Richard Hamilton, Key Progenitor of Pop Art, Dies at 89

Richard Hamilton's "$he" (1958-61) is in the collection of Tate in London. (Photo: Tate)

Richard Hamilton, an early pioneer in the development of Pop Art in the U.K. and an influential theorist of postwar culture, died today. He was 89.

The death was announced by the Gagosian Gallery, which represents the artist. It did not release the cause. “This is a very sad day for all of us,” Larry Gagosian said in a statement, “and our thoughts are with Richard’s family.” Hamilton is survived by his wife, Rita, and his son, Rod.

Hamilton is perhaps best known for his 1956 photo collage Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?, which shows a bodybuilder and a sultry-looking woman–both nearly nude–inhabiting an idealized 1950s living room, surrounded by modern appliances and media.

Like much of Hamilton’s work, Just What Is It…, as its title suggests, channeled mass culture with an admixture of awe, exasperation, irony and glorious humor–in the product-filled room, the flexing muscleman man holds a Tootsie Roll Pop near his crotch and the woman sports tiny circles on her breasts. A woman can be seen vacuuming the carpeting on nearby stairs.

An astute writer and founding member of the influential Independent Group, a collective of artists, writers and designers that met at London’s Institute for Contemporary Art in the 1950s, debating issues of mass culture, Hamilton was also deeply involved in the early theoretical framework of Pop Art, a term coined by critic Lawrence Alloway, who was also a member of the Independent Group.

Hamilton was born in London in 1922. At the age of 14, he went to work in the publicity department of a local electrical company (a biographical fact that one is tempted to underscore, given his later interests), and then studied at the Royal Academy Schools in London from 1938 to 1940 and again from 1945 to 1946. He was eventually expelled “for not profiting by the instruction given in the Painting School.”

Nevertheless, Hamilton’s work in the late 1950s and 1960s often took the form of paintings, which seamlessly blended figurative pop-culture subjects with passages of abstraction, and Guardian critic Jonathan Jones declared, in an obituary published today, that the artist “created the most important and enduring works of any British modern painter.”

Despite that interest in painting, Hamilton was also a devotee of the pioneering Conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp, becoming an associate of Duchamp and producing copies of his work. (His replica of Duchamp’s iconic Large Glass is in the collection of Tate.)

Hamilton translated Duchamp’s notion of the assisted readymade–a found object transformed into an artwork through a few variations and his signature–into the realm of images, producing, perhaps most iconically, a series of works from a 1967 photo of Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger in a police car after his arrest on drug charges. Along with Warhol’s silkscreened canvases, such pieces prefigured the media-centered appropriation work that New York artists like Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine would make in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Later in his career, Hamilton remained deeply involved in printmaking and painting, often depicting political subjects. Perhaps most controversially, in the early 1980s he painted Irish Republic Army member Bobby Sands, who died in British custody, after a 66-day hunger strike.

Hamilton’s writings may prove to be as influential as his wide-ranging artistic output. In a 1957 letter he tidily defined the nascent Pop Art phenomenon as “popular (designed for a mass audience), transient (short-term solution), expendable (easily forgotten), low cost, mass produced, young (aimed at youth), witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, big business”–terms that have become almost inextricably linked with his work and those of more-famous American progenitors of the movement who followed him.

The artist had solo exhibitions at Tate in 1970 and 1992, the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona in 2003 and the Museum Ludwig Cologne, also in 2003. According to Gagosian, he was, at the time of his death, at work on a retrospective that will travel to museums in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, London and Madrid during 2013 and 2014.

In New York, the Museum of Modern Art currently has on view in permanent collection galleries Hamilton’s Pin-up (1961) painting, a fairly saucy presentation of a faceless, kneeling and nude woman. She holds her bra aloft and her breasts emerge from the canvas in relief.

In his writings, Hamilton evinced an ambivalence about Pop Art and mass media in general. Some people, he once wrote, feel that when an intellectual engages with mass culture, he has “sold his soul to the devil.” But he disagreed. In contrast, Hamilton wrote, “My own view is there is less to regret than one might suppose.”

An ideal culture at any time, he said, is “one in which the artist holds tight to his own standards for himself and gives the best he can to whom he can without priggishness and with good humor, whilst facing his historical situation with honesty.” Richard Hamilton, Key Progenitor of Pop Art, Dies at 89