Eduardo Paolozzi is perhaps best known for his work in public spaces: the mosaics in Tottenham Court Road tube station and Redditch town centre, an imposing figure of Newton outside the British Library and bronze sculptures in Euston Square, Pimlico, Edinburgh and Newcastle.
These large-scale works are much-loved (and lamented in the case of Tottenham Court Road), yet they represent just a fraction of Paolozzi’s output. In a career spanning five decades, he worked in a range of media, producing collages, ceramics, textiles, tapestries, record sleeves, films, book covers and graphic prints. He also produced intricate wooden panels for the ceiling of Cleish Castle in Kinross-shire and aluminium doors for the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, and taught sculpture, ceramics and textile design in the UK and Germany.
Paolozzi’s work features some common themes (a striking use of colour and pattern, a fascination with machines, pop culture and surrealism), but is astonishingly diverse, ranging from Brutalist concrete sculptures to monochromatic screenprints and collages assembled from magazine ads.
Like his contemporaries Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg (currently the subject of a must-see exhibition at Tate Modern), he was a multidisciplinary, multi-talented artist: one who was constantly striving to push boundaries and challenge convention.
The Whitechapel Gallery’s show celebrates Paolozzi’s varied and experimental approach with a look at some 250 pieces from throughout his career. It is the first major retrospective of his work since a mid-career show at the Tate in 1971 and comes almost 12 years after his death.
The exhibition is grouped into four chronological sections and begins with his concrete sculptures from the 1940s and 50s. Highlights include cocktail dresses created for textile company Horrockses, his spectacular aluminium sculpture Diana as an Engine and the Whitworth Tapestry: four metres wide and commissioned by the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester in 1967.
The exhibition also features collages and materials from Paolozzi’s groundbreaking performance lecture Bunk! and an archival display of Lost Magic Kingdoms – an exhibition he curated for London’s Museum of Mankind in 1986. (The show brought together a seemingly disparate collection of objects from the museum’s collection, exploring the role of the artist as curator and encouraging people to look at objects in a new light.)
Curator Daniel Herrmann says the show highlights Paolozzi’s tireless creativity and his relevance to contemporary artists. “Paolozzi was one of the most diverse, heterogeneous and versatile artists to emerge from post-war Britain,” he says. “That versatility and plethora of interests is something that’s very interesting to artists and visitors to the Whitechapel today – how Paolozzi works in different mediums and doesn’t let himself be pinned down to one particular category…. He also has a certain uncompromising vision – he’s interested in particular themes and materialities but he doesn’t run after fashion.”
The exhibition is accompanied by a book featuring essays by art critic Hal Foster and curator Jon Wood. In March, the Whitechapel is hosting an evening of Paolozzi-inspired performance and a day-long symposium covering curation, collage, display and the role of the artist. The gallery has also worked with Transport for London to produce a guide to where you can find his works around London.
With rarely seen drawings, sculptures and maquettes, the exhibition aims to shine a light on lesser-known aspects of Paolozzi’s work. Recent exhibitions in London, Chichester and Colchester have focused instead on particular aspects of Paolozzi’s career, from his collages to his textiles venture Hammer Prints, but by bringing together a vast collection of work, the Whitechapel hopes to celebrate the complexities, contradictions and nuances in Paolozzi’s art.
“[Paolozzi] very much rebelled against being pigeonholed,” says Herrmann. “He rejected the simplicity that comes with a genre label and that opposition towards being confined, towards tradition and convention, is something I find really fascinating about him. I think he inspired and influenced a lot of artists and art lovers to have a wide variety of interests and follow [their] passions.”
Eduardo Paolozzi is at the Whitechapel Gallery, London E1 7QX, from February 16 2016 until May 14 2017. For full details, go to whitechapelgallery.org