Richard Hamilton: This is Tomorrow

The art of Richard Hamilton continues to document the modern age, as two timely retrospective exhibitions of his work reveal

At the heart of the comprehensive Richard Hamilton retrospective at Tate Modern is a room that would make a stunning exhibition in its own right. It gathers nine key Pop Art paintings from 1957-63, along with assorted studies and a display of magazines in which Hamilton presented his ideas and his work. If you have been wavering about seeing the show, this room alone is reason enough to go. At a stroke, it reaffirms Hamilton as one of the most perceptive visual interpreters and mythologists of post-war British culture, a Roland Barthes of the image, hyper-attuned to every aspect of design – typography, advertising, industrial design and the interior – who was able to reconcile the iconoclastic spirit of a new consumer era with the traditional demands of fine art.

In paintings such as Hommage à Chrysler Corp. (1957), Hers is a lush situation (1958) and $he (1958-61), Hamilton swoops in forensically on the giveaway details of industrial styling in cars and refrigerators. By fragmenting and abstracting his subject matter, leaving areas of the canvas empty and concentrating on sleek lines and surfaces, sexily shaped contours and samples of seductive colour, he highlights the erotically charged appeal of these dreamlike vehicles and appliances. His pictures document the emergence of new desires, possibilities and satisfactions, and their style, cerebral and detached, coolly sensual, painterly yet collage-like, has barely dated half a century later. Hamilton’s remorseless appraising gaze still looks exhilaratingly modern.

Hamilton has always had high-profile fans among designers. Bruce Mau has long been an admirer and, in 2000, spoke with Hamilton in an event at the ICA in London. At the Tate Modern opening, Peter Saville took me aside to look at Hamilton’s lithograph of a Dieter Rams-esque silver toaster, branded with a ‘Hamilton’ logo. This 1967 piece was a revelation to Saville when he saw it as a student and all his work has come from it, he confided – he showed the toaster in his book Estate in 2005. Other designers cite Hamilton’s essential source book Collected Words (1982); Rob Giampietro of Project Projects in New York used it as a springboard for a long appreciative essay in the journal Dot Dot Dot.

Hamilton, who died in 2011, had a retrospective at the Tate Gallery (as it then was) in 1992 and the new exhibition covers much of the same ground. What makes it exceptional, even for those who know Hamilton’s body of work well, is the reconstruction of two seminal exhibitions organised by the artist: Growth and Form (held at the ICA in 1951) and Hamilton’s section of This is Tomorrow (Whitechapel Gallery, 1956, in collaboration with John McHale and John Voelcker). Meanwhile, to tie in, the ICA has been showing re-creations of two other Hamilton exhibitions, Man Machine and Motion (1955) and an Exhibit (1957, with Victor Pasmore and critic Lawrence Alloway).

These groundbreaking installations are familiar mostly from black-and-white pictures in art history books. The opportunity to experience them in three dimensions confirms Hamilton as a conceptually inclined curator and exhibition designer of great originality. He always held the view that, “exhibitions, as an art form, should be didactic”.

Man Machine and Motion uses photographic blow-ups to represent the themes ‘Aquatic’, ‘Terrestrial’, ‘Aerial’ and ‘Interplanetary’. The pictures of deep-sea divers, astronauts, flying machines and speeding cars are attached to slender steel frames, which subdivide the gallery to provide a multi-planar immersion in rapidly accelerating 20th-century modernity. The legendary modernist typographer Anthony Froshaug designed the catalogue, on show in a display upstairs alongside the original proposal, the layout plan, various source photos used for the displays, and installation shots (the ICA was then in Dover Street). An Exhibit is equally well covered, along with other exhibitions that Hamilton had a hand in.

Back at Tate Modern, This is Tomorrow, a landmark exhibition in British art, materialises again with a sharpness and brightness almost uncanny in an installation uniting Marilyn Monroe, Robby the Robot, an outsized bottle of Guinness, collages, film clips, optical patterns, and the strains of a jukebox. The surprise is how modern it still feels, like a chunk of a fashionable arts club; to visitors in 1956, it must have appeared as a tantalising vision of a more exciting future, even as it anatomised the spellbinding hold of ads, movies and celebrity.

This was the moment when Hamilton created his paradigmatic collage, ‘Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?’, and compiled his much-quoted list of the qualities of Pop Art: popular, transient, expendable, low cost, mass produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, and big business. His magazine articles, ‘Urbane Image’ in Living Arts and ‘Persuading Image’ in Design, can be seen in their entirety, another instance of a trend in art exhibitions towards using printed sources to evoke a parallel appreciation of context.

Because Hamilton is first of all an artist, his periodic activities as a designer have never received quite as much attention as they deserve. The art critic David Sylvester once suggested that, “Hamilton, like Moholy, would have been known as a typographer if he had done nothing else.” Hamilton was a champion of Marcel Duchamp and the Tate shows spreads from two books he produced in 1960 and 1999 devoted to typographic translations of Duchamp’s handwritten notes for ‘The bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even’. It would be easy for visitors to glide by these intricate pages, with much else to see, but both projects are virtuoso feats of graphic reanimation that require a little more articulation and explanation than they receive in the show (they are meagrely illustrated in the catalogue, too).

The two exhibitions – accompanied by a third at the Alan Cristea Gallery showing Hamilton’s prints – are a panoramic celebration of a highly prescient, world-class British artist. There is still scope, though, for a show that focuses on his relation to design, as teacher, researcher and cultural critic, and on his projects as a designer. Alice Rawsthorn’s overview for Tate’s catalogue points the way. I have a catalogue Hamilton designed in 1965 for an exhibition of sculpture by Eduardo Paolozzi that I have never seen reproduced anywhere. There could be more to discover. The Design Museum in its new home would be an ideal venue.

Rick Poynor blogs at Design Observer, rickpoynor/. Richard Hamilton is at Tate Modern until May 26. See for more details. Richard Hamilton at the ICA runs until April 6; more information is available at Jef Cornelis’ 1971 film about Hamilton’s work will be screened at Tate Modern on March 27

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