Prints That Pay Humble Tribute

RICHARD HAMILTON could be described as an artist who pays homage. This is not presumably because of modesty, false or true. It is more because he is persistently intrigued by process, and by styles: by the means and methods and vocabulary of visual communication. Hamilton perceives in these very things a raison d'etre for art itself, and for his own vision. His work suggests that an artist is perforce, particularly in this century, aware of a vast kaleidoscope of imagery from which it is a kind of unreal self-indulgence to isolate himself.

Hamilton's art is rather chameleon-like, changing color and form to suit all kinds of different processes and styles. He investigates. He analyzes. He admires. And he seems to submerge the usual desire of an artist to express his own ego by visual means into an imagemaking procedure which is less personal and tangible and more intellectual. He separates his own always-changing style from the obviously autographic. His works cannot necessarily be immediately recognized: they do not shout out ``Hamilton!'' as a Van Gogh shouts out ``Vincent!''

In some ways this evident self-effacement, this questing interest in the world's rich variety of styles and different techniques, grows out of the Pop Art of the late 1950s and '60s. In fact Hamilton was himself one of the moving spirits of the Pop Art movement. There was an element of reaction in this art phase which was against the absorbing notion of art as ``self-expression.''

Pop Art recognized that commercial art - the dead-pan, impersonal multiplication of images for advertising and packaging - offered a visual language that might be an antidote to the egocentric Abstract Expressionism that claimed the attention of so many artists in the '50s. Hamilton has written about fabricating an image ``without involving the gestural identity we recognize as the stamp of an individual artist.'' But he has added that such a stance does ``not preclude the possibility of apprehending a single mind at work'' in very different paintings or prints.

Printing - no less than film, and now video and computer graphics - is the preferred technique, in all its variety, of commercialized imagemaking. It can hardly be a surprise that Hamilton is an almost obsessive explorer of the possibilities of printmaking.

At the time of Pop Art's beginnings he investigated the stylistic tricks and techniques used to advertise American cars. He did this in various drawings, paintings, and prints, and called them ``Hommage `a Chrysler Corp.'' He has disclaimed any intentional satire: The homage was sincere, even though it was wittily objective.

Hamilton observes a process rather than using it for ulterior ends; he separates it from its persuasive function. It is revealing that the coolness of style and the styling of the car, rather than subtle or blatant forms of emotional magnetism - the girl leaning against the car's hood and so on - are what he focuses on. The way, for example, in which the glamor of chrome could be variously symbolized by commercial-art techniques is carefully analyzed and depicted.

Hamilton places his activities squarely in the camp of ``fine art.'' But he makes his art appear to be subservient to all the rich and various methods of imagemaking. And he does so regardless of whether they belong themselves to fine art or not. After all, mass reproduction and an ever-increasing production of art books are responsible for turning many a unique work of an old master into an available and popular image.

Hamilton has pointed out that in spite of this, the ``aura'' of a rare work of art is not necessarily lost. The making of a multiple image - like a limited edition, or vast edition, of a print, only points to the extraordinary ability of an image to retain its aura.

Hamilton's works may indeed investigate fine art - as when, in 1982, he made a small print (photogravure and aquatint) called ``Homage to Seghers.'' Seghers was a remarkably original painter and printmaker of 17th-century Holland, and certainly a ``fine'' artist. Basing his print on a Seghers etching of some old books, Hamilton is fascinated with both the subject itself and Seghers's idiosyncratic graphic style - and to which he pays homage. Comparing Hamilton's version with the original, however, makes it clear that Hamilton's homage is no slavish stylistic copy, but contributes its own graphic character.

Seghers's etched lines, describing the bindings and edges of the closed books, are replaced or interspersed with hundreds of small letters of the alphabet, as though the words inside the books have escaped in excited chaos from the pages. And Hamilton's print (unlike Seghers's) has a signature: but it is not Hamilton's signature - it's Seghers's.

Printmaking has frequently been Hamilton's way of distancing himself from his own signature. Three completely different prints of his are shown on today's page. Who could guess that they are all works by the same artist? They might, however, ingeniously be found to have a common bond: each looks at - and pays homage to - a cultural monument. The exterior of Frank Lloyd Wright's unique, spiraling Guggenheim Museum in New York, is presented in simplified, silkscreened colors and exaggerated scale as if offered for sale in a color brochure.

The inside of the old theater that is the home of Grand Italian Opera, La Scala, in Milan, Italy, is represented as an enlarged and amusingly color-patched tourist postcard. The silkscreened spots and blobs of color are deliberately ad hoc - just as Hamilton observed them to be in actual post cards of La Scala.

The third print, ``Picasso's Meninas,'' is a tribute to Picasso as a cultural monument. Here Hamilton has - with the technical assistance of the master etcher, Aldo Crommelynk in Paris, who actually printed Picasso's own etchings - brought into one picture-space every style and period of Picasso's art that he could think of - ``Rose,'' ``Analytical Cubism,'' ``Primitive,'' ``Neo-Classical,'' and more. Hamilton was asked in 1973 to make a contribution to a portfolio published by the Propylaen Press called ``Homage to Picasso.'' This print was the result. Again - homage.

Like a collage, but without the disruption of the surface that glued fragments bring, Hamilton's print makes a multiplicity of cross references, of stylistic jerks and leaps that are as much an illustration of his own aesthetic as they are of Picasso's continual changeability. And, of course, there are even more depths to it than that, because the setting is an artist's studio, with the master at work on an enormous canvas, while all the characters who come to see him painting, palette in hand, are figures of his own imagination.

The artist at the easel is Picasso, but he is a usurper: the setting is an undisguised re-creation of an incredibly famous old master, the ``Meninas'' of Velasquez. This 17th-century Spanish picture is a self-portrait with characters from the Spanish court in attendance. Where Picasso is in the Hamilton, Velasquez is in the Velasquez.

Velasquez's painting is an intricate investigation of the role, status, and practice of the artist, and has its own complicated interplay of images within images: the walls of the studio display rather dimly other paintings, and a door opening shows an exit into another room, with a courtier silhouetted against the light. Reflected in the mirror to the left are, in the Velasquez original, the King and Queen of Spain.

In the Hamilton version, the one slightly clear reflection looks suspiciously like Hamilton himself. The pictures on the walls in Hamilton's version are recognizable Picassos. All of which might amount to an intricate joke if it wasn't, in fact, quite serious.

Add to all this the fact that Picasso himself had been so fascinated by the Velasquez that he had made more than 40 studies of it, subjecting it to the competitive force of his own vision - and we end up with an extraordinary instance of the capacity of art to endlessly explore its own explorations.

In his ``Picasso's Meninas'' Hamilton pays homage not only to Picasso and Velasquez, but he bows respectfully to art itself, art as an arena for metamorphosis, re-invention, and transformation that can be discreetly pondered.

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