The first rooms at the Tate Modern demonstrate Hamilton’s intellectual curiosity and fascination with mass and commodity culture, as represented by the reconstruction of the 1951 “Growth and Form” exhibition, along with his contribution to Theo Crosby’s “This is Tomorrow”exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956. The ICA section of the exhibition shows reconstructions of two works: Man, Machine and Motion (1955) and, in the Upper Gallery, an extraordinarily beautiful and meticulous reconstruction of an Exhibit (1957). Conceived in collaboration with writer-critic Lawrence Alloway and artist Victor Pasmore and organized around a modular hanging system, the intention of the work was to give visitors an opportunity “to generate their own compositions” while moving through space.
In the unimaginably narrow and provincial postwar period, the range of Hamilton’s interests and engagement with culture were exemplary. We owe a lot to him and his confrères in the ICA’s Independent Group for opening things up. In Hamilton’s 1964 interiors the mediated image of Woman (represented in “This is Tomorrow” by the ubiquitous figure of Marilyn Monroe) is subject to the scopic drive, whose occularcentrism is associated with the logocentrism of the male gaze, for which Martin Jay, in the wake of Derridean deconstruction and Irigarayan feminism, coined the neologism phallogocularcentrism: a theme that continues into the final work (Untitled, 2011). Though this understandably incites feminist critique, “critique” is not always the best means for unveiling the truth. Derrida favored a notion of “double reading” that exemplifies the deconstructionist virtue of “undecidability”; not indeterminacy, but oscillation between possibilities, which makes decision making and production of meaning possible. It is out of the undecidable knot of Western phallogocularcentrism that critical decisions concerning Hamilton’s work arise.
Hamilton was a clever bugger: too clever by half some might say. Trained as a tool draughtsman, and as an artist at the Royal Academy and Slade, he was an artist who yearned to free himself from the repression of academic tradition. Naturally drawn to that most cerebral of artists, Marcel Duchamp, but lacking the ironic touch of his Gallic master, he struggled, as evidenced in his earliest paintings when he worked in Newcastle alongside one of the founders of the Euston Road School, to free himself from the English empiricism so evident in rationalist misreadings of Cézanne.
There is a level of affectivity and jouissance missing in Hamilton’s work; an embodied sense of pleasure rooted in irrational processes, the kind of hysterical laughter-loving eroticism whose intensity can tip over into the dark hinterland between pleasure and pain that surrealism specialized in: the bodily sexual and excremental sensuality and materiality that so fascinated Georges Bataille. In short, at a number of levels Hamilton struggles to come to terms with the body and its functions; as one of my ex-colleagues cruelly remarked, “his mother must have been pretty heavy on the potty training.”
In what he described as his scatological period Hamilton recognized this lack, but instead of tackling it head on and really getting his hands dirty, he dealt with it at arms length, in typically cerebral fashion. This is where print media might be said to be his undoing, as, determined to bore us to death with a tedious unveiling of every stage of the process in endless versions and proofs, he defers the gratification of accepting an immediate and spontaneously realized image. He stages painterly relaxation but lacks the courage to really let go in the way his friend Dieter Roth did. However much he understands the need to do so, he seems unable to let the purgative waters of Miers take effect. Roth privileged satirical laughter, sensuality, the politics of the body and pleasure-oriented life as forms of resistance to repressive master narratives. That Hamilton acquiesces to being an “old fashioned” artist and finally aspires to being an old master is embarrassingly evident in the final works. In the words of Deleuze and Guattari, “the scatological machine works underneath and against the Oedipal cage.” Poor Richard: he was aware that his less retentive alter-ego reveled in uncontrolled excremental excess, as represented by the 1973 print Self-Portrait as Pile of Dog Dirt that Hamilton himself presented to the Tate in 1978, two years after he collaborated with Roth on “pictures for dogs — in loving memory of Marcel Broodthaers,” which contained scatological images of sausages and sausage dogs. A highlight of Hamilton’s career, it is greatly to be regretted that these works and their equally wonderful “pictures for bipeds” were excised from this retrospective; thankfully they can be savored, though inadequately, through reproduction in the splendid 2003 catalogue Collaborations: Relations – Confrontations produced by Hansjörg Mayer. This failure to embrace jouissance is painfully evident in the “late” nudes; these bloodless beings are enough to give you the creeps. This is where Hamilton’s interest in “digital painting” becomes focused to an extreme degree, making for what the catalogue describes as a “touchless […] achieropoetic quality” that, Pygmalion like, seeks virtual/real dissolution, to enjoy possession of its object, which, Ganymede like, is made to yield to a patriarchal grasp from above.
The other “undecidable” in Hamilton’s work concerns aesthetics and politics: not his admirable political stance, but the issue of the “aestheticizing of politics”andthe“politicizing of art” with which Walter Benjamin ended his much discussed 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” This is exemplified by the late portrait of Tony Blair as an American cowboy (Shock and Awe, 2010), his pictorial riposte to Blair’s fatal decision to join Bush in invading Iraq. This, like some of his other overtly political works, while commendable in political stance, are problematic aesthetically because they are so literal, propagandist or “polit-kitsch.” This is not the case with The Citizen,(1981–83), widely regarded as his masterpiece, centerpiece of three diptych paintings relating to Northern Ireland. Like Richter’s Baader-Meinhof series which similarly encourages undecidability, Hamilton invites spectators to actively engage the enigmas of representation and question passive participation in state politics: “The core of the problem” as Jacques Rancière sees it “is that there is no criterion for establishing [the] correlation between the politics of aesthetics and the aesthetics of politics […] which has nothing to do with the claim […] that art and politics should not be mixed […] politics has its aesthetics, and aesthetics has its politics. But there is no formula for an appropriate correlation.” In the end though, there is nothing “undecidable” about the wrongs that Hamilton and others diagnosed in British politics. I am inclined to agree with what the Guardian art critic wrote when reviewing the first showing of these political works: that unease may be what the artist was aiming for; unease must have bite and penetrate deep if its disruption is to be really productive. Lets face it, reluctant as I am to use the term, these works are passionlessly “politically correct” when measured against the material ardency of Thomas Hirschhorn or the embodiments of Paul McCarthy’s gut wrenching satires of Georges W. Bush: imagine what Hamilton’s take on Tony Blair might have been had it been more Rabelesian!
In the end, the greatest value of these exhibitions at Tate and ICA is that they raise important and disturbing questions concerning the vicissitudes of desire, its representation and aesthetic materialization.