Pop Art became part of the Western visual culture through Andy Warhol’s iconic prints and Roy Lichtenstein’s colourful drawings, one of which will be presented by Art-Rite at the coming October auction. This said, it is important to remind that this is not an American-only phenomenon. On the contrary, Pop Art appeared first on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, in the United Kingdom. Joe Tilson is indeed one of the key figures of this chapter in the history of art. In this post, we will present two works of the artist included in the next auction "...for Demeter" (lot n.75) and "Labyrinthos" (lot n.77).
Tilson was born in London in 1928. After serving in the Royal Air Force during World War II, he began his studies at the St Martin’s School of Art, one of the most important art institutions in England and home to relevant contemporary artists such as Richard Long and Antony Gormley. Moreover, in 1955 Tilson won the prestigious Rome Prize, allowing promising artists to spend an educational period in Italy. In the following years, he visited Rome, Sicily, and Venice, where he married the artist Joslyn Morton in 1956. He then went on to develop a successful career as a professor at St Martin’s and display his works in prestigious venues. For instance, in 1964 he participated in his first Venice Biennale in the British pavilion. This happened during the XXXII edition, which was later known for the participation of several famous pop artists, including renowned figures such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.
The work proposed by Art-Rite will be put on sale on the 23rd of October. The piece was signed and dated by hand “Tilson – June 1976”. This is a peculiarly relevant period for the artist’s production, as in the 1970s the first pop influences were replaced by a tendency toward symbolist utopias, partly derived from Tilson’s contact with the literary works of Ezra Pound and William B. Yeats, as well as the classical world through Neoplatonic philosophy. The works produced in this period show a lyrical sensibility which evokes the natural world through a sense of nostalgia. Tilson looks at the classical world so as to oppose the modern industrial alienation. He evokes mysterious forms, fascinating the viewer with creations which never fully reveal their meaning.
For Demeter is a work on paper which integrates different techniques. First, the pencil drawing constitutes the structure of the composition. Tilson leaves it visible, he does not attempt to hide it but rather lets the viewer see it beneath the layers of colour, applied through coloured pencils and watercolours. Furthermore, he also adds portions of collage, introducing heterogeneous elements and superimposing different planes within the work of art itself. Other intertextual devices are used too, as he adds the Greek word “xthoneia” in the lower portion of the square. The various symbolical references collaborate through their respective meanings as well as through the different materials used to reach out to the viewer. Text, images, and forms are all put in place within the ordered grid. In this regard, each space is numbered from 1 to 12, thus suggesting an interpretative order or some classification scheme which makes sense of the image.
The title "...for Demeter" relates to Tilson’s classical references throughout the 1970s. It is one among many other signals of the classical influences on his oeuvre. Other interesting signs include the pomegranate in slot number 5, made of dense red paint. In the classical symbology, the pomegranate indicates opulence and fortune, and is thus related to the character of Demeter as goddess of agriculture and prosperity. Another clear reference is the labyrinth placed in square number 11. This is related to the myth of Daedalus and his adventures in the island of Crete. These are accompanied by rather obscure references, which do not fully reveal their meaning. For instance, slot number 2 hosts an object formed by three concentric circles, probably an eye or maybe a target; space number 7, then, is occupied by a triangle, a symbolical shape, formed by ten smaller dots whose meaning is left mysterious.
Tilson’s work of art was made in a peculiarly interesting period of his career, when his pop sensibility was channeled toward new, subtler themes. The work is still quite playful, as the grid combines different elements so as to generate unexpected connections. However, the reference to classical antiquity and the use of symbols such as the pomegranate and the labyrinth elevates the piece, which moves beyond a purely aesthetic dimension.