What: Richard Hamilton
Where: Tate Modern, SE1
When: 13th February - 26th May
Price: £14.50, concessions £12.50
Richard Hamilton. Father of pop art, experimenter of consumer design, right? If that is all you associate with this icon of twentieth century British art, this massive retrospective at the Tate will change your mind. As far as it is even conceivable to encapsulate the works of an artist as prolific and far-reaching as Hamilton into a single exhibition, this showcase does a good job. To most of us, Hamilton is known simply as the “father of pop art”, with the figure cut-outs and domestic interior of his iconic 1956 collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? heralding a new era of art that draws on popular culture as inspiration. This exhibition, however, offers us a glimpse into the colossal scope of his work – from his printmaking experiments as a student at the Slade to numerous political paintings to a roomful of Polaroid portraits of himself by other artists, we are introduced to a man who was actively engaged with the world around him and whose sense of adventure shone throughout his career – sometimes irreverently.
It is always interesting to see how an artist’s work evolves over time; it reminds us that the creators behind are human, whose interests and values grow and change. We are given the unique opportunity to observe the development of Hamilton’s ideas and techniques from his earliest works in the 1950s to his final painting, completed four days before his death in 2011. Organised chronologically into eighteen rooms, each room shows a distinct theme or period in Hamilton’s artistic career.
Of the multitude of artworks on show, his installations are by far the most intriguing. A cheerful jukebox music greets the viewer in a small room dominated by the installation Fun House, done in collaboration with architect John Voelcker and artist John McHale for the 1956 exhibition This is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Gallery. Blown-up film stills tower over us while wall-length optical illusions crowd our vision; the sensory overload compounded by a large crowd milling about in the confined space. We are reminded, while looking up at Monroe’s iconic pose next to a cameo appearance of Van Gogh’s sunflowers, of the aesthetic value of media and everyday objects.
It is for the catalogue of that exhibition that Hamilton created the collage that is now recognised as the first piece of pop art. For such a significant work, _Just what is it… _is somewhat underwhelming, no larger than a coffee-table book. The work itself is matter-of-fact – the male nude gazes impassively at you, in hand a large phallic lollipop while his domestic background is an uneasy collection of pop culture references. It is hard to believe that this was one of the first works amalgamating ready prints and drawing from consumer brands and pop culture. Yet, the idea of painting over and embellishing ready prints would underlie most of Hamilton’s future works.
His fascination with the interior is explored further in the installation Lobby, which contains a wall-sized painting inspired by a postcard of a Berlin hotel lobby. The viewer walks into the small room carpeted like in the painting, and sees himself in a pillar covered by mirrors, at once drawing the audience into the uneasy, sterile setting of the hotel lobby and blurring the lines between the viewer and the viewed.
At the end, we get the impression of a man who changed with the times, always eager to try out new techniques. From the cutting and pasting of his first collage to the digital prints of Maps of Palestine (2009), which showed the difference in Palestinian land area between the UN Partition Plan and the actual extent of Israel-Palestinian occupation at time of printing, Hamilton was a lifelong experimenter.
Hamilton’s irreverence is refreshing. One of my favourite pieces is The Critic Laughs, a product he created which mounts a pair of dentures onto an electric toothbrush. The actual product is on display, complete with its case, instruction manual and even a hilarious commercial. Perhaps it is merely tongue-in-cheek – or perhaps, Hamilton is pointing out the rising commercialism of our times and the creation of useless products that are marketed as essentials. The critic laughs at itself.
Here was an artist who also actively engaged with the society around him. His provocative political paintings span several rooms, with one of the most memorable being that of Tony Blair in cowboy garb, standing over rough terrain with a pistol in each hand – Hamilton’s way of protesting against British involvement in the second Gulf War. Not one afraid to hide his strong opinions, Hamilton tackled subjects ranging from a colourful disfiguration of Hugh Gaitskell, leader of the Labour Party in the 1960s, to his installation Treatment Room, a space reminiscent of NHS waiting rooms with Margaret Thatcher’s silenced election broadcast of 1983 being shown to a patient bed. Can the people be cured by the image of the ruler, and how powerful are mere words which can be easily muted?
This retrospective also brings us to a deeply personal level with the room “Polaroids and Portraits”, which contains a wall filled with Polaroids of Hamilton himself, taken by fellow artists and friends. The artist does not just respond to his environment but interacts with it as well in this unique take on Hamilton’s own person. In the same space are Hamilton’s portraits of close friends Dieter Roth and Derek Jarman – photorealistic faces touched by abstract, bold strokes.
The retrospective is so vast sometimes it is slightly overwhelming. But it is dense with pieces that reflect the state of art and the world in the past 60 years – a must-see for anyone interested in contemporary art and the life of an extraordinary innovator.