Even if you don’t know the name Eduardo Paolozzi, you’ll be aware of his work: he’s the man behind the brightly-coloured mosaics at Tottenham Court Road underground station.
These vibrant, energetic works – saxophones and commuters and abstract spheres – belie a man whose artistic life is perhaps best summed up as a prolonged existential howl.
Edinburgh-born Paolozzi came of age as an artist during the early 1950s, when the possibilities of the “space age” loomed large but Hiroshima still cast its long shadow. His response was to be at once fascinated and terrified by the impact of technology on humankind. Among his early sculptures were macabre, humanoid creations, buckling under their own weight, bleeding cogs and gears, described by one of Paolozzi’s contemporaries as resembling ancient, unearthed artefacts. Abstract paintings he made that decade, meanwhile, resemble eerie, deserted cities and faces being subsumed by machinery.
Later works seem to show more optimism, with his famous, intricate screen-prints made up of circuit-boards and space-ship components, although even these are interspersed with goose-stepping soldiers and the odd human heart. He also began to work with aluminium – a more space age material – instead of bronze, giving his sculptures a sleeker, less aggressive appearance, more in keeping with the optimism of the 1960s.
Paolozzi – like countless others – is credited as one of the forebears of pop art, and his collages made from pin-up girls and of tins of beans and Time magazine covers certainly helped to shape the movement. His works lampooning his place within that canon, however, are a low point in this show, his references to Warhol’s soup cans and Jasper Johns’ flags a little too knowing and snide.
But even towards the end of his career, the mistrust of technology pervades his best work. The final room in this excellent retrospective features a series of busts perched on industrial plinths, the faces cut open and twisted, with slivers of metal apparently bursting out from within.
With Elon Musk saying humans must merge with robots to survive, and Stephen Hawking warning of the dangers of artificial intelligence, Paolozzi’s foreboding preoccupations are more relevant than ever.
First published in City A.M.