LONDON – Patrick Caulfield is often considered to be a Pop artist and in many ways his signature style of flat colours combined with the hard black outline of commercial art or cartoons, along with his interest in material objects, can be seen as classic Pop sensibility. His work, however, has always seemed to me to be as different to Pop as it is similar, too subtle and complex for Pop's straight-up delivery, his subjects less appropriated from the everyday, but more given a grandeur beyond the ordinary – Duchamp’s bottle rack more than Warhol’s soup can. Paintings such as Window at Night, which is featured in the Modern and Post-war British Art sale in London this June, is about shifting perceptions, the play between the flatness of his surface and the convincing perspective of his lines; recession and progression, outside-inside space, light and dark evoked by colour and shape rather than shadow. Less Pop, it is more a cool Sixties take on Cubism – perhaps the most difficult legacy in all of 20th century art.
Roy Lichtenstein appropriated Cubism’s surface, but more as an in-joke, in the same way he renders Abstract Expressionism’s primacy of gesture as a stencilled, Ben-Day dotted brushstroke: Caulfield, on the other hand, inhabits Cubism’s urban sensibility, that Surreal slippage between art and life, artifice and reality.
Walking around the first few rooms of his retrospective at Tate Britain last year – which featured Window at Night – I was impressed by something that I hadn’t thought of before regarding Caulfield: the sheer evocative effect of their colour.
It felt like a show of American hard-edge abstraction – Ellsworth Kelly in particular – block after block of dominant colour, articulated by small counterpoints, each tone and hue pitch-perfect and in balance. It is this sense of colour that his black outlines – the ‘subject matter’ of the work – then overlays itself, but the one can never be separated from the other. Colour is everything.
It is the sophistication of this play – between vast, flat colour-fields and intricate games of linear perspective – that makes Caulfield’s work so intriguing and keeps his work feeling fresh. All of what is fascinating about his work can be seen here in Window at Night, the shift of the orange rectangle against the black a subtle minimalist statement, overlaid with an intensely urban and humanist idea: a life glimpsed through Hitchcock’s Rear Window, with all the loneliness of Edward Hopper’s subjects staring back out.