I was very sad to hear of the death of Richard Hamilton the British artist, sometimes referred to as the founder of British Pop Art (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-14901992 ) . Over thirty years ago I had the pleasure and honour of interviewing him for the art magazine of my University department. At the time I was an undergraduate studying Fine Art at the University of Reading, England. The department had, in those days, a very good reputation with a strong internal staff and well known and respected visiting lecturers, one of whom was the wonderful Rita Donagh, the wife of Richard Hamilton and a very well known artist in her own right (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rita_Donagh ). I loved Rita and could not wait for her fairly frequent visits to our department. For me she was something special. Rita is no fey colourist painter. She is a woman of ideas. She represents, to me, everything that was exciting about art at the time. She was thoughtful, challenging, political and courageous but I may add: was tender, gentle and charming.
Anyway, through the contact with Rita an interview was arranged with Richard. To me, at the age of nineteen or twenty, he was a monumental figure in the art world. This was the man who had made an image that reverberated through my young mind, an image that once seen is never forgotten, a collage that included a muscle man and other items of modernity. ‘Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?’ was already a piece of art history by the time I came across it and had become an icon of the Pop Art era. I know Richard never used this term to describe his own work with some justification in my opinion but at the time I was going to interview him I saw him as responsible for a movement in art that meant so much to me. As an art student in the late seventies and early eighties with punk bursting around me Richard seemed to represent some of the elements of this iconoclastic movement. Whilst many studios in our art department were full of earnest British sculptors discussing how heavily a piece of wood and steel and concrete could sit on a cement floor Richard and Rita were artists who seemed exotic, cerebral, light fingered, witty and iconoclastic and I loved them.
So the evening came when a friend of mine and I were to meet Richard. We had been told about his drinking preferences and had bought at great expense some 20 year old whiskey to consume during the interview. I was nervous I remember but he was charming and so helpful to us. He treated us as equals and was forthcoming and extremely lucid about his work and that of other artists he admired. I remember we discussed at great length the ‘This is tomorrow’ show at the ICA that had launched him and others onto the British art scene. We discussed modernity and where he at that time was looking to be “the painter of modern life”. I remember him saying how he felt Japan was the place to be at that time. Indeed I recall him referring to a project he was working on with a large Japanese Hi-fi maker trying to create a whole stereo system that would hang on a wall like three or more canvases. He was ahead of his time. Of course we talked about Duchamp and his remaking of some of his work. Marcel Duchamp was a particular hero of mine at the time and here I was in a room with a man who had known Duchamp well. He told us an anecdote about being with Duchamp in the States. Apparently the two of them had been in discussion when a man entered the room carrying a replica of the urinal that was of course the found object for the notorious ‘Fountain’ one of the most iconic images of 20th century art. The man asked whether Duchamp would sign it. Richard said that he expected Duchamp to say no but instead agreed. When the happy man had left Richard turned to Duchamp and said ‘you realise you have increased the value of that object a thousand-fold’ to which Duchamp replied ‘on the contrary, I have devalued’ the object. The fact that there were several urinals carrying his signature meant that the notion of an original, touched by some artistic value was devalued.
The memory of that interview and the time I spent with a man I admired so much lives strong in my memory. I probably made a fool of myself during the course of the interview especially as I was far from used to vintage whiskey but if I did, he did not make me feel that way.
There is a footnote to this story that concerns Rita Donagh. As I have said, I admired her as much as Richard. At the time I was struggling with much of art that surrounded me. I could not relate to the studios filled with “painterly painters” discussing at length how the red moved against the green or whatever. Richard and Rita did not seem to a part of that scene. I was into Dada, punk, pop, anarchy and the Velvet Underground. I couldn’t be doing with paint or cement covered overalls. I decided I was going to create a silent rock band. A punk band that made no noise. They were created and became ‘Business No Business’- I set up the band with four real people, all of whom qualified for the band on the basis that none of them could play an instrument nor sing. I produced record covers for them, publicity material etc. and finally decided to make a silent of movie of the band ‘live in concert’ to promote them. The ‘gig’ was to be filmed and an audience would be there to watch. Rita Donagh came to this gig. I was ill prepared and there wasn’t really enough light for my crappy Super 8 camera. I had to get the band members to hold neon lights like guitars so that I could capture some reasonable images. The whole thing was a shambles and the crowd such as there was became restless. They were expecting music and there was none. The whole thing nearly turned into a riot which, in retrospect, would have been perfect. I was embarrassed and exhausted by the whole experience but Rita loved the whole anarchy of the event. A couple of weeks later I was working in my studio when Rita came in with a wrapped gift for me. Inside was a piece of Richard Hamilton’s work. Not a painting nor a print but a vinyl 45 rpm recording of him and Dieter Roth making the sound of dogs barking (Les Chiens Andalou). I can’t tell you how proud I was of this. I still have the piece.
It is sad to think that Richard Hamilton is no longer with us and my thoughts go out to his family and friends. Richard was an incredibly significant figure in my life and his work will live on and I am sure will inspire others for many years to come.
R.I.P Richard Hamilton 24 February 1922 – 13 September 2011