Richard Hamilton and Pop Art

Richard Hamilton and Pop Art

Anna Hoffman
Sep 15, 2011

Richard Hamilton, who died Tuesday, is considered one of the instigators of the British Pop Art movement; in fact, the cheekily-positioned Blow Pop in his most famous collage (below) may be where the movement got its name. Even if you've never heard of him, you may be familiar with the Beatles' White Album, whose record sleeve he designed. Let's take a look at some of Hamilton's most iconic work.

Richard Hamilton, "Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing?" (1956)

Hamilton's most important work is this collage, created for a seminal 1956 multidisciplinary exhibition called This Is Tomorrow. Nearly 40 artists collaborated to produce the show, but Hamilton's contribution had the most impact, and is now considered the first work of Pop Art. In fact, you can use the collage as a kind of index, since it basically defines Pop Art: funny, sexy, ironic, interested in 'low' culture (comic books and pinups), consumer culture (the language of advertising, brand logos), and the detritus of everyday life at the time (black-and-white composition books, cinema, canned foods).

"My Marilyn" (1965)

Hamilton himself defined Pop Art better than I just did, as "popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous and big business." Of course, while Hamilton was in some ways celebrating this throwaway culture, he was most certainly critiquing it as well, in particular casting his canny British eye on American economic imperialism.

"Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland" (1964)

Not surprisingly, then, Hamilton's work was often blatantly political with a strongly Leftist bent. In Britain, he is well known for his satirical collage of the legendary Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell as the Phantom of the Opera, which was Hamilton's way of protesting Gaitskell's resistance to British nuclear disarmament.

The Beatles' White Album (1968)

In 1968, the Beatles commissioned Hamilton to design the sleeve of their next album, which Hamilton decided should be plain white, with "The Beatles" embossed instead of printed, and numbered sequentially to suggest a limited edition. Like his famous collage, the White Album sleeve also fits every adjective in Hamilton's own description of Pop, above. It was rock n' roll, and the Beatles, so of course it was "popular," "young," "glamorous," "sexy," and also "big business." It was blank white, so it was "witty," sending up typical cover art. The "limited edition" feel made it "gimmicky," "witty," and a little "glamorous," while the fact that it wasn't actually limited meant that it was "transient," "expendable," "low-cost" and "mass-produced."

"In Horne's House," based on James Joyce's Ulysses

Hamilton's lifelong project, first conceived in the '40s, was a body of work based on James Joyce's Ulysses. Those works were exhibited at the British Museum in 2002, to rapturous reviews. (Paul at Penhire has a great exegesis of a couple of these works here.)

Richard Hamilton circa 1970, with his work Kent State (1970) on the wall behind him

Hamilton continued to make art until his death on Tuesday at age 89. He was recently preparing for a traveling retrospective that will appear at various museums in 2013-14, beginning with the LACMA.

Images: 1 Photo by David Bailey for the New York Times; 2 Learning Curve on the Elliptic; 3 The Guardian; 4 Arel-Arte; 5 Music Radar; 6 Penhire; 7 The Guardian

Created with Sketch.