Logo The Fabulist

Richard Hamilton (1922–2011)

  • By Fanny Singer
  • Issue 1
  • On Beauty

I first met Richard Hamilton, the painter, collage artist, and so-called Godfather of Pop, in the early summer of 2007. I was twenty-three, and had been trying to engineer a meeting for months. A handful of mutual acquaintances made different cases for me. An art historian assured Hamilton that I was a bright young scholar. A chef appealed to his love of food (“Her mother owns a restaurant in California!”). An art dealer even insinuated that I might model for him nude.

Hamilton later said that the art historian’s endorsement had proven the most persuasive, but it was food that became our lingua franca. Whenever I visited Hamilton and his wife, the artist Rita Donagh, at Northend, their farmhouse in Oxfordshire, a meal became the center of our time together. The food we ate—be it a fresh linguine with black truffles or a rack of lamb served with garden vegetables and Hamilton’s own red currant jam—was what bound us. Donagh was behind these dishes, which she made in their open, AGA-heated kitchen with an economy and attention I recognized later in her paintings: their spare geometry, temperate palettes, and determinedness. When these meals drew to a close, after my interviewer-anxiety had been mellowed by some fine bottle from the cellar, Hamilton and I would retreat to his office, an immaculately ordered atelier under the eaves. Marcel Duchamp’s influence was palpable: the multiples and studies that Hamilton made in collaboration with (or après) his mentor surreally filled the room; nowhere, outside of the Philadelphia Museum of Art perhaps, could you hope to stumble across such a collection.

I came to Hamilton’s art as an undergraduate at Yale, where a retrospective of his prints was held in 2003. Though eighty-two at the time, Hamilton made the long journey for two public appearances, at the Center for British Art, where he glittered in conversation with the curator Richard Field, and in a whitewashed classroom of the Art School, where he spoke to a solemn, blank-faced crowd of students. A fledgling printmaker, I fell for the velvety black lines of his spindly early Reaper etchings from 1949, and was equally taken with the lustrous flatness of his recent digital prints. The artist seemed to move between media and subject with ease, trying one kind of mark and then another with the grace of a confidence man.

Shortly after I completed my masters—a survey of his prints—I visited Hamilton and Donagh at Northend. Following lunch, he and I climbed the stairs to his attic office. I sat on an Eames couch while he read a text I had written on The annunciation (2005). I fixated on a collection of books he had made with the artist Dieter Roth and nervously pretended to write in a notebook. At one point, Hamilton looked sternly up to query my use of the word “morph.” Only once I’d returned home did I discover that he’d marked the final page with a schoolmasterly “10/10.”

The last full chapter I sent Hamilton before he died in September 2011 was about Toaster deluxe, his series of fourteen unique digital prints made in 2008. The works reprise an image the artist had been working with intermittently for more than fifty years: a photograph of a Braun toaster, which he rebranded “hamilton” in the same lower-case red lettering as the original logo. The works combined the artist’s interests in digital imagery, painting, photography, and the Duchampian “readymade,” and were, for me, unsettling and beautiful—as seductive as the 1960s Braun advertisements from which they were drawn.

When the series was first exhibited, at Gagosian in London in April 2009, a silvered veneer was applied to the gallery windows, an echo of the mirror-like surfaces on view within. Hamilton had tinkered with gallery spaces before: in 1988, Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery hosted Hamilton’s Installations, each of which extended one of his works into a larger environment or “cell,” taking on the character of a different type of institution: a hotel, a hospital, a prison, an office. Lobby (1985–7), the hotel painting, was hung in a room with a wall-to- wall green carpet that simulated the patterned floor of its corresponding canvas, and visitors to the uncanny space were likewise implicated in the work, their reflections hovering in a floor-to- ceiling mirrored column in the middle of the room.

In 2008, Hamilton began placing his toaster design on different backgrounds: a photograph of the pot rack in his Northend kitchen; the grid of a Pantone color chart; a blurred image of his Portrait of a woman as an artist (a painting featuring Donagh)—as if experimenting with which would best suit his idealized appliance. But the most striking feature of the toasters is the high-polish finish of their façades, represented in the prints by collaged rectangles of stainless steel between black polycarbonate ends. It’s impossible to view these works without being caught, however fleetingly, within their frames. One evening, Hamilton told me he had developed a method for photographing the toaster prints, so as not to interrupt the surface with his own reflection: he would move his tripod off to one side to take the picture, later returning each image to its original orientation using Photoshop. Today, when I think of Hamilton, I think of that illusive process: the mirrored surface, the lens’s sidelong glance, the almost complete disappearance of the artist from the work—like a hotel lobby that someone has just departed.