Art made for the immediate present can rarely stay present; this is the great curse of being a la mode, part of a zeitgeist or a representative of one's own era. Andy Warhol has been lucky enough to remain more-or-less constantly – well, if not relevant, certainly au courant in his fashionable style – and enduringly popular (in a recent Vanity Fair poll of the greatest living artists, with participants including Richter, Serra and Baldessari, several ballots suggested that Warhol be considered "still living" by default). The present presented by Richard Hamilton in his work is less of a glamorous ideal, and more of a white-goods dystopia; technological objects and home appliances appear as ciphers for life's great meaning, only to be revealed as utterly empty—the ideal home as a well-furnished prison.
Richard Hamilton, Swingeing London 67 (f), 1968–9; Tate © The estate of Richard Hamilton.
For a show so deeply concerned with the interior, it is a cold affair. The Critic Laughs (1968) suggests a Duchamp-esque object composition, in which a pair of dentures are affixed to the top of an electric toothbrush: the laugh, I think, is a deadpan one in this place, in lieu of an electric chatter. I am personally fond of Swingeing London (1968-9), the famous painting of Jagger and the art-dealer, Robert Fraser, in their handcuffs – above all else, I enjoy a thing which merges the three spheres of art, rock-and-roll, and narcotics-based criminal offenses – but the various repetitions (ten, I believe), though beautiful, seem more like graphic works than artworks; it's worth mentioning that for the Hamilton fan who desires an artwork less ordinary (or an artwork less expected, rather, as there's very little ordinary about these pop-art icons), the ICA has mounted a simultaneous show which resurrects two of his lesser-known installations, Man, Machine and Motion (1955) and an Exhibit (1957). Still, the classics are rarely tiresome.
Richard Hamilton, Interior II, 1964; Tate © The estate of Richard Hamilton.
Repetition is a common thread here, as in many retrospective shows: is an artist justifiably obsessed with the objects of his or her passion, or do they lack inspiration? In Hamilton's case, one might justifiably say that his frequent return to certain themes came as a means of recording the passage of time: to place artworks into the context of the eras in which they were made, like techy fripperies or newspaper copies in a time capsule. Hamilton has re-made his most famous work, Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?, in various guises since the nifty fifties, and it is still an adroit portrayal of a certain American ideal—a certain bleak and soulless breed of aspiration. I recall having seen the Hamilton survey at the Serpentine, Modern Moral Matters, in 2010, and am no more impressed by his inkjet print of Tony-Blair-As-Renegade-Cowboy than I was then; it seems a childish sub-Private-Eye swipe at an easy target, rendered in a medium which gives the resulting object a greetings-card levity—a consummate silliness. Far more unpleasant a work is the earlier Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland (1964), another portrayal of a politician as a cartoonish villain which better succeeds in its attempts to colour the subject with evil; Gaitskell is outfitted, on the upper half of his face, with purplish, Bacon-esque sweeps which suggest a Phantom-like half-mask.
(Image on top: Richard Hamilton, Just what was it that made yesterday's homes so different, so appealing?, 1992; Tate © Richard Hamilton 2005. All rights reserved, DACS.)