Richard Hamilton, who died last Tuesday aged 89, was one of the most respected and influential British artists of the 20th century. Hamilton rose to prominence in the 1950s and 60s as the leading proponent of British Pop Art. He is best known for his photo-montage, collage work: Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? but he was not defined by it. As well as working extensively in book making and illustrating, he produced a large series of contemporary versions of history paintings concerned with news stories such as the “troubles” in Northern Ireland. Throughout his career Hamilton’s work gave voice to the cultural and political changes in Britain, whilst maintaing a sense of humour.
Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? was produced by Hamilton for the This Is Tomorrow exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery in East London, in 1956. The prophetically titled This Is Tomorrow was a precursor to the blossoming of art and popular culture in Britain during the 1960s. Overwhelmingly what comes through in the large scale, irreverent but intelligent work is Hamilton’s blatant cheekiness – to pillage so much all-American culture, blow it up, reposition it and make it look ridiculous. This cock-sureness was a trait shared by his peers that went on to make London swing, most notably Peter Blake, but also by the American Pop artists that Hamilton’s work is frequently described in reference to.
…his work was constantly relevant and reflective, never staid…
Pop Art and its big starts, in particular Andy Warhol, have transcended the gallery. Their images have become part of the lexicon of contemporary visual culture and advertising. Just what is it… is frequently parodied and borrowed from (which is entirely appropriate seeing as the materials Hamilton used were taken from mass published magazines) but unlike Warhol, Hamilton’s work maintains an autonomous voice and is still a critique against excessive consumerism, rather than an ironic factor of it.
Throughout his career Hamilton’s practice and subject matter was always directed at his living audience. Hamilton’s oeurve is a history of the mid and late 20th century told in real time. It is likely that a comprehensive retrospective of Hamilton’s work would not constitute a collection grand enough to encourage anyone to think of Hamilton as “great” in the way that recently deceased Lucien Freud and other British artists from the last century are often described. But this is to Hamilton’s credit, not his detriment – his work was constantly relevant and reflective, never staid or concerned with monumentalising his own legacy.
What Hamilton has left behind is a huge intellectual influence on British art, as well as the freedom to be impertinent and fun. In a letter to The Guardian last week David Hockney explained that Hamilton had been responsible for introducing Joseph Beuys and Dieter Roth to London gallerists. “He taught me a lot” wrote Hockney, “as he did a lot of other artists.”
Images courtesy of Richard Hamilton