Richard Hamilton

Early on in his career Pop-art midwife Richard Hamilton decided two things: First, he was determined not to simply produce artworks; second, he would, as he puts it, “control the context.” “I often feel, as Marcel Duchamp did before,” the British artist once remarked, “that a single work doesn’t mean very much. An innocent observer isn’t going to be able to make head or tail of a painting in isolation. It isn’t until things are put together and related as sequences of ideas that they begin to make sense at all.” With these words Hamilton articulated the motivations behind the extraordinary series of exhibitions he organized or helped organize in the 1950s. In “Growth and Form” (1951), “Man, Machine and Motion” (1955), and, most famously, his installation in the Independent Group’s “This Is Tomorrow” (1956), he blurred the distinction between artist and curator. As Kasper König, director of the Museum Ludwig, points out in his brief introduction to the present retrospective, “a Hamilton exhibition is always something unique and special because it is not just a Hamilton exhibition, it is also Hamilton’s exhibition.” In other words, he is not just an artist, he is also his own curator and art historian.

Best known, of course, as a leading member of the Independent Group (which included Eduardo Paolozzi, Lawrence Alloway, Alison and Peter Smithson, et al.) and for his groundbreaking forays into the world of popular culture in the ’50s and ’60s, Hamilton continued to make paintings, collages, and installations for another forty years, perhaps always under the shadow of his early reputation (and that of Duchamp). To prepare this exhibition, Hamilton, who turned eighty last year, looked back on his output over the course of more than five prolific decades (indeed, the show includes paintings and drawings from 1937 to 2003) and has produced a view from within—an “introspective” rather than a classical retrospective. But don’t worry, he didn’t mess things up, capriciously grouping works according to some deeply subjective order. In fact, it all makes perfect sense. After passing through a reconstruction of his playfully prophetic installation from “This Is Tomorrow”—a psychedelic pop-culture environment activating all the senses—one turned a corner . . . and there it hung, that little icon, which is even smaller than I’d thought: Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, 1956. How strange, one couldn’t help but think, that the word “Pop” (as in Lolly Pop) is so prominently displayed. So Hamilton’s the founder of Pop after all? A didactic work for a didactic exhibition, the collage represents an attempt, Hamilton was later to explain, to throw into the cramped space of a living room some representation of the ideas and objects crowding postwar consciousness. “Adam and Eve struck a pose along with the rest of the gadgetry,” is the way the artist once described the collage, which tweaked the nose of ’50s optimism. “We seemed to be taking a course towards a rosy future and our changing, Hi-Tech world was embraced with a starry-eyed confidence.”

One could spend untold hours in this show studying the cult of the machine (primarily the car); musing on the bizarre readymades and appropriated objects (The Critic Laughs, 1971–72, for instance, a set of dentures paired with an electric toothbrush, case, and instruction booklet, is clearly laughing at you); getting lost in the Duchamp “transcriptions”; and fantasizing about celebrities in Swinging London, before walking back toward the entrance in quite good humor. But then, just before making your exit, you took a look at two last, large installations—and your mood changed completely. You were confronted by the deeply enigmatic Lobby, 1988, an anonymous foyer, probably that of a hotel, with stairs leading to the second floor; there’s a front desk, generic furniture, a green carpet, and two pillars covered with mirrors. All of this you saw in a Photorealist painting (also titled Lobby, 1985–87) hanging on the wall. But the canvas was hung inside the very space it depicts; so there you were, in the lobby, standing on that very carpet—and it was a depressing a place to be.

Hamilton admits the painting is “none too cheery,” “an old man’s picture,” and he goes on to compare it to Sartre’s No Exit, which takes place in a kind of hotel-room limbo, a place to await your final destination. You can only hope that the afterworld will be slightly livelier. Will it? Around the corner another installation lay in wait for you: Treatment Room, 1983–84. “I don’t want to end up here” was all I could think as I looked around this hospital room—institutional-green walls, high-tech medical equipment, a stainless-steel sink, a plastic bucket, an empty bed with an old blanket, and a large TV set staring down at you, delivering the political slogan “Britain on the right track.” Mrs. Thatcher dominates the screen, and she just won’t go away.

Light-years stand between the optimistic high-tech dreams of “This Is Tomorrow” and this hell on earth governed by a patronizing Mrs. Thatcher (which might have been funny if it hadn’t been so sad). The playful celebrant of pop culture, it turns out, had by the 1980s become a master of political rebuke. That was apparent not only in the dismal hospital room but also in paintings like The Citizen, 1982, which features an attractive yet frightening figure in perfect equipoise between prophet and warrior, based on documentary footage of an IRA prisoner but filtered through an Irish maze of Joycean associations. These are some of the highlights (I would say there are three or four others) in a large and effectively mounted show of works by an artist whom I appreciate more for his general approach to the world—his long-standing engagement with the intertwining labyrinths of ideology, technology, and the media—than for any one particular work. Indeed, there are any number of pieces I find forgettable, but somehow that doesn’t diminish my estimation of the artist overall. Interestingly enough, his show overlapped with the Dieter Roth retrospective that the Museum Ludwig had mounted in another part of the building. Roth, who likewise produced only a few masterpieces within an enormous output, was a similar figure in late-twentieth-century art: A kind of Gesamtkunstwerk in himself, he turned everything and everyone he touched into a facet of an all-encompassing scheme merging life and art. His friend Richard Hamilton had the same effect. They don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Daniel Birnbaum is a contributing editor of Artforum.