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The Art of Patrick Caulfield
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Our Director Simon Martin introduces the hidden depths of the iconic artist, Patrick Caulfield.
Patrick Caulfield’s instantly recognisable paintings and prints can seem deceptively simple, with their bold colours and banal everyday objects delineated in solid outlines. He had a remarkable ability to create artworks that appeared as if they had arrived fully formed, with their crisp lines, flat paint surfaces, and stylised imagery.
The truth, of course, is never quite so straightforward. Behind the visual economy of Caulfield’s paintings and prints are complex ideas, drawings and studies. Our 2009 exhibition Patrick Caulfield: Between the Lines presented these drawings alongside his witty and iconic paintings to provide a fascinating insight into the artist’s working methods and the development of his ideas.
Born in London, Caulfield (1936–2005) studied under Jack Smith at the Chelsea School of Art (1956–60) and at the Royal College of Art in the year after David Hockney and R.B. Kitaj. He came to prominence in 1964 when he was included in the now-legendary ‘New Generation’ exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery. This exhibition was seen to mark the arrival of British Pop Art, featuring as it did artists such as Derek Boshier, Hockney, Allen Jones, Peter Phillips and Bridget Riley.
Although part of the 1960s Pop Art generation by default, Caulfield preferred, if anything, to see himself s a ‘formal artist’ and while his use of commercial gloss house-paint in his early works could be seen as akin to Pop Art techniques, that is where the similarity ends.
Avoiding blatantly contemporary imagery, Caulfield was interested in what he called ‘the shock of the familiar’ and in reinvigorating traditional genres from art history such as landscape, still-life and the domestic interior. Such concerns are revealed in three of the four paintings that Caulfield exhibited in the ‘New Generation’ show which were reunited in our 2009 exhibition: ‘Landscape with Birds‘ (1963), ‘Still Life with Necklace‘ (1964) and ‘Portrait of Juan Gris‘ (1963).
The preparatory drawings for the Portrait of Juan Gris reveal that the work began as a portrait of Paul Cézanne but metamorphosed into the Spanish Cubist artist, whom Caulfield especially admired. He based the head on a photograph of Gris taken by Man Ray in 1922 which he had seen in a MOMA catalogue, and painted him with bright yellow and blue housepaint to present an optimistic image rather than the ‘grey’ of the artist’s surname.
It is a rare instance of a portrait in Caulfield’s work for usually his interiors are empty of people, although the human presence is never far away. Pared-down to the essentials of the scene, they are like stage-sets with the minimum of props in order to provide the atmosphere that the viewer needs to mentally enter the drama. Perhaps for this reason he was commissioned to design the set and costumes for Party Game, a ballet by Michael Corder performed at the Royal Opera House in 1984 and in 1995 the set and costumes for the Royal Ballet’s new production of Frederick Ashton’s Rhapsody.
From the early 1970s Caulfield painted almost exclusively in acrylic paint on canvas. He would plan his detailed paintings of interiors featuring black lines on flat coloured backgrounds carefully in advance using precise squared-up drawings, sometimes even transferring the entire composition from a fullscale felt-tip pen drawing on polythene.
Caulfield’s later paintings dispensed with the bold outlines altogether. He wrote of how, “A simple description of the way I’ve worked is to say that having painted and drawn in a linear way, without shadow, I gradually abandoned the linear structure and began to rely much more on light and shade which is perhaps a more sculptural interpretation of my visual world”.
My attitude is in my mind, it’s not to do with the materials.
The atmosphere of late paintings such as Reserved Table (2000) and Terrace (2002) is in part due to the sense of depth created through his depiction of deep, raking shadows, and the unsettling interplay between artifice and reality: photo-realist details within otherwise almost abstract compositions.
Reserved Table was a witty response to a seventeenth-century Dutch still-life by Willem Kalf in the National Gallery, entitled Still Life with the Drinking-Horn of the Saint Sebastian Archers‘ Guild, Lobster and Glasses (c.1653). Singled out from its traditional setting, the beautifully rendered lobster may no longer represent a luxurious commodity but it appears no less exotic in Caulfield’s intentionally bland restaurant. Caulfield provides just enough visual information to create a palpable sense of atmosphere, leaving the viewer’s mind to fill in the detail: a kind of psychological drama in paint.
Printmaking was in no way a secondary pursuit and Caulfield’s prints are remarkably complementary to his paintings. He created Ruins (1964), the first of his many screenprints, at the Kelpra Studio in London.
Caulfield worked closely with the printer Chris Prater, producing a full-colour study on board from which Prater would cut stencils for the screens. The exhibition included one such study, Coloured Still Life (1967), together with the studies for Lamp and Pines (1975) and Terracotta Vase (1975) which feature pencil annotations between the distinctive bold outlines.
The silkscreen process, like the housepaint Caulfield had used for his early paintings, was derived from commercial processes rather than traditional fine art techniques. It enabled great precision and suited his simplified compositions with their clean lines and areas of pure colours.
His approach to image making and his bold and succinct visual style lent itself well to all kinds of multimedia projects: mosaics, murals, stained glass windows and tapestries. Indeed, he once spoke of how “My attitude is in my mind, it’s not to do with the materials”.
This is an edited extract from Pallant House Gallery magazine, issue 17, Reading Between the Lines: The Art of Patrick Caulfield, published in March 2009.