Joe Tilson

b. 1928

Joe Tilson (b. 1929, London, England) is one of the leading figures associated with the British Pop Art movement. Drawing on his experience as a carpenter and joiner in the 1940s, Tilson produced wooden reliefs and constructions, often brightly coloured, as well as multiples, prints and paintings. His signature ‘Geometry?’ and ‘Ziggurat’ works reveal a preoccupation with language, puzzle-making, visual play and symbols. As a student at the RCA in the 1950s, Tilson associated with Auerbach, Kossoff, Kitaj, Blake, Jones, Caulfield and Hockney. As the optimism of the early 1960s ceded to disillusionment with consumer society, Tilson’s work began responding to social, cultural and political shifts. His ‘Pages’ series spring from the anti-authoritarian politics in which Tilson and his wife participated, and variously reference Malcolm X, Che Guevara, and Ho Chi Minh. After moving to Wiltshire in 1972, Tilson began to use a wider variety of media including stone, straw and rope in an effort transcend time and culture by drawing on the motifs of pre-Classical mythology.


From 1944 to 1946 he worked as a carpenter and cabinet maker, and then served in the R.A.F. (1946–1949). He studied at St. Martin’s School of Art (1949 to 1952) and at the Royal College of Art, London (1952–1955) where he received the Rome Prize, taking him to live in Italy in 1955 and beginning a life-long association with the country. He returned to London in 1957, and from 1958 to 1963 he taught at St Martin’s School of Art, and subsequently at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London, and The School of Visual Arts, New York. In 1961 he exhibited at the Paris Biennale. Tilson’s first one-man show was held at the Marlborough Gallery, London (1962). His first retrospective was held at the Boymans Museum, Rotterdam in 1964. Further retrospective exhibitions were held at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1979 and at the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol in 1984. His work has been exhibited regularly in solo shows throughout the world: Cortona Centro Culturale Fontanella Borghese, Rome (1990), Plymouth City Museum (1991), Palazzo Pubblico, Siena (1995), Mestna Gallery, Ljubljana (1996) and Galleria Comunale d’Arte, Cesena (2000). A major retrospective was held at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 2002. Among Tilson’s awards are the Gulbenkian Foundation Prize (1960) and the Grand Prix d’Honneur, Biennale of Ljubljana (1996). He was elected Royal Academician in 1991 (ARA 1985).


Joe Tilson lives and works in London and Cortona, Tuscany.

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