He’s always been more than daddy pop, of course, but until this mighty 18-room retrospective came along, you may have struggled to grasp just how much more. Now, Hamilton’s ‘Richard the first’ tag is revealed in wave after cool wave of innovation. It’s evident, even before his first forays into proto-pop art (note how iconic 1956 collage ‘Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?’ feels like just a stepping stone), in works like ‘Growth and Form’, the first installation you encounter at Tate Modern. This reconstruction (the original was shown at the ICA in 1951) wouldn’t look out of place in one of today’s on-trend art salons – leaping in scale and across media to include x-rays, photographs of galaxies, a horse’s skull, scientific experiments and films.
This is Hamilton engaging with culture but also stepping back from it, almost like an anthropologist. He does so again in the pop years, not only revelling in the kinds of objects and images that were flooding into the country on TV and in magazines after the privations of WWII but really thinking about what it meant for an artist to use such pictures of cars and modern day consumables like toasters and fridges. He’s examining the culture of desire, how we choose, select and edit the world, or how it is done for us on our behalf in the name of commerce, sex or politics. It’s there in his ‘Still Life’ works from the mid-1960s in which he uses Dieter Rams’s stylish designs for Braun as a template, adding silvered paper to create a lustrous, alluring surface – you see yourself, your desire, reflected in the object. Hamilton throws a Duchampian joke about the cult of the artist into the mix, substituting brand names for his own.
Later, he’s exploding the myth of the 1960s, picking apart the fantasy of ‘Swinging London’ in his ‘Swingeing London’ series – again he uses as shiny surface, this time in the handcuffs that Mick Jagger and art dealer Robert Fraser hold up to shield their eyes from the press. Darker drives pulse through his ‘My Marilyn’ works from 1965 which, based on contact sheet images crossed out and scratched by the movie star, echo Monroe’s self-obliteration.
A more overt note of dissent creeps in, first in his critical portrait of a monstrous-looking Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, then in the ‘Kent State’ series of prints that use repetition not in a blank Warholian way but to amplify a sense of appalled helplessness. The interior – Hamilton’s great subject – shifts in mood and tone, starting off as celebratory, optimistic, then gradually becoming more claustrophobic and chilling – nowhere more so than in his ‘Treatment Room’ (1984), one of the most darkly humorous installations you’ll encounter.
All this would feel academic were it not for Hamilton’s evident love of materials – in flourishes of carefully controlled paint, flashes gold leaf, even loo roll, which features in his ‘Flowers and Shit’ series.
Too often, art seems to exist in a parallel world, quite separate from everyday life, but with Hamilton you get a sense not only of his artistic development but of the cultural and political development of the twentieth century, a great sweep of sixty or so years from pop to the Iraq war. This is one of the last shows in which Hamilton had direct involvement before his death in 2011 and he would have certainly enjoyed the fact that his grandest statement was taking place in a building as iconic as Tate Modern. After all, in the 1960s, when he first travelled to New York and saw Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, he foresaw the rise of art, the artist, the museum as statement, image and brand. It’s taken the rest of us this long to catch up.