Joe Tilson (1928–2023)

12Nov. 15, 2023The names

Joe Tilson (1928–2023)

Pathbreaking British Pop artist Joe Tilson, a onetime teenage joiner who gained renown for his colorful wooden reliefs and constructions and for his vibrant prints of repeated motifs, died at home in London on November 9 at the age of ninety-five. Exploring first commercialism, then political activism and social change, and finally philosophy and pre-Classical mythology, Tilson over the course of a career that spanned seven decades consistently refused stasis in favor of creating works that were disparate in influence, materials, and appearance. He shied away from the concept of the artist as a brand and championed viewers’ firsthand experience of art as important to the work itself. “What artists say about their work, I wouldn’t take any notice of that,” he told theArt Newspaperearlier this year. “The meaning’s in you.”RelatedMOHAMED ALMUSIBLI TO LEAD KUNSTHALLE BASELCOLETTE PIERCE BURNETTE LEAVES NEWFIELDS AFTER 15 MONTHS AS CEO Joe Tilson was born on August 24, 1928, to impoverished parents who were both telegraph operators. Growing up in South London, he gained an interest in art the age of eight, when he won a local contest to design a road safety banner.

Discouraged by his father from pursuing his passion, he enrolled at the age of thirteen in the Brixton School of Building and at fifteen got a job in a factory making tables. In 1946, at the age of eighteen, he was called up to the Royal Air Force, in which he served for three years. Upon his discharge, armed with an FET, or “further education and training,” grant and a lump sum, he enrolled in London’s St. Martin’s School of Art, where he fell in with contemporaries including Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. In 1952, he entered the Royal College of Art, where he became friends with Peter Blake and David Hockney. On graduating in 1955, he was awarded the prestigious Rome Prize, and went to the Italian capital to paint.

While there, he met his future wife, then Joslyn Morton, with whom he lived in Sicily and then in Venice before returning to London in 1958. That year, he began teaching at his old alma mater, St. Martin’s; he would go on to teach at London’s Slade School of Fine Art, and at New York’s School of Visual Arts. Tilson in the early 1960s was experimenting heavily with materials such as cement, sackcloth, and wood. In 1962, he had his first solo show, at London’s Marlborough Gallery. In 1964, he was invited to show in the British Pavilion at the Thirty-Second Venice Biennale, known as the Pop Art Biennale for its inclusion of Jim Dine, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, and Tilson, among others.

Having grown up in somewhat bleak surrounds, he was influenced by the bright promise of American advertising, with its punchy colors, bold logos, and exuberant sensibility. His work of the time reflected that, as embodied in the reliefGeometry? 7, 1964, which spells the title word in a highly stylized typeface, and the rainbow pyramidZikkurat 9, 1967. Apparent in works of this nature were a fascination with puzzles and a concern, shared by fellow Pop artists such as Blake and Richard Hamilton, with troubling the hierarchy between original and copy. “The Pop Art period—which at first was called New Image Painting or Object Painting—grew out of a belief at that time, pre-Vietnam, that everything was good about America – Hollywood, the movies, a celebration of new things,” Tilson toldRA Magazinein 2013. “But by 1967–68 I had changed direction radically because of the war.” Tilson began making works that responded to the countercultural politics to which he and his wife were by then deeply committed. Chief among these were his 1969 series “Pages,” a group of works characterized by 3D wooden grids whose layout mirrored that of radical newspapers of the time, into each of which was slotted a fabric screen print of an article or image, many of these taken from or referencing such publications.

In 1972, he decamped with his family to a former rectory in Wiltshire, where he embraced natural materials such as rope, stone, and straw, and created works, many comprising repeated symbols or words burned or branded into wood, centered on themes such as the four elements—air, wind, water, and fire—or the Aboriginal notion of “dream time.” In the early 2000s, Tilson and his wife moved back to London, living in a Victorian workers’ cottage near Sloane Square, though, as they had for decades, they continued to maintain a home and studio in Tuscany, and a studio in Venice. Tilson this year enjoyed retrospectives at both the Marlborough Gallery and at London’s Cristea Roberts Gallery. As well, Lund Humphries published a monograph of his work. Tilson was named a Royal Academician in 1991, and a Senior Academician in 2003, the year after a major retrospective of his oeuvre presented by the Royal Academy. His work is held in the collections of major institutions around the world, including the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven; the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool; Tate and the Victoria & Albert Museum, both in London; the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam; the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon; and the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome..