A mixture of conventions
Perhaps it is unfortunate that Richard Hamilton has been written into the histories of modern art as one of the originators of pop art. It is, certainly, a recognition of his early awareness of the opportunity for an art that is "popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young . . . gimmicky," as he postulated in 1957. But this has in some ways made it difficult to look straightforwardly at his paintings and prints: you are always tripping over the myth. And there is something rather unapproachable (a touch of mystique and intellectual superiority, perhaps) about his reputation.
But the truth is that his pictures appeal directly by reference to things most people experience as almost commonplace. "Desk" of 1964 is a good example of this. The piece of furniture is about as ordinary and unmysterious an object as can be imagined. It is imaginationm that Hamilton has brought to it. This is not really a desk: it is simply "desk," a unit of contemporary, anonymous office equipment. It is typical of the millions of objects we have around us but rarely look at. It is obviously machine made. It has a shiny, characterless surface (which Hamilton paints with pleasure), and its simple drawers look as though they are made of wood, but might just as easily be made of plastic or veneer designed to simulate wood. This is emphasized by the artist's attachment of wood-grain paper to the painting, an echo or reference to Picasso and Braque's dissimilar use of similar material in their Cubist collages.
Hamilton has written, "I would like to think of my purpose as a search for what is epic in everyday objects and everyday attitudes." He denies any intentional irony in his approach, and his pictures of room interiors in particular, though witty and clever, cohere with a kind of serious finesse. They do not seem satirical, though it is true that they are not entirely solemn.
"Epic" suggests "heroic," and there ism a kind of boldness to his pictures. Look at the vigorous, projecting perspective and directional force of the edge of the desk. Strangely (and effectively) this edge is curved, while the opposite one is straight.
At the same time the word "epic" hints at narrative and drama. "Desk" is a picture Hamilton made during preparations for another one, called "Interior I." This was prompted by a 1940s film still. The desk was considered a possible foreground device for involving the spectator dramatically, and for directing attention into the picture space. The telephone, with its receiver lifted by an unseen hand; the deep, opened drawer; and the mess of paint on the floor hinting a recently shot body in the film still -- all could be read as suggesting drama, a tense moment. But it is the drama also of promotion, of advertising a film, rather than a mere fraction clipped from the film itself; I suppose we could legitimately call it a subtle difference.
"Desk" is indisputably a rich mixture of conventions. Hamilton amalgamates divergent styles, bringing together, among other things, the worlds of fine art, design brochures, and advertising. "I like the difference," he has said, "between a diagram and a photograph and a mark which is simply sensuous paint, even the addition of real, or simulations of real, objects. These multiply the levels of meaning and ways of reading." The subject of this picture is only partly the objects in it, with their assumption of secret lives: It is stylesm of seeing and depicting objects, and styles of painting, that Hamilton paints. Here they are all contained in the overall organization of flat planes (in ingenious counterpoint to the perspective) that is characteristic of much post-Cubist abstract painting. The see- through telephone (like a Rauschenberg) is contrived so that it both sits on the desk and is, simultaneously, a flat photographic image on the surface of the picture. It contributes equally to surface and depth. But this is only one of the double-readings in a picture that is simple only at first sight.