Space travel, and in particular the 'space race' of the early 1960s between the Americans and the Russians, was a popular theme among British Pop artists including Richard Hamilton, Derek Boshier and Gerald Laing. Joe Tilson first addressed himself to these world-changing events in works such as Space Trophy 1962 (oil on wood relief) and Astronaut Puzzle 1963 (oil on wood relief, 132 x 102.8 cm, Carpeggiani Collection, Venice), in which a design featuring a lone space traveller is fragmented into 25 identically-sized triangles that can notionally be repositioned within the overall triangular format in any chosen configuration.
The sense of play of that 1963 work, and the presentation of a constructed painting as an assembly of parts that can be redistributed at will by the work's owner, turning him or her from a passive observer into an active participant, is cleverly rephrased half a decade later in Gagarin, Star, Triangle. In this later case the cut-out sections comprise the pieces of two separate puzzles, one in the shape of a six-pointed star, the other in the format of an equilateral triangle. That the constituent parts are actually fixed into position - they appear to be cut out and glued on, but are actually part of the same panels as the surrounding monochrome surfaces - dictates that the spectator must mentally reconstitute the whole through an act of visual memory. The appearance of incompleteness of each half of the diptych thus becomes an eloquent metaphor for a work shown as if caught in the act of being made, and for the mental agility required of both artist and spectator in recognizing that transformation and fixing it in the mind in both its 'before' and 'after' states.
The Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin (1934-68), referred to as The Most Handsome Hero of the Cosmos in the title of a Boshier painting of 1962, made history weeks before Alan Shepard became the first American to reach outer space on 5 May 1961. Gagarin's orbit of our planet on 12 April 1961 made him the first human to complete such a journey. In recognition of this achievement he was made the subject of various works by Tilson in the late 1960s, just before the American landing on the moon. Chief among these works is Transparency I: Yuri Gagarin 12 April 1961, 1968 (screenprint and mixed media on plastic, 121.9 x 121.9 x 5.1 cm, collection Tate), a painting in the form of a hugely enlarged 35mm slide featuring the same screenprinted photographic portrait of the cosmonaut in his cockpit, taken from a televised image. In the case of the equally bold diptych Gagarin, Star, Triangle, and in a much smaller version of the same title and date, the same image has been reversed, as can be deduced from the fragments of the original caption and from the erasing of the initials shown prominently on the helmet in the Tate work.
Tilson's first Pop works of the early 1960s were determinedly handmade, often constructed out of wood and painted with conventional artist's brushes in such a way as to convey a personal touch. By the middle of the decade, Tilson had come to embrace the more machine-made look and impersonal surfaces associated with American Pop Art, in particular making use of photo silkscreening, as employed since 1962 by Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, when appropriating images from the mass media. These artefacts, particularly when presented as beautifully manufactured consumer goods, looked like - and were meant to look like - luxury items. It was in works such as these that Tilson was briefly caught up in the optimism about the potential of science and technology for improving the quality of life, as asserted by Harold Wilson in his celebrated 'white heat of technology' speech at the 1963 annual Labour Party conference.
Tilson's very choice of materials, setting aside for the moment traditional artist's oils in favour of modern synthetic materials such as acrylic paint, silkscreen ink, vacuum-formed plastic and polyurethane - rewarding the viewer with a surface as succulent and dense in colour, and as impersonal and artificial, as that of the most advanced design products of the decade - gives physical expression to this belief in the future. The screenprinting for all of Tilson's paintings of this period, whether on canvas or (as here) on board, was carried out by the master printer Chris Prater, with whom he was then also making editioned prints. (The same screen was truncated for the version measuring 61 x 122 overall, giving the impression that the cosmonaut's face is seen in closer proximity.) Certain processes at that time were farmed out to specialist fabricators, but in this case the painting of the surface was actually carried out by the artist himself in the studio, with a perfect, high-gloss lustre the end result. The polyurethane paint employed here had only recently come on the market, intended for use in painting furniture. It was advertised as very strong, hard-wearing and long-lasting, as has proved to be the case in this group of Tilson paintings. Some of those works, such as the Transparencies, were spray-painted by him to achieve an even and immaculate surface; others, such as this diptych, were painted by him with brushes, resulting in an equally perfect sheen. The sense of exploration of new frontiers implicit in the use of these procedures and industrial materials is reinforced by the choice of imagery, nowhere more explicitly so than in these works concerning space travel.
Tilson's fascination with modern technology was to prove short-lived, painted as it was for him by the demands of Capitalism with which it was so closely associated. A disillusionment set in, as for so many of his generation, when the Vietnam war was at its peak: the clash of values, the lingering tensions of the Cold War, brought with it a deep suspicion of the previous decade's love affair with consumerism and a simplistic belief in progress. The works in which Tilson employed such advanced methods and materials in the late 1960s, including a series that made reference to the front pages of underground and counterculture newspapers and that featured such heroes of the radical left as Che Guevara, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Ho Chi Minh, thus turned out paradoxically to be also among his most politically motivated. The artist's decision in 1972 to relocate with his family from London to rural Wiltshire spelled the end of an era and a conscious return to first principles, to a life lived in harmony with nature, to timeless themes such as the four elements and once again to methods of fabrication wholly reliant on the handmade. Nothing about this later volte-face, however, diminishes the power, the streamlined seductiveness and the gleaming beauty of works such as Gagarin, Star, Triangle, made during a brief period when Tilson unapologetically expressed his attraction to the modern world.
We would like to thank Marco Livingstone for preparing this entry, and through him Joe Tilson for confirming factual details.