He is often considered to be one of Britain’s leading Pop artists, a painter of everyday objects in the flat graphic style of illustration and advertising (at this point Caulfield’s own early training as a commercial draughtsman is referenced), who, like Warhol and Lichtenstein, skewered the new materialism of the 50s and 60s, the mass-produced experience of the modern world, by making it both the subject-matter and medium of fine art – that part of culture where we are meant to see what lies beyond the everyday and the commercial, to see ourselves more deeply.
Caulfield’s work, however, shares nothing of the straight-up presentation of Pop. His paintings of everyday objects are instead full of sophisticated ‘high art’ design. If anything, they have more to do with Cubism’s dissolution of pictorial space, Synthetic Cubism’s continuation of this into something cleaner and more abstract, to which Purism then adds an exquisite outline and flatness. Caulfield’s technique, too, may be based on the prosaic black line and filled-in colour of commercial illustration, yet his work is entirely concerned with playing perceptual games – of line, plane and volume, space, projection and recession. This is perfectly illustrated in Foyer, where Caulfield takes a Mondrian-like attitude to a limited palette and creates an image that is both totally flat and completely illusionistic. Light and dark, one of the foundations of traditional perspective exists purely as a change in colour.
Caulfield’s choice of subject is indeed very much Pop in spirit, which in turn has a heavy dose of Duchamp’s idea of the ‘found object’ (and Duchamp is an artist who Bowie cited as being profoundly inspirational for him). The cinema foyer, the restaurant interior, wine glasses on a bar – all of these are ‘found objects’ for Caulfield. But rather than bring them into the gallery, he leaves them where they are in the wider world. They become beautiful through being made simple and then being infused with colour.
Looking down through the first few rooms of Caulfield’s recent retrospective at Tate Britain – a show which included Foyer – the overwhelming sense to the viewer was of vast colour-field paintings, dominated by one colour but always with a counter-point without which that colour would be dull. It was only on moving through the exhibition that one began to see the black lines that describe the narrative within, the ‘subject-matter’ of each work. And it is this dominance of colour, its power in an abstract sense, that makes Caulfield un-Pop, more Ellsworth Kelly than Andy Warhol. Even though it is even and flat, it is flooded with light through careful juxtapositions of colour and tone and therefore becomes emotive in its own right.
Caulfield’s work is unashamedly contemporary and urban, occasionally even deliberately louche. Indeed, Foyer is a typical subject for him, tipping its hat to the cultural life of the metropolis, although the small patch of green inevitably leads our eye straight to a world of more earthly pleasures. The fabric-covered central column is attempting an air of luxury but is, even for 70s Britain, a bit drab (although Caulfield turns it, with its slightly wobbly line juxtaposed with the ramrod straight line of the wall, into a self-referential play about Modernist abstraction and the battle in the 60s between the hard-edge and the soft). And yet, in contrast, Caulfield’s work is also Neoclassical in its purity and stillness. He brings to 70s London a rigour, a line, that has more in common with those Renaissance panoramas of ideal, Platonic cities. The everyday is made less ordinary once you strip it down. It even takes on a certain grandeur.
The fact, then, that Patrick Caulfield is difficult to pin down – a Pop artist with Cubist sympathies, an abstract painter of everyday objects – is perhaps one of the reasons why he is not as well-known internationally as his American or European peers, although he richly deserves to be held in equally high regard. Very few painters in the 1960s and 70s could claim to be making work with such sophistication and wit, with such an old-fashioned understanding of space and line combined with a contemporary sense of colour, simultaneously sumptuous and minimal.
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