If you’ve taken an art history course or read anything about the history of pop art, you’re probably familiar with this work, created for the exhibition “This is Tomorrow,” which Hamilton helped organize with members of the Independent Group (credited for catalyzing the pop art movement) at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1956.
Just what is it… collages together images from American magazines and advertisements of the era to create a fantastic picture of the postwar United States. In the work, we see an idealized white man (a bodybuilder, the champion Irvin “Zabo” Koszewski) and woman (a pin-up girl but in actuality the American painter Jo Baer, who modeled to make money in the early 1950s), a large screen television, Ford automobiles (represented by the Ford insignia), a packaged ham, a business newspaper, and a tape recorder, all in a spacious living room. Outside the window of the room we see the view of a movie theatre, from a photograph taken on the opening night of The Jazz Singer, in 1927. The ceiling is lifted off the room and in place is a view of the earth from 100 miles away, taken from an advertisement in LIFE magazine from September 1955. On the wall, prominently installed and overlooking the whole room, is a large advertisement for the comic book Young Romance next to a traditional (as yet unidentified) portrait painting.
Just what is it… is at once a transatlantic fantasy and a parody. On one hand, British society had few of the consumer items featured in the image and the greater mood of the United Kingdom in the postwar period—which was embroiled in the Suez crisis and witnessing the demise of the British Empire—was dramatically different. The bright-eyed optimism and affluence of the U.S. was in many respects a foreign concept. On the other hand it’s hard not to read the work as parody, a judgement on American society in some way. Hamilton’s people are presented only as exaggerated physiques; food is unglamourous; comic book takes the guise of high art; the prominent insignia for the family is the Ford logo; and a vacuum cleaner takes pride of placement. The prominent ideals one takes away from this image are, accordingly, perfect pecs and breasts, cleanliness, youth and romance, bold cars, and finally—based on the ceiling being an image of the earth—a feeling that America is not just thinking about itself but about its power and what it will do with the world. (For an extensive discussion of the collaged elements in Hamilton’s work, see John-Paul Stonard’s article “Pop in the Age of Boom”).
Another reason this work has been interpreted as parody is its similarities to a famous satirical painting of married life in London: William Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-Mode: 2, The Tête à Tête (1743), which Hamilton would have known at the time. As the art historian Graham Smith has explained, like Hamilton’s composition, Hogarth’s work depicts a couple with symbols of their life together. In Hogarth’s case, the story is not so positive. Their house is a mess, their steward carries a pile of unpaid bills and looks exasperated, and the dog investigates a lady’s cap in the Viscount’s pocket (hinting that he spent the night before in a brothel).
Various viewers have commented on the prominence of the term “POP” in the collage (on the label of the lollipop held by the bodybuilder) and have wondered if this was the root of the term “pop art.” It was not. The term had been used as far back as 1947 by the artist Eduardo Paolozzi and was a part of the Independent Group’s discussions by the mid-1950s. Lawrence Alloway, who was an Independent Group member, is credited as the critic who popularized the term. He was also a major translator of pop ideas to the United States, where the movement enjoyed broad popularity.
Why is Hamilton’s collage considered the first pop work? Arguably it’s because of its prescience. Other works made beforehand included references to pop culture, but in Hamilton’s work we see the seeds of the various iconography which would be taken up by American pop artists in the 1960s. As the critic John Russell has noted, think of the foregrounding of consumer goods by Warhol, the collaging of disparate products by Rosenquist, the blown-up comic book pages by Lichtenstein, the oversized food of Oldenburg. They’re all there in Hamilton’s collage. It’s fascinating to think that at the time Hamilton created Just what is it…, pop was still a long way off in the United States. More concretely: Oldenburg was still working in the Cooper Union Museum library, Lichtenstein still lived in Cleveland, Rosenquist was still a student, and Warhol’s first solo show was still six years away.
Hamilton is considered one of the most important artists of the 20th century in the United Kingdom—where he was born and lived all his life—but not elsewhere.
It’s clear why. Hamilton was an artist before his time. Inspired by James Joyce and Marcel Duchamp (whose works he spent years remaking), he never had a consistent style and approached art as “all about thinking.” He was more interested in the strength of individual projects and was a conceptual and installation artist before the fact. He also worked slowly—Russell referred to him as a “locksmith”—and didn’t privilege any medium over another.
Hamilton’s earliest works were exhibitions. In today’s art world we don’t hesitate to think of the artist as curator; however Hamilton’s curatorial endeavors in the 1950s were not integrated into his practice or identity as an artist. One of the first shows he curated was “Man, Machine and Motion,” at London’s ICA in 1955, which explored the sexual and power dynamics behind car design. Subsequent works by Hamilton emphasized chance and resulted in assisted readymades (inspired by Duchamp). Examples were his 1964 Epiphany or his People (1968) or I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas (1967), which were both based on tourist postcards. After 1964, he focused on pictures about pictures, such as his works after Picasso’s re-interpretations of Velazquez’s 1656 painting Las Meninas. From the 1970s, Hamilton focused almost exclusively on printmaking. The most well-known work of his late career was a political work, The Citizen (1982), the subject of which was a “blanket protest” by an Irish Republican prisoner.
A 1971 statement by Hamilton testifies to the complexity of his approach to art-making and—because of the ideas within it—to the time we will need to wholly appreciate his contributions to art history:
A work of art is a vehicle for the transmission of information concerning the mental, or physical, activity of an artist.
The vehicle, or medium, need not transmit information (a message)—it can stand as a symbol for a message.
The work of art may be structured or not–it can be a concept.
An artist can propose that his work of art shall be structured by someone other than the artist—or it can be structured by chance.
Structures (and non-structures) may be characterized by a style (or non-style).
The style of a structured (or unstructured) message (or symbolic non-message) can serve to identify the individuality of an artist.
Art can be structured in the style of another artist, either in sincere emulation or as ironic parody.
A work of art is evidence that an artist has proposed a work of art.
An eyewitness account is evidence that an artist has proposed a work of art. But documentary evidence (i.e. a photograph) is more conclusive.
A painting is documentary evidence that an artist has proposed a work of art.