Richard Hamilton at Tate Modern 19.05.14

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Interior II, 1964, oil paint, cellulose paint, printed paperon board (image: Tate, estate of Richard Hamilton)

There was far more to the late British artist's work than a brash pop art sensibility

In 1958, the artist Richard Hamilton was one of the 9,000 protestors who walked from London to Aldermaston on the first Easter march organised by the newly formed Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Accompanying him to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment was a life-size cut-out of Marilyn Monroe in the pose famous from The Seven Year Itch; it was the same cut-out that had appeared in his contribution (with John McHale and John Voelcker) to the Whitechapel Gallery's This is Tomorrow show two years earlier. It's hard to think of a gesture – an absurdist blend of art, popular culture and politics – so emblematic of its time and of its maker.

There has been something like a festival of Richard Hamilton, who died in 2011, in London this spring: at Tate Modern there is a retrospective of the artist's 60-year career, and the ICA has recreated Man, Machine and Motion (1955) and an Exhibit (1957), installations Hamilton made at its former Dover Street premises. There's a crossover of exhibit and institution in Growth and Form (1951) – in the very first room at the Tate. The multimedia installation, masterminded by Hamilton, and based on a 1917 critique of Darwinism, was originally shown at the ICA and accompanied by a spin-off book and symposium involving both scientists and artists. At the Tate, Growth and Form is a dark, sculptural surprise of a room that includes animal skulls and projections of films about crystal formation and the cells of a sea urchin. It's an early example of Hamilton's lifelong interest in exhibition-making itself.

It would be easy to miss Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing?, the collage that appeared in the show and on the poster for This is Tomorrow. The assembly of desirable consumer goods in the home of a post-war Adam and Eve (the artist's own comparison) is small and the gallery is instead dominated by the Fun House installation and the sound of a jukebox playing hits from the 1950s.

There's a welcome emphasis on Hamilton's internationalism – not just demonstrated by the Independent Group's interest in America, but by Hamilton's devotion to Duchamp. "I feel I'm the only monolingual translator in the business," he once said of his work translating Duchamp's Green Box which explained the thinking behind the Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, and helped Hamilton in his 1965-6 reconstruction of The Large Glass. It's a shame there's no room at the Tate, except for one example, for his long-running series of illustrations to Joyce's Ulysses. (TS Eliot, then busily drawing up the modernist bridge behind him at Faber, turned down a proposed book of these illustrations on the grounds that it would be too difficult to reset Joyce's text.)

Hamilton said of a third member of his pantheon of heroes, Dieter Rams, that "[Rams'] consumer products have come to occupy a place in my heart and consciousness that the Mont Sainte-Victoire did in Cézanne". In his Toaster series Hamilton paid his tribute to Braun in several media – painting, prints and collage involving original Braun toaster parts. His silliest and most beguiling homage might be The Critic Laughs, a readymade consisting of an electric Braun toothbrush inserted into a set of novelty teeth, for which Hamilton made a hilariously arch "commercial".

The further you go in this exhibition, the faster feelings of a celebratory, utopian take on postwar consumerism fade. Treatment Room (1984) is an installation recreating an NHS examination room. Above a rumpled bed is a monitor showing a 1983 election broadcast by Margaret Thatcher. The sound is off, the shot zooms in, encouraging us to focus on the prime minister's pale blue skirt suit, pussy cat bow blouse, pearls – and relieving us from the utterly boring, incredibly tasteful room she's in. Hamilton wrote of Just What Is It?, "Our changing high-tech world was embraced with a starry-eyed confidence, a surge of optimism that took us into the 1960s." His proud, preening Adam and Eve wouldn't be seen dead in such a setting but, by this stage of the exhibition neither they, nor we, are in Eden any more.

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Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? 1956



Fatema Ahmed


Richard Hamilton, Tate Modern, London
Until 26 May 2014

Richard Hamilton at the ICA, ICA, London
12 February to 6 April 2014


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It's an early example of Hamilton's lifelong interest in exhibition-making itself

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