In the late 1950s he began to produce reliefs in wood, making use of his carpentry skills and achieving by 1961 a highly formalised abstract language. He responded quickly to the emergence of Pop art, adapting his language of forms to the creation of objects reminiscent of children's toys in their construction, bold colours and schematised imagery. Tilson continued throughout the 1960s to explore the potential both of grids as a structural device and of emblematic imagery linking, sometimes tautologically, the written word with the object quality of the constructed motif.
In 1972 Tilson began deliberately to project his adoption of a simpler rural existence. He again favoured traditional craftsmanship in wood. He became interested in the symbolism of the four elements and in natural cycles. In his paintings and prints of the 1980s he often used inscriptions and motifs drawn from pre-Classical mythology. His preference was later for a variety of more traditional techniques, including etching, aquatint, woodcut and carborundum, sometimes combined in displays of impressive virtuosity.
Joe Tilson: Pages (exh. cat., London, Marlborough F.A., 1970)
Joe Tilson (exh. cat., Rotterdam, Mus. Boymans–van Beuningen, 1973) [with texts by the artist]
A. C. Quintavalle: Tilson, preface P. Restany (Milan, 1977)
M. Compton and M. Livingstone: Tilson (London and Milan, 1993)
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