The undersung British artist who effectively invented pop art - Eduardo Paolozzi, Whitechapel Gallery review

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Real Gold (from the Bunk! portfolio), by Eduardo Paolozzi, 1972; Courtesy goldmarkart.com
Detail from Real Gold (from the Bunk! portfolio), by Eduardo Paolozzi, 1972; Courtesy goldmarkart.com Credit: © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS/Whitechapel Gallery

The prodigiously productive son of a Scottish-Italian ice-cream family, Eduardo Paolozzi was one of the key British post-war artists. Yet 12 years on from his death, he’s an oddly undersung figure. That may be because the artist, as this fascinating show reveals, never fully aligned himself to any club or movement – not even the ones he instigated himself.

Paolozzi effectively invented pop art, collaging brash consumer imagery from US magazines encountered while living in Paris in the late Forties. His so-called Bunk lecture, at London’s ICA in 1952 and recreated here, at which these rough-and-ready but ground-breaking amalgams of pin-ups, fast cars and fast food were launched on narrow-minded, austerity era-London, is generally regarded as the opening salvo of the global pop art movement.

Yet Paolozzi wasn’t temperamentally suited to being a pop artist, with none of the knowing cool of his friend and occasional collaborator Richard Hamilton, let alone Andy Warhol. His bronze junk collage sculptures, meanwhile, saw him lumped in with the Geometry of Fear sculptors, including Lynn Chadwick and Kenneth Armitage, who couldn’t have been further from pop art.

Eduardo Paolozzi's Wittgenstein in New York (from the As is When portfolio), 1965; Courtesy Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Credit: © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS/Whitechapel Gallery

Yet where those artists’ stark, expressive forms drew on the natural world, Paolozzi’s sources were primarily industrial. The extraordinary, densely textured bronze figures dominating the lower gallery combine the blasted, post-atomic quality typical of European sculpture of the time with a touch of Heath-Robinsonian British eccentricity.

Paolozzi was first and foremost a hands-on maker and doer, but he set about eliminating the human touch from his work, in sculptures that became increasingly manufactured in appearance, culminating in Diana as an Engine I (1963-66), which resembles some heavy-industrial component painted in strident gloss. His Wittgenstein series of silkscreen prints from 1965, meanwhile, inspired by the Viennese philosopher’s notion that his ideas were a form of collage, is one of the great achievements of 20th‑century British graphic art. Paolozzzi’s instinct for layering and interweaving eye-popping pattern, texture and colour is quite astounding.

A 1970 screenprint by Eduardo Paolozzi; courtesy Independent Gallery, London; image courtesy Venator & Hanstein, Cologne Credit: © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS/Whitechapel Gallery

Always ambivalent about the pop art tag, he used his 1971 Tate retrospective, we are told, as an opportunity to stick two fingers up at what he saw as the American-dominated critical establishment. Pop Art Redefined, depicting a jovial elephant painting a Jasper Johns-style American flag, takes an obvious swipe at Paolozzi’s American contemporaries, while Jeepers Creepers, a row of plaster clowns, each labelled with the name of a spurious-sounding art movement (such as Realistic Modernism or Concrete Abstractionism), sends up po‑faced critical orthodoxy.

Paolozzi retreated into abstraction, revisiting the industrial-art deco textures first seen in his Wittgenstein series, with their interweaving curves and ripples, in endless and ever more complex prints and reliefs. Suwasa, a serpentine floor‑sculpture, isolates just one of these elements to powerful monumental effect, but a busy untitled plywood relief feels like the work of an artist stuck in a rut.

Eduardo Paolozzi's Le Robot Robert Voulait Aller a New York Mais Le Passenger Est Trop Lourd / TWA Plain-Steps-Cap 14 Persons with two Stewardesses and Wonder Toy (from the Cloud Atomic Laboratory portfolio), 1971; Courtesy C L E A R I N G New York / Brussels Credit: © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS

The show ends with the fractured figurative sculptures of the Nineties. The idea of slicing up and reconfiguring heads and figures goes right back to Paolozzi’s late-Forties pop art collages, and the quality of these works varies wildly. The best have a visceral totemic power, with the jagged planes of the faces seeming to fight each other for dominance; the worst, such as a portrait of architect Richard Rogers, have a painful clunkiness.

Anyone who has seen the recreation of Paolozzi’s studio in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, with its every surface crowded with works from this period, may feel the show could have gone further in evoking that quintessential Paolozzi feeling of brimming profusion here. None the less, the exhibition gives an excellent introduction to a fascinating, yet oddly inscrutable figure, a gifted idiot savant whose work could have filled 10 exhibitions this size.

Until April 16. Details: 020 7522 7888; whitechapelgallery.org