Richard Hamilton

Kent State


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Richard Hamilton 1922–2011
Screenprint on paper
Image: 672 × 872 mm
support: 727 × 1020 mm
Purchased 1984


Hamilton was born and bred in London, attending the Slade School of Art from 1948-51. In 1952 he co-founded the Independent Group, a subsidiary of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, with fellow artist Eduardo Paolozzi (born 1924). An association of artists, architects, critics and academics, the Group focused their discussions on technology and contemporary culture. In 1956 Hamilton created some of his most famous images for This is Tomorrow, an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery. Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? 1956 (Kunsthalle Tübingen, Zundel Collection) is a collage which was reproduced as a poster for the exhibition. Hamilton subsequently remade the image as a print in two versions, one in the original 1950s style (1991) and the other, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different? (1993, Tate P11358), updated to reflect 1990s culture. In the original image, a semi-naked body builder holds a large red lollipop bearing the word ‘pop’ at the level of his genitals, signalling the arrival in Britain of ‘Pop’ art. Hamilton ironically defined this in 1957 as ‘Popular (designed for a mass audience), Transient (short term solution), Expendable (easily forgotten), Low cost, Mass produced, Young (aimed at youth), Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big business’. (Quoted in Richard Hamilton, p.24.) He subsequently referred to pop culture as inducing a ‘peculiar mixture of reverence and cynicism ... in me’ (quoted in Richard Hamilton, p.84).

Hamilton’s practice draws on and comments upon a wide range of popular culture media and current events. Imagery found in newspapers, magazines, television, film and advertising is subjected to collage and painting techniques. Photographs are painted over and paintings are made from photographs. The techniques of screenprinting and lithography provide further versions of an image. More recently Hamilton has worked with a Quantel Paintbox graphic imager which has allowed him to collage on computer and produce inkjet prints. Images often reappear in successive states of a large series. Swingeing London, for example, is the title of seven paintings and many more prints based on a 1967 press photograph of rock star Mick Jagger and Robert Fraser (Hamilton’s gallerist at the time) handcuffed together inside a police van. Hamilton’s treatment of the image in some of its states pushes at the limits of representation. Photographs of seductive women, still lives, landscapes, interiors and buildings are all treated with a nod to art history and a questioning of the relationship between painting and photography, representation and reality. At the same time Hamilton’s use of the language of popular culture reflects on the nature of the imagery we all find so appealing today.

Further reading;
Richard Hamilton, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1974
Richard Hamilton, exhibition brochure, Tate Gallery, London 1992
Richard Hamilton: New Technology and Printmaking, exhibition catalogue, Alan Cristea Gallery, London 1998

Elizabeth Manchester
February 2003

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Display caption

In May 1970, a series of protests against US involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia on the campus of Kent State University, Ohio, culminated in the shooting of student demonstrators by the National Guard. Hamilton's print was made using a photograph of a TV screen, taken during a news broadcast that day. Hamilton commented: 'It was too terrible an incident in American history to submit to arty treatment. Yet there it was in my hand, by chance¿¿ It seemed right, too, that art could help to keep the shame in our minds.'

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

Richard Hamilton born 1928

P77043 Kent State 1970

Screenprint 672 x 872 (26 1/2 x 34 3/4) on Schoeller Dürex paper 730 x 1021 (28 3/4 x 40 1/4); printed by Dietz Offizin, Lengmoos, Bavaria and published by Dorothea Leonhart, Munich in an edition of 5000
Inscribed ‘R Hamilton' and ‘4304/5000' below image b.r.; stamped ‘Kent State' b.r.; printer's, publisher's and paper manufacturer's stamps b.r.
Purchased at Christie's (Grant-in-Aid) 1984
Lit: Robert Thomas, ‘Graphics', Art and Artists, vol.5, Dec. 1970, p.36; Richard Hamilton, ‘Kent State' in Richard Hamilton, Richard Hamilton: Prints, exh. cat., National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa 1970 pp.14-15; [Richard Hamilton], ‘Kent State' in Richard Hamilton - Kent State, Guggenheim, A Portrait of the Artist by Francis Bacon, The Critic Laughs, exh. cat., Galerie René Block, Berlin 1971, [pp.2-3], repr. [p.3]; [Richard Hamilton], ‘Kent State' in Prints and Multiples by Richard Hamilton, exh. cat., Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 1971, no.31 repr.; Richard Hamilton, Richard Hamilton, Edizioni Recenti, Kent State, Solomon R. Guggenheim, Ritratto dell'artista di Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Studio Marconi, Milan 1971, [pp.1-2], repr. [pp.3-4]; Richard Hamilton, Richard Hamilton: Prints, Multiples and Drawings, exh. cat., Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester 1972, p.26 repr.; Richard S. Field, The Prints of Richard Hamilton, exh. cat., Davison Art Center, Middletown 1973, pp.13-14 and 48, repr. p.49; Richard S. Field, Richard Hamilton Graphics, Scottish Arts Council Gallery, Edinburgh 1974, [pp.2-4]; George Knox, Richard Hamilton Graphics, exh. cat., Vancouver Art Gallery, 1978, p.5, repr. p.27; Richard Hamilton, Richard Hamilton: Collected Words 1953-1982, [1982], pp.92-6, repr. p.95 (col.); Richard S. Field, ‘Introduction' in Richard Hamilton: Image and Process - Studies, Stage and Final Proofs from the Graphic Works 1952-82, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, 1983, p.l39, repr. p.15 (col.); Richard Hamilton, Richard Hamilton Prints - A Complete Catalogue of Graphic Works 1939-83, Stuttgart 1984, p.8, no.75 repr. (col.)

The title of this print refers to the shooting of student demonstrators by the National Guard at a demonstration against American involvement in the Vietnam war held on the campus of Kent State University, Ohio in May 1970. The image is derived from a photograph of a television screen during a BBC news broadcast on the day of the shootings. The circumstances of the making of this print and the decision to make a large edition have been described by the artist as follows:

Multiple printings, with the involvement of several printers, hand-workings, and very large amounts of time often spread over months, means that each copy of an edition of seventy or so will be costly to produce and expensive to buy. The likelihood is that the edition will be sold at a reasonable price when published; as the prints change hands later prices can become absurdly high.

Just at the time that I was becoming aware of the economic problems inherent in the publication of small editions, Dorothea Leonhart, a Munich dealer, proposed to publish prints in very large editions. It seemed a good moment to try to cut across the situation that had developed in the print market.

It is surprisingly difficult to control the price of prints. If the work is to be of a certain quality there are factors which inhibit large numbers. A lithograph drawn on stone will not go on producing the same image indefinitely. Universal [Limited] Art Editions published lithographs in very strange edition sizes; twenty-seven, twenty-three, or even less. This was not perversity but a decision on the part of the publisher to stop printing as soon as the image showed the slightest sign of deterioration or change. A copper plate will wear, etching inks are very abrasive; however finely ground, the particles of carbon bound in oil will remove the surface as fast as metal polish - which is why they are faced with a microscopically thin skin of steel to resist erosion of the softer copper. Even steel-faced plates have their limits, the steel must be removed and a new skin applied as soon as wear becomes visible. With or without the problem of wear there are still restraints.

Printing etchings is a slow procedure. It takes a long time to damp each piece of paper individually, ink and wipe the plate, pass it through a heavy hand-press, dry the print, and examine each one for the occasional flaw. A natural limit of boredom is imposed. With silk-screen the limitations are not so severe. But even that medium has its problems; physically handling the paper a great many times, drying each application of colour means space-consuming racks. Things go wrong, less from wear than from ink clogging the smaller openings of the screen. Silk-screen printing is a fast, manual, immensely strenuous business, with the additional problem of nervous strain. Working is necessarily hasty but it is vital to watch for signs of incipient trouble. The screen can fill so that the smaller openings do not print, or worse, an unwanted hole appears. Every halt to the rhythm of the passage of paper beneath the screen - the washing of the screen with solvents, the patching of holes - introduces further hazard, and change, the enemy of the classic concept of printing, namely uniformity of the edition.

Given these barriers to edition size, there are other considerations. At one time the Customs and Excise Department decided that purchase tax would be imposed on any artist's edition exceeding seventy-five copies (that figure has become an average even after the change of taxation to VAT). It is a lot more effort to produce twice as many but the remuneration can be the same, or nearly so. Because a small edition is, given the present marketing set-up, more prized by collectors, they will pay more for an example. If there are twice as many they may wish to pay half as much. Should the artist regret that these commercial factors intervene between him and another audience that he would wish to satisfy, and insists that the price be maintained at an artificially low level to cater for enthusiasts with smaller incomes, the consequences are not ideal. Prints in small editions will inevitably change hands quickly; they gravitate towards the dealers and the prices rise to the high norm. There are two solutions, a) to lower the standards; the higher the quality of the work the higher the price will go, or b) to increase the number of copies; the more there are, the easier to obtain, and maintain, a low price.

An artist may not wish to work on a two-tier system, one quality for the poor, another for the rich. On the other hand, it isn't easy to achieve excellence on a large edition - so the invitation from Leonhart was an interesting challenge. An edition size of five thousand would ensure that the print could be sold cheaply and that the price would not rise unduly afterwards. The problem was to produce five thousand copies of a print that showed the same dedicated involvement of artist and printer apparent in small editions.

It had been on my mind that there might be a subject staring me in the face from the TV screen. I set up a camera in front of the TV for a week. Every night I sat watching with a shutter release in my hand. If something interesting happened I snapped it up. During that week in May 1970, many possibilities emerged, from the Black and White Minstrel Show to Match of the Day; I also had a good many news items. In the middle of the week the shooting of students by National Guardsmen occurred at Kent State University. This tragic event produced the most powerful images that emerged from the camera, yet I felt a reluctance to use any of them. It was too terrible an incident in American history to submit to arty treatment. Yet there it was in my hand, by chance - I didn't really choose the subject, it offered itself. It seemed right, too, that art could help to keep the shame in our minds; the wide distribution of a large edition print might be the strongest indictment I could make.

Kent State is the most onerous of all the prints I have made. Without anticipating the problems, I chose to layer many transparent colours over each other to build the image from the overlaps and fringes. It was an absurd procedure. The more layers of pigment the longer the drying time - it didn't take long to discover that we were manufacturing gigantic fly papers. Every small insect trapped caused an accumulation of ink with each additional colour. For an edition of five thousand we started with six thousand sheets of paper. We just about made the edition; two proofing runs, two edition runs of fifteen printings, seven trips to Munich from London. I'm glad I tried it, but that kind of big edition has to be a once in a lifetime experience.

The Kent State student depicted, Dean Kahler, was not killed. He suffered spinal injuries and is paralysed. The text that I originally wrote for the subject [see below] avoids any mention of the horrible circumstances of that day in May. It coolly describes the passage of information. From the actual fact of a young man struck down by the bullets of amateur guardsmen to the eventual representation in a print, all the transformations of energy, listed remorselessly like a modern version of the tale of Paul Revere. It seems far more menacing than a sentimental registering of personal disgust (Hamilton [1982], pp.92-4).

The artist has stated in answer to questions posed by the compiler that he had particularly strong feelings about American involvement in Vietnam.

One pastel drawing was executed prior to the making of the print. According to the artist this unusually low number may be explained by the fact that he intended to alter the image only by mechanical means, the form of the image already being fixed. This drawing is in a private collection in Milan (repr. Richard Hamilton, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1974, p.82). Other photographs depiciting the same scene at different moments also exist. Some have been reproduced in the Studio Marconi catalogue [pp.3-4] and in the 1971 Stedelijk Museum exhibition catalogue (p.64).

The artist described the means by which a cine film was transformed into a print as follows:

A cine-camera films an event on a University campus in Ohio, USA. The scene filmed, almost by chance, in conditions not conducive to rational operation, happens at a pace hardly permitting accurate exposure or focus. The information recorded in the emulsion is urgent; it is processed and put into the hands of an American TV network or News Agency which transforms the image in the film frames into electric signals, later beamed at an antenna on a satellite orbiting the earth. The satellite passes on the signals to a tracking station in the south of England and electrons are ‘piped' to a recorder which duly notes the facts on a magnetic tape.

That evening, the message is re-transmitted as part of a BBC news broadcast to be detected by a TV receiver; information is decoded and divided among three guns in its cathode ray tube. They spurt out streams of electrons which excite, to varying intensities, spots distributed evenly in triads over the surface of the tube. Red, blue and green dots blink as they are scanned.

Staring at the screen is a still camera. Still, until with a sudden snap it gulps the moving picture (if it was 8mm originally 16 frames per second scanned 25 times per second, a gulp equalled 2 frames scanned 3 times). What does the subject feel buried in a layer of gelatine in the darkness? ‘There is no way to detect a latent image in a photographic emulsion except the process of development.' Out of the chemicals into the light another, this time random, mesh of coloured particles tells the story. The same message is there - the tone of voice is new, a different dialect, another syntax; but truly spoken.

The two and a quarter inch transparency now confronts a process camera to be sliced and layered. One slice carries no magenta, one no cyan, one no yellow, another slice holds in reverse the tonal values of all colours. Different times of exposure through these separation negatives produce different positives which, when holding back varying amounts of light from an emulsion of a nylon screen, make some areas of mesh open and leave others closed. Fifteen such screens are used to print pale transparent tints on paper. Fifteen layers of pigment; a tragic chorus monotonously chanting an oft-repeated story. In one eye and out the other (Hamilton [1982], p.96).

According to Field Kent State (31) is a remarkable documentation of the effect of the overwhelming processing of imagery by mass-media. It is one of Hamilton's few flirtations with the idea of degradation, the loss of information suffered during the relentless encounters of the image with coding, transmitting, and storage systems. In conversation, the artist said about Kent State:

The clearest thing about it was that it was so degraded. You see I have a curious faith - a lot of prints that I've done, such as the beach scenes which are photographic, are enlarged to the point where you are not sure whether you are looking at the photographic emulsion or at structures which have been recorded. The television image of Kent State had already been translated through so many different projections and reassimilations by other devices, that it had been considerbly degraded. That's the term they use in photography, cinema and TV, and it's a marvelous thought. But I prefer to think of it as simply being changed since that avoids making a value judgment. You're changing it into something else, but every factor of the change is the result of a precise filter, so to speak. Each change is related in a very harmonious way to whatever has happened to it. In spite of the many transmogrifications, what's left always has a kind of validity. So every change that I have made, so long as my hand didn't come into it, and as long as I didn't tamper with it in a physical way, had its own authenticity, too.

Hamilton's changes preserved the grid of the color TV screen while expanding the image in terms of color progressions. The image became more diffuse, more painterly, and more interesting coloristically, but never lost its identity as a transmitted picture. Whatever Hamilton added (or subtracted) set up a slight tension between his own and the usual TV image. For example, the act of isolation converted a continuously altered image into an unchanging picture; yet it was printed on a sheet of paper whose unequal margins suggest the format of a television receiver. These pictorial and temporal changes isolate the viewer from the normal process of receiving TV information, and set into motion a series of reflections on how we receive and store images, especially those which are emotionally charged.

For this writer, Kent State is a moving witness to the cool, almost mechanical manner in which we keep up with the myriad events, large and small, of our world. Although the artist has denied being influenced by Marshall McLuhan, Kent State could be regarded as illustrating the latter's concepts of our involvement in an electronically tribalized world, one in which we have instant access to wide-spread happenings, but one in which these events are processed and standardized by media. Kent State records a ghastly moment in American history, but it also records the mundane way in which it was experienced by millions. By compressing the viewer's reactions so that he is simultaneously non-plused or even numbed, and enormously moved, the violence of Kent State acquires its full meaning as a modern national tragedy (Field 1973, pp.13-14).

Field describes the making and construction of the print as follows:

Hamilton made seven trips to Bavaria in order to execute Kent State which was printed from 13 screens (none of which contained a halftone dot structure); two of the 13 were printed twice. It should be recorded that dozens of film positives were shot, screens made up, and layers of ink printed, all to be rejected during the course of work. There follows a tabulation of the various transparent layers of which Kent State was fabricated.

  1. Plane of light blue from open screen
  2. 1st blue from ‘hard' (contrasty) screen
  3. 2nd blue from ‘soft' screen
  4. 1st red; hard
  5. 2nd red; soft
  6. 1st yellow; soft
  7. 2nd yellow; hard; the positive film from which the screen was made also supported ruby-lith cutouts which served to mask (i.e., lighten) the shadows at the upper and center left
  8. 1st violet; medium
  9. 1st black, printed lilac; medium contrast; the positive also supported bits of ruby-lith masking
  10. The 2nd blue printed blue-violet, purposely 4 mm. off-register
  11. The 1st blue printed light blue
  12. 2nd black, printed warm gray; ruby-lith masking used
  13. 3rd black, printed warm gray; a piece of the positive along the left edge cut out, and masked
  14. 4th black, printed warm gray, utilizing, for the most part, the piece cut out from #13
  15. Orange, from positive shot through ‘red' filter
    (ibid., p.48).

Kent State was one of three prints chosen by the Observer in 1970 to form a special offer to readers. The other two prints were by Elizabeth Frink and Joe Tilson. The Observer purchased part of the edition from the publisher and was not a co-publisher.

This entry has been approved by the artist.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.371-5

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