Richard Hamilton is a man of many parts at Tate Modern and the ICA

By Mark Sheerin | 12 February 2014

Exhibition review: Richard Hamilton, Tate Modern and the ICA, London, until May 26 2014

Richard Hamilton, Treatment Room (1983-4)© Tate Photography. Collection of Richard Hamilton
It is sad that a career spanning six decades came to an end just two years before the realisation of this show. Hamilton was very involved in the planning and his support, his insights and his archives have coloured this two-venue celebration of his life and work.

Not that the artist’s final years were passing without notice. It is only four years since a major show at Serpentine which revealed the veteran Hamilton was still passionate about oppositional politics and still at the technical sharp end with his adoption of digital imaging and printing.

So biting Photoshop projects (including Shock and Awe, War Games and Maps of Palestine) will be familiar to Hamilton watchers. If not, expect to meet Tony Blair as a gunslinger, see a war report bleeding from a home TV and reel at two maps of Israel/Palestine: one from the 1947 UN Partition and one from state of occupation in 2010.

Familiar too is the clinical and sinister environment created by the installation of the early 80s piece, the Treatment Room. At a time when the NHS appears to be under threat again, this definitive work about the ill effects of Thatcherism deserves to be seen again. But can that be said of all Hamilton’s output?

Richard Hamilton, Swingeing London 67 (f) 1968-9© The estate of Richard Hamilton
The short answer is, yes. This work deserves its international acclaim. And yet the problem with this comprehensive look back at his career is that much of it is over-exposed. There are six iterations of Swingeing London, and in 2014 you might wonder why we are still share his fixation with a 1960s drugs bust.

Another well-known work here, the three diptychs about Northern Ireland during the 1980s, suffers from being a highly visible part of Tate’s permanent collection. But that said, it enjoys added drama from the close confines in which it is shown and the way in which IRA prisoner Hugh Rooney appears to be cornered by the marching Orangeman and the patrolling paratrooper.

Then there is the collage which leads many to claim him as the inventor of Pop Art: Just what was it that made today’s homes so different, so appealing? Created for the catalogue of a landmark show at the Whitechapel Gallery, this is an ambivalent celebration of the boom years in post war America.

Having heard so much about that 1952 exhibition, This is Tomorrow, it was a treat to find it partially reconstructed here at Tate. And, indeed, the five or six reconstructed exhibitions across the two sites are the most ambitious and most interesting aspect of the show. They suggest that Hamilton blazed a trail in the fundamental way that artists thought about displaying art.

It is fitting that two of these make a return to the ICA, an institution with which the artist was very much involved in during its early years. Now the gallery has a bit more space, they can display Man, Machine and Motion (1955) downstairs and an Exhibit (1957) upstairs.

Richard Hamilton, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different,so appealing? 1956, reconstructed in 1992, Cibachrome Collage, Private collection.© The estate of Richard Hamilton
The first of these is an array of photos in which the past and future of locomotion are juxtaposed in a maze-like wireframe grid. The other, a collaboration with Victor Pasmore and Laurence Alloway, is a series of Perspex sheets which hang suspended both horizontally and vertically. They too are a maze. But a wealth of archive material, also on display here, lets you trace a path through and back in time.

Such pieces of bravura exhibition-making suggest Hamilton had an arm’s length relationship with his own art. He sits back and decides to paint cars, flowers, turds or nudes as opposed to the instinctive way many artists come to their subject matter. So with his passing we have lost one of Britain’s more cerebral cultural presences; until the end there was nothing cosy or folksy about the work.

But what can you expect from a fan of Duchamp? Another of this greatest hits package is a remake of the Frenchman’s Large Glass. Hamilton organised a major Duchamp show at the Tate in 1966 and, with permission from the older artist, spent a year remaking the oblique mechanical study of a bride and her suitors. He even translated all the copious notes pertaining to the sculptural work.

If Hamilton had done nothing else, his impact on British art would still have been notable. But he has done all of the above and additional works which you can no doubt mention. There may be plenty of familiar work in this show, but that just attests to Hamilton's close relationships with UK public galleries.

It is all worth a look - very much so - but this viewer can't decide if this show is too late or too soon.

  • Tate Modern open 10am-6pm (10pm Friday and Saturday). Tickets £11.30-£14.50. Book online. ICA open 11am-6pm (9pm Thursday, closed Monday). Admission £1 (free on Tuesday and to under-18s).

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Visit Mark Sheerin’s contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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