From the time that he made his first screenprint through to his ninetieth and final print, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon vues de Derrière, in 1999, Caulfield painted full-scale designs on card or board as templates for the cutting of stencils by the master printer Chris Prater and others. Café, the maquette for Café Sign published in the same year, is one such work and a fine example of the artist’s ability to control precisely the eventual appearance of the print by leaving nothing to chance. Like other such studies, it is a complete picture in itself, notwithstanding the fact that in this preliminary state the wooden boards are left white rather than coated in the third of the three primaries, as in the final print. The uniform black outlines that Caulfield had been using consistently in his paintings since 1963 as a way of demarcating the edges of objects and of clearly separating figure from ground, with each area painted as an expanse of flat, unmodulated colour, proved perfectly suited to the printing process: thinking in terms of coloured shapes, he found that the black contours concealed the joins so that one hue could meet another in perfect alignment. Having to think in these terms when painting his studies for screenprints helped shape his mature aesthetic, thus having a profound effect on the development of his painting style from the late 1960s.
Caulfield liked his pictures to have a logic in their scale, and to this end in the late 1960s began painting domestic and public interiors on his largest canvases, so that they appeared to be ‘room-sized’, and favoured still-life subjects for works of more modest dimensions including his prints. This is explicitly the case with the café sign pictured here. Like the bathroom mirror and loudspeaker that he made the subject of works in the same series, the rectangular sign is set at a slight angle to the vividly coloured surface against which it rests, so that one understands it to be a three-dimensional (if rigidly flat) object held aloft. Having spent half a decade allying his determinedly flat style of paint application with that of jobbing sign painters, here he at last paints an image of an actual (but invented) sign, as a self-deprecating and gently humorous acknowledgment of his subtle and poetic embrace of banality. To paraphrase one of his favourite artists, René Magritte, ‘this is not a café sign’, though it might easily be confused with one. He leaves it to us to decide what kind of café might require such an announcement board: a francophile establishment at which diners sit on the pavement sipping their coffees, as suggested by the acute accent on the final e, or a much more down-to-earth, and wholly British, workman’s cafe at which cooked breakfasts would be served, as suggested by the rough-and-ready construction of the boards on which the lettering has been placed? As so often, Caulfield leaves the answer – in this case, literally – suspended ambiguously in the air.
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