Keith Tyson

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Keith Tyson
Born Keith Thomas Bower
(1969-08-23) 23 August 1969 (age 45)
Ulverston, Lancashire, England
Nationality British
Known for Painting, Drawing, Installation art
Awards Turner Prize, 2002

Keith Tyson (born Keith Thomas Bower,[1] 23 August 1969) is an English artist. In 2002, he was the winner of the Turner Prize. His work is concerned with an interest in generative systems, and an embrace of the complexity and interconnectedness of existence.[1] Tyson works in a wide range of media, including painting, drawing and installation.

Early life[edit]

Bower moved to Dalton-in-Furness when he was four, adopting his stepfather's Christian name Tyson. He showed an interest in and talent for art at an early age, having been inspired by his "very creative and enthusiastic" primary school art teacher.[2] However he left school at the age of 15 without qualifications, and took employment as a fitter and turner with VSEL (Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd., now BAE Systems) in Barrow-in-Furness.[citation needed]

In 1989, he began an art foundation course at the Carlisle College of Art, and the following year he moved south to take up a place on experimental Alternative Practice degree at The Faculty of Arts and Architecture, University of Brighton (1990–1993).


During the 1990s, Tyson’s practice was dominated by the Artmachine, which was the first means through which Tyson explored his ongoing interest in randomness, causality, and the question of how things come into being. The Artmachine was a method Tyson developed which used a combination of computer programmes, flow charts and books in order to generate chance combinations of words and ideas, which were then realised in practice as artworks in a wide range of media.

The results of the Artmachine became the basis of Tyson’s earliest exhibited artworks; The Artmachine Iterations, as these works became known, established Tyson’s reputation in the UK and internationally as an original artist and thinker, and by 1999 he had mounted solo exhibitions in London, New York, Paris and Zürich, as well as contributed to group shows throughout Europe, North America and Australia.

From 1999, Tyson’s interests practice turned from the Artmachine towards an artistic approach which explored the same thematic terrain, but this time directly by his own hand. The first such body of work was entitled Drawing and Thinking. Many of these works were installed in the international exhibition in the 2001 Venice Biennale

In 2002, Tyson mounted Supercollider at South London Gallery and then the Kunsthalle Zürich in Switzerland. The name of the exhibition, derived from the popular name for the CERN particle accelerator in Geneva, indicated the significance of scientific ways of seeing and thinking about the world to Tyson’s art at this time.

In December 2002, Tyson was awarded the British visual arts award, the Turner Prize. The other shortlisted artists that year were Fiona Banner, Liam Gillick and Catherine Yass. The Turner Prize was notorious that year not so much for the controversial nature of the work of the shortlisted artists as in previous years, but because of the comments of then Culture Minister Kim Howells. His comments that the Turner Prize exhibition at Tate Britain consisted of "cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit" were greeted with both approval and criticism in the media.

Keith Tyson's, Large Field Array, 2006, PaceWildenstein Gallery, New York

In 2005, The following year, Tyson first exhibited his most monumental and ambitious work to date, Large Field Array, in the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, which then travelled to the De Pont Museum of Contemporary Art in the Netherlands and The Pace Gallery in New York. His most recent exhibition in London was in December 2007, when Tyson showed at Haunch of Venison Ten Years of Studio Paintings, 1997 - 2007. Tyson has referred to these drawings as:

a kind of journal…like Van Gogh’s letters.[this quote needs a citation]

The drawings Tyson created on his studio wall collectively act like a kind of sketchbook for the paintings and the larger multimedia installations that have characterized Tyson’s later career. In 2009 Tyson's work was shown at the Hayward Gallery as part of the group exhibition "Walking in My Mind".


The Artmachine Iterations[edit]

Only a fraction of the instructions issued from the Artmachine were realised as artworks (the Artmachine generated around 12,000 proposals which are still unmade[3]), but many of the playful and inventive mixed media works that were created include a twenty-four foot painting made from bathroom sealant, and a painting of a hangman’s noose using toothpaste and music CDs.

Large Field Array[edit]

Described by Walter Robinson as "nothing less than a complete Pop cosmology",[4] Large Field Array comprises 300 modular units, most formed from into implied 2-foot cubes; the cubes are arranged into a grid occupying both the floor and walls of a gallery when installed. Each highly crafted cubic sculpture represents a unique yet highly recognizable feature of the world, from popular culture to natural history. Sculptures as diverse as a representation of American billionaire Donald Trump’s wedding cake, a chimney with a bird on top of it with a satellite dish, and a chair made of skeletons, were all constructed and arranged. The installation invited the viewer/participant to negotiate his or her own path through a seemingly random assortment of images and ideas, echoing the mental processes which create free associations between disparate phenomena which so fascinate Tyson.

The Nature Paintings (2005–2008)[edit]

A mixture of paints, pigments and chemicals are allowed to interact in specific ways upon an acid primed aluminium panel. The combined processes of gravity, chemical reaction, temperature, hydrophobia and evaporation simultaneously conspire to create surfaces reminiscent of a wide range of natural forms and landscapes. In this respect, the paintings seem to be depict nature, but they are also created by nature as well.

Studio Wall Drawings (1997–present)[edit]

Collectively these works on paper represent Tyson’s sketchbook or journal. Each ‘Wall Drawing’ is made on a sheet of paper measuring 158 cm x 126 cm, the same dimensions as a small wall in Tyson’s original studio where he used to draw-up notes. Over the years these sheets have recorded his ideas, emotional tone and mood, visits people made to the studio, world events and even economic fluctuations. They are often exhibited in large non-chronological grids to form solid walls of diverse images, and text.

Representing galleries[edit]

Critical responses[edit]


The judging panel of the 2002 Turner Prize, which awarded the £20,000 prize to Tyson, consisted of the critic Michael Archer, then Director of the Hayward Gallery, Susan Ferleger Brades, director of the Musée National d'Art Moderne, at the Centre Georges Pompidou Alfred Pacquement, and collector Greville Worthington. They awarded the prize to Tyson, as they “admired the way in which his work embraces the poetic, the logical, the humorous and the fantastical and draws connections between them,” and praised “the strong visual energy of his work across a wide range of media.”[5]

In the press, The Times art critic Rachel Campbell-Johnston agreed that “In a series of one-man and group exhibitions, his paintings and puzzles, sculptures and contraptions - contemporary successors to Duchamp’s chance-based works - have delighted and tantalised an tangled into knots the minds of viewers...Tyson’s works are like experiments, made not to prove facts but to promote creativity. This is why he was the right winner this year.”[6]

Similarly, the critic Alex Farquharson commended the conceptual reach of Tyson’s Supercollider exhibition at the South London Gallery in 2002 claiming of the works assembled, 'Together they present the tragi-comedy of trying to make sense of life, whatever interpretative system is used, including the fluid and pluralistic medium of contemporary art.'[7]


Some art critics have been sceptical of the claim that Tyson’s work derives from and appeals to big and difficult ideas, and have seen his work as more kitsch than complex. Writing about Large Field Array in Art in America, Matthew Guy Nichols wrote: “These associations proliferate in many directions at once, creating an endless chain of signification that theoretically links all the units in the grid and ultimately asserts that everything in the universe in somehow connected. While this possibility is interesting to ponder...Large Field Array can also seem more trite than profound. This may be due to the extremely high production values and hyper-realism of the sculptures, which would make more visual sense in the context of certain theme parks. Indeed, I found myself thinking that Walt Disney had already addressed these issues in his Magic Kingdom, to the tune of ‘It’s a small world after all.’”[8]

Some of Tyson’s more hostile critics, by contrast, have acknowledged and respected the intellectual rigour of Tyson’s work, but have felt that he is too dispassionate and clinical an artist. Adrian Searle has written that, “Tyson’s conceptually inventive and quirky games - like watching Douglas Adams meet Marcel Duchamp over chess - leave me a bit cold. I find the profligacy of his art wearying.”[9] Michael Glover, also writing about Tyson’s Turner Prize victory, agreed that, “Tyson has a big brain and lots of loudly voiced ideas about the ‘global totality of knowledge and language’ but, taken together, the work seems emotionally thin, more the tricksy, adroit antics of some brainbox than art of any memorable substance.”[10]

Personal life[edit]

In his personal life, Tyson has admitted to having experienced a gambling addiction[11] at various times during his adult life, which he confronted just before he won the Turner Prize in 2002.[citation needed]

His favourite gambling method was roulette, which he described as:

the full Dostoevsky - it’s your life in a spin. Once you get in the flow of that, it’s almost like a religious experience.[12]

The roulette table is one of the inspirations behind his acclaimed History Paintings series, and other motifs from gambling and betting recur throughout his work. The University of Brighton awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Letters in summer 2005.


  1. ^ a b Keith Tyson, Mead Carney Fine Art. Retrieved 9 June 2012.
  2. ^ Keith Tyson, 'Can do better', The Guardian, 26 June 2006
  3. ^ Barrell, 'Rising to the equation'
  4. ^ Walter Robinson, 'Weekend Update',, 11 November 2007
  5. ^ Quoted on BBC Online, 'Keith Tyson wins 2002 Turner', 9 December 2002
  6. ^ Rachel Campbell-Johnston, 'The shock of the now', The Times, 10 December 2002 [1]
  7. ^ Alex Farquharson, 'Keith Tyson', Frieze, April 2002
  8. ^ Matthew Guy Nichols, 'Keith Tyson at PaceWildenstein', Art in America, February 2008
  9. ^ Adrian Searle, 'Accessible yet incomprehensible', The Guardian, 10 December 2002 [2]
  10. ^ Michael Glover, 'Michael Glover: Behind all the noise and brash ideas lies the banal trickery of a brainbox', The Independent, 9 December 2002
  11. ^ Jonathan Romney, 'On cloud nine: Turner Prize-winner Keith Tyson reveals the surprising ideas behind his mind-bending work', The Independent, 13 September 2009. Retrieved 9 June 2012.
  12. ^ Tony Barrell, 'Rising to the equation', The Sunday Times, 30 November 2003 [3]

Further reading[edit]

Solo and group exhibition catalogues
  • Cloud Choreography and Other Emergent Systems, Parasol Unit foundation for contemporary art, London, 2009
  • Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art, Barbican Art Gallery, London, 2008
  • Keith Tyson, Studio Wall Drawings 1997–2007, Haunch of Venison, London, 2007
  • Keith Tyson, Large Field Array, Louisiana Museum, Denmark, 2006
  • How to Improve the World: 60 Years of British Art, Hayward Gallery, London, 2006
  • Keith Tyson, Geno Pheno, PaceWildenstein, New York/Haunch of Venison, London, 2005
  • Keith Tyson, History Paintings, 2005
  • Dionysiac, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2005
  • Head to Hand, Drawings by Keith Tyson, Thea Westreich & Ethan Wagner, New York, 2002
  • Keith Tyson, Kunsthalle Zürich, Switzerland, 2002
  • Supercollider, South London Gallery, London, 2002
  • Turner Prize Exhibition, Tate Britain, London, 2002
  • Public Affairs, Kunsthaus Zürich, Switzerland, 2002
  • Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis, Tate Modern, London, 2000
  • Over the Edges, SMAK-Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, Gent, 2000
  • Dream Machines, Hayward Gallery, London, 2000
Secondary works
  • Mark Rappolt, 'Life, the Universe and Everything', Art Review, February 2007
  • Rachel Withers, ‘Keith Tyson’, Artforum, March 2005
  • Marcus Verhagen, 'Keith Tyson', Art Monthly, December 2004 - January 2005
  • Michael Archer, 'Primordial Soups', Parkett 71, 2004
  • Ethan Wagner and Keith Tyson, 'A Conversation', Parkett 71, 2004
  • Hans Rudolph Reust, 'Fabulous Art', Parkett 71, 2004
  • Tony Barrell, ‘Rising to the Equation’, Sunday Times Magazine, 30 November 2003 [4]
  • Virginia Button, The Turner Prize: Twenty Years, Tate Publishing, 2003
  • Matthew Collings, Art Crazy Nation: The Post Blimey Art World, 21 Publishing Ltd, 2001
  • Louisa Buck, Moving Targets 2, A Users Guide to British Art Now, Tate Publishing, London, 2000

External links[edit]