Joe Tilson: interview

Forget Warhol: London's New Generation were the original pop artists. And, embracing political protest and ecology, pioneer Joe Tilson has kept ahead of the times

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    'Zikkurat 9', 1967 

    Thirty years before a group of precocious art school graduates was given the YBA acronym and Britannia was tagged ‘Cool’ by New Labour, London was already being touted as one of the world’s foremost capitals of contemporary art. Joe Tilson was one of the young batch of artists discussed as forming The New Generation in an era-defining 1965 book, ‘A Private View: the Lively World of British Art’, which featured photographs of the scene by society portraitist Lord Snowdon. But Tilson, now fast approaching 80 and elder statesmanship of the British art world, is quick to dismiss any lingering myths about the heady days of swinging London: ‘They were black, grimy, dirty, smoky and horrible times. The food was rotten and grungy. You had to go to Soho to get a cup of coffee and you could only buy olive oil on prescription from Boots.’

    Tilson is also unsure about his legacy as one of the pioneering pop artists alongside friends and fellow Royal College of Art luminaries such as Peter Blake, RB Kitaj, Allen Jones and David Hockney. ‘It was really a reaction to being in London. We all shared views on popular culture but no one wanted to be called a pop artist in those days, especially Kitaj, who hated pop music, and Hockney, whose interests were more wide-ranging. We were a group but each individual had a particular line and my work temporarily joined that look.’

    Despite his protestations, few 1960s works are as iconic or historic as Tilson’s ‘A-Z Box of Friends and Family’, a complex relief of alphabetised compartments filled with miniature works by his contemporaries that reveals their collective connections and concerns. Like an artistic game of ‘Celebrity Squares’, the roll-call of names goes B for Derek Boshier, D for a tiny painting by David Hockney, L is for John Latham, R stands for Richard Hamilton, S for Richard Smith and so on. To prove that groupings and movements are never as simple as the history books make out, there is also the occasional non-pop artist – A for Frank Auerbach – as well as a discreet, coded survey of Tilson’s favoured symbols ending with a Z, for one of his trademark ziggurats, in the final slot.

    London is now widely credited as the birthplace of pop art, indeed as Tilson remembers it, ‘Peter Blake started to put repeated individual photographs in to two or three of his works long before Andy Warhol did.’ However, he adds: ‘America really had all those things that Europe and particularly London didn’t after the war; we were just the first to realise that and embrace Americana.’ In fact, this unerring worship for all things American is perhaps the hardest thing for an ex-pop artist like Tilson to come to terms with: ‘It was all positive in those days and now it is practically all negative. You find yourself in this curious situation of having propagated ideas of Americana and pop culture and now being very much opposed to it and trying to make a case for something quite different.’

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