Dentistry As An Art: The Critic Laugh
The Critic Laugh 1971-2 is one of the highlights of Richard Hamilton’s collection. This photo of his piece below was taken from his artwork at the National Museum in Washington, DC during ASDA’s Mid-Atlantic Advocacy Academy. His actual products are limited and kept in museums all over the world such as the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in NYC. The Critic Laugh consists of the white barrel of an electric toothbrush derived from a Braun model on which a naturalistically colored plastic cast of an upper denture has been positioned in place of a brush head. It is one of ten multiples that Hamilton produced in the 1970’s, alongside his prolific printmaking activity and paintings.
The work originated from an assemblage that he made in 1968 after his son had given him a comically oversized set of teeth cast in sugar, which Hamilton promptly mounted onto the neck of his Braun electric toothbrush. This was then photographed for a print produced to raise funds for the documenta IV exhibition in Kassel and remained in his studio until March 1970 when publisher René Block invited Hamilton to propose an idea for a multiple. The Critic Laugh was his response, and although Block had concerns about the cost of producing a multiple for which sixty Braun toothbrushes would need to be bought, the production of the packaging (which was equally significant for Hamilton) posed even more problems. The box was eventually produced by a prototype workshop in Frankfurt, with original Braun fittings (outer covering, velvet, plastic, glue, clasp and polished steel hinges) provided by the company that manufactured cases for Braun.
The sugar teeth of the original assemblage were replaced by a dental plastic cast of the joke denture, the prototype for which was produced by Hans Sohm, a Stuttgart dentist and collector of Fluxus works (the original was degrading and crumbling and was too heavy for the toothbrush motor). Only twenty-two numbered copies from the edition and six artist’s proofs were fabricated before the manufacturers of the base of the toothbrush went out of business, leaving thirty-eight copies unmade. However, all sixty-six sets of teeth were signed by the artist on the back in 1972. Shortly before he died in 2011, an alternative manufacturer was found, all of the replacement bases were made, and the edition was completed in 2014. The Critic Laughs relates to Hamilton’s investigation into the language of design that had first occupied him when he was part of the Independent Group in the 1950s, and which led to paintings such as Hommage à Chrysler Corp. 1957 and $he 1958–61, which decode the styling and advertising languages of mid-century consumer culture. This led him to identify his activity as an artist as being akin to a ‘knowing consumer’, whereby ‘the artist in twentieth-century urban life is inevitably a consumer of mass culture and potentially a contributor to it’ (Richard Hamilton, Collected Words 1953–1982, London 1982, p.43). Hamilton particularly revered Braun product design – he once referred to Dieter Rams, Braun’s design director, by remarking that ‘his consumer products have come to occupy a place in my heart and consciousness that Mont Sainte-Victoire did in Cézanne’s’ (quoted in Tate Gallery 1970, p.164) – and adapted a text from Braun advertising brochures in his print Toaster 1967. However, with The Critic Laugh, his admiration for the design of Braun products is mixed with a sardonic cynicism directed not at Braun, the product styling, and advertising language it employs, but rather, as the title suggests, at the unseeing critic offering a worthless guarantee for art. This was also a subject for two Sculp-metal works by the American forerunner of pop art, Jasper Johns, which Hamilton was immediately reminded of when he made the assemblage in 1968, and which prompted its title. Johns’s The Critic Smiles 1959 (collection of the artist), in which a toothbrush reclines and its bristles replaced by molars, and The Critic Sees 1961 (private collection), in which a pair of glasses cover not eyes but open mouths, represent the critic as blind, only able to approach art through his mouth. However, these works also present the action of sight and speech (and by corollary, thought) as displacements of one another fighting to engage in meaning (see Jasper Johns: The Sculptures, exhibition catalogue, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds 1996, pp.66–70). For Johns, as for Hamilton, there is no set hierarchy of meaning, as this resides as much in the reception of the work by the viewer, critic, or for Hamilton, also the ‘user’ (or, rather, consumer) of his multiple, as it does in the critical structure and processes brought to bear on it.
In 1980, in a further twist, Hamilton found an opportunity to make a short film as a form of advertisement for The Critic Laugh that was included as a contribution to the BBC television series on art since 1880, The Shock of the New. Hamilton’s short film starred the actress Loraine Chase presenting the multiple as being ‘For connoisseurs who have everything … At last a work of art to match the style of modern loving … The critic laughs … A perfect marriage of form and function’ (see Hamilton 1982, p.74). The multiple, and the context that gave rise to it, exemplifies the ways in which, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Hamilton was addressing the Duchampian tradition of the readymade and a pop concern for mass culture and style through an attention to high design products emanating from a Bauhaus tradition, a choice that was the exact opposite of Duchamp’s process that avoided such judgement. This related group of works included the painting Toaster 1966–7 (private collection) and the print Toaster 1967–7, the portfolio Five tyres remoulded 1972, and a group of multiples playing on the congruence of Hamilton’s first name with that for Ricard pastis – Advertisement 1975, Carafe 1978 and Ashtray 1979 – ending in the 1980s with the sculptures Lux 50 – functioning prototype 1979 (private collection) and Diab DS-1 L01 Computer 1985–9.
- Hamilton, Richard. The Critic Laughs . 1968, National Museum of Arts, Washington DC.
- Tate. “'The Critic Laughs', Richard Hamilton, 1971-2.” Tate, Tate, www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hamilton-the-critic-laughs-t14260.
Blog Contributor: Tara Poostchi, NYU '22
Group Practice Liaison