Richard Hamilton’s name has been associated with many cultural changes of the 20th century and he cannot be easily categorised as an artist. The work he produced from a career of over 60 years has elements of surrealism, minimalism, conceptual art and most famously, pop art. In fact, Hamilton deliberately changed styles and subject matter from one decade to another; a strategy that he learned from his idol, Marcel Duchamp. He also liked to experiment with different media and production methods, including the use of computers in his later decades. In recognition of Hamilton’s artistic versatility, Tate Modern’s 2014 retrospective is the most comprehensive survey of his work ever to be staged. It is also the first time that his exhibition designs and installations have been displayed alongside his paintings, prints, photographs and other graphics.
Hamilton was born in 1922 into a working class family in Pimlico. He left school aged fifteen and became an apprentice electrical engineer. Too young to attend art college, he took evening classes before enrolling at the Royal Academy Schools when he was sixteen. The Second World War interrupted his studies and he became an EMI engineering draftsman during this time. This is when he learned precise draughtsmanship and developed a passion for technology. After the war he re-enrolled at the Royal Academy, but was expelled due to ‘not profiting from the instruction’. Hamilton would later attend the Slade School of Art and become a lecturer at London Central School of Arts and Crafts. Following this, the artist Victor Pasmore gave him a teaching post based at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.
After graduating from the Slade, Hamilton worked for the Institute of Contemporary Arts producing playful leaflets and posters, as well as creating novel ideas for exhibitions. More daring than other institutions at the time, the ICA encouraged independent thought, which resulted in groundbreaking shows. To coincide with the Tate Modern retrospective, the ICA has reconstructed two of Hamilton’s exhibition designs: Man, Machine and Motion (1955) and an Exhibit (1957). Originally displayed at the ICA’s Dover Street premises, Man, Machine and Motion (1955) demonstrated curatorial flexibility through the ability to clip photographic images onto portable steel frames. Hamilton displayed ‘the mechanical conquest of time and distance’ with 220 images, ranging from technical Renaissance drawings to amusing photographs of the latest developments in aviation, automotives, space and aquatic exploration. Hamilton had a fascination with cars from a young age, boosted by his father’s job as a sports car deliveryman. He pursued this interest in other art works, including the painting Hommage à Chrysler Corp. (1957), which explored the relationship between women’s bodies and cars.
Hamilton also designed an Exhibit (1957), featuring coloured Perspex sheets hanging from wires in an arrangement that allowed ‘an infinite number of possible variations.’ Originally shown at Newcastle’s Hatton Gallery, an Exhibit (1957) could be assembled at Dover Street or any other location. It created an interactive environment, which is a common idea used in today’s installations, but was a new concept in the 1950s.
At the ICA, Hamilton joined the Independent Group, a collection of artists, writers and architects who challenged conventional practice and explored unknown territory. As part of this group, Hamilton collaborated on projects with artists such as Eduardo Paolozzi and Nigel Henderson; critics Lawrence Alloway and Reyner Banham; and architects Alison and Peter Smithson. It was in a 1957 letter to the latter couple that Hamilton named a list of attributes that came to define pop art. He wrote:
‘Pop Art is: Popular … Transient … Expendable … Low cost, Mass produced, Young … Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big business.’
In 1954 Lawrence Alloway first used the word ‘pop’ in relation to art, but he was referring to popular arts, such as adverts and posters available to the masses (Reichardt, Art International, February 1963: 42-47). It was Hamilton who used the term ‘pop art’ as a way of incorporating popular arts and mass media into works that could be classed as fine art. Other members of the Independent Group were also keen to depict ‘the everyday’, including colour magazines, glossy adverts, sci-fi comics, consumer goods, Hollywood films, pop music and television. As a reaction to what they saw as the cultural stagnation of post-war Britain, they chose to embrace these new influences, many of which came from the US. Hamilton’s famous collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? (1956), features many of these things and is considered one of the first ever works of pop art. It was a precursor to the American version of pop art, which didn’t appear until the late 1950s.
Hamilton travelled to the US for the first time in 1963 whilst recovering from the tragic death of his wife, who was killed in a car crash. In America he met other pop artists and was befriended by Marcel Duchamp. Consequently, Hamilton curated the first British retrospective of Duchamp’s work, hosted by the Tate Gallery in 1966. As Duchamp’s biggest admirer, Hamilton made exact copies of the artist’s glass works that were too fragile to transport to the UK. Hamilton was also interested in the art of Kurt Schwitters and organised the preservation of his Merzbarn (large-scale shed installation) by relocating it to the Hatton Gallery in 1965.
Hamilton famously rubbed shoulders with music royalty in the 1960s. Mick Jagger and art dealer Robert Fraser were arrested at Hamilton’s home for drugs possession in 1967. This became the subject of the artist’s Swingeing London series of paintings, which mimicked image manipulation by the media. Hamilton was also a friend of Paul McCartney, who invited him to design the cover of the Beatles’ self-titled double album. The result was a blank cover and collage-style poster insert, which became known as The White Album.
In the 1970s Hamilton moved to Oxfordshire with his second wife, painter Rita Donagh. He continued his interest in design and technology, designing products such as an amplifier for the Lux Corporation and the casing of a Dataindustrier AB computer. From the late 1970s he increasingly focused on experimenting with printmaking processes. The Alan Cristea Gallery in London distributes many of Hamilton’s prints from throughout his career.
These decades also gave rise to some of Hamilton’s silliest works, such as Soft Pink Landscape, a mockery of a 1960s advert for Andrex coloured toilet paper. He jokingly painted a series of soft, pastel-coloured landscapes and still lifes featuring excrement and toilet roll. This light-hearted approach strongly contrasted with some of his later works, which contained a serious political message. In the 1980s and 1990s Hamilton tackled subjects like The Troubles in Northern Ireland and the Gulf War. He was still producing political works right up until his death in September 2011. Shock and Awe (2010) is one such example, depicting Tony Blair as a Wild West character in relation to the war in Iraq.
Without question, Hamilton has left a lasting cultural legacy. His work has been shown in a wide range of exhibitions, like the one at the British Museum in 2002, which coincided with his 80th birthday. It presented Hamilton’s illustrations of James Joyce’s Ulysses; a project he had been working on since his time at the Slade. In his lifetime, Hamilton has also influenced many other artists, including pupils David Hockney and Peter Blake, as well as the Young British Artists of the 1990s. It is perhaps fitting that one of his most creative ideas was to invite artists and friends to take Polaroid portraits of him across 33 years of his career. The resulting collection provides snapshots of a man, who commented ‘how silly, how banal I often look’, masking his reputation as one of the most important artists of the last century.