April 24th, 2005


Paolozzi, titan of the postmodern

The artist Eduardo Paolozzi has died aged 81. Perhaps I should call him "independent Scottish pop legend Eduardo Paolozzi". Paolozzi didn't strum in a Postcard Records band, though: his "independence" comes with his membership of the incredibly influential Independent Group in the 1950s and his "pop" comes from, well, the fact that he more or less invented Pop Art. Not in 1960, but in 1947. Not in America, but in Paris.

Those of us who see Pop Art as the first postmodern art movement might also see Paolozzi as one of the colossal progenitors of the cultural era we're still in, a Titan of the postmodern. As Frank Whitford's excellent Guardian obituary puts it, "everything he created began as an accumulation of unrelated images culled from a wide variety of sources which, when rearranged, achieved a new and surprising unity... For most of his audience [of the 1952 "Bunk" projections at the ICA], the juxtaposition of the weighty and trivial, the artistic and technological, was a revelation. The collages suggested a radically new aesthetic, which, before the end of the decade, was to form the basis of pop art."

The son of Italian immigrants, he was born on Crown Place, Leith, in Edinburgh's driech and dreary docklands, where his dad's ice cream shop brought some much-needed colour and cosmopolitanism (you can see gorgeous ice cream pastels all over his work -- just have a look at the tiling at Oxford Circus tube station). In 1947, after being interned as an enemy alien and even imprisoned (his father was an admirer of Mussolini), Paolozzi left Britain and went to live in Paris, where he met Giacometti, Tzara, Arp, Brancusi, Braque and Léger, and fell under the influence of Surrealism and art brut. In the late 40s he developed the page-tearing high-low collage style which, with Richard Hamilton, he would develop in the mid-50s into an "ironism of affirmation" (in Hamilton's words), a deep ambivalence towards the tall-finned and sharky commercial culture then coming out of America.

But, as Philip Dodd observes in The Independent, Paolozzi was far more interested in European culture than American, leaving it to artists like Warhol to pick up his distanced take on the American visual commercial landscape more than a decade later. By 1964 Paolozzi had moved on from Pop to work about Wittgenstein because, remembers Dodd, "he told me he wanted to find a European intellectual to pit against all the unthinking genuflection towards the Americans."

My personal reverence for Paolozzi comes not just from the fact that he shares my hometown and my Eurocentrism, but from his membership of the Independent Group, which he helped found at the ICA in 1952. The Independent Group is, for me, the beginning of British postmodernism, an intellectual R&D organisation whose exhibitions -- from 1953's "Parallel of Life and Art" at the ICA (a visual investigation into the mass media, science and technology and their impact on art) to 1956's seminal show at the Whitechapel Gallery, "This Is Tomorrow" -- brought together Britain's most advanced artists (Paolozzi, Hamilton), architects (the Smithsons) and thinkers like Lawrence Alloway and the brilliant essayist Reyner Banham, whose bearded figure can be seen astride a Moulton folding bicycle inside James Goggin's sleeve for my Otto Spooky album.

Ceramics, sculpture, textiles, slide projections, animated films, collage, brainstorming, art teaching, Paolozzi did it all with an intellectual curiosity, a sense of absurdity, appetite and play which makes him, to this day, a peculiarly un-British figure. Whitford again: "Paolozzi's only full retrospective in Britain, at the Tate gallery in 1971, ...was a critical flop. This was the lowest point in Paolozzi's artistic development. But he began to work with renewed energy in 1974, after being invited to West Berlin... Paolozzi loved Germany. He was exhilarated by the dynamism of its cities and the high regard in which artists were held." Philip Dodd, who's writing Paolozzi's biography, uses a Wittgenstein aphorism as his epitaph: "No one did anything great who did not do something ridiculous."