Decadence and debacle somehow always end up as bedfellows. The 1967 police raid of Redlands, Keith Richards’ country house in West Wittering, Sussex, suffices to prove this point. Officers stormed the premises to find Richards, fellow Rolling Stone Mick Jagger, and Mayfair Art Gallery Director Robert Fraser having their way with an abundance of illegal substances. During the course of this madness, Mariane Faithful got up from her bath and threw on a fur rug as a garment. Christopher Gibbs opted for the Pakistani national dress. It was, in other words, just another night in 1960s London.
The raid and events subsequent — including Jagger and Fraser’s handcuffed transport to Chichester Court — achieved a second celebrity in Richard Hamilton’s series of etchings and screen prints, aptly titled “Swingeing London.” This series is currently on display at the Yale Center for British Art as part of its major retrospective, “Richard Hamilton: Prints and Multiples, 1939-2002,” which features nearly 150 prints. In the 1968 lithograph, “Swingeing London 67-Poster,” Hamilton assembled newspaper clippings on the raid and decorated the drab paper with flower stickers and colorful marker streaks. The actual controversy of the raid is dampened — even elided — by this exuberant celebrity-worship, which treats the clippings as food for fan consumption. Even more unsettling is the fact that the piece is a lithograph print of a collage, and not the collage itself, thereby implying that even fan-dom is subject to the depersonalizing forces of mass-production.
Hamilton talks a big game, so this theoretical jargon is not all for naught. This is the man, after all, who offered some of the most seminal words on the existential status of the pop artist: “The artist, the intellectual, is not the alien that he was and his consumption of popular culture is due, in some measure, to his new role as a creator of popular culture.” The boundaries between production and art have become blurred. To be an artist, it seems, is implicitly to be an iconographer of popular culture.
As a founding member of the Independent Group at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, Hamilton was in part responsible for bringing the pop aesthetic to the fore in British art in the 1950s and 1960s. For the 1956 exhibit, “This is Tomorrow,” Hamilton contributed his first pop collage, “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?,” which mixed scraps of magazines, newspapers, and comic books to create a hyper-commodified domestic space. What is immediately impressive about this piece — and many other early works, such as “Adonis in Y-Pants” (1963) –is the abundance of art-historical and pop-cultural references. A black-and-white photograph of a semi-nude beefcake, wielding a giant red-brown Tootsie Roll Pop in one hand, simultaneously riffs on Greco-Roman sculpture, the cult of bodybuilding, cheap sexual symbolism.
Hamilton’s preference for printmaking also fits neatly into his pop theories. “My Marilyn,” a 1965 screen print, presents a collection of photos of Ms. Monroe, many of which have been crossed out or written on. The markings turn out to be created by Ms. Monroe herself, yet the moment of ambiguity — as to whether the markings are actually Hamilton’s — raises significant questions about the valuation of authorship in an age of mass production. Indeed, in pursuing printing, Hamilton is automatically putting the emphasis not on himself as creator, but on the quality and reproducibility of the object.
Such a formula acquires a very different significance in works such as “Kent State” (1970), a screen print depicting a corpse from the 1970 Kent State shootings. The corpse is pixilated to the point of being barely decipherable. To further complicate matters, the image is surrounded with a black frame, alluding to the frame of a television set. The feeling of estrangement from the content of the image is only furthered by the choice of medium, through which collective trauma becomes mass object. Here Hamilton, like Andy Warhol in his late-70s prints of car crashes and electric chairs, reveals a side of Pop Art oft-ignored in face of its accessible celebrity fare. The implication that mass production effaces individuality and, worse still, robs meaning from things has one effect when conveyed in an image of Elvis and quite another in a traumatic photograph. In other words, the facility with which we can accept the aesthetic of an image and ignore any other content becomes highly problematic when that content should not be ignored.
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