An Endless Set of Combinations
Eduardo Paolozzi, Whitechapel Gallery, until 14 May 2017
Eduardo Paolozzi (1924–2005) was one of the most innovative and irreverent British artists of the 20th century. Considered the godfather of Pop Art, his powerful collages, sculptures and prints challenged artistic convention from the 1950s ‘Geometry of Fear’ all the way through the Swinging Sixties and on to the advent of Cool Britannia in the 1990s. From his postwar bronzes to revolutionary screen prints, collages and bold textile designs, the Whitechapel Gallery’s major retrospective aims to reassess Paolozzi’s varied and experimental artistic approach, and highlight the relevance of his work for artists today. Spanning five decades and featuring more than 250 works from public and private collections, the exhibition focuses on the artist’s radical explorations of material and form, processes and technologies, and his consistent rejection of aesthetic convention throughout his career. Rarely exhibited drawings, maquettes and sculptures shed new light on overlooked or lesser known aspects of his work. - Extracted from the Whitechapel Gallery Press Release
I asked the curator of the Whitechapel Gallery’s Eduardo Paolozzi exhibition, Daniel F. Herrmann, if the artist would have approved of his show, to which Herrmann replied, ‘that would depend on whether everyone else likes it.’ And right there is the rub with Paolozzi: he is still rather bafflingly underrated. Then again, he was an artist who spent a lifetime confounding the critics, so perhaps that should not be so surprising. While he may have been interested to hear that visitors liked his show, Paolozzi would not have cared less about the pundits. Speaking of which, one of the highlights of the Whitechapel show is Paolozzi’s Jeepers Creepers, an installation from 1972. For me, this piece is the stuff of legend, because
when Frank Whitford and the filmmaker Murray Grigor came together at the installation of the Tate’s 1971 retrospective, Paolozzi, who was friends with both men, asked them: ‘Can you two paint the clowns? Any colour you like.’ And they both immediately set to work, painting clowns in bright, gaudy colours. The artist had made a selection of works especially for the 1971 show, and this was one of them: a row of some two dozen plaster clowns, garden-gnomelike in appearance, arranged below an enormous candy-striped canvas. Paolozzi referred to them collectively as ‘the critics’. A rather prominent denunciation of modern art, Jeepers Creepers aimed to mock the spare stripe paintings of Paolozzi’s contemporaries, such as Kenneth Noland. He claimed to be nauseated by large abstract canvases, declaring that he could improve the abstract minimalist paintings of his peers by ‘adding something here and there’: hence the chorus line of clown critics. Grigor remembers being with Paolozzi at the dismantling of the exhibition, a month or so later, when he met the then Tate director, Sir Norman Reid. As they passed Jeepers Creepers Sir Norman remarked, ‘I expect we just junk that?’ ‘No!’ said Eduardo, ‘That one is going to Dundee.’ The catalogue of the 1971 Tate show sadly does not include an image of the clown installation as, at the time of going to press, the piece was still a work in progress. I have to wonder what happened to the now white (unpainted) clowns on their journey to Scotland: did the trip north of Hadrian’s Wall pale the poor ‘critics’? The Tate retrospective was not a success for the gallery, and there has been precious little in the way of major exposure for the artist since the mid-Seventies; accordingly, the Whitechapel catalogue boasts that this is the first significant international retrospective of Paolozzi’s work since the 1975 exhibition at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin.
My first visit to the Whitechapel show was on the morning of the press view. I joined the curator and a sizeable crowd as they were halfway through their tour. While I am not always keen to attend these viewings, in addition to the advantage of occasionally having the place more or less to myself, I confess to finding other people’s questions rather interesting; in particular, the frames of reference that they attach to the things they see intrigues me. On this occasion, we were on the upstairs floor of the Whitechapel, settled in front of Diana as an Engine I, a mesmeric shining painted aluminium totem,
which invokes Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt, in a style Paolozzi called ‘historical images re-interpreted to modern requirements’. Asked in 1957 why he had never previously made a female figure, Paolozzi answered: ‘maybe it is because of identification. One lives through the sculpture, though one doesn’t think that.’ When the story was related at the Whitechapel, the absence of female figures in the oeuvre to that point obviously struck a chord with one young woman in the group, who asked the curator if Paolozzi was gay. His response was a rather bewildered: ‘I don’t think so.’
Keen to start right at the beginning, I made my way back downstairs to a now almost empty gallery. One exhibit immediately caught my eye, stopping me in my tracks, and for good reason: I had another example of exactly the same piece, carefully wrapped in my overnight bag, that I intended to unveil later in the day, at the private view. Perhaps I was being naive in thinking that this particular work would not be on show. Anyway, as a result of a half-dare/half-bet, I had brought it with me, having been told it was ‘what Eduardo would have wanted.’ The private view was held that evening, and the time came to make good on my wager. I walked from Shoreditch with a small group of Paolozzi pals, and arrived at the gallery a little late, just as Nicole Farhi and her husband, David Hare, were leaving. The excitement exploded at the entrance. I gave my name to the door attendant and, as I took off my coat, she half-screamed: ‘Oh my God you’re wearing our dress!’ I suppose that is what is known as making an exhibition of oneself. Much to everyone’s surprise and amusement, I was indeed wearing one of the exhibits. A piece worn by the Queen on her coronation tour of the Commonwealth, it was a printed cotton cocktail dress, designed by John Tullis, and made by Horrockses Fashion in 1953 out of cloth designed by Paolozzi. Entitled Insects’ Wings, the fabric is printed in the brightest yellow, with the signature patterns of dots and dashes that Paolozzi used in many of his early 1950s prints and textile designs. The design has been compared to musical scores, aerial views of cities, and the new communications networks that were coming into being at the time. I was told several times, in several ways, on a sliding scale of pleasant to predator, that it was good to see the dress ‘fleshed out’. True, the mannequin was rather flat, no doubt on account of the postwar rationing that was
still going on in the early Fifties. Appropriately, given the name of the textile print, I found myself hovering and buzzing around the reception desk as a very familiar but utterly bizarre sight came into view. There, propped up by the great Antonio Carluccio, was a terracotta likeness of Eduardo: a crudely sculpted head, complete with flat-iron hair and toothy expression. As Carlucccio was in deep conversation with the curator, I decided to try to catch up with him later, when the godfather of Italian gastronomy in the U.K. would perhaps be free to fill me in on this extraordinary portrait.
Throughout the exhibition, despite its linear chronology, there is a strong sense of Paolozzi’s principle that art is characterised by ‘an endless set of combinations’. Each one of the exhibits could be moved around and displayed at will to make new narratives. Making my way through the gallery, I could not help but feel that I was embodying that spirit as textile design fleetingly met bronze, aluminium, ceramics, plaster and wood. The mixing of mediums and materials is typical Paolozzi. He rejected any traditional hierarchy in the arts that might, for example, give painting or sculpture a loftier status than textiles, printmaking or mosaic. Being on parade was fun for about half an hour or so, until constantly being stopped and asked for photographs got a little bit wearing. Despite the heat of the gallery, I therefore retrieved my coat, deciding to swelter rather than remain the centre of attention a moment longer. Besides, I had fulfilled my obligation.
I did not catch up with Antonio Carluccio – not that evening, anyway – but he left the terracotta head perched on a chair behind the reception desk, where it looked most odd and a little bit sad. Sensing a story (how could it be otherwise?), I dropped Carluccio a line in the post, asking if he would tell me about the piece. Two weeks later we met at the Chelsea Arts Club for lunch, and for the unravelling of the tale of the terracotta head. I have never met a friend of Eduardo’s that I have not liked enormously. I believe that there are two types of friendship: contextual ones, which are more transient, and those based on shared values. Eduardo’s friendship values were honesty, humility, wit and generosity, and Carluccio has them all in catering-sized ladles. So similar are they in temperament and warmth, that I felt as though I were sitting chatting with Eduardo again. I later found out that Carluccio had arrived at the club early, and so had presented himself to
the kitchen as an extra pair of hands, much to their delight and disbelief. In 1992 Carluccio and Paolozzi took part in a BBC challenge for which they exchanged jobs for a week: Carluccio taught Paolozzi how to cook the perfect polenta with ragu of rabbit, and in exchange Paolozzi taught Carluccio how to sculpt. The resulting sculptures were then fired at the Sculpture School at the Royal College of Art, where Eduardo was teaching at the time. The terracotta head I had seen at the Whitechapel was one of them.
It was at the RCA foundry in Kensington, while casting her first bronze, that Nicole Farhi, fashion designer turned sculptor, caught the eye of Paolozzi, and so began their relationship of mentor and friend. Farhi recalls:
I would often go to Eduardo’s studio, and he would show me how he was constructing his work by assembling prepared pieces: deconstructing the whole, and then rebuilding it as if a machine, and not the hand of man, were at work ... One of the first things he taught me was always to leave an unfinished piece in the studio to go back to the next day.
I have to say that, as a designer, this was one of the most valuable pieces of advice he gave me too: the importance of allowing a piece of work to ‘salt down’ as he so descriptively put it. This constant revisiting and revising of work is evident throughout the Whitechapel show. The last room, which does not feel like the end of the exhibition at all, contains a long heavy workbench, on which are placed a variety of maquettes and sculptures; these are viewed by an audience (facing them) made up of striking bronze heads, all placed individually on ratchet plinths. ‘Makery’, to coin a word, is very much to the fore here, and one gets the impression that, even though these works form part of a retrospective, they are still very much being worked on – nothing is final. Indeed, Paolozzi viewed the finalising of an artwork as an act of betrayal, and embraced the playfulness in repetition: the childlike impulse to ‘do it again’ that emphasises the making of copies and iterations of a piece, rather than consigning it to a pedestal. He sought to get away from the original ‘art object’, embracing ‘art process’ instead.
This retrospective is cluttered, and I am very happy indeed to say that this
is so. It feels like a museum rather than a gallery, and for that reason the show does a great job of catching the essence of the artist. Spirit and nature are so often lacking in exhibition design, where the hang and the lighting are the only considerations. On a 2001 trip to the Pompidou Centre in Paris, I was so struck by the Hitchcock et L’art exhibition, which was extraordinarily thrilling and atmospheric, that I was reduced to a state of anxiety on account of the fact that my Paris hotel room had no bath, only a shower: a fact that had been of no consequence before I saw the show. At the Whitechapel I very much liked the fact that, while limitations of space meant they could not accommodate any large-scale work, the compression of the display is very much in the spirit of Paolozzi.
Hanging on the wall of my studio is an artist’s proof of Eduardo’s Blueprints for a New Museum. I also have a few of the artist’s scrapbooks, with various snippets of this same collage pasted into the pages: with a Laocoön here and a rocket ship there, this is the artist’s very own take on collecting and curating. That interest is also played out in mosaic form at Tottenham Court Road Underground Station, at least in the 95% of the work that remains in situ. The other 5% has recently been controversially removed as part of the station’s Crossrail expansion, and there are plans to reconstruct it, over the next few years, at the Edinburgh College of Art, where Paolozzi studied in 1943 and later became a visiting professor. The idea is that it will eventually go on public display – a relocation that the Scottish press laughingly headlined as the mosaics ‘coming home’. Their home was Tottenham Court Road Underground Station, and they are no more at home in Edinburgh than Eduardo was at the time when they were made. I also lament the loss of The Artist as Hephaestus from London’s streets – High Holborn to be precise, and thereby hangs another sorry tale. If the Whitechapel had had space to include this piece, provided they could have tracked it down, it would have gone some way towards addressing the lack of monumental works within an otherwise excellent exhibition. In 1990 Paolozzi donated a full-sized plaster and polystyrene version of this self-portrait in the guise of the Greek god of blacksmiths to the National Portrait Gallery. This also would have been a joy to see.
Anyone expecting to visit the Whitechapel Gallery to view an exhibition
by a Pop Artist will have had their eyes opened by the show, which contains an enormous outpouring of inventiveness, of imagining and re-imagining, of making and breaking and reconstructing, that has far more in common with Surrealism than with Pop Art, on which subject the final word must go to Sir Eduardo Paolozzi:
It’s easier for me to identify with that tradition than to allow myself to be described by some term, invented by others, called ‘Pop’, which immediately means that you dive into a barrel of Coca-Cola bottles. What I like to think I’m doing is an extension of radical Surrealism.