I originally planned to write about Hamilton upon his death last year, but with one thing and another have only got around to it now. In retrospect that may have been for the best, since the more I dwelt upon his works, the less enthusiastic I became and my views would have seemed ungracious as requiem or valediction. Hopefully a year is suitable pause before making more searching criticism. Warning: this essay is 5,385w.
In any case the following series, Hommage à Chrysler Corp (1957-8) persists with the Sladish facture but now adopts a more contemporary iconography (body parts for a latest car) and a distinctive compositional arrangement of discrete parts or objects upon a neutral ground, as a layout or ‘flatbed’ to use Leo Steinberg’s famous phrase. Car parts are semi-abstracted through restrained modelling or tonality, cautious outline, cursory facture as well as collage elements. The curves are sensuous yet measured; recall Surrealism’s biomorphic forms as much as contemporary automotive design and convincingly establish a more provisional, open engagement with subject matter and figuration generally. But whether this properly constitutes Pop Art, as is often asserted, is another matter.
contributed the amusing photo-collage Just What Is It….* to the catalogue of the very successful Whitechapel exhibition This Is Tomorrow. Together with his list of twelve features of popular advertising and entertainment, offered in a letter to Peter and Alison Smithson early in 1957, these are usually taken to mark the inception of Pop Art. But at best these indicate merely an iconography, at worst define a segment of advertising not fine art at all, as has often been pointed out. Iconography alone obviously does not qualify a work as Pop Art, since much of Pop Art is not concerned with consumer goods, topicality or glamour, while other, older works that use consumer goods or contemporary urban settings and technology, such as the work of Stuart Davis or Edward Hopper, not to say Futurism or Socialist Realism, are clearly not Pop Art. While the framed comic strip in the photo-collage anticipates Lichtenstein and Warhol to some extent – it is the painting of these, rather than merely the framing of them that will prove crucial. Other notable aspects of Pop Art – its bright colours, hard edges and flattened, minimal compositions, do not appear in the photo-collage. Hamilton correctly anticipates sources, but not treatment. Furthermore, photo-collage is not exclusively a feature of Pop Art either, since it is shared by preceding styles such as Dada and Surrealism. Indeed, Eduardo Paolozzi showed similar photo-collages of advertising illustration from as early as 1948 at the very first Independent Group meeting in early 1952. At the very least he deserves equal billing with Hamilton as a founding figure for Pop Art. Hamilton
So what exactly is Pop Art? By looking more closely at the movement we are better placed to then distinguish key features of
’s work. A slight detour is thereby undertaken. Pop Art arises most notably in both Hamilton New York and around 1961-2. Yet there are crucial differences. The London version is generally seen as stricter, more extreme or purer, the British version more informal, discursive and irreverent. Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol are the prime examples of American Pop Art but their work developed quite independently and along separate strains to 50s figurative painting. Lichtenstein commences from an interest in mythic imagery and increasingly looks to contemporary contexts (this not so different from New York ’s up-dating of Surrealism) eventually turning to children’s comic strips. These initially are treated in a loose, painterly manner, (that example from 1957) but Lichtenstein’s lack of conviction in facture soon leads him to simply attempt a ‘straight’ copy – seemingly merely transposing a comic strip frame onto canvas. The result, surprisingly, only underlines crucial differences between source and painting and is at once hilarious and subtly uncomfortable. Painting assumes a deadpan passivity to iconography, a cool indifference to expressive facture or nuance. Painting of printing, rather than just painting from printing or with (that is, collage), then grants graphic composition a new respect and precedence in iconography. Painting now finds its definition, not in the essentials of abstraction but in relative compliance with print practice. This becomes Pop Art proper. Hamilton
Warhol held no such interest in contemporary myth or personal gesture. His starting point was really the work of Jasper Johns and an attention to vigorous facture applied to template-like, two-dimensional objects such as numbers, designs and maps. Johns commenced these in 1955. However, Johns’ work shares with
’s, an emphasis on process or incompleteness. Where Hamilton favours the tentative daubing of Cezanne or Coldstream, Johns adopts a heavy impasto in short strokes of varied direction, recalling perhaps Monet. These strokes variously comply with a design in colour and precision and result in a sustained detachment or indifference, an unsettling relativity to definitions or identities. Again, where Hamilton looks to an inclusive arrangement, simply combining tentative facture with stricter outline and indeed other materials, Johns paints everything with equal dedication or indifference. The effect is a statement more directly about painting, an attitude, paradoxically more thoroughgoing and focussed in its vacillation. Johns is essentially a formalist, Hamilton an informalist. Warhol’s contribution lies in seeing that Johns’ approach need not be confined to designs or an orthogonal picture plane, but applied equally to standard and familiar line illustrations. He too thus adopts comic strip characters such as Superman and Popeye while applying, not so much a distinctive paste or impasto, as a severely thinned pigment encouraging drips and dribbles. But he too was soon dissatisfied with the facture and tries a straight copy. If we compare two versions of Storm Window (1960 on left, 1961 on the right) we can see how the same illustration acquires a more unsettling attitude through stricter framing and absence of painterly facture. This too signals a vital break with preceding trends. Hamilton
Thus Warhol and Lichtenstein arrive at virtually the same style at the same time, from slightly different directions. But notice also that Pop Art is not so much concerned with the popular, revered or preferred in this account, as the pedestrian and mundane, against which to measure overlooked or unexpected properties of printing through painting, and vice versa. This definition also allows us to distinguish more precisely between forerunners and actual Pop artists, indeed to discern some distinctive traits to painting throughout the fifties. Before considering British Pop Art, it is worth quickly sketching these. Figurative painting in the fifties is notable for a sharp break with the stylisations of Picasso, Klee and Mirō, on the one hand, with the pictorial conundrums of Ernst, Magritte and Dali on the other. It reverts to more familiar depiction in some ways, yet departs from them in others, for more dispersed and diffuse ends. The change in tone is away from an affirmation of the magical, mystical and musical, toward a more brooding acceptance of their inconstancy. It is a change that is understandable in the circumstances.
This change is characterised stylistically in three ways. Firstly, it arises through an arrangement of discrete pictures and sometimes notation within a larger map-like scheme, noted above as a layout or ‘flatbed’ – a term Leo Steinberg introduces in discussion of Rauschenberg’s fifties work. But layout is also a conspicuous feature of Peter Blake’s On the Balcony (1956-7) and similar works, various collages by Eduardo Paolozzi, as noted,
Hamilton’s work from 1957 onward, of course, as well as ’s work of the mid-fifties such as The Studio (1956). The second trait concerns radical supplements to pigment and medium that flag application where picture must gain purchase or traction against novel resistance. Examples here run from Johns, as noted, to Jean Dubuffet and Jean Fautrier to Antoni Tapies and even Frank Auerbach. Larry River ’s augmentation of painting with collage elements may be seen in the same spirit. Thirdly there is a fragmentation of subject (rather than layout) that stresses an ongoing process or its interruption; where revision and incompleteness are foremost. Examples here include Francis Bacon, Larry Rivers, Willem de Kooning, Alberto Giacometti, as well as Hamilton and Johns. Obviously one or more traits may be shared by a work or artist’s output. What name we give to this overall trend is not important for the moment, the aim here is just to distinguish a preceding body of work from Pop Art proper on stylistic terms. Hamilton
British Pop Art proper is usually taken as commencing with the Young Contemporaries Exhibition in
, held early in 1961, where the work of six students from the RCA was controversially grouped in one room to draw attention to a shared aesthetic. Derek Boshier, Patrick Caulfield, David Hockney Allen Jones, R. B. Kitaj and Peter Phillips were not immediately hailed as Pop Artists, and others are eventually added once they were, (including Hamilton, Paolozzi and Blake) but this represents a tipping point for British critics for some reason, possibly because of developments in London . Later additions do not significantly alter the character of British Pop Art. The New York group share two key traits. The first is the use of layout, in which discrete pictures or depicted objects in distinct styles are arranged upon a ground, the second is the use of shaped canvases, flat colour and hard edged geometry. The influence for both most directly points to the presence of Peter Blake at the college. Indeed, Phillips’ strictly ordered collages of pin-ups look particularly Blakean while the prevalence of shaped canvases in the work of Phillips, Hockney and Jones seems to extend the mockery of this aspect to Minimalist abstraction of the time (particularly the work of Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland, one suspects). This gentle riposte is also present in Blake’s work from the same time such as The Fine Art Bit (1959) Got a Girl (1960-1) as well as a tilt at Johns with, The First Real Target? (1961). Apart from irreverence, the point is really to ground so-called formal properties of full abstraction such as the flat, hard-edged stripe, circle or chevron in the world of commercial packaging and design. Once this is grasped, the project for British Pop assumes greater scope. Pop Art on these terms effectively denies any absolutes or purity of form for painting. Royal College
But we don’t quite get to the primacy of printing for painting by this route, as with Warhol and Lichtenstein. And ‘popular’ on these terms is more like just commercial signage or graphics. Photo-collage remains prominent at this time though, lingers invitingly. And where photography is not included, figuration assumes a marked diversity. Boshier, Hockney, Jones and Kitaj do not adopt popular illustrational styles, whether print-based or from signage, rather they vary styles of painterly figuration as well as styles of text. An implicit dismissal of absolute abstraction is thus combined with a bid for plurality or eclecticism. This gives the works a very different detachment or cool from
counterparts. Where Warhol and Lichtenstein adopt a deadpan acceptance of banal print standards, British Pop Artists exhibit an insouciant switching and blending of familiar Modernist painting styles, a measured indifference to standards, an appetite for minor discord or disarray. The exception to the group in this is Patrick Caulfield, whose work does rigorously adopt the heavy even outlines of standard illustration and which does point directly to print standards. Yet Caulfield rarely confines himself to stock subjects for the style (such as textbook or instructional diagrams, say). Instead he presses his formal resources to very similar stylistic conflicts or conundrums as arise in a Hockney or Kitaj. Outline struggles to register depth or texture, detail or motion for complex pictures treated on crude terms. While the least interested in glamorous, common or topical content, Caulfield is the closest to his American counterparts in temperament and soon exchanges layout for a more integrated picture plane. New York
British Pop owes at least as much to Peter Blake as it does to Hamilton or Paolozzi. But it is in the more casual and discursive tone that British Pop proper is to be distinguished from its precursors. The sense of cautious process or interruption to both Blake and Hamilton becomes a more carefree oscillation between modes, an opportunity for off-hand parody, impatience with decorum, dedication. The influence here is possibly to Larry Rivers, who visited the school around that time and was well received. In this respect British Pop is somewhat coarser, more diffuse than forebears. It is less focussed on low culture than the unruly array between the public and prominent and the eccentric and personal. ‘Pop’ in this sense becomes the endless connections we make between the two.
never really achieves this fluency as a matter of temperament and age. Even where he assimilates comic strip graphics, as in Ahh! (1962), the painted text is not enough – as it would be for Lichtenstein. For Hamilton it must be augmented with the mottled, tentative treatment of a car’s gear stick – for which later British Pop artists would have little patience. Hamilton
When he can finally jettison the Coldstream touch, the conviction is less with painting than design.
’s subsequent work contrasts graphic with photographic qualities, as in the Towards a Definitive Statement… series (1962), yet the role for painting now seems squeezed to the edge or back of design. He could paint over or around photographs but the results declare a stubborn difference rather than a porous interface. High and low culture can rub up against one another, but this only reinforces the gulf that separates print from painting. In the series of Interiors (1964-5) the photographs are not just shaped to the outline of a subject but now include broader arrays or perspectives. Here layout is deftly relaxed to permit a more integrated picture plane, or vice versa, and surely represents a signal achievement, one which he understandably reprises later in his career and one which surely owes its floating planes to the artist’s earlier work as an exhibition designer, which these days would probably count as installation. It is also notable that pictures such as Interior 2 (1964) contrast not just photography and painting but eras of fashion, periods of décor. The figure here is actress Patricia Knight taken from a still for the 1949 film Shockproof directed by Douglas Sirk, while the television and chair pointedly belong to later times, other places. The effect is not so much one of the timeliness or fleetingness of Pop but of a poignant dislocation, an unreachable figure amid an arbitrary setting. This dated quality is of course the antithesis of Pop. But perhaps this new melancholic note to the artist’s work can be understood in light of the tragic death of his wife of fifteen years, Terry, in a car crash in 1962. Hamilton
It is photography more than print graphics that increasingly interest
and invite some rapprochement with painting. His famous collage of Marilyn Monroe’s approved photo contact sheets, My Marilyn (1965), which were published following her suicide in 1962, (the morbid undertone thus lingers) proceeds by careful stages, enlarging and tinting sections to the layout, amplifying the ticks and crosses with paint and eventually – brilliantly – revising them all as a photo-silkscreen. Printing the painterly additions finally gives the work the integration that has so far eluded him, levels the picture surface out into one continual process. Prints are really Hamilton ’s forte, where his intricate technicalities finally synch with restrained fine art aspiration. They allow him to further standard publication processes while introducing private or public graphics seamlessly, effortlessly, ironically distancing them. His prints ought to be regarded as his best works, something even his most hostile critics concede. Yet prints are always a lesser art than painting, simply because of their wider application elsewhere. Probably it is this sense of compromise that paradoxically leads Hamilton to persist with painting as the ultimate goal – even when everything else about his oeuvre urges just this standing. Hamilton
Similarly, the series I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas (1967) takes another conspicuously dated source – a still from the 1954 film White Christmas, actually set in 1944, starring Bing Crosby. Yet nostalgia is defused or delayed by colour reversal, as in a photographic negative. The image is carefully built up from hand-traced layers on clear cell, imitating colour separation for printing. The final painting, however, is less like Chuck Close’s obsessive airbrushed glazes (which adopt a similar process) and more forthright Photo-realism, than a quest for reliable foundation amid painterly embellishment. I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas looks back through the certainties of photography for something no amount of generous brushwork can compensate with, a lost harmony and confidence. The following series Swingeing London 67 (1968) is much more topical, based on a press photograph following the drug arrests in 1967 of Mick Jagger and Hamilton’s dealer (in art) at the time, Robert Fraser. It would be hard to be more Pop than this, except that it is by now 1968 and Pop has already dispersed. Add to this that the photograph is emphatically non-glamorous, indeed the identities of the two celebrities are virtually concealed.
’s distance and detachment from the movement could not be more explicit. As with I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, the series is spread across painting and prints, silkscreens are now applied directly to canvas and subtly augmented but the impact is still one of excess and fussy dithering. The photographic processing to silkscreen is really sufficient but Hamilton cannot resist taking it one step further, one step too far. Hamilton
Photography, even when not particularly topical or dramatic inspires a different kind of reconciliation with painting. In 1965 the artist also commenced a series of extreme enlargements of a postcard of the seaside resort of
, Northumberland, usually titled just People. The inspiration here was not only to address the half tone or dot screens used in mass printing, that Lichtenstein had made so prominent in his comic strip frames and subsequently are exploited by artists ranging from Sigmar Polke to Alain Jacquet and Gerald Laing, but to pursue these to greater abstraction, that is, to the world of fine art and painting. Significantly, Whitley Bay is not content to paint the dots or contrive a simple template for them, unlike his contemporaries, but instead greatly enlarges the source photograph as a ground upon which to then impose more graphic or painterly additions. The result once more is only weaker for the contrast and compromise. Had he simply painted an array of curved or biomorphic shapes with variously blurred or hard edges, various facture, the result might have been at least a diffident form of Pop Art, (perhaps paced the central conceit of the film Blow-up, from 1966) as it is, the results spell out a needless and heavy handed notion of painting, a Pop Art insecure in its own sources. Hamilton
The artist does better when radically reprocessing more topical photography. His series of prints in 1972 based on television images of the student shootings at
in May 1970 enlarge and degrade the video image quality in photo-silkscreen until it acquires a muted abstraction or elegant stylisation that does everything the People series cannot. These have at once the banality, detachment and yet aesthetic echoes that make for a truly subversive nexus of high and low culture. They are kitsch and yet hip. They are right on, but only at a respectable distance. The political dimension to Kent State University Hamilton’s work emerges with his 1964 portrait of Hugh Gaitskell a leader of the Labour Party (1955-63) who renounced a policy of nuclear disarmament, to ’s disgust. Politics becomes a more frequent subject later in Hamilton ’s career simply as concerns with topical representation prompt deeper, more entrenched factors. The shift is slowly from fashion to ideology, inevitably to history. At the same time the interest in combining photography and painting shifts to painting derived from photography, but not in the obvious or meticulous ways pursued by Photo-realists. In works such as Soft Pink Landscape (1971-2) it is the blending of vigorous gesture with airbrushed soft focus, irrespective of depth or motion; that declares an expanded manipulation of photographic qualities. Iconography here still nudges advertising, with the placement of a toilet roll to the foreground, languid maidens to the middle ground, but all are enveloped in an Arcadian glade that owes as little to photography as it does to traditional painting. We glimpse a fleeting no-man’s-land, a formalist’s paradise. Hamilton
However it is political works that dominate the latter half of his career. The trilogy, The Citizen (1981) The Subject (1989-90) and The State (1993) are his largest and most ambitious paintings, but sadly, not his most successful. All address the troubles in
through emblematic figures in more or less literal settings. All feature a free-ranging soft focus or blurring, either exaggerating or ignoring strict matters of depth of field or motion, and signal a deliberate revision of photographic qualities and more symbolic reading. The trilogy is no doubt meant to echo sectarian murals throughout the province, but in this they are simply not close enough. They are history painting, but can scarcely do justice to the history. No matter how laudable the subject, the paintings do not quite come alive. Given that these works emerge as Expressionism takes on new enthusiasm in the art world, they seem especially inert and inhibited. Stolid and crabbed paint handling, pedestrian drawing and composition, possibly limited scale all contribute to the disappointment. Unfortunately Northern Ireland overreaches, cannot quite give them the scope and daring they deserve. In granting the works roving soft focus or airbrushed evasion he cannot then give focussed areas more than a workmanlike photo-tracing to outline, more compelling design. Yet he need only have reviewed his Towards a Definitive Statement… series to find ample examples of graphic invention, stylisation and composition. Had the trilogy been confined to prints one senses the artist’s resources would not have been spread so thinly. As it stands, deconstructing Photo-realism proves too great a challenge. Hamilton
Later paintings, such as the portrait of a kidnapped Mordechai Vanunu seem no more than diligent Photo-realism or stock illustration (ironically, the work is titled Unorthodox Rendition). Indeed, the work is scarcely recognisable as a Richard Hamilton. It is not altogether surprising the artist’s attention turns increasingly to digital developments in printing by the turn of the century. In fact he had designed a home computer - the sleek Diab DS-101 in 1986 and began using Quantel’s Paintbox in 1987 for a BBC documentary series Painting by Light, so the shift is hardly abrupt, but does underline his fatally divided loyalties. The late works are firstly digital composites, which allow
to combine various photographs with self-generated graphics or imported ones, 3-D modelling and animation. In other words it offers exactly the kind of integration of sources Hamilton has pursued throughout his career. But the results are still a print and Hamilton ’s paintings based upon these suffer from the same old problems. The Photo-realism does not get any more impressive for having an inkjet provide the background. Ultimately he does not have enough to say about painting, or enough painting to say it with. The inkjet prints include political satire, such as Shock and Awe (2007) and the starkly informational Map of Hamilton 1947-2011 (2011) but it is hard to see any richer reference, hard to see how we might regard them as art. Even as mere illustration their digital qualities are not particularly remarkable or inventive, especially given the formidable range of transformational tools available in applications such as Adobe Creative Suite. Palestine
Where the works attain some resonance is in restatements of abiding themes, such as interiors now rendered with immaculate precision to perspective and lighting, against which
can play off details of décor and once more enshrine femininity in domesticity. Hamilton ’s sexual themes are routinely criticised for sexism, for a sleaziness and lack of respect. Hamilton might claim them as part and parcel of his advertising source material, but it is ultimately his selection of source material that is under scrutiny. The critic Muriel Julius found the sex throughout his work vulgar and misogynistic rather than frank and fun. The objection then is not to sex, but Hamilton ’s cynical marketing treatment. Possibly to counter such criticism, Hamilton introduces more art historical allusion to bolster their pedigree. Works cite not just recent history or his own involvements, but Renaissance and Baroque masters. The nude is a traditional subject, unquestionably. What Hamilton does not seem to have grasped, technically or artistically, is the gulf that separates use from abuse, art from commerce. Seeing a pin-up in the same tradition as a Titian or Courbet simply because it pictures a nude woman is precisely why the sociological or cultural approach to art fails. It is a tacit acknowledgement of a cultural blindness, a social insensitivity to pictures and women. Hamilton ’s late erotic works achieve no more than kitsch status because he wants to keep too close to advertisements, in the safe middle ground between art and life. Hamilton
His achievements then are modest, but not negligible. His contribution to fifties painting lies in his overtly procedural approach to semi-abstractions that cautiously build layouts upon an orthogonal picture plane. He is neater and slower than many contemporaries in this, but essentially this is the man. His contribution to British Pop Art rests with his advocacy of figuration within a layout along with certain discreet print graphics, but he is hardly the first or only artist in this. His inflated reputation here is largely the result of ardent promotion of the
’s Independent Group as the inspiration for Pop Art (in total) by some of its members and the artist’s own eager endorsements. This myth is usefully exposed by Anne Massey**. ICA ’s later achievements include a layout more or less adhering to a common perspective, particularly for architectural interiors, footnotes to tone screen densities for mass printing, where their detail coincides with biomorphic abstraction and new complexity to photo-silkscreens, as repositories of gesture, expression and document. Hamilton also adopted topical and political photographs in which to play process degradation against aesthetic elegance. Unhappily, his standards for aesthetic elegance proved mediocre. Hamilton
’s work is not a compelling or easily recognised brand, as even his advocates admit. It lacks cohesion or focus. He does many things well but without greater distinction or quite making any of them his own. Marilyn Monroe belongs to Andy Warhol, tone screen densities belong to Lichtenstein when not Polke, Photo-Realism belongs to Chuck Close through to Gerhard Richter. Too much of Hamilton ’s career was spent in clever asides to contemporaries. His strong suit was probably his interiors, with their intriguing intersection of décor and furniture with abstract planes, their array of fashions and periods, indeterminate functions and remote, alluring females. Needless to say they are hardly Pop in subject or mood but something more complex and elusive that one feels is in some way more personal for the artist. But even here the precision and ellipsis have a calculating, oppressive quality. Hamilton is always well mannered but devious to the eye. The works hold one at arm’s length; insist on a distance in the name of depth. Hence the early nudes are ruthlessly fetishist, half-car, half-mannequin. He must deal with sex without too much of a person. Marilyn Monroe is struck out unless suitably iconic; crowds identified as no more than blobs on closer inspection; Fraser and Jagger brandish their handcuffs; political prisoners are reduced to mute gestures. The overriding theme emerges as one of relentless control and restraint, a stifling concern with technique and finish that defuses and delays involvement. Hamilton
*A minor iconographic curiosity on this collage - recent research claims that the bodybuilder was Irvin Koszewski, who held the title of Mr. Los Angeles of 1954, while the woman on the couch is in fact American painter Jo Baer, presumably on a brief and lucrative modelling assignment, while a student. In the 60s Baer became a Minimalist pioneer, turning to figurative work and feminist themes in later years.
** Massey, Anne – The Independent Group,
Manchester University Press, Manchester and , 1995 New York