Hal Foster


On his book The First Pop Age: Painting and Subjectivity in the Art of Hamilton, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Richter, and Ruscha

Cover Interview of November 20, 2011

A close-up

I would be happy for the reader to land anywhere in the book; it is written to engage him or her at any point.

But any reader might as well begin with the cover. Mine shows a detail of painting by Hamilton called Swingeing London 67 (1968) based on a news photograph of a drug bust involving the Rolling Stone Mick Jagger and the art dealer Robert Frazer. Hamilton made no less than seven silkscreened paintings on the subject, heightening its effects in different ways: the grainy image is blurred, the lurid colors are blanched as though by a sudden flash of cameras, and in all but one version the window frame is removed so that we seem to be thrust into the van by the sheer avidity of our own look. As if in reaction, the two celebrities, who otherwise thrive on such visibility, attempt to deflect it, lifting their hands, manacled together, to hide their faces and to ward away our gaze. The title plays on the hip partygoers (the phrase “Swinging London” was a recent coinage) as well as the severe judgment passed on Fraser in particular (“there are times when a swingeing sentence can act as a deterrent,” the judge intoned, dispatching the art dealer to six months of hard labor), but the image is less a protest against retributive justice than a reflection on the vicissitudes of celebrity. Yet, typically, Hamilton injects an ambiguity here, for Jagger seems to smile, even to smirk, under his palm, and the handcuffs double as bracelets displayed for the benefit of press photographers (in the cover version of the painting they are built up in globs of shiny aluminum). In fact, like other Pop artists, Hamilton is concerned less with the event than with its mediation—how it is produced for us precisely as an image—and it is this mediation that he both exposes and elaborates. For Swingeing London 67 is an early reflection on a media world that has become second nature to us today, one in which transgression and adoration are hardly opposed, manacles are often forged into bling, and sheer visibility, desired or not, trumps everything else.