Joe Tilson (1928-2023)

The artist Joe Tilson, a major figure in postwar British art, who is represented in CAM's collection with nine works, passed away.
13 dec 2023

On 9 November 2023, at the age of 95, Joe Tilson passed away. The artist, a major figure in postwar British art who played a leading role in the 1960s Pop Art movement, Tilson is featured in the CAM – Centro de Arte Moderna Gulbenkian collection with nine works from that era – from his signature and minute early wooden reliefs such as Wooden Relief n. 10 (1960), to the series of Abstract Expressionist paintings inspired in the tones and textures of Tuscany as Summer (1959) or September (1959), to his celebrated Pop constructions with vibrant colours like Xanadu (1962). Once hailed as ‘the forgotten king of British Pop art’, Tilson’s idiosyncratic oeuvre was celebrated only months ago in London with two large solo shows, and the launch of the first monograph on his work.

Tilson was born in south London, where he ended growing up after a Nazi attack sank one of the ships that his family was supposed to have boarded to migrate to Canada. He started out working as a carpenter and joiner between 1944 and 1946, and then served in the RAF from 1946 to 1949. After completing his military service, Tilson returned to London to study at St. Martin’s School Art (1949-59), where he crucially met his schoolmates Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach – as Tilson remarked, “It’s like saying I was in Holland and I met this bloke called Rembrandt.” Tilson then studied at the Royal College of Art (1952-55) and grew closer to young emerging artists such as Peter Blake, Allen Jones, Patrick Caulfield and David Hockney. He abandoned his largely constructivist work in wood, cement or cloth, in order to join that first Pop art generation through the use of photographs, silkscreens and collages. One of the most inventive artists of his generation in conflating the fine arts with popular art, Tilson was awarded the Rome Prize (1955) and settled in Italy for two years. After winning the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Award in 1960, he had his first solo exhibition in London in 1962, and his work was selected for the British pavilion at the Venice Biennial of 1964. The first retrospective of Tilson’s work was held at the Boymans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam (1971). He had his first solo exhibition in London in 1962, and his work was selected for the British pavilion at the Venice Biennial of 1964. After a brief stay in New York, a growing disenchantment with the collusion between North American culture, the war machine and a consumer society, led to a political radicalisation of his art in the late 1960s. In the 1970s, Tilson decided to move to the rural area of Wiltshire, and cut his ties with big urban centres and Pop culture in order to devote himself to topics related to Greek mythology or the indigenous communities of the Americas and Australia, bringing the colourful intensity of his abstractions to an eminently symbolic and ecological dimension, one closer to the earthly elements. Since then, and as part of an unending quest for new geographic and artistic directions, Tilson lived most of his time in Italy, and would chiefly focus on works on paper or glass.

Alongside the ceaseless work as an artist for over seventy years, Joe Tilson taught at St. Martin’s School of Art and Slade School of Fine Art in London, King’s College in Newcastle upon Tyne, the School of Visual Arts in New York, and the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Hamburg. In the early 2000s, Tilson moved back to London, but kept his studios in Cortona and Venice. He was elected Royal Academician in 1991, and became a Senior Academician in 2003, a year after the Royal Academy of Arts staged the largest retrospective of his work. Tilson was one of the artists recently chosen for the collection of the UK prime minister’s residence at Downing Street, and his works can be found in public spaces and the most prestigious museums of contemporary art around the world.

Afonso Dias Ramos

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