Art: Poptastic!

    Just what is it that makes Richard Hamilton so different, so appealing? Waldemar Januszczak unravels his unsung genius

    Hamilton invented pop art. In 1956, he produced a collage called, famously, Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?, and this collage was the earliest art object on the planet to be driven by unmistakable pop ambitions. It featured a flash modern pad, filled with consumer goodies, at the centre of which stood a muscle man holding a large lollipop, with POP written on it. On the settee was a reclining pin-up. Cans of food, comics, electronic appliances, a movie poster glimpsed through the window — Hamilton’s witty collage had it all and had it first. It was as if the Swinging Sixties had been glimpsed a decade early: a truly prophetic work.

    To be fair, it and he were appreciated for it, and in the early part of his career, Hamilton was correctly recognised as one of the smartest, sharpest artists at work in the world. What worries me is what happened next. It’s as if we, as an art audience, lost our faith in intellect and perspicacity and craved instead to be taken back to the nursery. Hockney’s charming poster-paintings could be stuck to the fridge with a magnet, couldn’t they? How reliably they evoke the gaudiness of school days. Here we are, fawning on a regular basis on the mass-produced regressions of an entirely minor pop artist, whose work long ago ceased to engage meaningfully with the modern world, while simultaneously overlooking the continuing achievements of one of the adult giants of post-war British art.

    Hamilton is 80. And still producing compelling work. Only Francis Bacon has been as important. A selection of his splendidly patient art, which inveigles itself into your imagination and then sort of squats there till you get it, has opened at the Gagosian Gallery. It calls itself a mini- retrospective. But that’s being hopeful. It’s a micro-mini-retrospective, a room-and-a-half of pieces, sparsely hung, and dating from 1964 to today. Basically, it’s an elegantly spare taster. Yet even in this hugely reduced form, you can see, easily enough, both why Hamilton is important and why he is so chronically underappreciated.

    The Beatles made two interesting choices when they looked around for pop artists to design their album covers. For Sgt Pepper, their conceptual shot at the past, crammed with Edwardian circus echoes and brass-band noises, they selected Peter Blake, the artist as cigarette-card collector, who packed the cover with famous faces. But for The White Album, their shot at the future, a progressive lurch into another musical era, they chose Richard Hamilton. And what did he do? He designed a blank for them. Thirty years before Martin Creed won the Turner prize with a banal re- enactment of the same strategy, an empty room, The White Album engineered its considerable impact by default: by comparison with everything around it.

    Hamilton’s own copy of it, signed by Paul and Linda, is included in the show and proves to be a helpful pointer to the way he operates. He is just about the least touchy-feely artist I can think of. He’s an ideas man, a strategist, easy to underappreciate because his art seems to offer so little in the way of sheer stuff: of soft- ness, or expansiveness, or charm. Sparrows walking across the snow have as much impact on the whiteness that surrounds them as this sparse selection of pop mementoes has on the elegant, bleached cube of the Gagosian Gallery. Anal, that’s the word for it. Blake or Hockney are pop taps with busted washers. Their illness is diarrhoea. Hamilton’s is constipation.

    The show is called Products, and it examines Hamilton’s career-long relationship with mass-produced consumer goodies. The toasters and hi-fi systems he celebrated so wholeheartedly in Just What Is It? make assorted returns, and the show kicks off outside with a terribly familiar ashtray in the window. Anyone who’s drunk at a cafe in France will recognise it straight away. It’s the RICARD ashtray, yellow and blue, but in this case with RICHARD written on it.

    Most artists who seek to make art out of their personas do so out of an operatic sense of their own worth. The spirit of self- importance motivates them. That, clearly, is not what is going on here. Frankly, a RICARD ashtray is a more exotic and interesting thing than a RICHARD ashtray. RICARD is a resonant word, RICHARD a banal one. Not even the repetition of the RICHARD logo in a series of large plaques inside the gallery strikes you as an act of proper vanity. It’s too dry for that. A bloke has become a pattern. A pop-art pioneer has outed himself as just another DICK. I doubt that what is being searched for is the melancholy of the banal logo, but that, to my eyes, is what has been discovered.

    I really like Hamilton’s word-art. It’s so quietly cunning. His other famous word piece, ludicrously entitled Epiphany, features the deceptively direct exhortation: SLIP IT TO ME. I defy anyone’s imagination not to be sent whirling into naughty speculation by this terse command. Apparently, Hamilton found a small badge with this instruction on it in 1964 while strolling through the Pacific Ocean Park on a Stateside pilgrimage to see the work of Marcel Duchamp. The find felt terribly meaningful. After all, the acronym for Pacific Ocean Park is POP.

    Hamilton’s touching faith in moments of epiphany offers proof of something I sensed recurringly in this show — something entirely unexpected — which is that he himself is more mystically inclined than he would like us to believe. I see mysticism everywhere in this show. I see it in the fetishistic worship of consumer goodies as if they were sacred; in the ethereally floating logos; the arrangement of the installations into triptychs. I see it in the hermetic presentation of the exhibits, and the refusal to be ornate or busy or corporeal. Here is an artist who understands the fetishistic hold that beautiful technology can exercise on modern humans, because he feels it, all too clearly, himself.

    There’s an interesting interview with Hamilton attached to the show’s press notes in which he complains that the artist he hates most in the world is Bill Viola, the American video-evangelist who strains so obviously for mystical and quasi-religious impact in his plangent video pieces. A pot is accusing a kettle of blackness.