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Patrick Caulfield, 'Portrait of Juan Gris'

by Clarrie Wallis, Curator Modern and Contemporary Art, Tate Britain

Patrick Caulfield (1936 – 2005) is best known for his iconic and vibrant paintings of modern life that reinvigorated traditional artistic genres such as the still life. His work came to prominence in the mid-1960s after studying at the Royal College of Art where fellow students included David Hockney. Through his participation in Young Contemporaries in 1961 and 1962 and the defining The New Generation exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1964, Caulfield became associated with Pop Art. Caulfield himself resisted this label, preferring to see himself as a ‘formal artist’ and an inheritor of European painting traditions from modern masters such as Georges Braque, Juan Gris and Fernand Léger, who influenced his composition and choice of subject matter.

Early on in his career Caulfield’s admiration for Gris’s work led to him painting ‘Portrait of Juan Gris’ (1963), one of the very few images of a figure he made. For the rest of his life he confined himself only to picturing the suggestion of human presence. This was a conscious decision, born of the view that “Picasso had pulled the plug on interpreting the human form”. Preparatory drawings reveal that the work began as a portrait of Cézanne, an artist Caulfield also respected.  However during the course of his sketches he changed the figure to that of the Spanish artist.

In the painting Gris is shown half profile (the head is derived from a photograph taken by Man Ray in 1922, reproduced as the frontispiece to James Thrall Soby’s monograph, Gris) wearing a blue suit against a yellow background. Caulfield’s hero is surrounded by geometric forms that allude to Gris’s complex spatial compositions. He purposely chose the painting to be as bright as possible because he thought of his work as being optimistic and a contrast to the ‘grey’ of the artist’s surname.

Caulfield liked the fact that so much of Gris’s imagery was associated with bars and cafés and was impressed by how Gris could be so inventive despite using such a small group of motifs. He also admired Gris’s ability to paint partly from life and to collage objects together in his mind to create a sense of unity. This compositional dovetailing of objects may have subsequently had an impact on Caulfield’s approach to his mature work where tromp l’oeil and photo-realism co-existed happily alongside simple graphic outlines, emboldened planes of flat colour and perspectival complexity that allowed for more sculptural interpretations of the depicted scene. Both artists had the ability to reconstruct the world anew in their imaginations, creating new formal structures that rendered the most mundane objects and scenes memorable.