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"Optimism is part of a revolutionary mindset" - An Interview with Biennale of Sydney Curator Juliana Engberg
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The Man Who Invented Pop Art - London Celebrates Richard Hamilton
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MACHT KUNST - The Prizewinners - "Colors were never strong enough for me": A visit with Nicolas Fontaine
MACHT KUNST - The Prizewinners - Lena Ader: A Certain Strength

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The Man Who Invented Pop Art
London Celebrates Richard Hamilton


He coined the term “Pop Art,” worked together with Marcel Duchamp, and never shrank from exploring political themes. Richard Hamilton, many of whose works are part of the Deutsche Bank Collection, is considered to be one of the most important British artists of the 20th century. Three years after his death, two London institutions, the Tate Modern and the ICA, are celebrating his work. Eddy Frankel on an artist whose influence on younger generations can’t be stressed enough.


It's an unassuming image—busy, conflicted, almost cluttered. Richard Hamilton's Just What is it that Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? (1956) makes its point quietly, but aggressively, with an assault of advertising imagery, consumer goods, and luxury homeware. At first glance, it's hard to imagine that this work would become the defining image of a generation, that a whole movement would bloom from the seeds this collage planted.

But it's safe to say that Hamilton's most iconic image was one of the first steps towards forming what we've come to know as Pop Art. It is in his footsteps that greats like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein would walk—two names that have proved to be box office gold over the past couple of years, as museums have seen a huge resurgence in interest in Pop. Internationally at major institutions like the Tate, the Barbican, and The Whitney Museum of Art, Pop shows have been nothing short of blockbusters. Last year's Lichtenstein exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago was their most successful show in a decade, before it traveled to the Tate Modern and smashed records there as well. It's a bubble that doesn't look set to burst any time soon, with even more Pop shows set to take place across the globe in 2014.

But Hamilton and his formative role in the evolution of Pop—though widely acknowledged in academic circles—hasn't received the public attention of his more successful American contemporaries. That looks like it’s about to change, as the Tate launches a major retrospective of the British artist's work in collaboration with the Institute of Contemporary Art, who are showing two of his 1950s installations.

It's apt that the ICA should play a role in reintroducing him to the art-loving public. It was here that Hamilton would take part in the first Independent Group meetings with artists and academics like Eduardo Paolozzi, William Turnbull, and John McHale. The garish American advertising imagery that Paolozzi projected at that first meeting would introduce Hamilton to the idea of using the mass market as source material for his own art. The artists gathered there helped shape a definition of Pop based around ideas of consumerism, celebrity, and popular culture. When they announced themselves to the world with their participation in the seminal This is Tomorrow exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1956 (where Hamilton's iconic collage, with the word “pop” prominently emblazoned on the bodybuilder's lollypop, was first shown), their brash, immediate aesthetic sent shockwaves through the art world.

Pinpointing the more exact origins of the movement is a tricky task. Varying sources attribute the coining of the term to either McHale, Paolozzi, or Hamilton. Mark Godfrey, the curator of the Tate’s retrospective, argues that we have Hamilton alone to thank. “Hamilton wrote a letter to the architects Alison and Peter Smithson in January 1957 where he detailed the criteria for what Pop Art is. He wrote a list, saying that it was popular, transient, young, mass-produced, sexy, big business, low cost, expendable, witty, glamorous. They were his definition of Pop Art, and he coined the term. Of course the word appeared in his collage the year before and I’d imagine the word was discussed among the members of the Independent Group, but it was that letter to the Smithsons that really coined the term.”

Hamilton managed to embody many of the ideas he listed simply by elevating design to the level of fine art—an idea inspired by the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp, one of Hamilton's great heroes and friends. The vacuum cleaner, TV set, tape recorder and tinned ham of Just What is it that Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? are no different to any other pictorial element in the work. This idea of design as beauty—of ready-made, mass-produced art—is at its clearest in Toaster (1967) from the Deutsche Bank Collection, a single image of a Braun kitchen appliance accompanied by words compiled from Braun press material. His admiration for Braun's chief designer Dieter Rams is obvious and echoes Duchamp playing with the commercial origins of the urinal in his infamous Fountain (1917), but what's most striking about the image is how direct it is in appropriating commercial material for artistic purposes. Hamilton saw no reason that we shouldn't find the same beauty in commercial products that we do in work intended for galleries, an idea that would similarly shape the careers of Warhol, Lichtenstein, and any number of successful artists since.

But don’t think for a second that Hamilton blindly embraced consumerism; there’s a hint of satire in his work. “He doesn’t buy into the values of consumer capitalism totally, because there’s this leftist position in much of his political work,” Godfrey says. “So he’s very much appreciative of the new objects of consumer culture, but not just blandly affirmatory.”

Though the political edge would come later in his career, it's the wide variety of Hamilton's work that makes him so interesting. From the early collages through to his iconic depiction of his friend Mick Jagger's arrest in Swingeing London 67 (1967) and then his later painting work, Hamilton was a ceaseless experimenter. Godfrey sees this as an intrinsic part of Hamilton's appeal: “there's an interest in him because he is an artist who can move in such complex ways between works about things like design products and works that deal with serious political issues, like the Irish Troubles or Tony Blair's war in Iraq.” Godfrey's point is an important one: Hamilton was never one to rest on his laurels.

This restlessness is something that may have been inspired by his idol, Duchamp. Hamilton became friends with the great French modernist in the 1960s, gaining Duchamp’s permission to create copies of his vitrine work, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (1915-23), to allow it to travel. The signed version at the Tate Modern is, in fact, a Hamilton copy. It's an idea that would come full circle, as Hamilton's own collages would themselves become fragile over time—the original Just What is it... remains on the walls of the Kunsthalle Tübingen in Germany, while the one on display in the retrospective is, once again, a copy. This slipperiness of authorship, the copying and the appropriation, is a defining characteristic not only of Hamilton's work, but of Pop in general.

Hamilton would go on to court controversy by depicting the Northern Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands in The Citizen (1980-83) at a time of great political strife in the UK. His willingness to confront difficult issues made him something of a maverick figure in British art at the time. But he continued to shape-shift, to change direction. He would continually paint and draw, as can be seen in the Deutsche Bank's beautiful and subtle Soft Blue Landscape (1980) or his very early Three Studies of Bloom (1949). “The message of the show,” says Godfrey, “is that Pop is just one chapter amongst many interesting and important other chapters in his life.”

Considering that he was an artist of such clear importance and prominence, can you spot an unequivocal, obvious influence from Hamilton on the likes of Jordan Wolfson, Laure Prouvost, or even Damien Hirst? Probably not. But what you can do is trace a direct line from his work to the output of contemporary artists—though the influence may not be clear, Hamilton acts as an ancestor, a sort of revolutionary father figure who paved the way and knocked down barriers for today’s artists. His work opened up the art world to ideas of appropriation and consumerism that would come to define the shape of much contemporary art practice. “I see his influence in different places, in the photography of Christopher Williams, the work of Mark Leckey and his approach to display, or Jeremy Deller in his pavilion at the Venice Biennale and in taking up a tough political stance. Others will be drawn to his involvement with fashion or Roxy Music [Hamilton taught singer Bryan Ferry at university], or his use of Polaroid photography. The work is rich because it has different things that younger figures can draw from.” Again, it's Hamilton's diversity that seems to hold the key to his appeal. He was far from a one-trick pop pony.

The two major London shows—and the smaller gallery exhibitions at places like the Alan Cristea Gallery that are taking place simultaneously—will be the first chance viewers will have to see all sides of his work together in one place. That it has taken until now for us to have a proper in-depth look at Hamilton's oeuvre should tell you how long overdue this retrospective is.


Richard Hamilton
Tate Modern
13.2. – 26.5.2014

ICA
12.2. – 6.4.2014

Alan Christea Gallery
14.2. - 22.3.2014




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