Edited by Daniel F. Herrmann
Whitechapel Gallery ($50)
by M. Kasper
Since his death in 2005, Eduardo Paolozzi’s reputation as one of postwar Britain’s most versatile, productive, and celebrated visual artists has been further burnished by a stream of specialized publications and posthumous art exhibits. Of the former, mention should be made of the brilliant duet The Jet Age Compendium: Paolozzi at Ambit (2009) and Eduardo Paolozzi at New Worlds (2013) by David Brittain, both of which are about the artist’s literary contributions and collaborations in the 1960s and ’70s. Among exhibits, the Whitechapel Gallery’s early 2017 show was the second of two big retrospectives and its catalogue, as well as representing the show, is itself a significant addition to Paolozzi studies.
Paolozzi is often called a founding father of Pop Art, though the Dada revival he helped initiate in Euro-America in the late 1940s was closer to the Pictures Generation, more intellectual and more self-consciously avant-garde, than most American Pop. That, and the enduring spookiness of his Brutalist bronze cyborgs from the ’50s, along with the techno-psychedelic screenprints from the ’60s that so influentially forecast pixilated graphics, keeps him relevant.
In the scene-setting first essay in this Whitechapel catalogue, exhibition curator Daniel F. Herrmann thoughtfully lays out the artist’s life and long career: his difficult childhood in an Italian immigrant family in Edinburgh, his brief internment as a teenager during World War II, the focus and drive that led him to pursue a comprehensive art education in schools and out, his alignment in London in the early ’50s with the proto-Pop Independent Group, his bronze then aluminum sculptures, his technically inventive and richly evocative serigraphs from the ’60s, and the large public commissions of his later years.
The catalogue essays that follow, for the most part, consider unfamiliar biographical byways and lesser-known bodies of work from the artist’s fifty-plus years of prodigious output. They’re organized in four chronological chunks corresponding to distinct parts of his career. Standouts include Hal Foster’s treatment of the sources and ideas around Paolozzi’s early bronzes; insightful as always, Foster characterizes one of Paolozzi’s ambitions as “not to bring high art low in a parodic critique, so much . . . as to reposition both high and low in a horizontal continuum of culture.” Beth Williamson’s summary of Paolozzi’s pedagogical thinking and practice from his time teaching art to children in the ’50s is noteworthy as well, as is Lisa Maddigan Newby’s even-handed account of Paolozzi’s curation of “Lost Magic Kingdoms” in the mid-’80s at the British Museum, an ethnographic-Surrealist show that combined Museum holdings with works of his own and created a critical furor. Also, Anne Massey’s succinctly informative piece on the 1963 artist’s book, The Metallization of a Dream, and Elly Thomas’s on “repetition and recombination” in Suwasa, an outdoor metal sculpture that began life as part of a playground commissioned by Terence Conran, are among the sparkling one-page essays scattered in the catalogue. Using short-prose—that quintessentially experimental genre—is a wonderful editorial stroke, unusual but apt for an exhibition catalogue devoted to an avant-gardist.
The book is copiously illustrated, the quality of reproduction is high, and the picture selection is excellent. Especially, the inclusion of complete sequences of some of the print portfolios, notably all forty-five sheets from the 1972 edition of Bunk, will be widely appreciated. But too many of the reproductions are too small; that’s a particular problem with images of Paolozzi’s large screenprints, which are crowded with detail that gets lost in these reductions. Unfortunately, too, the book is marred by typos, and if you want to track down references in the introduction’s final ten footnotes, forget it, they’re missing. Despite those flaws this is an essential monograph, especially for libraries, full of fascinating new research about a prodigious artist whose full range is still being measured.