Joe Tilson is best known for his works in the Pop art movement of the 1950s and 1960s and working alongside his close friends and contemporaries Leon Kossoff, R.B. Kitaj, Patrick Caulfield, and Peter Blake. Guillaume Vandame, interested in an exhibition at Marlborough Fine Art in 2013 that looked to revise the understanding of Tilson beyond that period, spoke to Tilson about ritual, image-making and archaeology.
A week after the opening of the exhibition, titled Joe Tilson: A Survey at Marlborough Fine Art in London, I met with Joe Tilson at the gallery to discuss his interest in the ritual of contemporary life. The works in the show span from the 1950s to 2012 and exemplify his admiration for mixed media, painting, and printmaking, demonstrating Tilson’s fluid and protean style, drawing from a range of sources including mythology, religion, and everyday life.
GV: Thank you for doing this interview with me. The first issue of CON.TEXT looks at the theme of ritual. Can you tell me about the role ritual has for you in your work?
JT: Ritual, when you say that word to me, immediately brings to mind religion. I think ritual, surely is always connected to religion. My work is deeply connected to religion, but it is certainly not obvious. The centrality of the images I make actually have their origin in Egyptian architecture which then carried on in Greece; the temple complex and Attila’s centrality. You walk in a line, and at the end of the line inside the building is a sacred image. The Roman Basilica comes from that, and in all the churches I still go and visit in Venice, many of them still have an altarpiece in the centre under the dome; it is vertical and symmetrical. So verticality and symmetry are, in fact, part of ritual, in the sense that they are religious and it comes isolated in a long line of Mediterranean art.
In my work, but not in my prints, you can see verticality and symmetry and that’s where it comes from. In that context you can say, ‘Yes, I am part of the European tradition – which is Christian – whether you like it or not.’ So it is Christian, it is ritual and there is a background, but it is certainly not held as a conscious concept. I don’t think ‘Oh yes I am doing Christian art.’ It just is what happens.
GV: And what role do you feel context has for your work?
JT: Well, I think there was a term invented by Berenson called ‘Homeless Paintings’ and Berenson invented the term in Italy because in Italy he was looking at either frescoes, which are fixed to the wall, or altarpieces, which were installed in the church. And over the years, during the ravages of time, five degradations and warfare, gradually they were cut out, sawed off in bits and pieces. In fact, I go to the National Gallery and to me it’s a tragedy because it is like the debris of a civilization crumbled and you just have bits on the wall.
It’s like Surrealism, placing together fragments of triptychs and diptychs, religious things, which would have been seen in a church lit by candles; not stuck on a wall. I can look at it and get close and I am close to the actual painting and all those painters I love, but there is no doubt where the painting should be – in the context from which they have been brutally ripped and sawed out. So that is my idea of context.
GV: I notice with the work you have in the show, some of the works use acrylic and other works you use oil. Can you describe the process of how you work and why you choose to use certain materials?
JT: I think, in the work, there must be at least twenty or thirty materials actually; some of which you are probably unaware. For instance, I use a glass called Latimer glass, which is a white glass invented on the island of Murano, near Venice, where I now live, and it was invented to copy porcelain. When I went to the island of Murano and saw this particular glass, I made some reliefs in terracotta clay, which were then fired and I gave to the moulders in Milano, from which they made moulds out of metal, from which they pour the liquid molten white glass, from which the reliefs come.
“When I was here at the Marlborough back in the 1960s, the Printmakers Council of Britain wrote to Marlborough and said, you should take out the works of Kitaj, Paolozzi, and Tilson because these are not prints.”
There’s also plain glass and I also use watercolour, pencil, chalk, crayon, collage, paper, plastic, but as you see around you, many, many different materials and techniques. One of the things I’ve done with printmaking is take it beyond the traditions of printmaking. When I was here at the Marlborough back in the 1960s, the Printmakers Council of Britain wrote to Marlborough and said, you should take out the works of Kitaj, Paolozzi, and Tilson because these are not prints. They had defined what is an ‘original print’ and these did not fit in the category; I had put print on plastic, wood and canvas. Therefore, I think it’s completely irrelevant to me, this idiotic delineation of boxes and categories.
GV: How do you think printmaking has changed since the 1960s?
JT: Well printmaking is always changing and a lot of it is connected to commercial things in the sense that lithography, I think, was first of all invented not for art at all, but as a method of putting down information. Printmaking, if you consider it in its wider context and the multiple, the first multiple is about 40,000 years ago. It’s when those early men took a mouthful of pigment and they put their hand on the cave and they (blows air) spatted making a mark. And they moved their hand a little and (blows air) and made a second mark. That was the first reproduction of the similar image. That’s been going on for a long time. If you think about it our lives are totally based on the reproduction of images. And that’s an essential part of reproduction. Reproduction is not just printmaking but art printmaking is happening in the world in this moment. Thousands of images are being made, printed.
My printmaking comes out of commercial printing not art printing. I studied printmaking at the Royal College of Art and the first thing the teacher of print said was, ‘There is no such thing as colour etching. It can’t be done.’ And of course, this is absurd – this was 1952.
GV: Can you describe what it was like when you were studying at university?
JT: I never went to university. I left school at 15 and I studied at the Brixton School of Building. The Brixton School of Building taught on five floors: bricklaying, plastering, plumbing, painting and decorating, woodwork, and on the top floor, stone carving. So you went from one floor to another, learning the techniques of the different trades and then they shut it, which was very sad. So I learned the different techniques at the age of 13, 14 and then I went to work in a factory making tables, then I became a joiner on the bench making doors and work like that, until I ended up working on buildings as a labourer, and at the age of 18, was called out to do three years of military service. I left the air force with some money and immediately went to spend three months in Italy. My education is physical with learned trades, travelling and looking at art. I decided to be a painter at the age of eight and I was busy.
GV: I was wondering if you could explain a little bit about the significance of the dot.
JT: Hmmm. Dots I suppose come from cubism, although I see quite a few dots in Fra Angelico. Some people think my work is related to the dots of Dubuffet. I think dots have always existed. Where dots have a slight change in significance is with the half-tone dot, as I use with the print of Che Guevara. The half-tone dot as you know is a technique in printing which gives you a photographic result. If you look closely at the dots, they are just bigger and smaller, and at distance your eye reads them in a totality. The half-tone dot is very apparent in those works.
GV: And then in some other examples from the catalogue, you also have some works which use the dot in a handmade way.
JT: Yes, that painting Geometry? That was actually putting together two completely different ideas or views: that’s a geometric structure and a play on words because it actually says G-E-O-M-E-T-R-Y, then I threw at random a series of cutout circles. I just dropped them and then I painted them in their place. So it’s a combination of a geometric structure and randomness. Random is a thing that was around in those days with John Cage.
“If you think about it our lives are totally based on the reproduction of images.”
GV: And do you feel it relates to this work over here (Sky, Greek Cross, and Dodecagon)?
JT: Oh yes, absolutely. The trouble with my works is that they are very, very layered and the complexity unfortunately takes the viewer in the wrong direction or a new direction because that painting in fact has many references. In Sky, you take these blocks on that side and insert them there, you will see that all those blocks from that side can go into the cross and from the cross, all those blocks can go to the dodecagon where the word, S-K-Y, is in dots across it.
GV: That’s fascinating.
JT: At that time, Peter and I subscribed to Scientific American, so we read a lot of ideas on scientific interest including Gardener, who wrote a lot of books on mathematics and puzzles. So that idea comes from various things connected with the puzzle and geometry. Geometry is very odd and very interesting.
GV: And with this particular work and other works do you feel that the idea of contemporary art and archaeology means something to you in terms of revival, reinvention or rediscovery?
JT: Well, obviously my work is very archaeological in the sense that I grew up in Europe, I spent all of my life traveling all over Greece and Italy and looking at old things at the British Museum. My work, therefore, is clearly informed by that experience, which is true of all modern art, I mean look at the knowledge of Picasso in relationship to the ideas he picked up at the Musée de l’Homme. It’s curious: prior to that it was just the French collection of things brought back by the colonialists and that, obviously, is what I had access to from the beginning. The first museum I went to in south London was the Horniman Museum, full of artefacts brought back by Horniman as curios. Isn’t this weird? They weren’t weird curios to Picasso, Matisse or Braque. African sculpture had a strong influence on their work and cubism comes directly out of that. There’s a lot of archaeology in early 20th century art.