should necessarily take this as a negative. A 1963 screenprint is called ’Metalization of a Dream’, a neologism replacing the more expected “manifestation” or “realization”. The ‘open head’ is seen as a two-way street, allowing our dreams to escape our confining craniums and take root in the external world.

The Future Arrives, The Future Disappoints (The Shiny Sixties)

In the Sixties Paolozzi started working with screenprints, their colours vivid and sumptuous at one at the same time. While the ’Bunk!’ collages had been rough and extemporised, these were produced by the professionals of Kelpra Studios. The Whitechapel describes them as having a “sleeker machine aesthetic.” An example, ‘Wittgenstein In New York’ from the series ‘As Is When’(1964/5) is below.

The tall figure motifs are compared to the buildings behind them, with one having his insides divided into rooms. While the other sports a digestive system which looks remarkably like pipework. The text refers to Wittgenstein’s “apparent physical vigour”, as if New York has energised him. When you’re in the city you’re also of it, some of it’s power and energy charges you.

Yet by this point an exchange has been made. Later Paolozzi is so much like later Dali. Everything is so much better, slicker, more accomplished. But in opposition to what came before, with their complex design they look a lot cleverer than they really are. When an artist can’t do their earlier work any better they instead do it more skilfully, as if hoping no-one will spot the difference. 

Noticeably the text isn’t incorporated into the images but now accompanies it, like reading an illustrated book. Which feels like a retreat from ’Bunk’s conceptual overload. Even the sculpture became sleeker and smoother, losing it’s original junkyard aesthetic.

Admittedly we’re not seeing these works as intended. They were made to be loosely bundled in a box, with some images on acetate, allowing you to combine them as you chose, shuffling the pack like playing cards. Stuck on the walls, they inevitably lose those sparks of free association. Both galleries feature closed cabinets of the plates, with the Whitechapel adding a video of people flipping through them. Alas, not enough.

For this reason the multi-image screenprints such as ’Will The Future Ruler of the Earth Come From the Ranks of Insects?’ (1970, above) work best. These were presumably based around the mini-ads you’d sometimes see in American comics, for patches or the like. Here the eye does what the hand would do with the print portfolios, not ‘reading’ across the images like panels in a sequence but zipping between them according to its own inclinations.

While his films worked for a similar reason, such as ’The History Of Nothing’ (1962, still above) or ‘Kakaponkakoon’ (1965). Like a sequel to his original slideshow, the films are made up of roving close-ups of sections of collages, accompanied by snatches of music. They’re almost precursors of the legendary Faust Tapes album, described on release as music that “time was pressing them to play”.

In 1968 Paolozzi spent three months in California, as a Visiting Professor in the University’s Art Department. After which it became unarguable. The glass window is now smashed, and the boy’s inside the sweetie shop tasting the Twinkie. And what could kill any romance more quickly than moving in together? It would of course be reductive to pin it all to a single incident, and indeed his art had been changing before then. But still, it’s indicative. Austerity was his rosebud, allowing him to dream uninterrupted. In abundance he lost his way.

(Some suggest that Paolozzi became more sharply politically critical of America as the Vietnam war progressed, and this has an impact on his art. But he certainly didn’t take up any kind of protest artist. If this contributed it just helped kill the unrequited love song without generating the bitter break-up number.)

Paolozzi later goes back to smaller, more condensed prints in the style of ‘Bunk’. with less bright geometries and more found images, as well as embarking on new exploits such as abstract art intended to represent music. But one highly significant aspect of his work is his public art. This is unfortunately passed over by all three exhibitions but the greatest sin is the Whitechapel’s, given how much of that art is in London. (
Disclaimer, it did include a 1982 study for the 1986 mosaic at Tottenham Court Road tube station.)

Paolozzi was influenced by some of the titans of Modernism (Schwitters, Giacommetti, Picabia) but had a remarkable ability to absorb and incorporate them, effective make them into elements of one vast, ongoing assemblage creature he concocted. In both his approach and importance he becomes a kind of British cousin to the great American post-war artist, Robert Rauschenberg.

Like Rauschenberg, Paolozzi tries to reinvent himself relentlessly, and like Rauschenberg by mid-career he ended up no longer himself. But, and also like Rauschenberg, he stages something of a late recovery. But mostly, like Rauschenberg, when he was at his best he represented a pinnacle of post-war art.

No comments:

Post a Comment