What is a retrospective? We know what it usually is: a chronologically arranged survey of an artist’s development over a certain period – a half career, a full career, a life. The major Richard Hamilton exhibition at the Tate Modern in London is one of these. In the exhibition space, which forms a long, unidirectional sequence of rooms without any branches or crossing paths, the great British pop artist’s works are presented in order, from the first installations and etchings (Reapers, 1949, and the exhibition experiment Growth and Form, 1951) to the last paintings, completed only days before his dead six decades later (the triptych untitled, 2011). It is an exhibition that in a seemingly unconcerned manner confirms the age-old myth of the unity of the oeuvre (and one can posit that it is the critique of this myth that today seems hopelessly dead, while the artist subject has entered into a sort of zombie state.)
What could a retrospective, that is to say a backwards looking exhibition, be? Hamilton’s oeuvre itself, which can just barely be discerned and comprehended through the conservative hanging and the repressive museum architecture, presents a possible answer. What one encounters in the cells of the Tate Modern are artworks that attempt to communicate with each other across the distances and barriers created by the chronological hanging. With retakes and reinterpretations, repetitions and variations, the artist directs his gaze backwards over his own earlier works in order to borrow concepts and techniques from them, but also in order to re-examine the positions they built on – which also places these works under a new light, so that the whole appears as prismatic, as a heterogeneous montage of times and forms.
The central question that Hamilton asks himself – a different, earlier self – seems to be precisely about the critical status of the older works in the light of the younger ones. How should we understand the groundbreaking pop-posture Hamilton developed in his paintings, collages and exhibitions during the late 50s and early 60s – a stance that was based on the «ironic affirmation» of the emerging expressions of consumer culture – in the light of the explicitly radical stance he developed from the late 60s and onwards, where motifs, styles and modes of production appear to be selected based on their effectivity in criticizing these forms of cultural representation (a turn that, judging from the exhibition’s selection, takes place around the time of the image series Kent State, 1970)? If this «ironic affirmation» – «a mix of reverence and cynicism», as Hal Foster writes – actually builds on a «realistic», that is to say neither romantic or naïve, but in some sense correct, understanding of the cultural logic of late capitalism, why are the younger artworks then directly oppositional – and what does this say about the older work’s rationality?
A quick comparison may illustrate the issue. Between 1957 and 1963 Hamilton makes his famous «tabular» paintings (room 5 at Tate Modern, «Pop»), where the fetish objects of consumer society – American cars, record players, refrigerators, toasters, etc. – merge with vaguely drawn human figures, selected from a pop culture cast of characters: housewives, pin ups, body builders, astronauts, JFK. With these paintings, in which the motifs emerge as enigmatic, Duchampian fragments and ciphers from gray-beige or skin-pink backgrounds, mostly flat as the painting’s surface, sometimes with schematically indicated spaces, Hamilton negotiates a complex synthesis between an expressionist style, with allusions to de Kooning and Francis Bacon, and the new mass media’s iconography. This unreconciled synthesis itself works as an allegory for the historic plight of artistic production. Simultaneously, the strange, fragmentary hybrids of consumer objects and humans beings tell a clear history of an image regime where subjectivization is mediated in a new intensive manner by the representations of mass culture.
In 1984 Hamilton made the installation Treatment Room (room 12 at Tate Modern), a full-scale model of a hospital bedroom with sinister connotations: imprisonment, involuntary treatment, psychiatric emergency. The walls are green and gray, in the middle is a single bunk permanently attached to the floor. In the screen that divides the room there is a window with armored glass, for viewing at a safe distance, below which sits a control panel. A monitor hangs above the bunk on which a sequence from a TV broadcast plays without sound: a slow zoom of Margaret Thatcher as she holds her final election speech in 1983. Here the «ironic affirmation», the ambivalent enthusiasm before mass culture’s media and expression, is replaced with a nightmare scenario where the individual is completely deprived of freedom of movement and the loops of subjectivization are mediated by the image of power. «Is the vision of Mrs Thatcher patronising a victim of the health service part of that future we once thought so bright?», asks Hamilton in a text that accompanies the installation.
History, therefore, seems to be played backwards: an ordinary, critical periodization would locate the «surveillance society», where a disciplined individual moves between the closed spaces of institutions and internalizes power’s gaze, as the precursor to the contemporary «control society», where subjectivization is an open, ongoing and interactive process, mediated through a flexible, deregulated network of instances of consumption and control. For Hamilton, the surveillance scenario of Treatment Room appears instead as a tightening of the procedures of control, where «the vision of Mrs Thatcher patronising a victim of the health service» becomes an image of a disciplinary deregulation or affirmation – or perhaps «austerity», to use a word that has gained a sharper resonance.
The central works for understanding this retrospective re-reading are the two experimental exhibitions/installations that Hamilton, together with various colleagues, completed in the middle of the fifties, and that are reconstructed as a freestanding part of the retrospective (these are certainly the best parts of the exhibition, and naturally aren’t at the Tate Modern, but in the ICA’s more permissive premises): Man, Machine and Motion from 1955, and an Exhibit from 1957. (Parenthetically, one can note that this retrospective thereby participates in the new wave of exhibition reconstructions: not less than four historical exhibitions are re-created, something that had been unthinkable just a few years ago.) Man, Machine and Motion builds on an ingeniously simple display system, developed by Hamilton himself: a modular lattice whose elements can be connected in different angles, so that it can stand free from the floor, and on which images can be mounted at different heights, in different angles, and turned in different directions, so that the artworks – in this case a collection of historical images of machines with which people can move under water, or through air and space – are seen in different configurations depending on the viewer’s position and movements.
The remarkable an Exhibit, produced by Hamilton in collaboration with Victor Pasmore and Lawrence Alloway, radicalizes the open and interactive character of the previous exhibition. Precisely as in Man, Machine and Motion, the installation is composed of a system of screens that hang in the room in different angles, here held up by thin wires attached to the ceiling. Unlike the previous exhibition, an Exhibit is completely abstract: the semitransparent screens in acrylic plastic are monochrome red, white and blue, and new compositions and color combinations arise according to a sort of rudimentary feedback-logic when one navigates the open labyrinth of the installation. The implied viewer here seems to correspond to an even greater extent to the notion of a subject freely and playfully defining herself and her world in a reciprocal process. For Hamilton, Pasmore and Alloway, it was precisely the concept of play that appeared as the central model for thinking the logic of the exhibition. an Exhibit should be understood as a «playground», as they wrote in their presentation of the exhibition: «Play is a form of order, an order that contains both standards and free improvisation».
The ironically affirmative stance that Hamilton develops during the same year builds on a similar idea of an interplay between «standards and free improvisation», on a detached acceptance of the rules and a reflective consent to the possible moves that the circumstances leave open: a position that both identified itself with and maintained distance to the new roles and conditions of the «mass entertainment machine» («An art of affirmatory intention is not necessarily uncritical», Hamilton could still write in 1963). Hamilton’s basic insight in Treatment Room and related works seems to have been that the dynamic, open systems or games in Man, Machine and Motion and an Exhibit could no longer be understood simply as models for such relative freedom. He also saw that they anticipated the power protocols that a new, deregulated capitalism extracted from the same systems and game theoretical concepts that had fascinated him and his colleagues in the Independent Group – concepts that today have been upgraded to a new disciplinary apparatus for the universal state of financialization. Retrospectively, the «ironism of affirmation» seems to have been anticipated in the opponents’ risk calculations.