Famous for duplicate soup cans and celebrities’ discoloured faces, and generally upending high art traditions, pop art is a highly stylised postmodern form that repurposes consumer images and media for ironical or satirical effect. Though often mistaken for a purely American movement, it actually originated in Great Britain where it matured within academic circles. At the forefront of this undertaking was Richard Hamilton, an artist who taught at Newcastle University and is believed to have coined the term. Predating Andy Warhol’s important efforts, Hamilton wrote in a 1957 letter, “Pop Art is: popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, and Big Business.”
With the help of his students, Hamilton explored this concept by utilising not only their creative talents to encourage the production of experimental artworks, but also the spaciousness of Hatton Gallery at the university. There, he made ground-breaking achievements with exhibitions like Man, Machine & Motion and an Exhibit, as well as arranging the rescue of Kurt Schwitter’s Merz Barn Hall and replicating Marcel Duchamp’s sculpture Large Glass. Hatton was a laboratory in which he tested ideas for the innovative practice he was developing with colleagues in the Independent Group at the then-newly formed Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London. Now, after a 20-month, £3.8 million redevelopment, the gallery returns to Newcastle with Pioneers of Pop, a show focusing on the location’s unique relationship with Hamilton and the numerous writers, activities, projects and ideas that revolved around him as he forged a path to pop art as we know it.
The display features his seminal photo collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? (1956), which is the first iconic work to emerge from the movement. The piece features a body builder Adam and a model Eve within a futuristic apartment replete with modern appliances and accessories. These elements function as a looking glass into the commercial influences that seeped into everyday life in post-war Britain, whilst undermining American materialism absorbed by a struggling nation. The work was so influential that its elements anticipate later artists within the genre, like Lichtenstein, Oldenburg and Wesselman. Additionally, Pioneers spotlights remarkable pieces like Peter Blake’s The Beach Boys, Patrick Caulfield’s Ruins, David Hockney’s Cleanliness if Next to Godliness and three versions of Andy Warhol’s Marilyn.
Pioneers of Pop is at Hatton Gallery, Newcastle, until 20 January. Find out more at www.hattongallery.org.uk.
1. Mark Lancaster, Cambridge Red and Green, 1968, Liquitex on canvas, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (Wilson Gift through The Art Fund, 2006), Courtesy of the Artist.