The artist Richard Hamilton, who died in 2011, is mostly remembered today for the collage that he made for the exhibition “This is Tomorrow” at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956. “Just What is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?” was a key manifesto for Pop Art. A bodybuilder brandishing a Tootsie Pop and the pinup girl in a lampshade hat disport themselves in a domestic interior surrounded by symbols of ’50s affluence. On the wall, a reproduction of a comic magazine cover anticipates the entire output of Roy Lichtenstein. It was a rare and resounding coup for British art.
Tate Modern’s vast retrospective, spread over 18 rooms, does full justice to “the father of British Pop Art,” a movement characterised by Hamilton as “popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, and Big Business.” Images of Marilyn Monroe, Bing Crosby and other celebrities demonstrate how deeply Hamilton was immersed in the popular culture of his day, his work usually with a satirical edge, as in “Swingeing London” (1968), which depicts Mick Jagger handcuffed to the art dealer Robert Fraser after a drugs bust. Other pieces, such as the Braun toaster series, reflect Hamilton’s abiding interest in architecture, interiors and product design (he had worked as a technical draughtsman during the war). And, of course, no Hamilton show would be complete without paying tribute to his design for the 1968 album “The Beatles,” popularly known as the “White Album.”
Hamilton’s credentials as an avant-garde artist were impeccable. A founding member of the Independent Group in 1952, he was a early champion of Marcel Duchamp and conceptual art, and there is a room here devoted to Hamilton’s veneration of the French master, including a reconstruction that he made, in 1965-6, of Duchamp’s “Large Glass.” Nods to Duchamp’s work recur throughout the show, whether in “readymades” such as “The Critic Laughs” (1971), which cleverly mounts a set of false teeth on an electric toothbrush, or in reworkings of Duchamp’s seminal work, ‘Nude Descending a Staircase.’
Hamilton always had a rebellious streak – he had been expelled from the Royal Academy schools for “not profiting from the instruction” – and his engagement in contemporary issues can be traced from the merciless “Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland” (1964) to the austere figure of the IRA hunger striker in “The Citizen” (1981-3). Oddly, his later works in this genre, usually involving Mrs Thatcher or Tony Blair, have stood the test of time less well. In “Shock and Awe” (2010), for example, he dresses Blair up as a Wild West gunslinger, but compared to Peter Kennard and Cat Phillips’ brilliant montage “Photo Op,” purporting to show Blair taking a “selfie” in front of a blazing oilfield, Hamilton’s image just looks clunky.
Hamilton’s standing in the world of late 20th century art was enormous. In 1968 he hit on the idea of inviting his friends among artists to take Polaroid snaps of him, over 100 of which are displayed here; it’s a roll call of the biggest names in international art since 1945. (This room yields many unexpected delights: a Polaroid by Francis Bacon, for example, looks…exactly like a Francis Bacon painting!) Later, he was lionized by a younger generation of artists. He was the cool guy in the Lenin cap, the lecturer whose approval every student sought for their work.
And yet Hamilton’s appeal was far from universal, at least in Britain, and going round this exhibition, you begin to see why. He was always an acute commentator on the world as he saw it, but unlike Lucian Freud – who died a few weeks before him – or Bacon, or David Hockney, he never gives much away about himself. The sheer range of his output is impressive, but there is something detached and clinical about it. This is particularly true of his later work. By then, Hamilton had long since abandoned scissors and glue for Photoshop, but something was lost in the process. It must be said that the sequence of digital prints at the end of the show, many of them revisions of earlier motifs, is rather monotonous. He continued to paint, but he was so successful at eliminating brushstrokes that it takes a few seconds to tell that they really are oil on canvas. You begin to crave signs of the artist’s hand in the work. Hamilton’s art engages the head, but seldom the heart.