The curator of a major exhibition in London discusses the artist’s endless capacity to reinvent himself
A major retrospective at London’s Whitechapel Gallery features more than 250 works by artist Eduardo Paolozzi who, as one of the founders of pop art, challenged convention from the 1950s to the 90s, through a combination of sculpture, design, collage and print. Curator Daniel F Herrmann reveals more.
ICON This is the first major retrospective of Paolozzi’s work in London for 40 years. Does it provide a new or fresh interpretation of his body of work compared with how he was viewed within his lifetime?
DANIEL HERRMANN Paolozzi was a powerhouse of British art. He represented Britain five times at the Venice Biennale and was one of the major figures in British pop art. There is a reason for this success: Paolozzi consistently pushed the boundaries of sculpture, collage and printmaking. He never let anyone tell him what to do.
Our exhibition will be a surprise for many visitors: We are showing his radical concrete sculptures of the 1950s and the ground-breaking pop art prints from the swinging sixties, but the exhibition also re-discovers his dazzling chrome sculptures and his sincere commitment to textile work. His steadfast rejection of artistic conventions feels enormously fresh – that’s the reason why there is a real resurgence of interest in his work from contemporary artists today.
ICON His portfolio is enormously diverse – ranging from public sculptures, prints and collages to records sleeves, prints, fashion design and mosaics on the London underground. What are the main threads that tie together his work?
DH There are several threads running through Paolozzi’s work: there is the clash of man and machine and a fascination with the collecting and recycling of images. Paolozzi was a magpie of popular culture: He loved leafing through advertisements, books and magazines, voraciously combing through the detritus of our consumer culture and turning it into works of art. The common denominator is Paolozzi’s unwavering belief in creativity. He constantly re-invented himself, never stood still, and always discovered something new.
ICON How did his work in design fit into his wider work as an artist?
DH From the very beginning, Paolozzi was very interested in textile design, furniture, and ceramics. We are very excited to show a 1953 Horrockses’ Cocktail dress, which the fashion company commissioned to promote the use of cotton in couture. Design and textiles were often viewed as domestic and docile – Paolozzi was having none of that. He broke down any barriers between categories such as ‘fine’ or ‘applied’ art, not only in the imagery that he used, but also in the material and the medium he chose.
ICON How significant are his experiments with materials, technology and processes – including collage – for contemporary the artists and designers?
DH Paolozzi was a highly critical thinker. He never considered himself just one thing – a sculptor, printmaker or ceramicist – and he opposed the hierarchies that are traditionally attached to these categories. That’s why his work was unabashedly experimental and never followed trends of fashion. This complex and even contradictory approach to work is really interesting to contemporary artists today.
ICON What was the impact of his public artworks? With news last year that Paolozzi’s sculpture in London’s Euston is in decay, do you hope that this exhibition might contribute in some way to a protection of works like this?
DH The direct presence of art works in the public life of the people was always an important part of Paolozzi’s practice, from early commissions at the Festival of Britain all the way to the stark figurative works like Newton after Blake at the British Library. For Paolozzi, art and creativity were a part of everyday life that was worth celebrating. I would be delighted if our exhibition helps to draw more attention to this essential part of art in our lives, and to ensure that we can celebrate this – both in the gallery and with well-maintained artworks in public.
Images: Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art; goldmarkart.com; Flowers Gallery; Government Art Collection; Norwyn Ltd and Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Preston; British Council Collection; The Whitworth, University of Manchester; CLEARING New York/Brussels; Independent Gallery, London, Venator & Hanstein, Cologne; Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art; Transport for London; Paul Grundy, British Library; Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS