LONDON — Pop Art was born in the UK, not in the US. We all probably know that, even if we tend to forget it, dazzled by decades spent worshipping Andy Warhol. In the very same year that New York’s Museum of Modern Art rejected a drawing that Warhol — then an unknown graphic illustrator — tried to offer as a gift, one of the most iconic works of contemporary art was created at the opposite side of the Atlantic, establishing a new sensibility. Richard Hamilton’s sardonic collage “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?” is recognized as a sort of Pop Art manifesto. Funnily enough, the collage consists mainly of images taken from American magazines. The piece was used to advertise the 1956 exhibition This Is Tomorrow, which showcased the work of Hamilton and his fellow artists in the Independent Group, among them Eduardo Paolozzi, Lawrence Alloway, Nigel Henderson, William Turnbull, and Alison and Peter Smithson.
London is currently honoring Hamilton’s eclectic talent with a series of exhibitions. Tate Modern is hosting the first major retrospective following the artist’s death in 2011. Among the works not to be missed is the famous “Swingeing London 67 (f)” (1968–9), a multimedia piece (acrylic paint, screenprint, paper, aluminum, and metalized acetate on canvas) based on a photograph depicting a young Mick Jagger and the art dealer Robert Fraser handcuffed in the back of a police van during their 1967 trial for drug offenses. Hamilton worked on the Swingeing London series in the wake of the scandal, making trial studies on canvas towards an ideal fusion of print, paint, and collage. The pieces were recognized almost immediately as witty commentaries on the crucial opposition between individualism and restrictions imposed by society.
If British Pop Art found in Hamilton its evangelist, the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) was its headquarters. Now, in conjunction with the exhibition at Tate Modern, the ICA has organized Richard Hamilton at the ICA, a rare occasion to see “Man, Machine and Motion” (1955) and “an Exhibit” (1957), early Hamilton installations re-created for the occasion. The ICA show features material relating to the two works, as well as to shows that Hamilton curated for the institute during the 1950s and early 1960s, demonstrating the breadth of the artist’s influences and curatorial practices.
“An Exhibit,” originally conceived by Hamilton in collaboration with Alloway and Victor Pasmore, is a good example. Realized through a modular hanging system, a kit of suspended Perspex panels was devised to be freely reconfigured during the exhibition, with the intention of allowing visitors to create their own compositions. Although nowadays the installation suffers somewhat from its age, engaging with “an Exhibit” almost 60 years after its creation is still a meaningful experience, revealing its deep roots in Modernism. The work — and the whole ICA exhibition — indirectly compels visitors to think about context. The current art public may be overexposed to installations (when not bored by them), but “an Exhibit” encourages us to go back to a time where that medium was barely contemplated as an artistic expression, revealing its radical roots.
Richard Hamilton at the ICA complements the retrospective at the Tate Modern nicely, stressing the variety of influences on the Independent Group; in Hamilton’s case, these range from Surrealism and Dada to the Modernist design principles of Bauhaus and the architecture of Le Corbusier.
The modular system at the heart of “an Exhibit” is also found, almost unchanged, at the ICA’s original premises on Dover Street in London. As part of the “ICA Off-Site” project series, the institute has returned to its former home with a show of rarely seen archival material relating to the its first 18 years (which encompass Hamilton and the Independent Group). The display covers all six floors of the building, which today functions as a fashion retail store called Dover Street Market. Created by Rei Kawakubo of Japanese fashion label Comme des Garçons, the unique market is a wonderful fit for a celebration of the ICA’s groundbreaking artistic past. Entering Dover Street Market today feels like making a pilgrimage to the birthplace of Pop Art — visiting the place where then-new mass culture was being transformed into art for the first time.
Richard Hamilton at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Mall, London) and ICA Off-Site: Dover Street Market (Dover Street Market, 17-18 Dover Street, London) continue through April 6. Richard Hamilton continues at Tate Modern (Bankside, London) through May 26.