Richard Hamilton, a man credited with launching pop art into the artistic mainstream, died on Tuesday at the age of 89, following a short illness (click here for the story from the Los Angeles Times).
One of Hamilton’s greatest successes was opening the floodgates for numerous generations of artists exploring the postmodern aesthetic. Hamilton was born on February 24, 1922, and grew up in London. He sparked his earliest artistic impulse while working as a technical draftsman, a skill that would provide insight to his later work. Eduardo Paolozzi and Marcel Duchamp were two of Hamilton’s key early influences. Paolozzi was the first to use the word pop in a mass culture collage piece, his I Was a Rich Man’s Plaything from 1947.
Hamilton’s undisputed masterpiece is his 1956 Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? This photo collage incorporates 1950s affluence and idealized physical forms with kitsch, mass-produced elements, and a dash of cinematic history. A bodybuilder holds a lollipop and stands in the center of a decorated, modern room, adjacent to a topless burlesque dancer with a lampshade on her head. Another lamp at the back of the room proudly displays a Ford logo, and a woman ascends the stairs pulling a new Hoover model vacuum cleaner behind her. Outside the window is a theatre playing The Jazz Singer, a 1927 movie that famously signaled the end of the silent film era and the triumph of “talkies.” A can of ham and a cheap, framed pulp magazine stamps complete this consumerist hodgepodge. A year after he created his magnum opus, Hamilton defined pop art as “popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, and Big Business,” stressing its everyday, commonplace values.”
Hamilton was very taken with cinema and produced a series in the early 1960s inspired by film stills. This attraction to Hollywood publicity shots is later seen in Cindy Sherman’s Complete Untitled Film Stills in the late 1970s. Hamilton’s American counterpart, Andy Warhol, shared this interest in celebrity, glamour, and mass-produced culture: at an early age Warhol wrote letters to stars including Shirley Temple, and he later stated he wished he were more like a machine.
In a lot of ways, Hamilton represented the spirit of postmodernism, which weaves elements of fragmentation, irony, and pastiche, creating a visual triumph over the written word. This style recontextualizes what we already (think we) know to be true. It acknowledges that, while there may be a discrete infinity in language, most things have already been said and are now subject to play. Pop art is about attitude and commodities. It flips the stylistic hierarchy, minces words, and juggles low culture and high culture, resulting in canned ham and lollipops in a nouveau-riche gallery.
Hamilton embodied the mechanical in its triumph over the traditional in a way that was more fun and accessible than what the Italian Futurists tried to do. He paved the way for artists like David Salle, Richard Prince, and Sherrie Levine to juxtapose and appropriate images. Hamilton’s The state (from a series inspired by British conflicts with the Irish Republican Army during the 1980s and ’90s) anticipates Banksy’s political graffiti and provided artistic perspective on an issue close to Hamilton’s home. These are just a few of the things that make Richard Hamilton’s legacy so different, so appealing.