Richard Hamilton, a British painter and printmaker whose sly, trenchant take on consumer culture and advertising made him a pioneering figure in Pop Art, and who designed the cover of the Beatles’ “White Album,” died on Tuesday at his home near Oxford. He was 89.
His death was confirmed by the Gagosian Gallery, which represents his work.
In the grim, rationed Britain of the early 1950s, Mr. Hamilton joined a circle of fellow artists, critics and architects at the Institute of Contemporary Arts to discuss the place of new technology, advertising and mass culture in modern art.
When the Independent Group, as it was known, organized the groundbreaking exhibition “This Is Tomorrow” at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956, Mr. Hamilton contributed a 10-inch-by-9-inch collage, Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? It became his most famous work, often referred to as the first example of Pop Art.
Using images cut from mass-circulation magazines, the collage depicted a nude bodybuilder and a nude woman, posing alluringly on a sofa with a lampshade on her head, in a living room stocked with the goods and emblems of the postwar good life, American-style. A canned ham sits on an end table. A cover of Young Romance magazine is framed on the wall. The man holds a giant Tootsie Pop, with the word “Pop” occupying the center of the collage at eye level.
“Such was the success of this tiny and painstaking collocation that many people are still stuck with the idea of Hamilton as the man who single-handedly laid down the terms within which Pop Art was to operate,” the critic John Russell wrote in the catalog for a 1973 Hamilton retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
With the stated mission of expressing, and critiquing, the essence of consumer culture, which he described as “popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous and big business,” Mr. Hamilton went on to create many of the paintings that defined first-generation British Pop Art.
Notable among these were Hommage Ã Chrysler Corp., in which the seductive curves of a car bumper and headlights blend with the ghostly image of a red-lipsticked Venus, and “She,” in which a toaster, vacuum cleaner, refrigerator and breasts float in a consumer dreamspace that Mr. Hamilton regarded with a certain ambivalence.
“It looks as though the painting is a sardonic comment on our society,” Mr. Hamilton wrote of She in Architectural Design. “But I would like to think of my purpose as a search for what is epic in everyday objects and attitudes.”
Richard William Hamilton was born on Feb. 24, 1922, in London. After studying painting at Westminster Technical College and St. Martin’s School of Art, he went to work for the advertising department of a commercial studio. During World War II he worked as a jig and tool designer.
After the war he returned to the Royal Academy, where he had studied briefly before the war, but he was expelled for “not profiting by instruction” and was drafted into the British Army. On completing his military service, he studied for three years at the Slade School of Art.
Mr. Hamilton initially made his living by making models and designing art exhibitions. Later he taught design at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London and the University of Durham in Newcastle-on-Tyne.
An exhibition he organized at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1955, Man, Machine and Motion, signaled his fascination with modern technology and mass-produced images, toward which he adopted a critical but receptive stance.
“If the artist is not to lose much of his ancient purpose, he may have to plunder the popular arts to recover the imagery which is his rightful inheritance,” he wrote in 1961.
Unusually for a Pop artist, Mr. Hamilton made an overtly political statement with Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland (1964), merging a photograph of Claude Rains as the Phantom of the Opera with a newspaper photograph of Hugh Gaitskell, leader of the Labour Party, who, when the work was begun, had refused to support nuclear disarmament.
Mr. Hamilton’s veneration for Duchamp, and the concept of the ready-made, helped determine the course of his art after the 1960s. He manipulated found objects and photographs, putting his own spin on newspaper photographs, postcards and industrial objects – like the Braun electric toothbrush, which he topped with a set of candy teeth – as well as prints filtering the images of other artists.
He also produced a series of political paintings in the 1980s inspired by the troubles in Northern Ireland and the hunger strike of Bobby Sands.
His dealer in the 1960s, the ultrahip Robert Fraser (also known as Groovy Bob), drew him into the vortex of the British pop-music world, reflected in the silkscreen-on-canvas series Swingeing London, depicting Mick Jagger and Mr. Fraser being driven away by the police after their 1967 drug arrest.
During this period he met Paul McCartney, who hired him to design the cover for the Beatles’ next album. Surprisingly, Mr. Hamilton proposed an all-white jacket.
“To avoid the issue of competing with the lavish design treatments of most jackets, I suggested a plain white cover so pure and reticent that it would seem to place it in the context of the most esoteric art publications,” Mr. Hamilton told Rolling Stone in 1991.
To reinforce the idea of a small-press production, he embossed “The Beatles” in one corner almost haphazardly and numbered each copy in a style that suggested a hand-numbering machine. Inside, he included a collage poster of private Beatles photos.
In an interview with The Observer of London last year, he recalled that he had been paid 200 pounds for the assignment, adding, “I thought that was a bit mean.”
Mr. Hamilton, who was the subject of retrospectives at the Tate Gallery in 1970 and 1992, worked intermittently for more than 50 years on a series of illustrations for James Joyce’s Ulysses. They were exhibited at the British Museum in 2002.
His first wife, Terry O’Reilly, died in a car accident in 1962. He is survived by their son, Rod, and by his wife, Rita Donagh.
At his death he was helping to organize a traveling exhibition of his work, which is scheduled to open at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in June 2013.
“Richard Hamilton, British Painter and a Creator of Pop Art, Dies at 89â€³, The New York Times obituary of the artist, by William Grimes, published September 13, 2011
Biography from the Archives of AskART.