Metafisikal Experiments

By Poynor, Rick | Eye : The International Review of Graphic Design, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Metafisikal Experiments


Poynor, Rick, Eye : The International Review of Graphic Design


Metafisikal experiments The Jet Age Compendium: Paolozzi at Ambit By Eduardo Paolozzi. Introduction by David Brittain. Four Corners Books, £12.95

Reviewed by Rick Poynor

It has always surprised me that Eduardo Paolozzi, who died in 2005, doesn't have more admirers among designers and image-makers working in the field of visual communication. The Scottish artist had a brilliantly graphic eye, a command of form, colour, pattern, visual rhythm, montage and design that few graphic artists of the era could match. He began collecting images from popular culture in the 1940s - pulp magazine covers, tin can labels, cartoon characters - and pasted them together as collages in scrapbooks. As a member of the Independent Group in the 1950s, his preoccupation with American advertising and the imagery of the entertainment industry anticipated the concerns of Pop Art. In the 1960s, when his interests turned from sculpture to printmaking, he produced screenprints that still look astonishingly definitive and mythic in their complex synthesis of imagery drawn from science, mass media, technology, comic books, Hollywood and the military.

Paolozzi's friend, the late J. G. Ballard, Ambit's prose editor, introduced him to Dr Martin Bax, the editor, and Paolozzi began a long involvement with the quarterly, which published poems, short stories, drawings and criticism. The Jet Age Compendium, with a text by David Brittain - who has written about Ambit for Eye (no. 65 vol. 17) - reprints all of Paolozzi's major contributions. In John Morgan's design for the Compendium these are interspersed, in a kind of editorial collage, with covers, contents pages and pages of advertising to give the flavour of the publication. A separate booklet printed on green paper carries Brittain's illustrated text.

In the 1960s, inspired by his reading of Joyce, Burroughs and the Surrealist writer Raymond Roussel, Paolozzi harboured literary ambitions. The art historian Diane Kirkpatrick notes that writing was an almost daily activity for him at the time. His first artist's book, Metafisikal Translations (1962), includes texts stencil-printed with a John Bull printing outfit, while Kex (1966 - see Eye no. 21 vol. 6) blends together found texts about history, ornithology, interior decoration and physics. Many of the 101 loose screenprints in Moonstrips Empire News (1967) present found texts printed in different typefaces and colours, and the same source material became the starting point for 'Moonstrips-General Dynamic F.U.N.', Paolozzi's first contribution to Ambit. In an interview not cited in the booklet, published in 1984, Bax explained how he and Ballard went through a huge pile of 300 or 400 texts, cutting and arranging Paolozzi's material so it had 'some sort of curious logic'. Brittain sees the piece as a representation of media saturation and its cultural interest is not in doubt, but he skips over the question of how this dense 'conceptual web' (Kirkpatrick's term) was meant to be read - by non-linear scanning? - or whether the text is still worth reading now.

Brittain is more engaged by the theme of protest against the Vietnam War that runs through three of Paolozzi's more substantial contributions. This begins with 'Why We Are in Vietnam', a possible play on Norman Mailer's Why Are We in Vietnam? and the first instalment of a proposed novel sequence. Paolozzi, ever the collagist, juxtaposes images of bullet testing, President Lyndon Johnson, counterculture nudity and aerial destruction, and ends with the damning line: 'Much of American opinion is based on hearsay, misinformation, half-truth, and personal prejudice. …

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