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?
Richard Hamilton pictured last year. Photograph: Richard Saker
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.