(Howard Hodgkin, ‘Remembering Patrick Caulfield’, The Art Newspaper, no. 163, November 2005, p.37).
Red, White and Black Still life is a perfect example of Patrick Caulfield’s ‘very modern, up-to-date and cool’ images - full of sophistication and wit; easy to read, yet complex in its rendering of space, flatness and depth, solidity and transparency. Painted in 1966, it was first shown at the gallery of legendary Sixties dealer Robert Fraser in 1967, alongside such iconic Caulfield works as Battlements (1967, Tate, London) and Stained Glass Window (1967, Musée National d’Histoire et d’Art, Luxembourg). Afterwards, Caulfield took it home, where it remained, in the collection of his first wife Pauline (see fig.2). He re-worked the painting in 1984, transforming what had originally been a red and a black bottle into a single red bottle with a black shadow, most likely a result of his specific interest in the 80s in representing directional light and shadows cast by artificial light sources. He also added extra dots into the grids and a black thumb-print like dot to the lower right corner, which creates a tension with the white that dominates the painting, pulling the eye into an optical game. Red, White and Black Still Life was a painting that clearly continued to fascinate Caulfield long after he conceived it, a painting he looked at every day, as he sat at the table beneath it to eat, talk and share a bottle of wine.
Caulfield is often considered to be a Pop artist, a painter of ‘everyday’ objects in the flat graphic style of illustration and advertising (at this point Caulfield’s early training as a commercial draughtsman is often referenced). Yet, when examined closely, his work equally has many points of difference from the straight-up presentation of Pop, in which image, composition and technique are lifted straight from the world around us and into the ‘high culture’ realm of art. Caulfield is not that interested in branded-goods or logos: his ‘everyday objects’ in fact reference more a more timeless material culture - vessels, books, the stuff of traditional still life), as well as architecture, ancient and modern. And his paintings have nothing of the deliberate simplicity of Pop’s re-presentation of advertisements and comic strips: they are brimming instead with sophisticated ‘high art’ ideas - 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.
If one is looking to place Caulfield’s ‘indescribable’ work into a wider context of 1960s art, if anything it would be better to compare them to American minimalism and the likes of Ellsworth Kelly. Walking through the first few rooms of his retrospective at Tate Britain in 2013, the overwhelming sense was of vast colour-field paintings, dominated by one colour but always with a counter-point (either a second colour or a line) without which that colour would be dull. It was only on moving through the exhibition and looking up close, that one began to see the narrative within, the ‘subject-matter’ of each work. The sophistication of this play, between ‘field’ and image, is what makes Caulfield one of the century’s most interesting and remarkable artists. Here in Red, White and Black Still Life, the dominant white field initially has a entirely abstract quality, a pure field of colour, yet (aided by that little dot of black in the corner?) this gives way to a different sensation, that of space and - crucially - light.
For all his ‘coolness’, Caulfield’s work is unashamedly metropolitan and engaged with contemporary life. He shares with the Cubists a love of café culture and their urban still-life painting devoid of all the religious and existential angst of the Dutch and Spanish Masters. In Red, White and Black Still Life, the bottle represents conviviality and conversation. It has become, as Marco Livingstone has noted, a protagonist in the scene, ‘a powerful presence not only because of its unexpected beauty but also because we identify with its purpose in our lives’ (Marco Livingstone, ‘Patrick Caulfield’ in Patrick Caulfield, Paintings 1963-81, exh. cat. Tate, London, 1981, p.14). As Hodgkin once said of his work, 'He was such a connoisseur of spaces where people gather for pleasure, such as restaurants and bars, and he managed to convey in his paintings the melancholy that can haunt such spaces – born of emptiness and artifice’ (Howard Hodgkin quoted in Clarrie Wallis, ibid, p.29). In Red, White and Black Still Life, the bar has been reduced to a single bottle, a single glass, the abstracted grids either side hinting at an architecture of sorts, but the same feelings that Hodgkin identifies remain. In this almost minimalist arrangement, the viewer can infuse the painting with memories and emotions, whilst the artists himself remains hidden, out of view, masked by what he described as his ‘impersonal… anonymous surface’(Patrick Caulfield quoted in Clarrie Wallis, Patrick Caulfield, Tate Publishing, London, 2013, p.24). There is a generosity, then, in Caulfield’s work - this is what his great friend Howard Hodgkin so intuitively recognises. He gives us images of great wit and sophistication, of pure sensuous delight, and yet the meaning of it, the content, is left entirely to us to fill in.
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