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by Deanna Sirlin
The Art Section

The three articles in this month’s TAS may seem as different as they could possibly be in terms of the art and artists they consider, yet there are very interesting connections among them if you let your eye and mind wander across the screen.

Robert Stalker gives us a reading of Salvador Dalí’s late work, the subject of an exhibition currently at the High Museum of Art here in Atlanta. Dalí’s artistic persona is very much at the heart of this exhibition and the question of persona is also central to Philip Auslander’s article that takes Andy Kaufman’s persona and performance of Mighty Mouse’s famous “I’ve come to save the day” as starting points for a meditation on missed connections between art and popular culture. Anna Leung tells us about Richard Hamilton, “the big daddy” of British Pop art. His early collage with the body builder holding a Tootsie pop is widely credited with inaugurating that quintessential art style of the 1960s.

The relationship between art and popular culture is a recurrent theme in these pieces, as seen in Dali’s proto-Warholian engagement with the mass media, Hamilton’s desire to forge a new kind of art that would both draw on mass culture for its subject matter and participate in that culture, and Kaufman’s insistence on performing works that might have been at home in an art gallery or performance space in comedy clubs and on television. 

We are pleased to announce that The Art Section has just been granted tax-exempt 501(c)3 status by the Internal Revenue Service, meaning that donations to The Art Section by individuals, companies, and organizations are now tax deductible. Please consider The Art Section when you plan your giving.

All my best,




Deanna Sirlin is an artist and writer living outside of Atlanta, GA and Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section.

Photos above, clockwise from upper left: Salvador Dali from, Andy Kaufman from, and Richard Hamilton at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Photograph: Richard Saker.


Dalí's Late Work

At the High Museum of Art

by Robert Stalker

The current exhibition Dalí: The Late Work at the High Museum in Atlanta (Aug. 7, 2010-Jan. 9, 2011), the latest of several attempts to re-assess the post-Surrealist Dalí, places Dalí’s much maligned late work in the context of his interest in mass media and the culture of publicity.  The exhibit’s curator, Elliott King, explains that we might better appraise Dalí’s late work once “we move beyond Dalí’s veneer of self-promotion or, better still, understand it as integral to his artistic project.”  Comprised of approximately 100 works ranging from lithographs, video, film, stereoscopy, holography, and forty paintings drawn from all phases of Dalí’s career, the exhibit presents the post-1940s Dalí as keenly responsive to the opportunities opened up by various new media—opportunities for self-promotion as well as artistic expression.  Situating Dalí’s painting within this wider interest in popular culture and mass media, the exhibit implicitly—and not altogether convincingly—positions Dalí as something of a proto-Pop artist. 

The renewed critical interest in Dalí’s later work began formally with the symposium on “The Dalí Renaissance” that accompanied a retrospective concentrating on Dalí’s post-1940 work at The Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2005.  The more recent Dalí: Painting and Film exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2008 focused on the artist’s lifelong love of cinema. The High’s Dalí: The Late Work builds on these earlier efforts, unabashedly presenting Dalí as an artist thoroughly enmeshed in the world of Hollywood films, new media such as holography and video, and what Dalí himself had extolled in 1928 as “[t]he anti-artistic world of advertisement.”  For instance, the giant posters and billboards advertising the exhibit outside the museum and all around Atlanta reproduce not a Dalí painting but a photographic portrait by Phillipe Halsman (1906-1979), blown up to colossal proportions,  of crazy-eyed Dalí sporting his impossible trademark mustache.  The exhibit itself opens with a gallery devoted to Dalí’s collaboration with Halsman on Dalí’s Mustache (1954), a photographic interview staged between the two in which humorous portraits of Dalí provide comical answers to the interviewer’s questions.  (For example, the photograph accompanying the question “Why do you paint?” depicts Dalí hilariously twisting his mustache into a dollar sign.)  After moving through six or so galleries devoted to Dalí’s work in painting, design, film, video, and holography, the exhibit culminates with a meditation on Dalí as media star and spectacle, containing a wall adorned with reproductions of a couple dozen magazine covers parading Dalí’s all too familiar image. 

The exhibit’s organization of Dalí’s late work within the context of his manipulations of his public image implicitly weaves together a narrative of Dalí as an early antecedent to Pop art.  No doubt Dalí’s attention-grabbing shenanigans and brazen commerciality afforded artists such as Andy Warhol a model of artistic self-fashioning quite distinct from the earnestness of New York School painters.  But the exhibit’s interleaving placards containing quotations from James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and Dalí’s own pronouncements on Pop art suggest, less persuasively, that Dalí’s paintings themselves might have contributed formally to Pop.  And while Dalí shared with the Pop artists an interest in popular culture and mass media, particularly cinema, Dalí’s own kind of photo-realism is driven less by an interest in scrutinizing the image saturated world of consumer culture than in developing a highly polished and undeniably impressive illusionist technique to capture his visions.


Of course, Dalí’s attraction to film reaches back to the very beginning of his career.  It was, after all, not his paintings but his collaboration with Luis Buńuel on the stunning film Un Chien Andalou (1929) that first brought him to the attention of the Surrealists.  And while Dalí’s second effort with Bunuel, the film L’age D’or (1930), would prove less personally fulfilling for Dalí, he would soon develop a genuine ambition to work in Hollywood cinema, writing enthusiastically in the late 1930s to a presumably much chagrined André Breton that he had contacted “the three great American Surrealists”—Walt Disney, Cecil B. DeMille, and the Marx Brothers.  Eventually Dalí would indeed work with Disney on the animated film Destino (1945), and even with Alfred Hitchcock on the famous dream sequence of Spellbound (1946), though the extent of Dalí’s contributions to the latter remains in question.  And while many of Dalí’s cinematic ambitions would remain unrealized, still and moving photography proved critical to his thinking about painting.

In his autobiography My Secret Life (1942), written during his transition from his Surrealist phase to what he would call his classical phase, Dalí repeatedly writes in photographic and cinematic terms.  He records visions that come to him “as if my head had been a real motion picture projector.”  He describes memories that stand out “with a photographic minuteness of detail.”  He recounts “a reversed and speeded up motion picture of the ephemeral unfolding of a flower.”  Such ideas about cinematic or photographic ways of seeing find their way into his paintings, as he developed what he calls in The Conquest of the Irrational (1935) the “[i]nstantaneous and hand-done colour photography of the superfine.” 

Dalí: The Late Work includes a number of early surrealist works, such as Morphological Echo (1936) and Transparent Simulacrum of the Feigned Image (1938), that seem to press in the direction of the cinematic and photographic.  Both paintings represent what Dalí referred to as “the most imperialist fury of precision,” a technical virtuosity for rendering life-like imagery combined with an almost overwrought surface finish that Dalí developed through experimentation with various resins.  The glossy, glass-like surface polish of these paintings, so out of step with modernism’s interest in the materiality of the painting surface, captures what Dalí called in “The Poetry of Standardized Utility” (1928) “the impeccable finish of mechanical perfection.”  Moreover, the doubling of images in these and many other paintings suggests, as the art historian Dawn Ades has observed, an interest in developing in his paintings images that suggest “that process of transformation which came to be achieved on the cinema screen by dissolve or montage.”  As Dalí moved away from his “official” association with Surrealism, his interest in film and Hollywood persisted, even deepened, as did his interest in pushing his painting in the direction of still and moving photography.


Dalí’s shift from Surrealism to classicism in the late forties and early fifties coincided with his embracing of Catholic doctrine and cutting-edge science which merged into what he dubbed “nuclear mysticism,” an idiosyncratic combination of Catholic mysticism and nuclear physics which Dalí outlined in his “Mystic Manifesto” (1951).  The religious paintings he began producing, the Madonna of Port Lligat (1950), the Christ of St. John of the Cross (1951), the Assumpta Corpuscularia Lapilazuline (1952), and Santiago el Grande (1957), all included in this exhibit, struck one critic at the time as “vulgarly pompous piety on a Cinemascope scale.”  While this judgment seems hardly complementary, this critic captures what is perhaps most interesting in Dalí’s post-Surrealist work.  The gigantic Santiago el Grande, for example, with its brilliant blue background and remarkable verism seems eminently cinematic.  And while it predates the debut of Cinerama by just a year, the horse and rider depicted in the painting do possess a kind of momentum and outward thrust that seems as if they are about to leap off of the picture plane and into the space of the viewer in ways that anticipate the insistent illusionism that Cinerama marketed as the new technology’s “participation effect.”  And, while it might be sacrilegious to depict The Christ of St. John of the Cross from the perspective of what could arguably be described as a crane shot, it certainly wouldn’t be beneath Dalí, that admirer of the “American Surrealist” Cecil B. DeMille, to do so.    

As the exhibit makes clear, Dalí maintained throughout the second half of his career a keen awareness of various developments in media such as film, video, holography, and even animation.  And, while Dalí shared with Pop artists an interest in these developments, only two paintings included in the exhibit, The Sistine Madonna (1958) and Portrait of My Dead Brother (1963), arguably reflect a genuinely Pop sensibility.  The earlier of the two has its origin in a photograph of the Pope in the magazine Paris Match.  Dalí blew up the photo to an enormous size, transferring just the Pope’s now giant-sized ear in the Benday dots pattern of the newsprint onto the canvas with oil paint.  Inside the Pope’s ear, Dalí painted, also in Benday pattern, a reproduction of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (c. 1514).  Along the side of the painting, in his unmatchable trompe l’oeile technique, Dalí painted a piece of folded paper (the same folded paper that appears in The Christ) with string and ball.  The result is perhaps the most successful of Dalí’s later works, conveying a haunting mystery that persists well after our marvel at Dalí’s technical triumph has receded.  Marcel Duchamp thought enough of the work to include it in an exhibition of Surrealist art that he organized, much to the mortification of Dalí’s former Surrealist colleagues who had long since grown tired of the antics of the artist Breton had anagrammatically dubbed “Avida Dollars”—avid for dollars.

By placing Dalí’s painting alongside his work in various media such as film, video, design, and holography, Dalí: the Late Work attempts to situate Dalí as an important precursor to Pop artists such as such as Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and even Sigmar Polke (who passed away last June) not to mention more contemporary artists such as Jeff Koons (who will speak at the High in October about the influence of Dalí on his own work).  Dalí’s “hand-done colour photography of the superfine” reflects less a Pop interest in interrogating the image soaked world of commodity culture than a refinement of the nineteenth-century academic painterly technique that Dalí so admired. Perhaps more than any formal qualities of his painting, what Dalí truly bequeathed to future artists was an ironic, at times even flippant, attitude toward art and the art world, and a masterful exploitation of the culture of publicity in crafting what is arguably his most recognizable work of art—the indelible image of Salvador Dalí.  


Robert Stalker is an Atlanta-based freelance arts writer. 

Dalí: The Late Work is at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. from 7 August, 2010 -  9 January, 2010. 

Andy Kaufman performing his classic Mighty Mouse sketch on SNL. Photo courtesy of NBC

Missed Connections:

Performance, Art, and Popular Culture

By Philip Auslander

The questions I wish to raise here have to do with cultural distinctions, particularly that between fine art and popular culture, and boundaries of inquiry. Why are particular performances and other art works discussed in some contexts and relationships but not in others. I begin these musings with one my favorite performances, Andy Kaufman’s famous “Mighty Mouse” routine, a staple of his club act presented on television as part of the very first episode of Saturday Night Live in 1975. The rest of the discussion will spin off in various directions from this nucleus.

This performance raises a host of questions concerning performance and identity. What exactly are we seeing? Is it Andy Kaufman simply being (or presenting) himself executing an action? Or is he portraying a character of some kind who is executing the action? To whom does the figure’s performance anxiety, his palpable nervousness and fear of failure belong--to Kaufman or to the ostensible character? Is it in any way significant that Kaufman is lip-synching to a song from his childhood—is there an autobiographical element at work here? Is the somewhat over-eager demeanor of the figure meant to convey a regressive or child-like condition? It is difficult to locate the “real” Kaufman in this performance—or to determine if he’s even there--as would be the case with almost everything he did.

It has occurred to me to wonder why this performance has not, as far as I know, been discussed critically or historically in relation to Gilbert and George’s famous “Singing Sculpture.”

Gilbert and George began presenting the Singing Sculpture in the late 1960s. I say “presenting” rather than “performing” because Gilbert and George have consistently insisted that this work is a piece of sculpture, not a performance, and they have always presented it in art galleries and museums rather than performance spaces. This presents a whole set of boundary issues in itself, since I suspect that many commentators, including myself, would be quite comfortable thinking of this work as a performance and treating it critically and historically as such (performance historian Roselee Goldberg includes this piece in her book Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, for instance). How do we justify not taking seriously the artists’ claim that it is a work of plastic art?

The main question I want to pose, however, is why the possible connections between Kaufman’s Mighty Mouse piece and Gilbert and George’s Singing Sculpture have not been made, given the interesting similarities and differences between the two works  and the fact that Kaufman’s work had much in common with some strains of the art world performance of his time. His play with character and persona, particularly his creation of the obnoxious lounge singer Tony Clifton, was similar in significant ways to Lynn Hershman’s creation of Roberta Breitmore. Between 1971 and 1979, Hershman portrayed Breitmore in a wide variety of situations, including psychotherapy. She denied being Breitmore and sometimes had other people perform the character. Kaufman likewise inserted Clifton into a variety of “real life” situations and insisted that he and Clifton were separate people; this illusion was reinforced by having other people also portray Clifton, thus allowing Kaufman and Clifton to appear in close proximity (and for Clifton to live on after Kaufman’s death). But whereas Hershman describes her portrayal of Breitmore as a “private performance” that became public primarily through the documentation of Breitmore’s “adventures,” Kaufman always performed his personae publicly in comedy clubs and on television. It is perhaps because Kaufman operated outside the art world, always styling himself an entertainer no matter how outré his performances became, that his work has been discussed only rarely in relation to performance art or visual art. 

The cultural and aesthetic gap between the two forms and their respective contexts has been acknowledged from both sides. The stand-up comic Bobcat Goldthwait dismisses art world performance by saying, "Last night there was a lull in my act, and I said, 'Jesus, one more lull and I'm going to be a performance artist.'" Performance artist Jacki Apple for her part begins a 1995 essay entitled "Notes on Teaching Performance Art" with a litany of performers she insists are not performance artists, including Sandra Bernhard, Reno, Eric Bogosian, and Holly Hughes because their work is not grounded in visual art. This is not to say that Kaufman’s work has gone unnoticed by visual artists—the Spanish artist Dora García recently included a video of Kaufman reading The Great Gatsby as part of an exhibition of her work, for example. However, the only time that Kaufman has been exhibited directly in an art context as far as I know was in a show devoted to his work and that of Ernie Kovacs at the Long Beach Museum of Art in 1989.

Although Gilbert and George’s Singing Sculpture is a public performance, the artists only ever present their sculpture in art spaces that do not enjoy the same degree of mass cultural exposure as Kaufman’s venues. Nevertheless, there are any number of grounds on which to compare and contrast these two performances. Both are lip-synch performances: Kaufman lip-synchs to the Mighty Mouse theme song and the Singing Sculpture lip-synchs to a recording of “Underneath the Arches,” a perennially popular English song originally from the 1930s. Is there an element of nostalgia in both pieces? What is to be said about the difference between using a song associated with one’s own generation, as Kaufman did, and a song (more or less) from the previous generation? Gilbert and George were both born during the Second World War, yet chose a song from before the war. What of the “British-ness” of the song and the music hall tradition from which it emerged as against the “American-ness” of Mighty Mouse and the song’s origin as the theme for a series of television cartoons? In the Singing Sculpture, the song, a popular cultural object, is reframed (perhaps ironically) as fine art, somewhat in the manner of a Warhol soup can. Can the same be said of Kaufman? Does his performance of the Mighty Mouse theme song translate it from one cultural context to another or reframe it in any way?

Both Kaufman’s and Gilbert and George’s performances can also be understood as performances of masculinity. In Kaufman’s case, it is a soft, boyish masculinity, insecure and eager to please. Gilbert and George, by contrast, dressed in suits and with gilded faces, portray a far more remote, rigid, and authoritative masculinity—or a parody of such masculinity--even as they present themselves explicitly as objects of the audience’s gaze (sculptures). But what kind of gaze do they invite? Do we read their identity as gay men into (or off of) their double act? If there is any sense in which the Singing Sculpture is legibly gay, what reading in relation to sexuality does Kaufman’s performance invite?

Although we now have a sophisticated vocabulary for talking about the interfaces between the live body and technology in performance, these issues come up primarily in the context of performances perceived as experimental or cutting-edge: the work of Stelarc, for instance, or Orlan. Rarely are the analytical possibilities opened by this discourse used to frame discussions of earlier performances whose dependence on technology is less sensational. Both Kaufman and Gilbert and George engage in what is often called cyborg performance in the sense that the entity we see performing is, in both cases, an amalgam of human bodies with voices produced by machines. The engagement with technology is, in both cases, transparent: We see Kaufman place the needle on the record and Gilbert (or is it George?) press the button on the cassette recorder to activate the voices, and the moment of technological initiation is an important part of both performances that mediates against illusionism. There is no attempt in either case to create a seamless representation: the fact that we are watching people lip-synch is not masked in either case. The means in both performances are similar, but are the ends? And why aren’t these two performances included in the history of technologically mediated performance?

The brief clip of Gilbert and George I have included here is in fact a clip of what might be called a reconstruction or reenactment of their work. They began to develop the piece in 1967 and to present it in 1968. In 1971, they presented it as part of the opening of the Sonnabend Gallery; the clip featured here is from a 1991 version made to commemorate that event. Is this a reenactment, or simply another enactment of a work these artists had presented many times before? What status do we grant to the artists’ own claim that this is a reenactment not of the “original” performance (whatever that may mean) which presumably occurred around 1968, but of a specific performance in 1971, done after they had been presenting the piece regularly for several years? And if we take seriously the idea that the work is a living sculpture, are these iterations to be thought of as enactments and reenactments or as an unlimited edition? (Hershman, for example, refers to Roberta Breitmore as a “multiple” because she was portrayed by several people.)

Kaufman’s “Mighty Mouse” has also been reenacted and I shall briefly consider two of those recreations. 

This clip comes from Jim Carrey’s portrayal of Kaufman in Milos Forman’s 1999 film Man on the Moon. Although the recreation of the performance itself is fairly accurate, if abbreviated, it is not clear that the narrative frame into which it has been inserted is factual (though I’m not saying it needs to be). If the clip from Saturday Night Live is a faithful reflection of what happened on the show, Kaufman did not hesitate nearly as long as Carrey-as-Kaufman does before dropping the needle on the record. There seems to have been no reason for the anxiety displayed by some of the other characters in the film about whether Kaufman has frozen or just what he’s going to do. In the clip from Saturday Night Live Kaufman comes off much more as someone consciously performing nervousness and anxiety rather than someone whose nervousness and anxiety may be getting the better of him. The filmmakers appear to have decided to use this event as a means of conveying how the undecidability of Kaufman’s performances (is he really nervous or just pretending to be?) created real anxiety for his audiences (which was, in fact, one of the professed goals of his performances). This is an important aspect of Kaufman’s performance strategies and one that should be conveyed in a movie about him, but the use of this particular performance to convey it is probably an historical distortion. 

Finally, this is a reenactment of Kaufman’s piece as part of a talent show at a high school in New Jersey, USA, in 2006 (it is interesting to speculate on the nature of the “talent” on offer in this case). The issue I wish to raise here brings us back to the fine art/popular culture dichotomy I invoked in explaining why Kaufman and Gilbert and George have not been discussed in the same contexts. In the wake of Marina Abramovic’s recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the issue of performance reenactments is high on the cultural agenda (see "Reduce, Reuse, Re-perform" by Harry J. Weil in TAS for April 2010). But the discussion generally seems to focus on performances that took place originally, and are subsequently reenacted, in art world contexts. I suggest that performance reenactment also takes place in a more popular register. I see the performance reenactment in the clip above as a kind of community theatre in which the audience’s voluble response must be as much to the performer and the occasion as it is to the performance itself. It is noteworthy that the young man in the clip is described on YouTube as “covering” Kaufman’s performance rather than recreating or reenacting it. The use of that term, which comes from the realm of popular music, suggests another possible set of connections among artistic practices. How is “covering” like and unlike “reenactment”? What status do “covers” and “reenactments” have in the cultural spheres in which they take place?

I realize that I have posed far more questions here than I have answered. I trust that my decision to frame these questions around a limited set of specific examples has not obscured my purpose of suggesting that as much as we need categories and boundaries to enable critical and historical analysis, we also need to cross those boundaries to find new relationships among things that are usually sequestered in one cultural context or another. The transgression of boundaries presupposes the distinctions on which those boundaries are based and the result of such transgression can be to shore up those distinctions and boundaries just as readily as to dismantle them. But either outcome has value. We need categories and boundaries to make sense of the world and we need to transgress them in order both to understand better our current ways of thinking and their blindspots and to see that the world can also make sense in other ways.


Philip Auslander is the Editor of The Art Section.

He presented an earlier version of this essay at the 2008 meeting of the Theatre and Performance Research Association at Leeds, UK.

Auslander also wrote about Andy Kaufman in his book Presence and Resistance: Postmodernism and Cultural Politics in Contemporary American Performance (University of Michigan Press, 1992).

Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland 1964 (detail) © 2009 Richard Hamilton

Richard Hamilton:

Modern Moral Matters at the Serpentine Gallery

by Anna Leung

In his guise as “the big daddy of Pop” (Richard Cork, Everything Seemed Possible: Art in the 1970’s
, Yale University Press, 2003) Richard Hamilton’s contribution to the British art scene though initially socially and anthropologically biased was not pointedly political. Whilst much has been made of British Pop as a resistance movement that was anti-Establishment in its effort to create a cultural break, it was also optimistic, seeing itself as a precursor of a new open society, and more importantly affirmative in its celebration of popular culture. It is true that to the purveyors of high culture Pop’s incorporation of imagery from the mass media, and specifically from the American pop culture of comic strips and commercial ads, represented a flouting of humanist conventions of beauty. But for Hamilton such an appropriation of vulgar, vernacular imagery constituted an attempt by the fine artist that he was to rescue a contemporary equivalent of, say, Ingres’ Odalisque from the Playboy Playmate of the Month, arguing that girlie pictures “have references to fine art sources as well as Pop.”  This affirmative stance has proved somewhat problematic to generations of art historians and critics accustomed, like Clement Greenberg, to equating avant-garde aesthetics with critical leftist politics. In the British art world of the 1950s, to be both pro-left and pro-American seemed a contradiction in terms. Pop effectively overturned the avant-garde’s traditional attitude towards the status quo by celebrating consumerism not berating it, and likewise cultivating kitsch not condemning it. This affirmative stance gave credence to those who accused Pop of reinforcing the status quo and colluding with capitalism.

This enthusiasm for all things American among the contingent of young British post-war artists who were to make up the
Independent Group makes sense if viewed against the background of post war austerity: well into the Fifties, Britain was still dominated by the ration book and presented an uncomfortable contrast with the US’s cold war politics of economic abundance based on planned obsolescence and expendability. But it is important to point out that America was no longer Fordist, i.e. in the grips of the first Machine Age.  The America that Hamilton and contemporaries such as Eduardo Paolozzi enthused over was the America of a second machine age pursuing an aesthetic of expendability through design and technology that was premised not on need but on desire. For Hamilton the machine represented a new mythic force; he saw the artist as assimilating to fine art this collective dream world of advertising imagery. And it was Hamilton who came up with a “table of characteristics of Pop Art” in a letter of 1957:


                                                                Popular (designed for a mass audience)

                                                                 Transient (short term solution)

                                                                 Expendable (easily forgotten)

                                                                 Low cost,

Mass produced

                                                                 Young (aimed at youth)





                                                                 Big Business

It is important to stress that the reference to the term “Pop Art” in this context was not to actual Pop paintings - Pop Art was something still to come - but to the source material to be appropriated from visual mass culture for future Pop paintings, and Hamilton was quick to recognize that Warhol ticked all the right boxes. Hamilton’s own paintings do not, and he would not have wanted them to do so, especially with regard to expendability, which he saw as ‘a self defeating goal’. If in subsequent paintings such as Hommage a Chrysler Corps(1957; not in this exhibition) he endows automobile design with explicit erotic elements he does so in a fastidious, almost academicmanner. There is little of the overt gimmicky glamour associated with in-your-face ads, and if the painting is subtly transgressive it is in order to make us think. Richard Hamilton is a cerebral artist who, with Duchamp in mind, describes his paintings as “ironism of affirmation.” He stands out in the fifties, a time when the British art scene was dominated by a strong subjective element, whether inscribed in Graham Sutherland’s dark and macabre landscapes or gestured in Bacon’s existentialist anguish poised between paroxysms of pain and pleasure. Even the realist ‘kitchen sink’ artists were not exempt from a strong dose of introspection. Hamilton, by contrast, was notable for his coolness and objectivity and for his adoption of an almost illustrational type of figuration based on photography that marked a strong contrast with the improvisatory or gestural informal abstraction characteristic of the time. It was this interrogation of pop culture, i.e. low rather than high, and its semiotic language and its subsequent integration into fine art that marked Hamilton out as being ahead of his time. His paintings signalled a paradigm shift that was to make mass media and popular culture, rather than direct experience of the natural world (including human nature), the main source of high art practices in the sixties.


Richard Hamilton Swingeing London 67 (f) 1968–69, Screen-print on canvas, acrylic and collage 

67 x 85 cm Courtesy of Tate, London © 2010 Richard Hamilton

Richard Hamilton was born in Pimlico, London in 1922 into a working class family. At the age of twelve he smuggled himself into an adult education evening art class.  Two years later he was so proficient at drawing that he was recommended to the Keeper of the Royal Academy School and secured a place for when he was sixteen, attending the life class at St Martins in the meantime. From 1938 to 1940 he was a student at the Royal Academy but since he was too young to be conscripted was sent by the Labour Exchange to study engineering draughtsmanship at a Government Training Centre when the art school was closed because of the outbreak of war. This kept him out of the army and in 1946 he returned to the Royal Academy.  A new regime under the vehemently anti-modernist artist Sir Alfred Munnings was not to Hamilton’s taste and he was soon expelled; consequently, he became eligible for military service but eventually gained a place at the Slade where it counted as a badge of honour to have been expelled from the Royal Academy School. It was here that he came into contact with the work and ideas of his foremost mentor, Marcel Duchamp – in 1965 he reconstructed Duchamp’s Large Glass. Two books had an abiding influence on him, D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form and Siegfried Giedon’s Mechanisation Takes Command. The first dealt with natural form and morphology, the second with technological form and process. His paintings at that time were predominantly abstract, using point and line to articulate the canvas’s flat surface. From the first it was ideas that dominated and determined style. After graduating Hamilton taught for thirteen years at King’s College, Newcastle upon Tyne but was also involved in a whole series of innovative exhibitions. Growth and Form at the ICA for the Festival of Britain already demonstrated his preoccupation with technical devices and the degree to which they determine how an image is to be interpreted. Man, Machine and Motion, also at the ICA, represented a recapitulation of Futurist and Expressionist ideas and demonstrated how machines could extend the power of the human body. Finally in 1956 he co-organised This is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. It was for the frontispiece of the exhibition catalogue and the poster that Hamilton created his most famous collage Just what is it the makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?  Anticipating the two main preoccupations of the sixties, this exhibition, based explicitly on the collaboration between architects, painters and sculptors, focused on the juxtapositioning of admass imagery and the ambiguities of perception, both of which were already central to Hamilton’s thinking of art as predominantly the communication of ideas.

Hamilton was both assiduous and sophisticated in his search for the correct image and its placement within the permutations of his compositions, and to this degree can be considered “academic,” as in this sense is his mentor Duchamp. As Hamilton says, “Anything I respect in art is for its ideas rather than for its handling or any other quality.” Nevertheless, “handling” in terms of a variety of techniques is vital to his working practice and also translates a fundamental understanding of reality as the essentially ambiguous grounding of our appraisal of events. The basic idea is that mass media informs popular apprehension of current and historical events. This is where politics and our “modern morality” come in. Each project that Hamilton takes up is subjected to an analytic process that in most cases, but not all, requires prolonged research and study. As in pre-modern academic painting a narrative context precedes any artistic image making. There is little room for spontaneity. The many different permutations of an image are carefully calibrated. Hamilton’s training at the Royal Academy and time spent as an engineering draughtsman were not wasted and Hamilton has remained loyal to his artistic origins. Since 1956 all of Hamilton’s work has been made up of composite elements which are then refined into a unified scheme. While recognising that painting is composed of marks on a flat surface and in this way announces its autonomy, Hamilton often plays with different styles and different perspectives in one painting. Illusionistic areas abut diagrammatic elements, paint overlays photographic material (often taken from press cuttings) or relief constructions and vice versa. All these techniques are visible in the series Swingeing London 67 (1968-9) and the Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell (1964).

The first room in this exhibition is given over to Swingeing London so that it’s possible for us to see all the many variables involved in developing an idea from straight documentary to a much more stylized rendering of its subject matter. In February 1967 the police had raided the home of Rolling Stone Keith Richards, and Mick Jagger and Hamilton’s art dealer Robert Fraser were charged with the possession of unlawful drugs. Fraser was sentenced to six months imprisonment, Jagger’s sentence was commuted to a twelve month conditional discharge. The source of Hamilton’s image was taken by a Daily Mail photographer as seen through the window of a police van taking them, and other prisoners, to Chichester Court House. The tabloids were full of irrelevant information such as the colour of Jagger’s jacket, which Hamilton reproduced in the Poster print. The original series of six was worked on from an initial water colour into an etching, one of Hamilton’s preferred mediums, and a screen print on to which were added passages of oil paint, embossing and collage. In terms of imagery the emphasis was on the two sets of hands that denote freedom or rather the restraints on freedom in a society that professed to support excessive individuality. The title of the series refers to the swingeing sentences imposed. Hamilton’s sympathies were definitely with the victims of the legislation against drugs and he returned to this series to produce a print for Release, an organisation that gave legal aid to individuals most of whom were involved in drug related offences. He also helped organise an exhibition in support of Fraser during his imprisonment.

The catalyst for the Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland (1964) was the assumption by some critics that Hamilton’s paintings were satirical in intent. Since this was not the case Hamilton decided to experiment with subject matter that was pointedly satirically and came up with a hate figure in Gaitskell, the leader of the Labour party and of the opposition from 1955 to his death in 1963. Gaitskell, who in general elections had twice lost to the Tories, blamed the left for Labour’s failure at the polls and anticipated in many ways the more recent right wing turn in New Labour. However, Hamilton’s anger was chiefly motivated by Gaitskell’s refusal to add his support to Labour’s calls for the unilateral disarmament of Britain’s nuclear weaponry. This earned the artist’s total disapproval and resulted in a portrait engendered by the morphing of a press photo of Gaitskell with an image of the phantom of the opera and other filmic science fiction monsters. Henceforth Hamilton’s paintings and prints were to take on a signal political character. Whether they are directly about politics or about the communication of political ideas or even about art’s ability to convey political matters is a moot point.


Richard Hamilton, Unorthodox Rendition (2009-2010) from

This fusing of reality and fantasy in the Gaitskell portrait indicates the direction that Hamilton’s future work would subsequently take. Virtually all of the works in this exhibition, whether based on press photographs or TV footage, have an iconic quality that transcends their political actuality while at the same time questioning their political veracity. Take the series of diptychs based on the troubles in Northern Ireland. The Citizen is based on the IRA hunger strikers and their blanket protest while in solitary confinement at the Maze Prison. The image of the solitary prisoner exerts a mythic power in the midst of his squalor. In addition it seems to possess an extraordinary iconic quality that endows him with a Christ-like semblance, not humbled but unyielding in his hold on the righteousness of the IRA cause. The excrement daubed on the walls of his cell parodies abstract expressionist gestural brush work and the rusted frames of the diptych are suggestive of the cells that confine his person. Titles are important in this series. The Citizen refers to the IRA prisoner’s total rejection of British sovereignty over Northern Ireland while The Subject declares the Orangeman’s recognition of UK Rule and The State features a British soldier on patrol. Behind him a neon sign for Spuds and Coca-Cola indicate the support given by the US to the IRA. The image of the student Dean Kahler, gunned down at the anti-Vietnam demonstration at Kent State (1970) has none of this viscerality. Taken directly from TV footage of the demonstration on the university campus the screen print image is sepulchral and seems to fade with each reprint reminding us perhaps how repetition can weaken rather than strengthen the impact of a tragedy communicated through the mass media.

Three works take us into our own time. The Treatment Room (1982-84) is the only installation in the exhibition and figures a silenced Mrs Thatcher mouthing out her last speech to the Conservative conference in 83 from a TV above a hospital bed which indicates the patient by an empty blanket –  is the assumption that the patient (= the NHS) is now a corpse?  Shock and Awe (2007-8), a more than life-sized portrait of a gun toting Blair, is also given an iconic dimension. But rather than enhancing his persona, the image diminishes him by suggesting that he has stepped into the wrong school stage performance. He is the one that looks overawed by what he has irretrievably set into motion. Maps of Palestine (2009-10) contrast the Palestine of 1947 when a partition into two states was first broached under the auspices of the UN. The Israelis accepted but the Palestinians did not and conflict has continued to ravage the region where three faiths meet, the contemporary map demonstrating how the Palestinians’ territory has been eroded. Unorthodox Rendition (2009-10) which was only just completed for the exhibition continues with this theme. It is a portrait of the Israeli nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu who breached the secrecy code of the Israeli government and revealed Israel’s covert nuclear policy. His hand, pressed against the window, represents freedom and the loss of freedom as the vehicle speeds him away into years of solitary confinement, his face becoming more and more indistinct.

All these works seem to have a pretty overt political message, reminding many of us of what we already know. It is almost too easy to gauge Hamilton’s personal response but one can’t help feeling that something more subtle and more deconstructive is at stake. What this is exactly eludes me and this elusiveness is perhaps part of the fabric of his Duchampian methodologies. It is equally pertinent to remember that Hamilton designated Pop the “son of Dada,” and Dada excelled in cut and paste as an attempt to rearrange the world. Although this is a worthy exhibition, I cannot help wondering about a certain loss over time of the wit, glamour, and  sexiness that Hamilton first isolated as the vocabulary of Pop and that initially gave it a certain energy as well as a critical edge.

© Anna Leung 2010


Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions.

The exhibition Richard Hamilton: Modern Moral Matters was at the Serpentine Gallery in London from 3 March - 25 April, 2010.