Pop art pioneer, friend of Marcel Duchamp and creator of some of the seminal images of the past half century, Richard Hamilton could be justified in resting on his considerable artistic laurels. Instead, at the age of 80, he is as experimental and questioning as ever, effortlessly using the latest in digital technology to make dozens of works that continue to splice high art and popular culture in ways that are both up-to-the minute and utterly timeless.
To coincide with a retrospective at MACBA, Barcelona and his inclusion in the Tate Triennial, the Gagosian Gallery in Heddon Street, London, is mounting a mini-retrospective of its own entitled “Products”
The Art Newspaper: “Table with ashtray” is a fully functioning work that follows on from your “Lux 50” (1979) painting, which is also a hi-fi system, or the “Diab DS-101” computer (1985-89). Can you tell us about it?
Richard Hamilton: There is a history to this table that led me towards the idea that it is as much a work of art as anything else an artist might produce. I had the first one made for my own use. Then I was asked to make some more for sale. Later I was involved with a dealer friend in Paris who had the idea of getting artists to make furniture as art and I said, “Well, I’ve got a table.” That scheme didn’t work out, but I liked the idea of including the table with other objects and paintings for the Gagosian exhibition.
I had to make sure it was seen as art, so I put the ashtray on it to identify it more strongly.
TAN: Wouldn’t your designation of the table as art be sufficient? Why did you need to add the ashtray?
RH: I made the first small series of tables for a German company that specialises in Bauhaus reproductions. I didn’t want any confusion with these, which were clearly tables and seen in a furniture showroom. The recent, small group is a signed and limited edition, like a print.
There was an exhibition in a little Paris gallery where they showed a mock-up of the table. There were several eager photographers at the press show and one of them asked me to sit on my table for a shot. I said, “It’s not a seat, it’s a table.” I sat instead on an artist’s chair that used the principle of the Swiss army knife. I was smoking a cigar, so I suggested putting an ashtray on my table. When I returned home I realised that the Ricard ashtray I had modified to a “Richard” ashtray might be just right.
TAN: From the time when you were part of the Independent Group in the 1950s, you have been negotiating the boundaries between what constitutes a work of art and what does not, and where popular culture, product design and fine art all overlap and cross-dress with each other. But these days it seems as if the process is complete. To paraphrase your famous 1957 rallying-cry: art has become popular, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, glamorous, big business—all those things you wished for it nearly half a century ago.
RH: Since it took off in the 1960s, Pop Art has been associated with slightly vulgar elements. The subjects are often common, low-class objects: ice-cream cornets, hamburgers, beefburgers, frankfurters, Coca Cola and comics. That was an essential in the early days of American Pop Art. I became interested in trying to establish the idea that any common object could be a subject for Pop Art, even if it was high style.
So I looked at the well designed household objects I used and admired myself, instead of the things that I enjoyed as a kind of vocabulary of the American artists of my generation.
I took the German company Braun as my model. Braun was closely associated with its good-design policy. I was incorporating the idea of high culture and low culture into my aesthetic. Duchamp’s idea of the ready-made was very much part of this thinking. I also thought it established more clearly that Pop Art was not popular art in the naive, home-made sense.
I felt it necessary to make a distinction between pop and popular art.
TAN: In the UK, art seems to have become part of mainstream culture.
RH: Well, I’m a little bored with it, to tell you the truth. I think that most of the art activity that takes place in London is somehow old-hat. It’s all been done before. When you think about what Duchamp did in 1912 through to the 1920s, you see that most of these “new” ideas developed by the younger generation of British artists are an embarrassing regurgitation of something I’ve been familiar with, and influenced by, for half my life.
TAN: So, in your view, nothing has been added to the Duchampian tradition?
RH: Nothing at all.
TAN: Is there anybody whom you would single out?
RH: I was interested in Damien Hirst only at the beginning, when he showed the shark and then animals cut in half. But his treatment of paint as a medium, such as the colours splashed onto spinning discs and his spot paintings, leave me quite cold.
TAN: There’s nobody in America and Europe?
RH: I always enjoy seeing a new exhibition by Richard Wilson. And I remember experiencing a thrill when I saw Gary Hill’s projection work “Tall ships” in his show at Moma in Oxford a few years ago. That was wonderful and original and technically innovative. The whole show was exciting. I’ve never seen anything by Gary Hill that hasn’t interested me. But my least favourite artist is sometimes confused with Gary Hill: Bill Viola. What he does makes me quite upset. I get goosepimples at the thought of it.
TAN: What do you object to?
RH: The sentimental and pseudo-spiritual.
TAN: What is the main value of using a computer to make art?
RH: The greatest, or the most significant, change in art over the past century was collage. It has had an enormous influence, whether it was John Cage, Schwitters or John Heartfield, Picasso and his collaged sculpture, or even the late work of Matisse.
For me, being in a sense a figurative artist, the great disadvantage was that it reduced everything to a small scale because the collage material I used tended to come from magazine pages. Whatever I composed with it ended up more or less on the scale of Life magazine or the Sunday supplements. So I often used collage as studies to initiate paintings.
But now, with computers, once things are scanned in, the computer, each of the elements can be made any size you like. It is possible to do anything at all: changing scale, colour, flipping, cutting and pasting.
TAN: Do you find it a problem that everyone, especially the advertising media, has become so sophisticated at digitally manipulating images that artists have to be particularly nimble in how they operate.
RH: It’s not the fact that pictures are done in certain ways that’s important. It’s what you end up with that matters. How it’s done is incidental. Unless the final result is memorable, who cares?
TAN: Every era throws up only a few great artists, which brings us back to Marcel Duchamp, who has been your constant companion over the decades. His “Large glass” is a work that you reconstructed in the mid-1960s and have repeatedly written about and referred to. An exhibition of your notes on the “Large glass” recently opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. What is it that makes this work so compelling?
RH: Duchamp’s “Glass” is so rewarding because it’s always revealing fresh ideas. It’s never shallow. You never really know it completely. Ever.
As well as looking at his paintings, I’ve spent an awful lot of time reading his notes and trying to figure out their meaning. I’ve worked on the computer over the past few years to construct a sort of map to show all the notes associated with the “Large glass” painting, putting the text into the context of the image.
So there are all sorts of complexities that continue to intrigue me. I suppose it isn’t entirely unlike the amount of time that I’ve spent on James Joyce. Those two masterpieces, the “Large glass” and Ulysses, were enough to feed me intellectually for the whole of my life—if you throw in a Velázquez and a Van Eyck or two…
TAN: Your relationship to the machine seems easier and less ambivalent than Duchamp’s.
RH: I was convinced that I was an artist at a very young age. I went to the Royal Academy schools when I was 16. The war started in the second year of my time there and I became an engineer because I was told by the Labour Exchange that, since I could use a pencil, I could be trained as a draughtsman.
That was an extraordinary piece of luck, because I found I was quite good at thinking as an engineer. I became a jig-and-tool draughtsman, a mind-stretching occupation. A jig-and-tool draughtsman designs the tools that make the product. When I was employed at EMI’s factory in the early 1940s, I worked in the same building as scientists and electronic research engineers, and with some help I made myself a very good amplifier. I even made a pickup that was much better than anything that could be bought, and I designed a horn speaker made of plaster.
The war was an exciting and educational period for me. Then, 40 years later, when working as an artist with computer engineers, I discovered that we’d all made our own amplifier. We were all audio-literate. The computer world has become an extension of hi-fi for a lot of people. Designing a computer is just as interesting as making a painting, otherwise why should I do it? It didn’t provide me with money, but my reward was to have a great computer of my own. .
TAN: So you see all your activities as inter-related. There is no distinction.
RH: I’m not unique in this. Marcel had a problem with the plumbing in his holiday home in Cadaqués. The porcelain tray in the shower on a landing outside his rented apartment didn’t have a stopper. If it had a plug, water might have accidentally flowed down the stairs and made a mess. But Marcel thought, “I’d like to wash my feet, so if I could put a stopper in there it would make life easier.”
He was there for three months every summer and each year he applied himself to the problem. He tried rubber things but they floated away. Nothing did the trick until finally he made a cast of the perforated cover to the drain by pressing clay over the opening and making a plaster mould from the clay. He melted lead in a saucepan in the little kitchen and poured it into the mould. I suspect it didn’t work too well, but he liked to have problems to solve in between his chess games.
Then somebody came along from a company in America with plans to get artists to design medallions. What does Marcel do? He hands him this lead stopper and says, “Perhaps you could use this.”
They cast editions in silver and platinum. I’ve got a silver one. It’s a beautiful object and I love it. And that’s how it came about, out of his curiosity and desire to solve a problem that bugged him for years.
Born 1922, London.
Trained 1938–40 Royal Academy Schools; 1948–51 Slade School of Art.
Lives and works Oxfordshire.
Currently showing ”Products”, Gagosian Gallery, London, 17 Jan-22 Feb; Tate Triennial, 27 Feb; Retrospective, MACBA, Barcelona, 7 March.
Recent solo shows 2002: British Museum, London; Marion Goodman Gallery, New York; Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin; Kunstmuseum, Winterthur; Museu Serralves, Porto; Richard Hamilton/
Dieter Roth–”Collaborations, Relations, Confrontations”. 2001: Cankarjev Dom Galerija, Ljubljana; Kunsthalle Tübingen, Tübingen; Ikon Gallery, Birmingham. 2000: fig-1, London; Milton Keynes Gallery, Milton Keynes; Museum Fridericanum, Kassel. 1999: Galerie Barbara Thumm, Berlin; Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Berlin; Nishimaura Gallery, Tokyo; Studio Marconi, Milan.