the Scylla of old modernist styles and the Charybdis of new mass-cultural images


THE INDEPENDENT GROUP, that extraordinary crew of young artists, architects, and critics in London in the early 1950s, sought a way between the Scylla of old modernist styles and the Charybdis of new mass-cultural images. To do so, it adopted a non-Aristotelian approach to its many objects of study—science and technology, architecture and design, popular culture and advertising—an approach that was neither satirical nor celebratory, but at once analytical and playful. It was this distinctive attitude that Richard Hamilton, a crucial member of the IG, carried forward when, following his famous little collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? produced in 1956 for the landmark “This Is Tomorrow” exhibition, he began his “tabular” pictures in the late ’50s.¹ This suite of paintings, still too little known, explores the emergent visual idioms of postwar consumer society—the erotic curves of the latest sedan in Hommage à Chrysler Corp., 1957, for instance, or the sleek seduction of the latest refrigerator in $he, 1958–61—in a mode of suave pastiche that demonstrates the mixing not only of modernist styles and commercial devices but also of sexual fetishism and commodity fetishism in the new economy of consumer society. If not strictly non-Aristotelian, these images still propose an “ironism of affirmation,” a mode of wry engagement that Hamilton learned in part from Duchamp, with whose work he was deeply involved.² (Hamilton published a transcription of the Green Box of notes for the “Large Glass” in 1960, and finished a reconstruction of the “Glass” in 1966.) Hence to the old question asked of the IG and Pop alike—critical or complicit?—the answer given by Hamilton, then and now, is both, and intensely so.

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