Tate Modern's Richard Hamilton show captures the father of British Pop Art in all his splendor
EVEN IF YOU'VE never heard of Richard Hamilton (1922-2011), you probably remember several of his images—such as that of Mick Jagger and art dealer Robert Fraser handcuffed together in a police car ("Swingeing London 67") or the muscleman holding the phallic lollipop in a room loaded with American consumer goods ("Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?" from 1956).
Hamilton was called "the father of British Pop Art," with some justification, as he transcended the usual category divisions of artistic practice, incorporating popular imagery, making installations, using Polaroid photography and, near the end of his long life, becoming a digital wizard.
Tate Modern's enormous retrospective comes close to doing justice to this polymath innovator who worked with Marcel Duchamp to reconstruct his "Large Glass," taught Brian Ferry and others from Roxy Music, adored well-designed objects such as the 1967 Braun toaster, and later made deeply political works concerning the Kent State shootings, the IRA "dirty protests" and passionate depictions of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.
The only aspects a little slighted by this wonderful show are Hamilton's interest in food (he pretty much discovered Ferran Adrià when the chef ran a beach cafe near the artist's Spanish house) and the fact that he was an elegant, fluent writer of English prose.
Curators Mark Godfrey and Hannah Dewar have reconstructed Hamilton's very first installation, "Growth and Form" (1951), and the exciting 1956 "This is Tomorrow," with its working jukebox, movie-poster and art-historical motifs. Another pair of his installations has been remade at the Institute of Contemporary Arts to coincide with this show.
The room detailing his association with Duchamp shows Hamilton's remarkable mastery of the craft and engineering aspects of creating art. They became friends in the '60s, when a Duchamp retrospective was planned, and Hamilton, knowing that Duchamp's most important work, "The Large Glass" (1915-23), was too fragile to travel, devoted himself to remaking it so carefully that Duchamp signed the piece. Most fans of Duchamp (and most curators) interest themselves in Duchamp's ready-mades, the urinals and bottle racks. By doing this instead, Hamilton showed his sympathy and understanding of the hard core of Duchamp's artistry.
'Lobby' 1985-87 The estate of Richard Hamilton
For Hamilton, too, as this exhibition repeatedly demonstrates, making art was also an intellectual process, and he was a serious, even visionary thinker. (I should disclose that we were friends.) This fine show, planned before the artist's death, can only consolidate his high stature.