Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Sylvester and Hamilton

One of the puzzling lacunae in Sylvester's criticism of the 50s and early 60s is the lack of references to Richard Hamilton. For one thing, Hamilton was one of the first artists Sylvester met on the West End drinking circle which provided him with so much of his education:

'We met in 1941, when I was seventeen and he was nineteen and, having done two years at the Royal Academy Schools, was working as a jig and tool draughtsman [...] The place where we met was not one of those Soho pubs- known as the Swiss and the French- which a lot of artists used at the time but a nearby club, the Nightlight, located in a basement in Little Newport Street, which stocked sloe gin and had cabaret in which performers such as Vida Hope and Peter Ustinov appeared. Richard was often there, accompanied by an older woman called Inge [Osterly] who looked every inch an Inge. They invited me one evening to a flat off Baker Street and Richard showed me a portfolio of etchings [...]'

This passage is taken from the long introduction which Sylvester wrote for the major Hamilton exhibition at the d'Offay gallery in 1991, but after that early acquaintance, he features little during Sylvester's work in the 1950s. And it's not as if they weren't moving in the same circles- both were closely affiliated with the ICA in the early fifties. Sylvester was on the exhibitions committee before resigning in 1952, later claiming it was because the meetings were so boring. He also helped organise exhibitions there such as 1952's 'Recent Trends in Realist Painting'. Indeed, four works by Hamilton were included in the 1953 ICA exhibition 'Young Painters' for which Sylvester was on the hanging committee and wrote the introduction.

But after that there is very little. Sylvester didn't review most of the key exhibitions Hamilton was involved with in the 1950s, such as 'Growth and Form' and 'Man, Machine and Motion' (which he recalled as 'remarkable' in the d'Offay text). He did comment upon another celebrated ICA exhibition, 'Parallel of Life and Art' at the time, but criticised the 'inconsequentiality' of the display, and described it as 'an exhibition whose meaning and purpose seem as obscure and muddled as its title'. This and other more indirect comments scattered throughout his criticism in that decade show a wariness about the Independent Group's approach to mass-media and new forms of exhibition making.

In an article about artist's statements in 1961, Hamilton was singled out (alongside Auerbach and Denny) as demonstrating in their writings 'that artists get their information not from reading books but from conversations in bars. Most of them write, that is to say, with an embarrassing lack of historical perspective' (Hamilton was taken to task for claiming 'affirmation propounded as an avante [sic] garde aesthetic is rare').

Sylvester did review one of Hamilton's 50s exhibitions at length, 'an Exhibit' (recently revived again upstairs at the ICA), which he wrote about enthusiastically in a review 'which I think I wrote for the New Statesman' which was not published at the time (I wish I knew why) but which appeared in Modern Painters following the death of Victor Pasmore in 1998, as a tribute to the artist (I wrote a little more about that review here. But then the 'kind of earthly paradise' of 'an Exhibit' was an entirely different proposition to 'This is Tomorrow' or 'Man, Machine and Motion'. Sylvester's affirmation for this most classical of Hamilton's ventures only reinforces, perhaps his distance from most Independent Group projects at the time.

But I'm not trying to show that Sylvester was slow to catch onto Hamilton. Rather, without having done the necessary research, I'm pondering how visible Hamilton's own work was at the time. Without a one-man show to his name between 1955 and 1964 (when he showed the 'tabular paintings' as a group at the Hanover Gallery), I wonder how widely-known his work was outside the IG (and of course Hamilton and his associates were prolific writers anyway). Sylvester at least illustrated Hamilton's work and described him as a 'committedly Pop artist' in his well-known Sunday Times Magazine article 'Art in a Coke Climate' in 1964, but even there, he receives no further comment in an article dominated by artists such as Lichtenstein and Johns. In the long bibliography in the catalogue for the recent Tate Modern show, hardly anything before 1964 is listed, apart from writing by Independent Group associates. My idle question is simply whether Sylvester's silence on Hamilton at the time was one of active avoidance or simply, as with Lucian Freud during the same period, part of a critical consensus.

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