POP GOES POLITICS; Richard Hamilton Is Often Described as a British Andy Warhol -- but, as a New Show of His Political Works Proves, He Is Capable of Transcending Pop Art; EXHIBITION OF THE WEEK

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Byline: Ben Lewis


THE problem Richard Hamilton has always faced is that everyone wants him to be Ricky. By which I mean, our Andy, as in, a British Andy Warhol. Hamilton was one of the first guys to collage consumer electronics and interior design and body-builders, remember? The one who made those prints of a toaster. Really cool! And all those collages of models' faces.

Now, in a narrowly focused show that is brave and occasionally foolhardy, the Serpentine Gallery has shredded this image of Hamilton and recast him as a political artist -- one who has searched over four decades for different ways to capture in iconic pictures the turmoil of his day.

Born in 1922, Hamilton is now the granddaddy of modern British art. He trained as a technical draughtsman in the war, and made money making models for design fairs after it. That interest in the applied arts and design has influenced both his works and the graphic layout of this exhibition (curators told me that it is significant that some of the pictures are hung at "dog height").

In the Fifties, Hamilton played a leading role in the avant-garde Independent Group, a band of artists, designers, architects and theorists who anticipated the informal yet intellectual approach of conceptual art with seminars, lectures and exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (happier days!). The culmination of this way of thinking was Hamilton's Pop Art collage titled Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, so appealing? (1956), a parody of postwar consumerism.

For a moment he exerted a major influence over the future of Pop Art -- Warhol, Rosenquist, Polke, you name it -- worldwide.

But this work is not in the Serpentine's show, whose starting point -- aside from a bizarre portrait of tight-lipped British PM Hugh Gaitskell in 1964 -- is a room full of variations of Hamilton's most famous picture, Swingeing London 67. Made surely with nods in the direction of the king of icons, Warhol, and the master of photorealism, Gerhard Richter, this was originally a photograph of Mick Jagger and gallerist Robert Fraser, emerging from court after being tried on drugs charges. Like Warhol, Hamilton became a new kind of artist, who plucked the key image out of all the billions flashing up on TV screens and the print media around the world -- somewhat like one of those exotic frogs in nature programmes, who sit patiently on a leaf, wait for the fattest fly to come by and then flick their tongues out in an instant to catch it.

In fairness, the tongue-flick is only the first step. Hamilton has treated the photograph of Jagger and Fraser in every conventionally artistic way imaginable -- oil painting, screenprint, etching, pencil, pastel and watercolour, and one with the handcuffs in metallic relief. His real subject is not celebrity but our delirious experience of mass media: Hamilton manically recreates the snapshot's overwhelming presence in our daily lives in the world of art, searching for which treatment best captures the power of the image. Of course the search is doomed to failure -- but that's his point: the intangible power of these news images is inexplicable.

Plenty of other more conceptual ideas can be extrapolated from this image, which is one of the reasons why Hamilton is so popular with waffling curators. The poses for example, in which both figures cover their eyes with their hands, could be seen as a revolutionary new kind of portrait painting, where the idea was hitherto to show the face. And then there's the clever pun of the title -- swinging London/swingeing London, inspired by the judge's stated intention of handing out a "swingeing sentence". By comparison Warhol is so traditional.

Over the following years, as you will see in the exhibition, Hamilton does the same kind of smart things to a photograph of a British soldier in Northern Ireland, an Orangeman, the Kent State Massacre (an incident of American police brutality in 1970) and, most famously, a Maze dirty protest hunger striker, in The Citizen (1982-3). …


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