At Carl Solway Gallery in the West End, on a wall by a stairway leading up to his office, is a small but heartfelt tribute to the British Pop Art pioneer Richard Hamilton, who died last month at age 89.
On the wall is one of Hamilton’s prints: “Kent State,” based on a photographic image he snapped from his television set during news coverage of the 1970 killing by Ohio National Guard troops of four university students on their campus. Next to it is a photograph of Hamilton with that print.
Solway knew and supported Hamilton. When the artist made his “Kent State” series in 1970, Solway immediately bought 35 to display and sell. And later he initiated and published a small edition of one of Hamilton’s quirkier Pop artworks, 1989’s “Epiphany.” It is an enlarged “joke button” — cellulose on aluminum — reading in blue lettering against an orange background: “Slip it to me.”
This edition was inspired by an earlier version — a one-off giant button — that Hamilton did in 1964 and that has a fascinating history. He had come to Pasadena to see the now-famous Marcel Duchamp retrospective at Pasadena Art Museum. While in Los Angeles, he visited Venice Beach and became delighted by a button at a joke shop. Sensing its wit wasn’t that far from Duchamp’s own humorous conceptualism, he had his “Epiphany.” It was Solway’s idea, two decades later, to create the edition for an art fair.
Hamilton produced 12 (plus two artist proofs). Solway sold them for $10,000 each — it took years, but he found buyers for all. Recently, one resold at auction for $270,000.
While Hamilton maybe isn’t that well known in Cincinnati, or even to the American art world in general (a major U.S. retrospective opens next year), it’s all one more example that in Solway’s long career he has worked with many of the pioneers of Pop and subsequent movements in post-war Contemporary art. Next year, he celebrates his 50th year as a gallerist.
As much as anyone, Hamilton can lay claim to creating Pop. His 1956 collage entitled “Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?” assembled images cut from magazines to create a dizzying and disorienting mix of commercial imagery turned into art. On a the wrapper of a lollipop extending from a bodybuilder’s crotch is the word “POP” — a reference to Tootsie Pop but also the start, many believe, of one of art’s greatest movements. Hamilton also designed the Beatles’ “white album.”
Solway first became acquainted with Hamilton in early 1970, when he visited him in his London studio. Solway’s Eye Editions had just successfully worked with John Cage, so he suddenly had access to great artists. Hamilton discussed a problem he had with an earlier screenprint, 1964’s “Five Tyres Abandoned,” in which he had first had tried to create an embossed relief showing tread-pattern changes through use. But he couldn’t figure out how to accurately draw the geometric changes from a single perspective and settled for something less.
“So I said, ‘Richard, a computer can do that,’ ” Solway recalled. “He said, ‘Can you find a computer company in America I can work with?’ We (Solway and assistant Jack Bolton) actually did find somebody in Boston, and Richard came to the States and worked with this company and actually finished it. It was called ‘Five Tyres Remoulded.’ ”
Solway says that was one of the first artworks to be created by computer. Although Solway didn’t publish the resultant print portfolio, Hamilton thanked him in print. “I had for years around here all the punch cards in great big boxes,” Solway recalled. “I gave them all to Yale because they wanted a set of prints.”
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