We are now in the last few days of a major exhibition of one of Britain’s most important living artists, Joe Tilson (b. 1928). As a lifelong dedicated and subversive printmaker, Joe Tilson: Breaking the Rules focuses on Tilson’s graphic oeuvre, revealing a continuum in the artist’s preoccupations, inspirations, philosophy, and methods.
Over 45 works dating from 1967 to 2022, including prints made in the 1960s by Tilson, then an exponent of British Pop Art, and new hand-coloured editions, inspired by cultural history, demonstrate how Tilson, now aged 94 years, continues to defy and challenge the rule book of printmaking.
Tilson’s first experiments with printmaking began in the 1950s, when he trained at the Royal College of Art with Peter Blake, Allen Jones, Patrick Caulfield and David Hockney. Together with Tilson, these artists were instrumental in the birth of British Pop Art, a movement which successfully blurred the definition of what constituted a fine artwork, as artists began to use pre-existing commercial techniques such as screenprinting, in a completely innovative and revolutionary way.
In 1963 the Printmakers Council of Great Britain ordered an exhibition of collaged screenprints by Tilson to be shut down, claiming the works on show were not “not original prints”. Tilson responded by writing a list of everything one wasn’t supposed to do when making a print and then, over the ensuing years, he successfully incorporated all these proscribed elements into his editions.
By 1970 Tilson had become dissatisfied with the consumer society that Pop Art had done so much to highlight and turned instead to cultural history. He began to immerse himself more deeply in an understanding of our own nature and our place in the total environment of planet earth. Themes such as the four seasons, four elements, numbers, letters of the alphabet, and mantras, began to appear in his work. His repetition and grid arrangements of standard geometric shapes reflected the cycles of life and nature that he was exploring.
In the late 1970s Tilson was introduced to a new printing method, carborundum, by Henri Goetz, and became the first artist in Britain to use it. Earthearth ..., 1980, which will be exhibited, was one of the first prints by Tilson to use the method extensively. This new medium, which Tilson passed on to printers and students in England, allowed him to increase the intensity of his printed work by adding texture and depth.
Greek mythology became a major reference point for Tilson in the 1980s. Greek gods, muses, sacred tales of pilgrims and cycles of seasons and the harvest, became prominent in his work. A decade later Tilson’s profound and intimate involvement with Italy, a place he first visited aged 21 years in 1949, came to the forefront of his practice beginning with the series, Le Crete Senesi, 1995. Evoking the hills around Siena, the titles of the works are taken from the surrounding countryside and the colour palette is drawn from the earth of the Tuscan region - raw Siena, burnt Siena and burnt Umber, pigments that had been used for centuries in that part of Italy.
Tuscany also inspired Tilson’s Conjunction series, made between 1997 and 2005. Referencing ecological concerns, each Conjunction features a single image from the natural world, such as a bird, a butterfly or a flower next to a word written in Italian, such as ‘seed’, ‘thistle’, ‘moon’ or ‘air.’ Tilson’s interest and exploration of the enduring qualities of human civilization and it’s greatest achievements, is conveyed most passionately in his ongoing body of work, The Stones of Venice, which he began in 2007.
Each print in the series depicts Venetian church façades paired with bold geometric patterns of the city’s stone and tiled walls and floors. Defying traditional printmaking methods, these works are a combination of carborundum, etching, aquatint, inkjet, screenprint, and are often hand-coloured.
Tilson’s love of Italy continues to endure and new hand-coloured prints from The Stones of Venice series, made over recent years, will be exhibited.
If you would like to receive a list of works in the exhibition please contact [email protected].
Top image: Joe Tilson; The Stones of Venice La Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista (detail), 2015
Making a Mark with Joe Tilson
A new episode of the Cristea Roberts Gallery podcast series Making a Mark explores the life and work of Joe Tilson. Recorded in Tilson's London studio on the eve of his 94th birthday, we hear the artist talking about his life and work and the continued centrality of printmaking to his practice.
Contributors include gallery founder and director Alan Cristea, who has worked with Tilson since 1969; interior designer, founder and creative director of Firmdale Hotels, Kit Kemp, who collects Tilson’s prints and art historian, writer and curator Marco Livingstone, who has authored a new biography about Tilson, launching in May 2023. Presented by writer and critic, Charlotte Mullins.
Making a Mark, is a podcast series by Cristea Roberts Gallery exploring the relationship between artists and printmaking.
Image: Joe Tilson photographed in front of one of 24 double sided flags, created for The Flags, 2019. Copyright Swatch.
Joe Tilson: Breaking the Rules coincides with the release of Joe Tilson, a brand-new comprehensive monograph on the artist published by Lund Humphries.
The book will provide a definitive account of Tilson’s career, explored decade by decade, and is written by art historian, writer and curator Marco Livingstone.
Publication date: 1 May 2023