Earlier in 2014, the Tate Modern in London put on a fantastic retrospective exhibition of Richard Hamilton’s work (I snapped this post’s main image, “Epiphany” 1964, while I was there). I was unfamiliar with his art but left the gallery hugely impressed, particularly by Hamilton’s sense of humour. To my surprise, I came across a review by my dad of Hamilton’s Tate exhibition in 1983 (now the Tate Britain) in his autobiography. I can’t seem to find any reference to the dog show he mentions unfortunately – I’d love to see footage of that. – AZ
The Hamilton exhibition at the Tate. I go automatically, not out of any journalistic duty – I’m not expecting much. I was never an adherent of his. The years of enthusiasm for pop art ended years ago anyway, but not all of its heroes have denied this gospel from twenty years ago, one which was supposed to herald a new millennium of popular art. Back then, McLuhan predicted the total blurring of the differences between so-called reality and so-called art, but his prediction has not come true. The current vanguard marches in a completely different direction.
Richard Hamilton belongs to those who remained on the ramparts. He is 61 these days and can be regarded as the father of English pop art, which, from the start, was a reaction against aestheticism as well as abstract expressionism. Its realism was a defence of democratic mediocrity, a deification of the banal, a commercial for the artificial needs of the so-called consumer market. It used methods taken from commercial television at the time, the tabloid press, billboard advertising – in one word, mass media.
Looking at his present exhibition, Richard Hamilton has remained in this territory. As opposed to the works of today’s vanguard, which are full of convoluted allusions, his works do not demand an exegesis – they are completely lucid and his themes are obvious to all – especially since they so often concern universally-known people like Bing Crosby and Marilyn Monroe, or scandals that were trumpeted by the press, or common objects used everyday that are advertised on television, such as a vacuum cleaner or toaster.
But the mood of these pieces is not obvious. They are done “half-joking, half-serious”, while their “gallantry” is deceptive. It’s never clear whether Hamilton is mocking himself and what he’s doing – like how it was at his famous exhibition for dogs made up of pseudo-primitive little paintings hung 20 centimetres above the ground, which on the day of the preview were, as we all saw on television, ceremonially pissed on by a nervous Doberman.
Hamilton’s interests in diverse technical methods, coupled with his utterly shameless eclecticism and pluralism, do not permit him the creation of his own consistent style. In spite of this however, his trademark rejection of any heroism, majesty and romantic expressiveness for things of the most mundane subject matter, Hamilton gives us something individual. While the surrealists attempted to objectivise the subjective world of the subconscious, Hamilton strives to reveal the secret meanings of the objective facts which make up our everyday life. The cult surrounding the material manifestations of life is for him the playful reaction of a western artist to the abstract idealism coming from Malevich, Kandinsky and Gabo. It is also evidence, or an honest admiration, of the worth produced by capitalism, or an ironic commentary on its morals. Either way, Hamilton articulates the special mysticism of the big-city environment, and it is on this that his art relies.