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August 01 2012

Tehran exhibition reveals city's hidden Warhol and Hockney treasures

Paintings collected with help of Iran's last queen, Farah Pahlavi, and safeguarded in museum basement, on show for first time

It is the finest collection of modern art anywhere outside Europe and the US, boasting works by Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Edvard Munch, René Magritte and Mark Rothko.

But the pieces have been stacked in the basement of Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art for more than 30 years, gathering dust in storage. Censors in Iran classed some as un-Islamic, pornographic or too gay, and they have never been shown in public. Others have been displayed only once or twice.

But now a number of the collection's paintings are on show for the first time in Tehran as part of the museum's Pop Art & Op Art exhibition, featuring works by Warhol, David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein, Victor Vasarely, Richard Hamilton and Jasper Johns.

"Many of the works in the exhibition are shown for the first time," Hasan Noferesti, the museum's director for art programmes, told the Mehr news agency. "The exhibition aims to show the evolution of these artistic movements."

More than 100 pieces from the museum's remarkable collection are on display, according to Mehr, along with a series of works from Mexico that have been dedicated to the museum in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Mexican revolution and the 200th anniversary of the country's independence.

James Rosenquist, Jim Dine, Larry Rivers and RB Kitaj are among other artists whose works are in the exhibition, which runs until mid-August.

Iran's unique hidden treasure was bought before the Islamic revolution, under the supervision of Farah Pahlavi, the former queen of Iran, who fled the country with the late shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979.

The 38-year reign of the shah, self-proclaimed kings of kings, came to an end after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from exile to Tehran receiving a hero's welcome and founded the Islamic republic.

The collection includes Pollock's Mural on Indian Red Ground, considered to be one of his most important works and estimated to be worth more than $250m, as well as important pieces by Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Whistler and Marcel Duchamp.

There are even pieces by artists whom the former empress met in person, including the Russian-French painter Marc Chagall and the English sculptor Henry Moore. The collection is thought to be worth more than $2.5bn.

Speaking to the Guardian, Pahlavi explained that the collection was bought during Iran's 1970s oil boom. "Our oil revenue had significantly increased and I spoke to [the shah] and Amir-Abbas Hoveyda [then prime minister], and told them that it was the best time to buy some of our ancient works both internally and from outside.

"I thought how good it would be to have a museum where we could put the works of our contemporary artists. Later I thought, why shouldn't we include foreign works. This is how it all started … at that time our curators and collectors were mostly interested in traditional art and not so much in the modern art."

Pahlavi's interest in western art is believed to derive from her education in France.

Kamran Diba, an Iranian architect and a cousin of the queen, was commissioned to design the museum in the heart of the capital and later selected the works with help from various people, including the presidents of Christie's and Sotheby's.

Pahlavi said: "I was very worried for the fate of those paintings during those events [at the time of the revolution], I was worried that the revolutionaries would destroy them. But fortunately the museum staff protected them in the basement.

"Some years ago the director of the museum showed some of the pieces and made a catalogue listing the works. I'm happy that people have realised what was hidden there for years."

Between 1997 and 2005, during the mandate of the former reformist president Mohammad Khatami, when restrictions on art were temporarily relaxed, Alireza Samiazar, then head of the museum, struggled to secure permission for the first display of some of the works.

In 2005, to the dismay of the regime's hardliners, a large number of the paintings were brought out for an exhibition. That show sparked controversy. Francis Bacon's Two Figures Lying on a Bed with Attendants, with seeming homosexual content, was deemed inappropriate and removed from the exhibition. However, many contentious works survived the censors. Andy Warhol's portraits of Mick Jagger and Marilyn Monroe are in Tehran and his paintings of Mao Zedong have been put on display in full for the first time in the pop art exhibition.

Despite the contempt of Tehran's rulers for western art, the collection has been safely guarded – bar a Warhol portrait of Pahlavi herself, which, she said, had been cut with a knife.

In 1994 the museum exchanged one of its many remarkable paintings – Woman III, by the Dutch-American expressionist Willem de Kooning – for a rare illuminated volume of Shahnameh, an ancient Persian poetry book, which belonged to the American art collector Arthur Houghton, because the painting had shown too much nudity in the eyes of the authorities.

The swap infuriated many, including Pahlavi. "If they were really interested in Shahnameh, couldn't they pay $6m and keep De Kooning's painting? The US businessman David Geffen, who bought the painting for some $20m, sold it for $110m few years ago. The De Kooning exchange is the sole exchange they've done so far and I hope it remains the last one."

Of the many ironies surrounding the artwork is the fact that Iran's powerful Guardian Council, a group of clerics, intervened a decade ago to forbid the selling or exchange of the works because, they said, trade in un-Islamic and pornographic works was prohibited.

Ali Amini Najafi, an Iranian art critic based in Germany, said: "The works in the collection are not randomly or arbitrarily chosen, it is clear that people involved in selecting them had a consistent plan to pick relevant and significant samples to depict the evolution of modern art and also to make sure that all movements from impressionists to pop art are represented.

"This collection was gathered at a defining moment of our history when Iranians were taking distance from their traditional past and were showing curiosity with modern art."


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May 10 2012

Richard Hamilton's last painting to be centrepiece of posthumous exhibition

The artist, one of Britain's best-loved of the 20th century, worked on the National Gallery show until the eve of his death last year

The last unfinished picture by Richard Hamilton, one of the most admired and best-loved British artists of the 20th century, will be the centrepiece of a National Gallery exhibition on which he was working until the eve of his death last September.

Hamilton died just short of his 90th birthday, and in his last months he knew he would not get it finished and that the exhibition would prove a valedictory from beyond the grave. On his last working day he was completing the layout for the gallery's Sunley room, a labyrinth through earlier works leading to the last picture – which poignantly deals with the failure of art.

"This was the picture literally on his easel, or rather in his computer, on the day he died," curator Christopher Riopelle said. "The whole concept of the exhibition changed very much, shaped by his knowledge that it would be his last."

Hamilton, credited with launching the British pop art movement with his 1956 collage Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing?, was a passionate supporter of free admission to national collections. The exhibition, which could well have been a moneyspinning blockbuster like the Lucian Freud retrospective around the corner in the National Portrait Gallery, will be free.

In order to ensure that his chosen works would be available for the National Gallery, he deferred a major international touring show which will be seen at four cities in Europe and the United States, including the Tate in London, from next year.

It will include many works linked to his lifelong interest in the art of Marcel Duchamp, and to pictures in the National Gallery collection including his startling version of Fra Angelico's 15th-century Annunciation, with two naked women taking the places of the demure angel and Virgin.

The exhibition will culminate in three large working versions of his last work, inspired by a 19th-century short story by Honore de Balzac, The Unknown Masterpiece, in which an artist invites his peers to view a painting in which he claims to have created a nude indistinguishable from real life: they see only meaningless swirls and daubs of colour. In Hamilton's multi-layered version, the artists are based on self-portraits by Poussin, Courbet and Titian, standing by a reclining naked woman based on a 19th-century photograph, in turn referencing classical nudes including Titian's sexy Venus of Urbino.

The work will be titled The Balzac. Hamilton's widow, Rita, thought he would not like it called The Masterpiece, in case people thought he was claiming that honour for himself.

"The origin of the exhibition was one day when Nick [Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery] said: 'Come on, we're going to lunch at Richard's," Riopelle recalled. "The food was excellent, as always at Richard's, as was the wine, as always at Richard's. We probably had far too much for lunchtime – but at the end of it the germ of the exhibition was there. We lost two giants within a few months of one another last year in Hamilton and Freud. I'm not sure we're realised the scale of the loss yet."

Richard Hamilton: the Late Works is at the National Gallery, London WC2N, from 10 October to 13 January


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March 31 2012

'Another Marianne Faithfull lives inside my head'

The veteran singer on her new role as art curator, the Rolling Stones, and 'the Fabulous Beast'

You are curating an art exhibition at Tate Liverpool this month, DLA Piper Series: Innocence and Experience. Your connection with that city goes back to childhood?

I was there until I was six, so it was very formative, at least if you believe the Jesuits. I remember a lot of it, particularly my mother taking me to the docks to show me the big American liners; she would say to me: "That way is America." Which set something up for me for sure. I played Liverpool a lot as a performer on tour. And when I was there I would go to the Walker Art Gallery; I remember seeing Millais's wonderful Ophelia there [at an exhibition in 1967].

You put together the show with John Dunbar, your first husband, who ran the Indica gallery in Soho in the 60s…

The person who first showed me how to look at pictures was John, when he was at Cambridge and doing his degree. We went to Rome and Florence together. We spent a lot of afternoons in the Tate and the National back then. And so we had a fabulous time going through the Tate archives for this show.

The idea is that it almost becomes an autobiographical sketch of you?

What I hope people will be seeing is something like the inside of my head.

What will they see there? We have some wonderful William Blakes, Newton sitting on what looks like the moon. Blake was a guiding spirit for me for a long, long time. My father gave me Songs of Innocence and of Experience when I was a child, which gave me the title for one of my albums. I went on living by Blake.

I always liked that fragment of his : "What is the price of experience…?"

Yes, and, "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." I'm not sure if I believe that any more. Is it true? It might be. He had vision. I am not in any way a visionary like that. I'm more a channel.

The exhibition will also include Richard Hamilton's picture of Mick Jagger and Robert Fraser's 1967 drug bust, Swingeing London. You were there, of course. Does that feel like another life?

It is all very present. I look at the picture every day. I've been so glad Richard gave it to me. It has helped me a lot to see that period as art, rather than just personal trauma. I read a lot of books about those times, and these days they seem to be viewed as a disaster. I don't see it that way at all, though for me personally they were pretty rough.

Did you read Keith Richards's memoir?

I did. And I loved it. It rang true as Keith. Not that I agree with everything in it. Strangely, I am going to New York to do, among other things, a tribute show to the Rolling Stones at Carnegie Hall. With Ronnie Spector and Steve Earle and others. I will sing "Sister Morphine" at the very end.

Do you have any qualms about being in a Stones' tribute show?

Not really. There was a time I resented it because I felt I could have done anything, and just to be perceived as the creation of the Rolling Stones irritated me immensely. But there are worse things to be seen as, I suppose.

Things that seem tragic dramas when you are young seem less so when you look back?

Yes, you have to remember I was a completely insecure, self-centred, highly ambitious little girl.

Which period of your life do you think of as the happiest?

My childhood, and now. Because I have mastery. I am not drinking and not using drugs.

Do you have a religious impulse?

I do have a strong sense of God. It's impossible to explain what I mean when I say that, of course. I have to have a sense of something greater than myself to be able to stay sober. I have been in the programme for23 years but I am not 23 years sober. But I can't feel that it is all down to me, no.

You are a grandmother now?

I am. I'm 65. I have to take a lot more trouble physically. Before I spoke to you I did my 15 minutes on the treadmill. That's something I wouldn't have ever imagined. I do yoga. I do tai chi. I do a lot to keep my body and my spirit together so I can work. In the autumn I take up a position in Linz at the Opera House for three months, doing Brecht's Seven Deadly Sins, with full ballet costumes, everything.

Which of the sins do you feel you have explored most fully?

I've had a go at most, but in this piece Brecht turns them all upside down, so that lust becomes love. Pride becomes pride in your work. Envy is actually the hardest sin to make positive.

You have had more than your share of the male gaze over the years. Do you feel a bit liberated from that now?

I tried to ignore it most of the time. It's a mixed blessing but I do feel a bit liberated, although I make a great effort for my shows. A great effort to be Marianne Faithfull.

She's a creation as much as anything?

It is actually my name. It is me. But it hasn't felt like me for a long time. What has happened in the past 10 years or so, and what has been my goal for as long as I can remember, is to bring me and Marianne Faithfull into some semblance of harmony. It was her doing drugs and drinking, her inside my head, so it has been tough. The Fabulous Beast, that's what I call her.

Is that Fabulous Beast still whispering to you?

Less so. But she is very naughty. And doesn't believe anything of what I tell her is good for us. She just laughs at all that. She is not evil. She is naughty, and I shouldn't listen to her. I just have to be very careful all the time.

DLA Piper Series: Innocence and Experience – curated by Marianne Faithfull is at Tate Liverpool from 21 April to 2 September


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September 13 2011

Richard Hamilton, pop art pioneer, dies at 89

Driven by intellect and political belief, Hamilton created undying icons of the modern world

A life in pop: the art of Richard Hamilton in pictures

Richard Hamilton, the most influential British artist of the 20th century, has died aged 89.

In his long, productive life he created the most important and enduring works of any British modern painter.

This may sound a surprising claim. We have our national icons and our pop celebrities. But neither Francis Bacon nor Lucian Freud nor Damien Hirst has shaped modern art as Hamilton did when he put a lolly with the word POP on it in the hand of a muscleman in his 1956 collage, Just What is it that Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing?

Hamilton has a serious claim to be the inventor of pop art: this collage is a visionary, yet ironic, manifesto for a new art that would be at home in the modern world. For him, in a postwar Britain of austerity measures, pop was a utopian ideal. Big, fast cars were the metal angels of a smooth, beautiful future.

I have been driven by Hamilton in his huge, sleek car. The experience was like stepping into one of his paintings. He drove me to his house, a modern dream home decorated with the works of Marcel Duchamp – or rather, Hamilton's own replicas personally approved by the maverick dadaist chess player.

Hamilton's second great influence on the art of today was his championing of Duchamp at a time when the Frenchman's subversive philosophical art was largely forgotten. One of Hamilton's masterpieces is his replica of Duchamp's Large Glass, in Tate Modern.

We're getting to the reason why Hamilton is not as famous as some British artists who may be less significant than he was. He was an intellectual. He did not go for the guts, but the brain. His art is thoughtful, uneasy, even as it celebrates the power of technology. It also became increasingly political. He confronted issues from the Irish Troubles to both Iraq wars in works that dropped the cool mask for outright engagement, making him even more of a meaty and serious proposition.

Artistic celebrity may soon fade, for in the long run it is works of art, not artists, that survive. The historical fate of today's art will depend on the power of images to endure generations. By that measure Hamilton is the true success story of modern British art. He has created deeply memorable works – beginning with that 1956 collage – that are undying icons of the modern world.

Swingeing London, pictured left, in which Mick Jagger in lurid green jacket is enclosed in the back of a police car, shielding his face against the media glare, is a great modern history painting. So is Hamilton's portrait of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. These works analyse the way images are made, yet their intellect is saturated with outrage and compassion. Swingeing London stands as one of the most powerful and haunting pictures of our times. It will never be forgotten.

Hamilton saw our future coming: He even designed a computer as a readymade artwork in the early days of digital. He saw and accepted the way technology changes the human condition. Yet he cared about, and fought for, the human ghost in the machine. That is what makes him a great artist.


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March 07 2010

Real people

From the Troubles to Iraq, from Thatcher to Blair, no one can reinvent a contemporary news image like pop art veteran Richard Hamilton

Mordechai Vanunu is disappearing through the Jerusalem streets in the back of a police van. He is on trial for exposing Israel's covert nuclear arsenal to the west. Unable to communicate with the outside world, he presses his palm against the window in the hope that the message written there will tell his story to anyone with a camera: "Vanunu M was hijacked in Rome ITL 30.9.86, 21:00."

It is a harrowing photograph, not least because Vanunu really is about to disappear into solitary confinement, for more than a decade of his 18-year sentence. Richard Hamilton's painting reproduces the shot exactly. But it also commemorates the young man's passing, so to speak, for Vanunu's face is fading into the soft and muzzy surface of the paint (and the future). The terrible intensity of the photograph – the news of what had happened, what would happen – turns slowly, pensively, into the profundity of the painting. The chance reflections of foliage now look like laurels around Vanunu's head.

Or so it may seem to some viewers (me, for one). Others might find it peculiarly mute. It doesn't tell you that the Mossad drugged and "hijacked" Vanunu, how he was punished, why he is holding up his hand, what revelations he brought the world. It doesn't look so very different from the original photograph and if it weren't for the title – Unorthodox Rendition? – might seem equally neutral.

Consider, for instance, that the very same approach is taken to a bowler-hatted Orangeman on the march in Northern Ireland, a British soldier in Belfast and an IRA prisoner in a blanket: long-haired, bare-chested, Christ-like. You might put quite different interpretations upon these works according to your politics or you might imagine Hamilton to be some sort of militant republican. Though think again; he spells out his "vehement rejection" of the IRA in the catalogue.

These works are all based on photographs; this is crucial to their content. Hamilton isn't just relying upon news reportage because he cannot be there at the historic moment. The Troubles, the campus riots at Kent State, Israel, Iraq, the regimes of Mrs Thatcher or Tony Blair: our sense of each is inflected, of course, by the media images. Hamilton was there at the very beginning of this vigorous strain in art, and one of the fascinating aspects of this show is just how many different directions he takes within it.

Take the Irish paintings. They come big-screen, small-screen, split-screen; in diptych and series, more or less legible or remote. Hamilton observes that the Maze protesters have achieved a strange mythic power in the midst of their self-created squalor, lone figures isolated from time and life.

Sometimes he breaks into three dimensions and the rusted metal verticals of the picture frame invoke the bars of a cell. Sometimes the paint precisely imitates what it describes: excrement smeared on the walls, staining, dragging, depicting; excrement itself deployed like paint.

Nothing came over so viscerally in the television images. And the medium's limitations are well-expressed in the Kent State pictures, where you can just about make out a body, or at least a lifeless arm, in the dozen bleary screenprints shaped like televisions. Hamilton had set up a camera to shoot the news footage of the university massacres in 1970 directly from the TV. Transmission diminishes; so does repetition. With each generation of screenprint, the outrage – in both senses – is correspondingly suppressed and obscured.

One of the great strengths of these works is their skilful match of one kind of image with another, of medium with media. But there are times when the two fall out of kilter. Hamilton has had some coins struck with newsprint shots of Blair and Campbell, complete with Latin epigrams; the actual objects are even less potent than the title – Medals of Dishonour.

And Tony Blair as an all-American cowboy (lifesize, in the manner of Warhol's gun-toting Elvis) is toothless either as propaganda or satire. It marks the point where politics takes over and art become subordinate. For those opposed to the war, it is insufficiently complex and forceful; for those in favour, one imagines it may appear, by the same token, naive and simplistic.

Well, leave Blair to Steve Bell. And leave Margaret Thatcher to her own devices. Making something of Thatcher – something more horrifying than she made of herself, at any rate – still seems to be in the gift of other kinds of artists, such as novelists and playwrights. It is good to see Hamilton's Treatment Room from 1983, a walk-in operating theatre where Margaret Thatcher is administering her brand of medicine from a video above the operating table on which you are cast as the helpless patient. But she is doing all the work merely by dictating her message in a party political broadcast with the sound turned off.

Hamilton has produced some of the most potent images of our times. The deathless shot of Mick Jagger and the art dealer Robert Fraser being driven away after a swingeing sentence for possession, the flashbulb flaring on their handcuffs, went through many permutations – smeared like newsprint, fitted with solid silver cuffs, blurred as black-and-white telly – to become more redolent of the period than the original photo. And his Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland is a tremendous coinage, a hybrid of collage and painting, comedy and fear, with its prissy little mouth and protruding sci-fi eyeball.

What they have in common with the Maze pictures, say, or Unorthodox Rendition, is true staying power: sufficient force as images to keep some of the most catastrophic episodes of modern history alive. That may be latent in the source, but Hamilton, now in his late 80s, continues to find ways of bringing it out and keeping it before our eyes.


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March 04 2010

Pop goes politics

A new show at London's Serpentine Gallery explores the works of the father of pop art, Richard Hamilton



March 02 2010

Spot the difference

Richard Hamilton's work in his retrospective show at the Serpentine Gallery in London comes across as politically smug. Perhaps that's the idea

Richard Hamilton's Modern Moral Matters, a show of works from 1963 to the present, covers familiar territory, not least in its cast: Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher, Irish republican prisoners, Orangemen, a squaddie on patrol, Mick Jagger and Robert Fraser (Hamilton's art dealer in the 1960s) in handcuffs after a drugs bust.

Hamilton is an important figure, not just because he was the leading instigator of pop art in the 1950s. This exhibition, at the Serpentine in London, takes us from his 1963 depiction of Hugh Gaitskell, in which the Labour leader's face is morphed with the masked Phantom of the Opera, to a portrait, completed a few days ago, of Mordechai Vanunu, the abducted and jailed Israeli nuclear technician who revealed Israel's nuclear weapons programme. Like many of Hamilton's images, the painting of Vanunu is derived from a TV image, re-shot by the artist. Hamilton scrutinises the world second-hand and mediates it yet again in his art.

Vanunu turned down the Nobel peace prize again only last week, saying he needs freedom and a passport, not awards. Maybe he doesn't need paintings, either. Hamilton's politics don't need much inferring: in the show, Blair appears like a grinning, inane gunslinger; Thatcher hectors on a TV hanging above some unfortunate's hospital bed; painted blood seeps from a TV showing a graphic map of the first Gulf war. Even when it is understated, Hamilton's political point-scoring is pretty obvious: two maps, side by side, show Israel and Palestine at the time of the 1947 UN Partition and in 2010, Palestine having been eroded and ever more fragmented by the occupation.

Laudable sentiments and righteous anger don't necessarily make anyone's art better. But Hamilton's work is far from straightforward. Even taken as social commentary, we have to see it in the light of art's impotence to change anything. "Dissent and transgression have been pumped out of artistic production like water from a sinking ship," writes the US critic Benjamin HD Buchloh in a dense catalogue text. Buchloh is always worth attending to, though; he sees Hamilton as one of the most enquiring and important of post-war artists. I'd like to agree, but I baulk at the idea of his overarching significance.

From the 1950s onward, Hamilton has held a complex position. His art is a synthesis of painting, collage, draughtsmanship, a love of technology and even greater loves for Cézanne and Marcel Duchamp, his guiding and seemingly irreconcilable influences. Hamilton's is an impure art, in which the certainties and lineage of artistic development, from cubism onward, are probed and undermined, just as his paintings, prints and forays into other media are as arch as they are intelligent. He makes art for a culture that is more interested in commodities than statements, and everything he does has a sheen, an elegance and a technical sophistication that is both attractive and repulsive. There's something sickly and nacreous about his work, which I can only see as deliberate.

One might ask if Hamilton's work really is as analytical, as far-reaching, as acute, as knowing, as deconstructive and as on-the-ball as Buchloh and others assert. Some of it – like those giant images of Blair, with their echo of Warhol's pistol-toting Elvis – seem altogether too obvious, especially when compared to the best political cartoons. Not only do they tell us what we already know, or think we know, they also tell many of us what we already think, politically speaking, which might make us feel smug, but doesn't do much more. We know Blair is a dupe; we know Israel behaves monstrously; we know about the dirty protest and hunger strikes in Northern Ireland during the 1970s. But that, of course, does not mean that art can't be made of these subjects.

Hamilton's eye is ever cool, his engagement with his media complex. But is his subject war, or the abduction and solitary confinement of Vanunu, or is it art itself, and the place art has in culture, its ineffectuality as agit-prop? Even its inner complexities tend to get pushed aside in favour of a view of these works as consumable images. There's a good old-fashioned dialectic at work here, and the unease I feel about Hamilton's work, its place and intention, is precisely what I think he is aiming for.


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February 14 2010

A lesson from the father of pop art

Richard Hamilton invented the term 'pop art' 53 years ago, and, from his 60s Swingeing London series to Tony Blair as a cowboy, he has been ahead of the curve ever since. On the eve of his new Serpentine show, he grants Rachel Cooke a rare interview

Once upon a time, pop art was new and young and exciting. But it isn't any more, and one way to remind yourself both of its great age and of its move to the establishment mainstream is to consider the case of Richard Hamilton, the artist most regularly described as its "father". For one thing, there is his face. Crikey, what a face. He looks like Abraham as depicted by a children's bible: the sprouting white hair, the magnificent high forehead, a set of teeth that resemble leaning tombstones in a crowded churchyard. For another, there is the fact that Hamilton will soon be the subject of a big new exhibition at London's Serpentine Gallery, one of 10 or 12 similar shows – he forgets how many exactly – that will take place around the world this year. Does all this attention still surprise him?

Hamilton considers a moment, and then says, with mock indignation: "It's getting a bit out of hand, actually." A low chuckle. "It's funny because, in the past, my exhibitions haven't by any means been greeted with praise. When I showed at the Tate in 1992 almost every critic hated it. At Christmas there was a thing in the newspaper: what's the worst exhibition of the year? I won! I suppose it's just that people are coming to realise that I've done some quite serious things over the past, you know, 50 or 60 years. That, and the fact that I've lived longer than all my peers. Joseph Beuys and John Latham are dead. Robert Rauschenberg is dead. Jasper Johns is alive, but when do ever hear about him?" From the corner of the room comes a smaller voice: "Jasper's younger than you, Richard." This is the painter, Rita Donagh, Hamilton's wife, who acts as his handbrake when the need arises.

We are sitting in a gleaming white box of a room at the Serpentine Gallery: me, Hamilton and Donagh, a woman even more amazing to look at than him. She has spectrally pale skin and long grey-white hair, and is wearing black dungarees. She is straight out of Paris Vogue. Later Hamilton tells me that, even after several decades together, he still tells her every day that she is beautiful, and I must say: you can't blame him. Anyway, they are a talented and single-minded couple, these two, and they have known an awful lot of famous people – the Beatles, René Magritte, Marcel Duchamp, take your pick – and yet the miracle of it is that they are not remotely precious, grand or prickly. As I am about to find out.

Hamilton hands me a colour copy of a piece of new work that will hang at the Serpentine. It is a political piece, and consists of two maps: one of Israel/Palestine in 1947, one of Israel/Palestine in 2010, the point being that, in the second map, Palestine has shrunk to the size of a cornflake. I hold the image in my hands, and give it the attention befitting a new work by an artist of Hamilton's reputation. In other words, I look at it very closely, and I notice something: on these maps Israel has been spelt 'Isreal'. Slowly, my cogs turn. Hamilton loves wordplay. One of my favourite pieces of his is a certain iconic French ashtray subtly tweaked so that it says, not "Ricard", but "Richard". So presumably this, too, is a pun. But what does it mean? Is-real? Hmm. This must be a comment on the country's controversial birth. Either that, or he wishes to suggest that the Israel-Palestine conflict is a nightmare – can it be real? – from which we will one day wake up. How clever.

"So what are you up to here?" I ask. "Why have you spelled Israel like this?"

Hamilton peers first at me then at the image. "How is it spelled?" he asks. I tell him how the word should be spelled and how he has spelled it.

There is a small silence. "Oh, dear," says Hamilton. Rita Donagh gets up from her seat and comes round to look at the image over my shoulder. "Oh, dear," she says. The misspelling is, it seems, just that: a mistake. It's my turn now. "Oh, dear," I say. "I'm so… sorry." My cheeks are hot. Hamilton looks crestfallen. Donagh looks worried. "Can you change it?" I say, thinking that Hamilton works a lot with computers these days. "Not very easily," he says. Oh, God. On the nerve-wracking eve of his new, big show, I have just told the 88-year old father of pop art that there is a mistake in one of his prints (this one is an inkjet solvent print). Why? Why did I do this? And how on earth will our conversation recover?

After a moment of perplexity, though, Hamilton starts to laugh. "Oh, well!" he says. "I'm sure there's some way of sorting it out. Not to worry!"

Despite his huge influence, Hamilton is not famous in the way that, say, David Hockney is famous. No one is going to ask Richard Hamilton to edit the Today programme. But you will recognise his most famous work even if you can't quite put a name to its creator: his 1956 collage, Just What Is It that Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? in which a naked woman sits on a G-Plan sofa wearing a lampshade; his paintings of Mick Jagger, and the art dealer Robert Fraser, in handcuffs following a drug raid (the Swingeing London series, completed between 1967 and 1972); his images of an IRA hunger striker (The Citizen series of 1981-3); his 2007 inkjet print, Shock and Awe, in which Tony Blair is done up as a cowboy, with double holster and boots. Or perhaps you own a copy of the Beatles' White Album, the sleeve of which he designed.

Part of the difficulty is that he is so hard to categorise. A lot of his work could easily be described as pop art – the bright colours, the iconic images, the found objects – but he is also much more political than, say, Warhol, and he is a brilliant draughtsman, one who spent 50 years illustrating Joyce's Ulysses (these enthralling prints were shown at the British Museum in 2002, and will probably never be bettered; he is to Joyce what Tenniel is to Alice in Wonderland). Even Hamilton seems unsure. "What I always say is: I do whatever I feel like. People don't seem to understand that an artist is free to do whatever he wants, and I've always relished that possibility." It was his friend Marcel Duchamp who made him realise this. "Duchamp was truly iconoclastic. This meant that he denied himself, that he knocked his own ideas out of the window. I thought: I should do the same – be careful, as he was, of repeating myself. In art, it's the mind, not the eye that should be active."

Hamilton had long been a fan of Duchamp; in 1960 he published a transcription of the notes in the artist's Green Box (1934) and in 1965 he reconstructed his Large Glass (1915-23) which had been smashed to pieces in 1926. But they didn't meet until later. "It was at a dinner party in Paris, at the house of the artist Bill Copley. I thought it was going to be a big party, but the guests were me, René Magritte and his wife, and Marcel and his wife. I didn't have two £5 notes to rub together at the time." What was Duchamp like? "Oh, he was the most charming person imaginable: kind and clever and witty. Eventually I became one of the family. His wife, Teeny, was fond of me. We were fully bonded. If I was with them in Paris, then I was with them all the time. When the first 'green book' came off the press he wrote me the most beautiful letter I've ever received. 'Your labour of love has produced a monster of veracity,' it said."

Hamilton was born in Pimlico. His father worked as a driver for Henley's, the West End car showroom. It was very far from being an "artistic" background. "I suppose I was a misfit. I decided I was interested in drawing when I was 10. I saw a notice in the library advertising art classes. The teacher told me that he couldn't take me – these were adult classes, I was too young – but when he saw my drawing he told me that I might as well come back next week. I used to follow him round like a dog. He was terribly kind to me, and by the time I was 14 I was doing big charcoal drawings of the local down and outs." At 14 he entered a children's art competition. Although his entry had mistakenly been ignored, the man who was to give out the prize was a Royal Academician who looked at his pictures and, admiring them, spoke to Sir Walter Russell, the keeper of the Royal Academy School. Two years later he enrolled there.

In 1940, however, the school closed because of the war. Hamilton became a draughtsman at an engineering company. By the time he returned to the school he was in his 20s; the Royal Academy had changed completely. "It was run by a complete mad man, Sir Alfred Munnings, who used to walk about the place with a whip and jodphurs. It was scary. One of my teachers said my work was looking quite like Cézanne. Oh, good, I thought. Then he said: 'Augustus John knocks spots off Cézanne.' Well, of course, I roared with laughter. He went red in the face. One day he asked me if I'd visited the Picasso exhibition. 'Yes,' I said. 'It was wonderful.' But he got more and more furious. 'They're not even good honest Frenchmen,' he said. 'They're a load of fucking dagos.' What could you do? It was an absolute joke!"

A few weeks later Hamilton received a note informing him that the president did not believe he was profiting from his instruction. His studentship was terminated, and he was dragged "kicking and screaming" to National Service. Being a "veteran", however, had its uses. When he was accepted by the Slade he was now eligible for a grant.

It was at around this time that Hamilton met Nigel Henderson, later a leading light in the Independent Group of artists to which Hamilton would also belong. It was Henderson who introduced Hamilton to Duchamp's Green Box, and to D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson's 1917 book On Growth and Form which, for Hamilton, was to become a key text (the book advocates structuralism as an alternative to the survival of the fittest in governing the form of species). In 1956 Hamilton created Just What Is It that Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? for the catalogue of This is Tomorrow, the Independent Group's historic exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery. The show was a quasi-anthropological, semi-ironic look at the mass-market imagery of the post-war age.

In 1957 Hamilton wrote a note to the brutalist architects Alison and Peter Smithson, who had also contributed to This Is Tomorrow; they were in talks about the idea of another exhibition on similar lines. It was in this note that he coined the phrase pop art. "Pop art," he wrote, "is 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." It was almost as though he had looked into a crystal ball, and seen Andy Warhol, in his fright wig, staring back at him. But the letter was not intended to be a manifesto. "I just listed the things I thought were most interesting," says Hamilton. "He [Peter Smithson] didn't even answer it. When he was asked about it later he denied receiving it." What about Just What Is It that Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? How does he feel about this supposedly seminal work now? "I'm rather bored with it but it's a nice little earner!"

After this, Hamilton's career took off. He was able to give up teaching (he had worked alongside Victor Pasmore at Newcastle University, where Rita was "a favourite student of mine", though they did not marry until 1991) after Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob, then the most celebrated dealer in London, took him on. "We did three exhibitions, then the famous drug bust took place, the gallery closed, and his cheques bounced. But when the gallery was still open, it was terrific. He had these parties where you became acquainted with the Beatles and Mick Jagger. It was Fraser who suggested me as a designer for the Beatles' new album. I remember that Paul [McCartney] rang me. He was running the show then. So I went to see him. I was sitting there in an outer office, and it was quite amusing at first because it was full of girls in short skirts and long boots. But then I thought: I'll give him five more minutes. Anyway, finally, he was ready. He wasn't sure about my idea at first but in the end he was very helpful. He gave me three tea chests full of photographs to use in the collage for the poster inside." How much was he paid? "I was surprised how little we got! I remember Peter Blake telling me he'd only been given £200 for Sgt. Pepper. I couldn't remember what I'd been paid, but Peter said: You only got 200 quid, too. I thought that was a bit mean." He thinks it's possible that Yoko Ono was an admirer of his. Or maybe not. "I did contribute my bottom to her bum pic [he means her Film No. 4, better known as "Bottoms"] – not that I would recognise it now. That was our relationship: I was just a bum to her." He laughs.

In the 1970s he and Rita moved to North End, the Oxfordshire farm where they still live and keep their studio. His work began to grow more political, though he also moved briefly into industrial design (he loves computers, and designed two). It seems pretty obvious to me that Steve McQueen's film about Bobby Sands, Hunger, was inspired, at least in part, by Hamilton's paintings of the blanket protesters [the Citizen series], and you can see his influence in most contemporary art, whether the artist in question is aware of it or not (though Damien Hirst calls him "the greatest").

Hamilton admires Hunger but he has little time for the other Young British Artists. He can't imagine a conversation with Tracey Emin lasting more than five minutes – too tedious! – and though he was quite interested in Hirst's sharks, his paintings bore him half to death. He believes that this generation is "ignorant… they have no understanding of art history. [Their work] is a waste of time. So much of what they're doing has already been done, and not only by Duchamp, even. You think: you're 50 years too late, mate." Don't even get him started on Sarah Lucas and her antics with cigarettes.

He's tiring a little now. I wonder: is he surprised still to be working? Not really. Partly, as he has told me, the drive for reinvention has kept him going. But sometimes it has been anger. His paintings of the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell disguised as the Phantom of the Opera in 1964 were the result of fury: "When he refused to get rid of Britain's nuclear deterrent, I thought: the bastard!" And so, too, are his most recent works. The Hutton inquiry left him "angrier than I would like to be". He shows me another piece that will appear at the Serpentine. It's a medal of dishonour, commissioned by and first shown at the British Museum in 2009. The face on the metal disc is that of Alastair Campbell. Above his head is a Latin inscription. "That's the nearest we could get to the word 'whitewash' in Latin," says Hamilton, a bony finger tracing its outline. "And that, I'm afraid, is absolutely the product of my anger." He sounds fierce, but when I look at his face, he is smiling, kindly as ever.


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