Displayed at Modern 2 at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, I Want to be a Machine takes its name from the famous quotation from Pop Art titan, Andy Warhol (1928-1987). An exhibition chronicling the development of Warhol’s work, focusing on his interest in technology and the changing landscape of the 20th century, runs parallel with a similarly themed exhibition of key work by Leith-born Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005). While there is distinct delineation between the two artists in the gallery’s presentation, the implicit commonalities between them could not be more striking. The chronological arrangement of the works of each artist serves to highlight their shared key artistic influences, such as Paul Klee; their mutual thematic preoccupations, such as commercialism and technology, and their simultaneous pioneeringly experimental use of screen printing.
Room one showcases some of Warhol’s early work, including a substantial collection of pieces from the 1950s created using his signature ‘blotted line’ technique: a form of monoprinting that resulted in irregular, crude-appearing ink images. These pieces contain defining qualities that foreshadow much of his iconic later work. Here we see the roots of his interest in the mirrored image and Rorschach. The Runaway Pigeon (1953), a representation of a woman’s profile, displays the simplification of the subject’s facial features he would later use in the pop prints with which his name is now synonymous.
Room two is dominated by a collection of such prints – a portfolio of ten garishly colourful screen prints of Marilyn Monroe. Despite the starkness of the image, the different colour effects in each print create dramatically differing moods and altered interpretations of the subject. We might feel we are very familiar with Warhol, but the impact of the piece “in real life”, so to speak, is remarkable. Other highlights in this room include Black Bean, a 1968 image of a Campbell’s soup tin, devised when his vision regarding this particular series had been thoroughly honed. We get an indication of his celebrity status and a snapshot of his glittering artistic coterie during the 60s and 70s in this room, as commissioned work he produced in collaboration with the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Roy Lichtenstein and Keith Haring are presented alongside his photographic portraits, whose subjects range from Gilbert and George to Grace Jones.
As we move upstairs to the Paolozzi leg of the exhibition, we are confronted by Vulcan (1990); Paolozzi’s giant aluminium sculpture which is half-man, half-machine, and stands, looming over the gallery’s cafe, underneath the intricate, distinctly idiosyncratic fibreglass resin and aluminium ceiling panels the artist made for Cleish Castle in 1973.
Room three displays some of Paolozzi’s early work, bearing the influence of European Surrealism and indicating his life-long interest in combining the ancient and modern. In the 40s and 50s, like Warhol, Paolozzi was fascinated with Americana, advertising and magazine images, evident in collages such as Real Gold (1949) and Take-Off (1952). His interest in the overwhelming impact of technology can be traced to his early depictions of fish and insects, often presented in a grid-like format, which is more evocative of machinery than of the natural world.
Room four contains, among other gems, a few key examples of Paolozzi’s signature sculptures. His pivotal transition from bronze to aluminium structures in the early 1960s can be seen in pieces such as Tyrannical Tower Crowned with Thorns of Violence (1961). Reproductions of early collages he presented in his seminal 1952 lecture, Bunk, are presented here in recognition of their profound influence on the Pop Art movement of the 60s. His early experiments with colourful screen printing, which predate those of Warhol, are represented by Metallization of a Dream (1963).
The two artists share a space only in the final room, room five, which displays a series of Warhol’s film posters alongside a replica of Paolozzi’s studio. Nevertheless, a gratifying element of I Want to be a Machine is the exhibition’s recognition of the parity between Paolozzi and Warhol. While Leith’s own artistic lad o’pairts is acknowledged by the art world as the founding father of Pop Art, it’s safe to say that less invested, mainstream audiences – particularly those outside of Scotland – are more likely to be familiar with Warhol’s name and legacy than with Paolozzi’s. Edinburgh has done some commendable work in the past few months to redress this, notably The Royal Academy’s recent exhibition Conversations with Paolozzi and the publication by Luath Press of Paolozzi at Large in Edinburgh, edited by Chrstine de Luca and Carlo Pirozzi. Nevertheless, to have the parallels between the two artists so frankly presented in a large exhibition such as this, feels timely, warranted, and is rewarding to witness.