June 1992

Just what is it that makes Richard Hamilton so different, so appealing?

The artist gives a rare interview ahead of his Tate Gallery retrospective, weighing in on Pop Art and the Pop revival and the need for quality judgements in art and consumer society

Richard Hamilton, Four Self Portraits - 05.3.81 (1990) © The estate of Richard Hamilton

Richard Hamilton, Four Self Portraits - 05.3.81 (1990) © The estate of Richard Hamilton

More than 20 years ago, the Tate Gallery mounted an important mid-career survey of the art of Richard Hamilton, founder, with Eduardo Paolozzi and others, of the Independent Group, definer of Pop Art, explorer of the coming trends in menswear, chronicler of the relationship between crumpet and her toaster, designer of the Beatles’ “White Album”, critic of Swinging London, soft pink landscapist and lobbyist and manipulator of the Quantel Paintbox. On the eve of a second major exhibition of his work at the Tate (17 June-6 September), curated, once again, by Richard Morphet and devoted, on this occasion, to his oil paintings, Hamilton discusses his career, his relationship with dealers, the continuing attraction of television, his declining interest in America and his delight in discovering that he had been rediscovered by a younger generation of artists and students.

The Art Newspaper: In the past three years, there have been important exhibitions of your work in Winterthur, Hanover and Valencia, you showed at the São Paulo Bienal in 1989 and in the recent Carnegie International in Pittsburgh. Have you been surprised by the resurgence of interest in your work?

Richard Hamilton: I have been a little surprised at the extent of recent interest. I have always thought of myself as being rather unfavourably viewed by the art establishment—and that includes journalists—in Britain. But on the other hand, the bibliography for the Tate catalogue required that I look back at a lot of old notices and I find that my perception was not at all valid. There has been a lot of interest, even if it isn’t public interest. What I am most conscious of is that I have been regarded as a controversial figure: until the age of 60 I was seen either as a subversive or as an enfant terrible. The likelihood is that at that point you will then turn into what the young term a boring old fart and that transition from enfant terrible to boring old fart is immediate at the age of 60. I have been encouraged to find that the young are not so predisposed to put me aside at the age of 70 and that a new generation of students and artists regard me as something of a cult figure. The fact that Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger (Bryan Ferry couldn’t come because he had a cold) were at my Anthony d’Offay Gallery opening last year raised it into a social event, so much so that [the dealer] Robin Vousden said, “We haven’t had an opening like this since Andy Warhol”.

When I was in Bremen not long ago for what turned out to be a Fluxus family meeting, I felt great affection from and for old friends like Daniel Spoerri and Emmett Williams, but also the younger artists associated with the exhibition were warm and welcoming. I was told by new-found friends, “I have known your work for years and the typographic version of Duchamp’s Green Box book you made in 1960 was my first route into an understanding of Modern art”. In a way it’s a surprise; but a very gratifying one.

Until your exhibition at Anthony d’Offay’s gallery last summer, you had not showed a major group of works in London since the Serpentine Gallery’s exhibition of 1975. Was there any reason for this long absence?

I have always been a little suspicious of dealers. There have been few relationships of that kind in my life. My first real exhibition was at the Hanover Gallery in 1955 and it wasn’t a great success commercially—very little was sold—so there was an interval of eight years before I had another. I regularly asked Erica Brausen, the Hanover’s director, if she would visit my studio to see what I was up to but she never had time to take a taxi from Hanover Street to Highgate. It was the same with Robert Fraser. I was friendly with him and admired his taste and style but he could never be induced to look seriously at my paintings. I wasn’t prepared to put things under my arm and hawk them around in Bond Street so there was a long gap. Then, in 1963, I was asked if I would write a piece on my own work for Living Arts, an immaculately produced but short-lived ICA magazine. I wrote, with some effort, a short text which I called “Urbane Image”. There was a sudden flurry of interest. Ted Power, a fine collector, whom I had known for years and who had seen odd paintings in mixed shows wanted to buy something. Erica Brausen said, “Let’s have that show; I don’t need to come and see the pictures”. Robert Fraser wanted to take up the invitation to visit my studio. I was surprised that my failure to get an audience for my paintings was so quickly overcome by the act of writing about them. I learned that the pen is mightier than the brush.

"I was surprised that my failure to get an audience for my paintings was so quickly overcome by the act of writing about them. I learned that the pen is mightier than the brush"

I had the second show at the Hanover in 1964 and then I was persuaded by Robert Fraser to make a move from the Hanover to his gallery. He made some kind of deal with Erica Brausen—a sort of transfer fee: it was like being a football player. He really wanted me to show with him and I admired his stable so the move was irresistible in spite of the feeling of disloyalty to a gallery I had shown in twice, albeit with an eight year gap.

I stayed with Robert Fraser for some years and it all ended with Robert going to jail on the famous drug bust with the Rolling Stones. The gallery closed, I got a dud cheque, the Receiver moved in and there was general disaster. It was all quite dispiriting and I subsequently found it easier to work with museum officials. They had their career interests; it wasn’t a financial involvement. Ambitious young curators have a different axe to grind and it worked out very well because I didn’t produce that much. There was an incompatibility between myself and the idea of dealing. A dealer exists to sell and since I can only produce two or three pictures a year the flow of the commodity isn’t adjusted to the pace of the market.

My income at that time was mainly from prints. I made a lot—well, three prints a year on average isn’t much but it was enough to keep me economically viable. When I painted it was for myself, I could afford the luxury of spending two years on a painting; I didn’t have to worry about whether anyone was interested in it or not or whether I would exhibit it in a commercial gallery or whether it would be sold.

As things accumulated, I showed them in museums and in galleries abroad which were less demanding about selling, but seldom in England. I did show in the Serpentine Gallery in 1975 but even that presented a problem of prudery which I didn’t experience on the Continent. There was no understanding here of my intentions in a body of work that ventured into the unfashionable field of Romanticism, an exaggeratedly retinal approach, at a time when Concept Art was the rage. It seemed that people thought it was about kinky sex; at best it was taken as the onset of senility. This interest in young ladies, excrement, flowers and sunsets was viewed as a total absurdity. I didn’t feel it was worthwhile to make an effort in England any more if this was to be the result of my first exposure in England since Robert Fraser collapsed. But there was one Italian reviewer, a distinguished critic named Guido Almansi, who wrote an article in a serious Italian journal of art history headed “Watteau escrementizio”. It was the only part of the article I understood, but at least somebody seemed to see the point.

Your forthcoming exhibition at the Tate Gallery follows a retrospective which took place there in 1970. How will the new exhibition differ in its treatment of your earlier work?

At the time of the Tate retrospective in 1970 my concerns were pedantic and didactic. I was teaching until 1966 and my experience had been largely directed at explanation. I was at pains to show how and why. I thought of my interest as being in subjects rather than individual works; showing subjects rather than the summation of an idea made my objective clearer and that meant presenting the complete thought process. There was a necessity to get the whole idea across—it wasn’t sufficient to show just the final product. Even so, I was throwing in a certain amount of text in an attempt to build an entire justification for the picture, so that exhibition at the Tate was a display of areas of interest rather than paintings. A painting like I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas was shown with several drawn studies and even its print variations.

When the Guggenheim made a retrospective in 1973, Tom Messer, the then director, said the Tate show was fine but he didn’t want the prints. He wanted a different show and the only way to make it different was to leave out stuff because there wasn’t anything to add. I hung on to the drawings because they provided part of the explanation I felt was needed. The 1970 Tate exhibition was conceived as a complete installation; it was beautifully done. I had the advantage of working with a wonderful architect, Michael Braun, who contrived areas just to take individual groups, so that each subject was allocated its own space.

The Guggenheim installation worked well for me too because I was able to use a strict chronology: one thing after another all the way down the ramp. How didactic can you get? I thought it was marvellous opportunity to do it that way, each subject held in a bay and in strictly chronological order.

By the time the Winterthur show came around in 1990 I thought it would be interesting to exhibit just the paintings and when Nick Serota, the director of the Tate, proposed that we might put on another retrospective at his gallery I felt more sure of myself. Perhaps it isn’t necessary to explain things in the way I used to. The works, in whatever medium, must be self-sufficient and stand up for themselves. I began to worry many years ago when I heard a young artist say at a Whitechapel Art Gallery discussion, “I’m in the painting business, not the explanation business”. The remark struck home. I think he was right because the painting must ultimately speak for itself.

Will the exhibition include your prints, objects and multiples, or works in other media?

There will be two installations: Treatment Room and Lobby. The Lobby painting will be presented as an installation. There will be a few multiples but only because they are finished works which exist essentially in that form. There are no prints.

Have you created any new works which will be previewed at the Tate?

Yes, and I have even added in a few pictures which have never been seen before. The 1970 show at the Tate was somewhat restricted in that, although I showed some “Ulysses” drawings as an introduction and some early 50s paintings, it really began with 1956. I was anxious that it shouldn’t include too much of an earlier date because I didn’t feel it would be helpful to the show. It might dilute the real body of work which I felt to be making some kind of contribution. If the show was extended too far back it would spread the interest a bit too thinly. As time has progressed I have produced a bit more and I have been prepared to show things that went a bit further back; I have extended the oeuvre at both ends. The show will open with three paintings that date back to 1939. They have never been shown or even reproduced. They were painted at the Royal Academy Schools when I was a student immediately before the closing of the Schools in 1940. One is a nude done in the RA life-room—rather Cubist in its approach. Of the other two paintings, one is a picture of a friend, a girl who was also a student, posing in the same life-room, and the other, a portrait I made of a fellow student and good friend of mine from the Royal Academy, James Tower, who became a noted ceramicist.

And the new work?

Since well before Christmas I have done nothing but work on the Tate catalogue. There hasn’t been much opportunity to do anything new, but there is a painting which will be the final work in the catalogue and which I have yet to complete. I have to drop the work on the catalogue and get into my studio for a few hours each day to carry further a painting which began as a request: it is called War Games.

When the Winterthur show went to the Kestner-Gesellschaft in Hanover as the second leg of its tour I was approached by the director of an art community set up in a distillery. There was a project to get artists to work on panels for a long wall, concrete posts and lintels with a brick infill, that might be seen as a possible module for paintings or some other art form. I agreed to undertake a panel. One reason for finding the project intriguing was that it was a large open-air commission bigger than anything I had ever done—about five and a half metres square. The picture could be executed by a company called Scanachrome in which I already had some interest and it seemed like a good opportunity to get involved with the process. It’s a technique of scanning an image and enlarging it through a battery of airbrushes controlled by a computer.

I sought a subject, as I had done in the past, by looking at my TV screen to see what was going on the world. It so happened that the Gulf War in Kuwait was filling our attention, and so I switched on a video tape whenever something attracted me and I found that I would be most likely to record the daily sessions on the BBC’s Newsnight with Peter Snow discussing the disposition of troops over the battle zone using a visual aid which is now known as the sandpit. He was conducting the whole affair with a model of the war zone with cardboard tanks and national flags to identify the blocks of combatants. There were red tanks for the Iraqis, green for Saudi Arabia, blue for the French, yellow for the British and the Americans. Having decided this was to be my subject, I made a still frame on my TV and photographed my television set with a Hasselblad.

I found it intriguing that the image on the screen was almost indecipherable, especially when blown up to five and a half metres square. But the Scanachrome process introduces a linear scanning over the whole image, so I proposed to paint only the area of the TV screen and leave the scanning on everything that isn’t TV.

Having made the Hannover picture I thought it would be nice to have a smaller version, so I now have a two-metre square version on canvas, also painted with Scanachrome, and I am working on the area of the television screen in a more painterly manner than I was able to use on the large one. That is the closing point; the biggest picture in the exhibition will be the finale.

Nearly ten years lay between the arrival of a postcard of a hotel lobby in Berlin and your completion of Lobby. Have you received any new material by post that might be useful for a painting in the years ahead?

No, I don’t think so. The television screen provides most of the ideas, but then, that has usually been the case. But it can be any image that comes to me at second-hand, whether it be postcard, film still, TV or whatever.

You visited the United States for the first time in 1963. That visit resulted in Epiphany in which you openly declared your admiration for the boldness of American humour. On other occasions, both before and shortly after that visit, you made work which revealed your enthusiasm for other American interests: its space programme, its fashion, Detroit, Kennedy and Hollywood. What do you continue to admire in American culture?

I can’t remember anything in the past 15 years or so that has excited me in America. I don’t know quite why that should be except that in the 50s all my peers were fascinated by the industrialised, consumer society of which the US was the supreme example. We were expecting the American model to arrive in Europe with pleasurable anticipation, accepting its inevitability. But the subjects I have been concerned with recently have been more directly related to my own experience of life: the situation in Northern Ireland; the Gulf War; my thoughts have come closer to home. I suppose it has something to do with the feeling that what came out of America tended to operate at either of two levels. There was a banality colouring all visual material reaching us from New York, and the way we were experiencing that banality through the mass-media was regarded as an essential aspect of it.

The other experience of the US was the philosophical and scientific thought emerging from the universities; all the major ideas we received in the early 50s were from MIT, Caltech and the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies. We were gaining a total experience from the States, and the high-level ideas related to the low-level ones in that they allowed us to accept them. The new philosophy said that we should not make value judgements: you can’t think in an Aristotelian way; no value judgements, no good and bad. It all made sense, the relationship between non-Aristotelian logic and the banality of the American way of life: you had to take a detached view of the culture; you weren’t in love with it and you didn’t hate it.

As time went on, and particularly by the early 1970s, I began to question whether one could take this point of view in a situation where things were going on which I clearly saw to be “bad”. As a scientific or aesthetic concept, no value judgements may work; it may be possible to approach a painting from this standpoint. But what if you get to thinking, are nuclear weapons good or are they bad? Are the political events we are experiencing good or bad? I was forced to the conclusion that it is all relative. Whether the image of an ice cream cone or a hamburger is good or bad is not too big an issue but when it comes to nuclear weapons and political events which affect not only the happiness of countless people but which are also a matter of life and death, does it help to avoid value judgements? I began to question events in Northern Ireland, Thatcherism, the Gulf War; it all seems far from the jolly days when we said things are neither good nor bad.

By contrast, you have painted a gloomier picture of British themes, its politicians, its sense of justice, its failure to resolve the Irish issue. Your Treatment Room gave the bleak image of a patronising nanny state. Have any events taken place in the past ten years which might call for a reassessment of that view or a more optimistic response in your work?

I have been depressed about life in the 80s, the way the economy has gone in the past 12 years. People living in cardboard boxes is one symptom, but our cultural deprivation is also tragic. Art schools have been forced into the commercial ideology of Toryism. Art schools have been closed down and those that survive are permitted only to the extent to which they have converted to a market economy.

Have you found any new sources to replace Playboy’s Playmate of the Month as the contemporary odalisque?

Maybe it is a sign of age taking its toll, but sexual imagery doesn’t command much of my attention these days.

In the Royal Academy’s recent Pop Art exhibition, you were represented by eight earlier pictures and a set of your recent Self-Portraits manipulated by the Quantel paintbox. Did that exhibition suggest to you that Pop Art was a thrusting and lively activity with a relevance in contemporary art, or that it had become a comfortable and nostalgic moment in art history?

I think the show was good because it covered a lot of ground and put a general feeling in context. The fact that the organisers decided that it was time to show Spanish Pop and the French New Realists made sense; Martial Raysse has always seemed to me a very interesting artist, but he has been ignored outside France.

Perhaps the problem has been that the Americans have adopted Pop Art as a national institution and seen it as exclusively an American product, so I found the inclusion of the German painters, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter, illuminating. The Fluxus contribution also showed that Pop was not a narrow movement, but touches upon the culture of the period in many ways. I rather deplore the recent manifestation of Pop; it doesn’t seem to me to have the intellectual force of the art of the Sixties. It is a mistake to think of that earlier period as a flippant approach to the problem of making art. If you read the writings of Claus Oldenburg you find it has a precision and intellectual rigour. Warhol too, through his extraordinary evasiveness and apparent lack of commitment is really very accurate in his expression of ideas. Jim Dine knew very well what he was up to in demonstrating the interchangeability of object, word and image. I am afraid the latter-day Pop artists think of themselves as being a culmination of the expression of cultural realism and they regard what happened in the Sixties as a primitive expression of their more developed ideas, which seems to me far from the truth.

But then, I don’t like much of what is going on at all. The generation gap makes it difficult, at my age, to find the generosity to devote the time and effort required to figure out what the bright young things are up to. I did get into a car the other day to drive to London to the Imperial War Museum to see an exhibition of work by Tony Carter and was excited by it, but my appreciation may have something to do with the fact that he was a student of mine so I have been familiar with his ideas over many years.

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