Visual Culture

How Richard Hamilton Made the Beatles’s White Album a Pop Art Icon

Matthew Ismael Ruiz
Nov 9, 2018 8:14PM

Photo by Keystone/Getty Images.

When The Beatles was first released on November 22, 1968, its album design served as a palate cleanser of sorts; in stark contrast to the technicolor LSD trip that was their previous LP, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the all-white cover was clean and immediately striking, reducing the cover to its bare essentials.

Known as “The White Album,” it immediately set the standard for how monochrome self-titled albums would be referred to—think Metallica’s self-titled “Black Album” or Weezer’s “Blue,” “Green,” and “Red” albums—and has proven to be one of the most recognizable pieces of Pop art in music. The LP can be found in museums around the world, like the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tate Modern in London. And the artist that designed it, the late “Father of Pop Art,” Richard Hamilton, claimed to have been paid a mere £200 for the work.

Today, 50 years since its original release, the album is getting yet another reissue. Available in a series of luxe packages, the “super deluxe” package includes seven discs, along with a 164-page hardbound book that includes rare photographs of the band.

The jam-packed reissue contrasts with the original’s minimalism, whose most ostentatious inclusion was a collage Hamilton made from photos given to him by singer Paul McCartney. There are no group photos of the band at all in the original packaging, just four solo portraits by the band’s photographer, John Kelly. In hindsight, the separate shoots intimated the band’s fracturing. By that time, they were recording in separate studio sessions, and drummer Ringo Starr even quit at one point—that’s McCartney you hear playing drums on the album’s first two tracks, “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “Dear Prudence.”

By the 1960s, Hamilton was showing with Robert Fraser, arguably one of the most influential gallerists of his era. One of Hamilton’s most enduring series, “Swingeing London,” was based on news photos of Fraser’s infamous drug-possession arrest with Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger, during a party at guitarist Keith Richards’s country home. Fraser was the one who introduced Hamilton to McCartney, and, knowing he had already commissioned and rejected two other attempts at album art for the Beatles, suggested the singer hire Hamilton. While Kelly took the portraits in the gatefold sleeve, McCartney gave Hamilton three tea chests full of photographs for the collage—Hamilton’s primary media at the time—for the poster insert.

The final product was a double-gatefold LP wrapped in a plain white sleeve with a heavy gloss surface; the original pressing had only two markings adorning the front of the cover: “The Beatles” embossed slightly below the middle of the album’s right side—slightly off-kilter—and, for the first 2 million copies, a serial number in the bottom right corner. Hamilton said he suggested it “to create the ironic situation of a numbered edition of something like 5 million copies”—a veritable “limited edition” that’s not actually so limited. (The same number system was used at all 12 pressing plants that printed the first run, so there are actually 12 copies of each number.) But that didn’t stop a wealthy fan from ponying up $790,000 for Starr’s personal copy of serial number 0000001 at a charity auction.

Richard Hamilton
The Beatles, 2007
Upsilon Gallery

Hamilton made prints of most of his original works, and reproduction is a recurring theme in his practice; at a panel discussion during a 2014 retrospective of Hamilton’s work at London’s Tate Modern, art historian Hal Foster said: “I think that he played with the relation between the unique and the multiple. He didn’t suggest as many artists and critics came to do, that one simply undoes the other….He kept this tension between the two, and he would go back and forth.”

Though The Beatles is likely Hamilton’s most mass-produced work, in the timeline of his career, it’s a mere blip. The draughtsman, painter, and collage artist palled around with the likes of Marcel Duchamp and René Magritte, and the moniker “Father of Pop Art” is apparently quite literal; he’s believed to have coined the term in a note to Brutalist architects Alison and Peter Smithson. His most enduring works, such as Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? (1956), are still informing the the perspectives of artists around the world, years after his death.

But the reach of The Beatles grants it a place of importance in the canon. Its mass-market production made it possible for people all over the world to take home an iconic work of art for the price of a double LP. It meets all the requirements Hamilton set forth in that genre-defining note to the Smithsons: It’s “Popular (designed for a mass audience), Transient (short-term solution), Expendable (easily forgotten), Low Cost, Mass Produced, Young (aimed at youth), Wicked, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big Business.”

The multitudes contained within both The Beatles and its artwork are a large part of why their influence endures: an album from a rock band constructed individually by its members; a minimalist cover that hides a chaotic collage insert; a “limited edition” of millions. As Anthony Wall said in The Independent after Starr’s copy went up for auction: “There is also the irony that with all that turmoil going on, they couldn’t have chosen a more serene cover. Both record and cover are fabulous works of art that exist a priori. Ringo’s copy is no better than yours. There is nothing his has that yours doesn’t. Andy Warhol would be envious.”

Matthew Ismael Ruiz