The Beatles aka The White Album (1968) by The Beatles. Design by Richard Hamilton.
Hamilton admires Hunger but he has little time for the other Young British Artists. He can’t imagine a conversation with Tracey Emin lasting more than five minutes – too tedious! – and though he was quite interested in Hirst’s sharks, his paintings bore him half to death. He believes that this generation is “ignorant… they have no understanding of art history. [Their work] is a waste of time. So much of what they’re doing has already been done, and not only by Duchamp, even. You think: you’re 50 years too late, mate.” Don’t even get him started on Sarah Lucas and her antics with cigarettes.
A few words to note the passing of British artist Richard Hamilton whose death was announced this week. I’ve retained an affection for Hamilton’s work over the years for a couple of reasons. As the creator of the 1956 collage Just What is it that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? he inadvertently gave a name to the emerging Pop Art movement with which he was to be indelibly connected, and I’ve written a few times here about my teenage enthusiasm for Pop Art and Surrealism. Hamilton’s work was more familiar to me at the age of 13 than that of many other artists. I responded to the immediacy of Pop Art even though it was over by the 1970s, just as I responded to the inherent weirdness of Surrealism which at that time was back in fashion. On my first visit to London in the mid-70s I rushed to the Tate Gallery (as Tate Britain was then known) to see some of the paintings and sculptures I’d been reading about in art books, and it was one of Hamilton’s works that stood out on that first visit, Swingeing London 67 (f), his painting of Mick Jagger’s drug arrest which I knew from photos although I hadn’t seen it in colour before. Most surprising—and something which reproductions still don’t quite convey—was seeing the pieces of metal stuck onto the canvas to form the handcuffs on the wrists of Jagger and Robert Fraser. It was already a shock that day being in one of the world’s major art galleries; it was even more of a shock to see this painting whose metal elements gave it a vivid presence beyond the pictorial surface as though it was caught halfway between painting and sculpture. It’s a presence which brings to the fore the “aura” which Walter Benjamin discusses in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), an atmosphere possessed by an original work which will always be absent from a reproduction.
Another work I was fascinated by that day was the 1966 version of Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (aka The Large Glass) which Hamilton had meticulously copied from the original at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Hamilton made copies of a number of Duchamp’s works with the artist’s permission, and while his painting of Mick Jagger may have its own substantial aura, his Duchamp copy also has an aura of its own despite being a reproduction. What would Walter have made of that, I wonder? Duchamp is the first conceptual artist, and some trace of his inspiration can be found in Hamilton’s design two years later for The White Album, the 1968 release by The Beatles whose blank sleeve with its embossed name and unique serial number made it the first conceptual album cover. Hamilton has never received the same credit for this as Peter Blake receives for his Sgt. Pepper sleeve. On the packaging for the recent White Album CD acknowledgement was given to the designers who put the reissue together but the only mention of Hamilton was in the tiny list of thanks from the original printing. It’s a small detail from a long career but we can at least remember his contribution to music history today.