Thoroughly Modern Richie: A Hamilton Re(tro)spective At Pallant House, Chichester

From the White Album to the surveillance state, Richard Hamilton showed us the future, then

Richard Hamilton, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different? 1992, digital print on paper, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (Muriel Wilson bequest 2019)© Richard Hamilton 2020. All rights reserved. DACS

Modernity. That’s what we’re told Richard Hamilton was about. Some say he invented Pop Art with a collage of his called Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? (1956). The work was part of a prophetic show called ‘This is Tomorrow’ showing that year at the Whitechapel. Zap forwards in time and here we are in 2020 with some pictures and references in no particular order to: Charles Atlas, Groovy Bob Fraser, Bing Crosby, Hugh Gaitskell, John Glenn, and… Robby the Robot. Then there are the objects: a Gemini re-entry module, a gleaming aluminium toaster, a squat vacuum cleaner, and the smooth streamlined chassis of a Chrysler. Freeze-frames from a colour TV set show us a body, Freeze-frames from a colour TV set show us a body, a victim of the Kent State shooting of May 1970. Anyone under 40 and most tQ readers here in the twenty-first century could be forgiven for asking: who are these people and what is all this junk from days gone by? This is Tomorrow? You’re joking, right?

But all our yesterdays were once ‘the now’ and the idea of modernity – what newness means – did indeed pulse through the work and thinking of Richard Hamilton.

Hamilton was one of the key British artists of the twentieth century and his disparate practice is packed tightly here, crammed as if we’re trying to swot up too much the night before a big exam. The show feels squeezed, as if some of his ideas were excess baggage we’ve been told to stuff in the hold.

The now of Hamilton’s then is no longer around. It’s gone: it’s in The Past. But let’s be positive: the show itself is timely in that it arrives prior to a much-anticipated book on the artist by Michael Bracewell, author of Re-make/Re-model (2007). That tome is the definitive story of early Roxy Music and covers Hamilton’s tutelage of Bryan Ferry at art school in Newcastle. Hamilton understood glamour, understood desire, with Ferry as his epigone. Hamilton had his own hero – Marcel Duchamp. All three men understood that sensual pleasure is often a joy best deferred. This was their subject.

Hamilton in particular was into consumer goods and their fetish-like appeal. See him in a magazine-run Self-portrait (1963), where he wears the outfit of an American footballer surrounded by the accoutrements of early 1960s want: a phone, a fridge, yet another vacuum cleaner with its slinky serpentine hose. There’s a girl too, sprawled on the car bonnet, posed in a near-identical fashion to the model on the cover of that first Roxy Music album. And then there was that other album cover. As befits one of the innovators of Pop Art Hamilton would (near-inevitably) become associated with the Fab Four, doing the sleeve for The Beatles (better known, of course, as the ‘White Album’) in 1968.

Remember the collage insert? “The collage was scrappy but mesmerising – or scrappy and mesmerising, like the White Album itself. And like the White Album it seemed modern and cutting-edge and devil-may-care, but at the same time it came steeped in a sense of nostalgia”. That’s Craig Brown in his hugely entertaining book on the Beatles, One Two Three Four (2020). The unstated author of the collage is, of course, Hamilton. Brown’s description seems apposite as regards the show at Pallant House. With its multifarious meditations on movement and perspective, such as the roughly sketched Walking Man, After Muybridge (1953) and its games with shadows and the immateriality as with Oculist Witnesses (1968), the Pallant collection can be said to be both scrappy and mesmerizing.

There are nods to the visual fracturings of Cézanne and Picasso. Elsewhere: a wink to James Joyce and the comedy of sex, as with a circular orange panel and its naughty text in blue that reads “SLIP IT TO ME”, a work Hamilton called – with deadpan irony – Epiphany (1964). Here, too, his conflation of curves on cars and girls as with Hers is a Lush Situation (1958) anticipates the autoeroticism of J.G. Ballard’s Crash (1973). But it’s the sexy 60s mash-up of drugs and furs and metal and Rolling Stones where Hamilton excels. The punningly entitled Swingeing London 67 (1968) looks at the now of the then with one eye on the future of surveillance and nicks an idea from the past (from Otto Dix: the shiny handcuffs on Jagger and Groovy Bob following their bust recall the inlaid metallic phone Dix clutches in To Beauty,1922).

We are reminded of Hamilton’s serious importance as a political artist with Orange Order (1991) – a small cibachrome daubed with enamel that is allied to his great history paintings: The Citizen (1982–3), The Subject (1988-90), and The State (1993). These are perhaps the most significant in contemporary British art history, their relevance made immediate – modern you might even say – following the recent rulings on the Pat Finucane case.

Chichester itself provokes gloomy Larkin-esque musings given its Cathedral, its Arundel Tomb. What, we might ask, will survive of Hamilton? Loads: the man, like Ballard, could see ahead by rigorous interrogation of the surface. He had great taste. He knew who to crib and who to hang out with. Check the cheeky collection of Polaroids here, shots of the man taken by a long list of artistic luminaries, his peers, his many admirers. For my generation he’s still fantastic. But the young may quiz us: what is it that makes him so different, so appealing? Maybe we can propose Hamilton’s Paradox: his study of the modern recalls the past and illuminates the future.

Hamilton will always be a special artist for this fan because his stuff got me banned. I wrote an article for an august journal praising his installation piece Treatment Room (1983–4), a scabrous meditation on Thatcher. A month after submission she died. The editors thought it ‘inappropriate’ in the immediate circumstances of her demise and spiked the article. I checked and she’s still dead, just like that column.

Richard Hamilton: Respective is at Pallant House, Chichester

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