Born 1928 in London, United Kingdom.
Joe Tilson initially worked as a carpenter and joiner from 1944 to 1946, before carrying out his National Service in the RAF until 1949. He went on to study at St Martin’s School of Art, London from 1949 to 1952 and at the Royal College of Art, London from 1952 to 1955 where he received the Rome Prize, taking him to live in Italy in 1955. He returned to London in 1957, and from 1958 to 1963 he taught at St Martin’s School of Art, and subsequently at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London, Kings College, Newcastle upon Tyne, The School of Visual Arts, New York and the Hochschule fur Bildende Kunste, Hamburg.
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.
Although much of Tilson's work in the 1960s retained a handmade look, by the mid 1960s he was making creative use of technology, notably in his editioned screenprints and multiples.
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.
Tilson’s first one-man shows were held at the Marlborough Gallery, London in 1962 and at the Walker Art Gallery,
Liverpool in 1963. In 1977 he joined the Waddington Galleries and is at present represented by Theo Waddington Fine Art, the Alan Cristea Gallery and by Giò Marconi Galleries.
His work first gained international exposure at the XXXII Venice Biennale, leading to his first retrospective at the Boyman’s Museum, Rotterdam in 1964. Further retrospective exhibitions were held at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1979 and at the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol in 1984. He has continued to exhibit regularly in solo shows throughout the world and a major retrospective, ‘Joe Tilson: Pop to Present’, was held at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (Sackler Galleries) in 2002.
Among Tilson’s awards are the Gulbenkian Foundation Prize in 1960 and the Grand Prix d’Honneur, Biennale of Ljubljana in 1996, the year in which he was invited to paint the banner for the Palio, Siena. He was elected Royal Academician in 1991 and lives and works in London and Cortona, Tuscany.