Richard Hamilton

Tate Gallery

A great deal has been written about Richard Hamilton in the past 40 years, but of all the things I have read, one comment in particular sticks in my mind for its sheer asinine wrong-headedness: the claim, made by Peter Fuller in 1981, that Hamilton’s work displays a contempt for traditional art and craft practices. Certainly, Hamilton has refused to employ a narrow range of techniques and materials, but far from wishing to reject a tradition, his persistent endeavor has been to enlarge the scope of what we consider “fine art.” Hamilton has always addressed the problem of how, as a fine artist to engage adequately with the pervasive aspects of culture—glamour, sexiness, gimmickry, and transience—that seem inimical to accepted notions of meaning and value.

The retrospective organized by the Tate included works from the ’40s onwards: early paintings, the Pop works, prints and collages from the ’60s, product designs, his self-presentation as a product (the Richard/Ricard carafe and ashtray), manipulations of original images using photographic, printing, computer and painting techniques, and installations. What the exhibition showed is that Hamilton’s recurrent preoccupations, interwoven with his abiding interest in the works of Duchamp and Joyce, are those of late-Modernist art itself: questions of perception and content, and the exploration of the relationship between abstraction and representation, between meaning and context. The paintings of the early ’50s combine perspectival treatment of space with a variety of visualizing techniques drawn, as often as not, from scientific rather than artistic investigation. Incidentally, Hamilton’s interest in Roy Lichtenstein’s painting from the early ’60s derived primarily from Hamilton’s recognition that, in using cartoon imagery, Lichtenstein had found a radical way of dealing with the problem of movement in painting.

Duchamp, of course, is central to this problem, too. reNude, 1954, and aspects of $he, 1958–61, both directly recall Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912. In his catalogue essay, Sarat Maharaj acknowledges that Hamilton’s promotion of Duchamp through his lecturing, his typographic version of the Green Box, 1960, and his remaking of the Large Glass, in the early ’60s, was important for the subsequent development of Conceptualism, but he adds a significant proviso: that a powerful eroticism runs alongside and interacts with the conceptual rigor of both Duchamp’s and Hamilton’s work. Metaphorically, this parallels the consistent play-off between abstraction and representation in Hamilton’s painting: the ambiguous status of marks as painterly gesture or blurred image in Soft pink landscape and Soft blue landscape, 1971–72 and 1976–80 respectively, the narrow band down the left-hand edge of the two Northend paintings that could be a window frame or a compositional device, the radical enlargement of photographs to the point where the image explodes into illegibility. It also appears as what, in earlier times, might have been termed vanitas: the turds in Flower piece, 1974, and some of the landscape paintings, the sausage-dog collaborations in the ’70s with Dieter Roth (not represented in this exhibition), the shit-smeared cell wall of the IRA “blanket” protester in The citizen, 1982–83.

The final work in the exhibition concerned the Gulf War and is Hamilton’s latest treatment of a political issue. Like earlier works, War games, 1991, addresses the media structures that disseminate conflicting ideologies. The painting shows a TV atop a unit containing other electrical equipment and shelves of tapes. On the screen is the model used by BBC2’s “News-night” program to demonstrate the progress of the war: a child’s sculpted sandpit with wooden tanks and aeroplanes used to describe the progress of a sophisticated, high-tech military engagement. In Hamilton’s painting, blood seeps out at the bottom of the monitor and drips down onto the hi-fi equipment below, a faked gesture that accords beautifully with, and hence reveals, the preposterous artifice it mocks.

Michael Archer