Richard Hamilton: A masterclass from the father of pop art
Richard Hamilton invented the term ‘pop art’ 53 years ago and, from his 60s Swingeing London series to Tony Blair as a cowboy, he has been ahead of the curve ever since. On the eve of his new Serpentine show, he grants Rachel Cooke a rare interview
Once upon a time, pop art was new and young and exciting. But it isn’t any more, and one way to remind yourself both of its great age and of its move to the establishment mainstream is to consider the case of Richard Hamilton, the artist most regularly described as its “father”. For one thing, there is his face. Crikey, what a face. He looks like Abraham as depicted by a children’s bible: the sprouting white hair, the magnificent high forehead, a set of teeth that resemble leaning tombstones in a crowded churchyard. For another, there is the fact that Hamilton will soon be the subject of a big new exhibition at London’s Serpentine Gallery, one of 10 or 12 similar shows – he forgets how many exactly – that will take place around the world this year. Does all this attention still surprise him?
Hamilton considers a moment, and then says, with mock indignation: “It’s getting a bit out of hand, actually.” A low chuckle. “It’s funny because, in the past, my exhibitions haven’t by any means been greeted with praise. When I showed at the Tate in 1992 almost every critic hated it. At Christmas there was a thing in the newspaper: what’s the worst exhibition of the year? I won! I suppose it’s just that people are coming to realise that I’ve done some quite serious things over the past, you know, 50 or 60 years. That, and the fact that I’ve lived longer than all my peers. Joseph Beuys and John Latham are dead. Robert Rauschenberg is dead. Jasper Johns is alive, but when do ever hear about him?” From the corner of the room comes a smaller voice: “Jasper’s younger than you, Richard.” This is the painter, Rita Donagh, Hamilton’s wife, who acts as his handbrake when the need arises.
We are sitting in a gleaming white box of a room at the Serpentine Gallery: me, Hamilton and Donagh, a woman even more amazing to look at than him. She has spectrally pale skin and long grey-white hair, and is wearing black dungarees. She is straight out of Paris Vogue. Later Hamilton tells me that, even after several decades together, he still tells her every day that she is beautiful, and I must say: you can’t blame him. Anyway, they are a talented and single-minded couple, these two, and they have known an awful lot of famous people – the Beatles, René Magritte, Marcel Duchamp, take your pick – and yet the miracle of it is that they are not remotely precious, grand or prickly. As I am about to find out.
Hamilton hands me a colour copy of a piece of new work that will hang at the Serpentine. It is a political piece, and consists of two maps: one of Israel/Palestine in 1947, one of Israel/Palestine in 2010, the point being that, in the second map, Palestine has shrunk to the size of a cornflake. I hold the image in my hands, and give it the attention befitting a new work by an artist of Hamilton’s reputation. In other words, I look at it very closely, and I notice something: on these maps Israel has been spelt ‘Isreal’. Slowly, my cogs turn. Hamilton loves wordplay. One of my favourite pieces of his is a certain iconic French ashtray subtly tweaked so that it says, not “Ricard”, but “Richard”. So presumably this, too, is a pun. But what does it mean? Is-real? Hmm. This must be a comment on the country’s controversial birth. Either that, or he wishes to suggest that the Israel-Palestine conflict is a nightmare – can it be real? – from which we will one day wake up. How clever.
“So what are you up to here?” I ask. “Why have you spelled Israel like this?”
Hamilton peers first at me then at the image. “How is it spelled?” he asks. I tell him how the word should be spelled and how he has spelled it.
There is a small silence. “Oh, dear,” says Hamilton. Rita Donagh gets up from her seat and comes round to look at the image over my shoulder. “Oh, dear,” she says. The misspelling is, it seems, just that: a mistake. It’s my turn now. “Oh, dear,” I say. “I’m so … sorry.” My cheeks are hot. Hamilton looks crestfallen. Donagh looks worried. “Can you change it?” I say, thinking that Hamilton works a lot with computers these days. “Not very easily,” he says. Oh, God. On the nerve-wracking eve of his new, big show, I have just told the 88-year old father of pop art that there is a mistake in one of his prints (this one is an inkjet solvent print). Why? Why did I do this? And how on earth will our conversation recover?
After a moment of perplexity, though, Hamilton starts to laugh. “Oh, well!” he says. “I’m sure there’s some way of sorting it out. Not to worry!”
Despite his huge influence, Hamilton is not famous in the way that, say, David Hockney is famous. No one is going to ask Richard Hamilton to edit the Today programme. But you will recognise his most famous work even if you can’t quite put a name to its creator: his 1956 collage, Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? in which a naked woman sits on a G-Plan sofa wearing a lampshade; his paintings of Mick Jagger, and the art dealer Robert Fraser, in handcuffs following a drug raid (the Swingeing London series, completed between 1967 and 1972); his images of an IRA hunger striker (The Citizen series of 1981-3); his 2007 inkjet print, Shock and Awe, in which Tony Blair is done up as a cowboy, with double holster and boots. Or perhaps you own a copy of the Beatles’ White Album, the sleeve of which he designed.
Part of the difficulty is that he is so hard to categorise. A lot of his work could easily be described as pop art – the bright colours, the iconic images, the found objects – but he is also much more political than, say, Warhol, and he is a brilliant draughtsman, one who spent 50 years illustrating Joyce’s Ulysses (these enthralling prints were shown at the British Museum in 2002, and will probably never be bettered; he is to Joyce what Tenniel is to Alice in Wonderland). Even Hamilton seems unsure. “What I always say is: I do whatever I feel like. People don’t seem to understand that an artist is free to do whatever he wants, and I’ve always relished that possibility.” It was his friend Marcel Duchamp who made him realise this. “Duchamp was truly iconoclastic. This meant that he denied himself, that he knocked his own ideas out of the window. I thought: I should do the same – be careful, as he was, of repeating myself. In art, it’s the mind, not the eye that should be active.”
Hamilton had long been a fan of Duchamp; in 1960 he published a transcription of the notes in the artist’s Green Box (1934) and in 1965 he reconstructed his Large Glass (1915-23) which had been smashed to pieces in 1926. But they didn’t meet until later. “It was at a dinner party in Paris, at the house of the artist Bill Copley. I thought it was going to be a big party, but the guests were me, René Magritte and his wife, and Marcel and his wife. I didn’t have two £5 notes to rub together at the time.” What was Duchamp like? “Oh, he was the most charming person imaginable: kind and clever and witty. Eventually I became one of the family. His wife, Teeny, was fond of me. We were fully bonded. If I was with them in Paris, then I was with them all the time. When the first ‘green book’ came off the press he wrote me the most beautiful letter I’ve ever received. ‘Your labour of love has produced a monster of veracity,’ it said.”
Hamilton was born in Pimlico. His father worked as a driver for Henley’s, the West End car showroom. It was very far from being an “artistic” background. “I suppose I was a misfit. I decided I was interested in drawing when I was 10. I saw a notice in the library advertising art classes. The teacher told me that he couldn’t take me – these were adult classes, I was too young – but when he saw my drawing he told me that I might as well come back next week. I used to follow him round like a dog. He was terribly kind to me, and by the time I was 14 I was doing big charcoal drawings of the local down and outs.” At 14 he entered a children’s art competition. Although his entry had mistakenly been ignored, the man who was to give out the prize was a Royal Academician who looked at his pictures and, admiring them, spoke to Sir Walter Russell, the keeper of the Royal Academy School. Two years later he enrolled there.
In 1940, however, the school closed because of the war. Hamilton became a draughtsman at an engineering company. By the time he returned to the school he was in his 20s; the Royal Academy had changed completely. “It was run by a complete mad man, Sir Alfred Munnings, who used to walk about the place with a whip and jodphurs. It was scary. One of my teachers said my work was looking quite like Cézanne. Oh, good, I thought. Then he said: ‘Augustus John knocks spots off Cézanne.’ Well, of course, I roared with laughter. He went red in the face. One day he asked me if I’d visited the Picasso exhibition. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It was wonderful.’ But he got more and more furious. ‘They’re not even good honest Frenchmen,’ he said. ‘They’re a load of fucking dagos.’ What could you do? It was an absolute joke!”
A few weeks later Hamilton received a note informing him that the president did not believe he was profiting from his instruction. His studentship was terminated, and he was dragged “kicking and screaming” to National Service. Being a “veteran”, however, had its uses. When he was accepted by the Slade he was now eligible for a grant.
It was at around this time that Hamilton met Nigel Henderson, later a leading light in the Independent Group of artists to which Hamilton would also belong. It was Henderson who introduced Hamilton to Duchamp’s Green Box, and to D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s 1917 book On Growth and Form which, for Hamilton, was to become a key text (the book advocates structuralism as an alternative to the survival of the fittest in governing the form of species). In 1956 Hamilton created Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? for the catalogue of This is Tomorrow, the Independent Group’s historic exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery. The show was a quasi-anthropological, semi-ironic look at the mass-market imagery of the post-war age.
In 1957 Hamilton wrote a note to the brutalist architects Alison and Peter Smithson, who had also contributed to This Is Tomorrow; they were in talks about the idea of another exhibition on similar lines. It was in this note that he coined the phrase pop art. “Pop art,” he wrote, “is Popular (designed for a mass audience), Transient (short-term solution), Expendable (easily forgotten), Low Cost, Mass Produced, Young (aimed at youth), Wicked, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big Business.” It was almost as though he had looked into a crystal ball, and seen Andy Warhol, in his fright wig, staring back at him. But the letter was not intended to be a manifesto. “I just listed the things I thought were most interesting,” says Hamilton. “He [Peter Smithson] didn’t even answer it. When he was asked about it later he denied receiving it.” What about Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? How does he feel about this supposedly seminal work now? “I’m rather bored with it but it’s a nice little earner!”
After this, Hamilton’s career took off. He was able to give up teaching (he had worked alongside Victor Pasmore at Newcastle University, where Rita was “a favourite student of mine”, though they did not marry until 1991) after Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob, then the most celebrated dealer in London, took him on. “We did three exhibitions, then the famous drug bust took place, the gallery closed, and his cheques bounced. But when the gallery was still open, it was terrific. He had these parties where you became acquainted with the Beatles and Mick Jagger. It was Fraser who suggested me as a designer for the Beatles’ new album. I remember that Paul [McCartney] rang me. He was running the show then. So I went to see him. I was sitting there in an outer office, and it was quite amusing at first because it was full of girls in short skirts and long boots. But then I thought: I’ll give him five more minutes. Anyway, finally, he was ready. He wasn’t sure about my idea at first but in the end he was very helpful. He gave me three tea chests full of photographs to use in the collage for the poster inside.” How much was he paid? “I was surprised how little we got! I remember Peter Blake telling me he’d only been given £200 for Sgt. Pepper. I couldn’t remember what I’d been paid, but Peter said: You only got 200 quid, too. I thought that was a bit mean.” He thinks it’s possible that Yoko Ono was an admirer of his. Or maybe not. “I did contribute my bottom to her bum pic [he means her Film No. 4, better known as “Bottoms”] – not that I would recognise it now. That was our relationship: I was just a bum to her.” He laughs.
In the 1970s he and Rita moved to North End, the Oxfordshire farm where they still live and keep their studio. His work began to grow more political, though he also moved briefly into industrial design (he loves computers, and designed two). It seems pretty obvious to me that Steve McQueen’s film about Bobby Sands, Hunger, was inspired, at least in part, by Hamilton’s paintings of the blanket protesters [the Citizen series], and you can see his influence in most contemporary art, whether the artist in question is aware of it or not (though Damien Hirst calls him “the greatest”).
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.
He’s tiring a little now. I wonder: is he surprised still to be working? Not really. Partly, as he has told me, the drive for reinvention has kept him going. But sometimes it has been anger. His paintings of the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell disguised as the Phantom of the Opera in 1964 were the result of fury: “When he refused to get rid of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, I thought: the bastard!” And so, too, are his most recent works. The Hutton inquiry left him “angrier than I would like to be”. He shows me another piece that will appear at the Serpentine. It’s a medal of dishonour, commissioned by and first shown at the British Museum in 2009. The face on the metal disc is that of Alastair Campbell. Above his head is a Latin inscription. “That’s the nearest we could get to the word ‘whitewash’ in Latin,” says Hamilton, a bony finger tracing its outline. “And that, I’m afraid, is absolutely the product of my anger.” He sounds fierce, but when I look at his face, he is smiling, kindly as ever.