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Richard Hamilton - an illustrator of ideas.

ONE balmy autumn day in 1975 1 went to the Serpentine Gallery in He had become famous in 1956 with his concipient collage |Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?' illustrating many of the desirable consumer icons of the time. With it he jettisoned himself and Pop Art into motion.

The walls of the Serpentine were hung with a great number of airbrushed and daubed landscapes, vaguely arcadian, with two pale models languishing amid the green glades. Prominent in the foreground was an unmistakable roll of toilet paper, the word |Andrex' clearly marked upon it. Alongside were a number of Cezanneque flower paintings. In |Flower Piece II' (No. 72) instead of the traditional enhancing element, a shell, some insect or a skull beneath the bowl of flowers there were instead two elongated brown objects -- could it be -- yes, indeed they were faeces. One or two such paintings might be considered amusing, but an entire exhibition?

At the recent Press showing of his retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery, Mr. Hamilton explained to a group of strangely muted journalists. Those canvases were a send-up of a conceptual advertising campaign -- conceived incidentally by the artist Bridget Riley -- to promote the new novelty of coloured, as opposed to white toilet paper. In a high-minded comment at the time Hamilton said |flowery allure is an irrelevant anachronism in the context of cultural ideas of our period. It takes perversity and a touch of irony to make it tolerable'.

The late vituperative art critic Peter Fuller's famous attack on Hamilton dates from this time. |It was the Serpentine exhibition', he wrote, |that made me realize just what an whore of an artist he was', was one of his kinder comments. He was by no means alone in thinking that these paintings should be relegated to the incinerator of history.

This is Richard Hamilton's second retrospective exhibition at the Tate, an honour afforded to few artists: denied to Graham Sutherland in his lifetime, yet to be bestowed on either Lucien Freud or Frank Auerbach. It has occasioned a crop of lukewarm reviews. Hamilton reflects the mass imagery and technological discoveries of the age more than almost any other artist, but he is no painter's painter. His drawing is weak; his painting arid.

From 1953 to 1966 Hamilton taught design in the Fine Art Department of what became Newcastle University. He was a teacher who believed in the precedence of the idea over the practice -- a precept which, to the fury of many, is still propogated in art schools today. Through his written and spoken words Hamilton became, as early as 1970, something rare among British artists at that time, a truly international figure.

As the founding theorist of Pop Art he had set out its precepts in 1957: |Popular (designed for a mass audience): transient (short-term solution): expendable (easily forgotten): low cost (mass produced): young (aimed at youth): witty: sexy: gimmicky: and last but not least, Big Business'.

Hamilton's images do not spring purely from his imagination but had specific sources -- magazine articles, advertising, newspaper photographs, anything indeed that came to hand. From an article in Playboy magazine on male fashion in the early sixties came |Towards a definitive statement on coming trends in men's wear and accessories' a weird conglomoration of an astronaut's helmet, a chest expander, Y-front underpants, binoculars and other items supposed to enhance the masculine image. (Nos. 20-23).

|Hommage a Chrysler Corp' 1957 tackles the |rhetoric of persuasion' -- Reyner Banham's phrase -- written into car design and marketing. Oil paint, photographic print, metal foil and collage combine to make the image; the flesh-coloured full-breasted woman is caressing the machine, a machine with feminine attributes. This was the first of five Pop paintings to explore the allusive play between girls and machines.

Hamilton wrote: |Sex is everywhere, symbolized in the glamour of massproduced luxury -- the interplay of fleshy plastic and smooth, fleshier metal'. Indeed there is a lot of sex in Hamilton's art but it is vulgar, leering sex rather than fun sex. His paintings of 1958/61 |She' (No. 16) and |Pin Up' (No. 17) showing a call-girl holding her black lace brassiere aloft are of a misogynistic morality no artist would dare attempt today.

One of Hamilton's most memorable images was supplied from a newspaper cutting. We see seven variations of |Swinging London 67' (Nos. 48-54). The singer, Mick Jagger and Hamilton's dealer, Robert Fraser, are being driven to court in a police van for unlawful possession of drugs. In a self-protective gesture their hands are raised against a battery of cameras and we see that they are handcuffed. Jagger is seen smiling, no doubt at police overkill. He was far too famous to attempt escape. They were being scapegoated.

Richard Hamilton is unusual among artists in having been commissioned to design a commercial computer -- the Diab DS-101 -- and very good looking it is. It may resemble one of Donald Judd's minamilist structures but this computer functions. When first shown in 1986 visitors could choose from a menu of texts about the exhibition and obtain a printout.

Some years ago I visited Hamilton's home in Oxfordshire and his gorgeous barn/studio. On the computer in his handsome first floor sitting room he demonstrated some of its functions. On it were listed each of his works, who owned them, when and where they were purchased, where they had been exhibited, etc. The extensive bibliography in the catalogue of this exhibition was formulated on his own Diab computer. From it one learns that in the 1970s, when he was in his fifties, his output was enormous. He had his first retrospective at the Tate; taught for a term at the University of Wisconsin; visited Japan; collaborated on a play with Dieter Roth; published numerous articles; broadcast frequently; began restoring a house in Spain and exhibited in Milan, Amsterdam, Berlin, Manchester, Edinburgh, Frankfurt, Grenoble, and in Spain, Canada and the USA.

Many of these exhibitions were of prints, a field in which Hamilton is an acknowledged master. Even while blasting him in Modern Painters their critic concedes that his etching, |Picasso's Meninas' is wonderfully funny, a tour de force of pastiche. Hamilton's screenprint of the shooting of students at Kent State University, Ohio, was seen worldwide. Equally well known is his print of Frank Lloyd Wright's idiosyncratic Guggenheim Museum, inspired by a picture postcard sent him by Lawrence Alloway, then the museum's curator.

As he confirmed when chatting to the Press, he associated the spirally floors of the building with a spirally stitched woman's brassiere. He manipulated the image to simplify the planes, curves and shadows. The result is a tightly constructed composition that assumes its own well-known identity. In what |was an attempt to mirror the whole activity of architecture in the confines of a four feet square panel' he made reliefs of the image on fibreglass panels covered in cellulose lacquer finishes applied with an air-gun (Nos. 37-42). The six treatments achieve enormously different effects. Most sophisticated is the highly reflective black version; there is a crass rainbow coloured version; a glitzy gold version and the Tate Gallery's own pink, cream and pale green variation like a pistachio icecream.

It would be unlikely for so mondaine an artist to remain politically indifferent. The charismatic Aneurin Bevan was an early acquaintance; David Mellor, the Minister of National Heritage, contributes a long and fascinating piece to the catalogue of this exhibition. A cruel and offensive |Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland' in 1964 (No. 26) is a juvenile thwack against a leader who rejected nuclear disarmament.

An experience of the National Health Service produced |Treatment Room 1983/4' (No. 83). In a soulless space a TV monitor looms over the bed subjecting the patient to a patronizing Margaret Thatcher asserting that of course the Health Service wouldn't suffer despite stringent spending cuts.

Did Hamilton recall that Leonardo da Vinci once said that whenever he was stuck for an idea he would stare at |a wall covered in dirt'? Such a wall is prominent in the diptych |The Citizen' 1982/3 (No. 82). It came about from seeing a television programme filmed inside the British highsecurity prison at Long Kesh, near Belfast. The subject is one of the protesting IRA prisoners who refused to cut their hair, wash, wear prison clothes. He stands unshaved, draped only in a prison blanket, the walls of his cell smeared with excrement. In dramatic contrast marches |The Subject' 1988/90 (No. 87) a member of the Protestant Orange Order. He is triumphant in his dark suit, bowler hat, perfectly polished shoes, with a sword erect in his hand and adorned with the silken orange sash and fancy gloves, the insignia of his secret society. One does not want to remember these images of irreconcilable worlds but they are hard to forget.

|War Games' 1990/92 (No. 106) challenges our acceptance of war as transmitted by television, specifically the BBC's Newsnight programme which related events in the Gulf conflict by moving items of battle equipment about in a sandpit. Red paint seeps under the television set in the painting. |Is this a game or is it for real?'.

A few years ago the Museum of Modem Art in Oxford showed a number of Hamilton's evocations of banal, de-humanized public spaces. I recall their terrible tastefulness as hugely dis-spiriting. The Tate shows |Lobby' 1985/7 (No. 85) a large canvas inspired by a postcard from the Hotel Europa, Berlin. Its vast emptiness, repeated in mirrored pillars, has been geometrically manipulated to supranatural effect. In this instance the fastidiously unexciting paint surfaces are most appropriate. Now seventy years old, Hamilton insists that he is |nothing if not an artist' and |an old-style fine artist' at that. But he has become so immersed in photographic and electronic devices, with Cibachrome prints and the Quantel |Paint-box' that much if not all aesthetic beauty has been sacrificed. What Hamilton is is an inventive transformer of found images, an immensely skilful manipulator but as dispassionate as Gauguin or Matisse were passionate. It is not his painting but his involvement in contemporary ideas that make him a significant post-war artist. He echoes Michel Foucault's assertion in Discipline and Punish who wrote: |Our society is not one of spectacle but of surveillance ... under the surface of images one invests bodies in depth'.

The exhibition, sponsored by SRU Ltd, continues at the Tate Gallery, London, SW1 until 6th September. It transfers later to the new Museum of Modern Art at Kilmainham, near Dublin, Ireland.
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Author:Julius, Muriel
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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