“The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges.” The line dates from 1917: it concluded Marcel Duchamp’s riposte to the New York exhibition committee that had turned down Fountain, his submission of a signed urinal. The objection that his alter ego “Mr. Mutt” had plagiarized the work of sanitary engineers was “absurd,” Duchamp protested in a little review he edited. Introducing his new art of the “readymade,” he claimed that it lay in choosing “an ordinary article of life” and creating “a new thought for that object”; and in later glosses, added that he had opted for an object as “ordinary” as possible, the better to effect that mental transformation.
Yet his statement’s closing quip makes it clear that his choice of item was carefully attuned to its moment. The exhibition in question would be New York’s biggest international art display since 1913’s famous Armory Show: there would be great expectations of Duchamp, as the painter of that show’s runaway success, Nude Descending a Staircase. How could he most wittily escape the inanity of any such public role? Through a taunting, backhanded salute to his host nation’s “only” art—its sublimely nonaesthetic engineering.
The streamlined, the sleek and sinuous: these, for several generations of Europeans, formed a look associated with America, the history-free land. The instincts guiding Duchamp when he purchased his shiny new plumbing ancestrally relate to those of the French state saluting its fellow republic when it shipped Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s clean-planed, blandly imperturbable Statue of Liberty across the Atlantic in 1885. The most poetic expression of those instincts, however, would come some seven decades later from a peculiarly obsessive disciple of Duchamp’s. During the late 1950s the British artist Richard Hamilton devised a succession of four-foot-high panels with half-playful, half-programmatic titles such as Hommage à Chrysler Corp. and $he.
This body of work brought together eros and Eisenhower-era modern design in a rapturous, spooky dream. In Hommage, a D-cupped showroom-window divinity caresses chrome bodywork; in $he, a similarly curvaceous presence revels in the embrace of an opened refrigerator. Hamilton conjured up these archetypes of advertising with vanishingly fine contours on the cream of his panels, adding a finicky modeling of hot pink and metal-gray washes. Also, with a shorthand use of collage: where the face of the sales goddess might appear in each, there is pasted here merely a pair of luscious lips, there a holographic winking eye.
These works of Hamilton’s, so fastidiously constructed and so devoutly attentive to the psychology of Madison Avenue, convey an almost adolescent fascination with American culture at its zenith of self-assurance. “Perfect weather for a streamlined world…. What a glorious time to be free” sang Donald Fagen in a 1980s hit wryly recalling the early days of the space age, and Hamilton’s set of panels—which include a 1962 collage of Kennedy gazing skyward from within an astronaut’s helmet—witness that now …