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October 2013, No. 1327 – Vol 155

Patrick Caulfield. London

Exhibition Review

Patrick Caulfield. London

Wedged between two lamps, a corpulent and sweaty Orson Welles addresses Marlene Dietrich (the rather unlikely madam of a brothel) in Patrick Caulfield’s favourite film Touch of Evil. These lamps are not illuminating anything; the light source is low, frontal, throwing strong shadows, and the contrast between bright and dark areas of the set obscures parts of the scene. This is classic use of film noir ‘key lighting’ – a recognised lighting style wherein the key light (the frontal illumination) is much more intense than the fill light, creating artificially strong shadows. Key lighting was also used by Alfred Hitchcock, another Caulfield favourite, who employed wall or table lamps in many of his films, not as direct light sources but as dumb protagonists witnessing an interior drama. Caulfield’s love of film noir and his understanding of this use of contemporary chiaroscuro underpinned much of the sophisticated picture-making that was to inform and drive his later work.

Tate Britain’s small but concise exhibition of Patrick Caulfield’s paintings (closed 1st September) provided – for those who had not come across his work before – a fairly accurate biopsy of his practice and core concerns. It included no drawings or prints, although two other shows running concurrently in London – paintings and drawings at Waddington Custot and prints at Alan Cristea (both closed 13th July) – offered the interested viewer the full scope of Caulfield’s work. However, Caulfield’s core vision was conveyed most forcefully at Tate where the curator, Clarrie Wallis,1 was successful in procuring an intelligent selection of work while judiciously editing the less invigorating phases of his painting career.

The distinctive developments in Caulfield’s work were much more clearly outlined in this exhibition than in his two previous London retrospectives:2 the ‘emerging’ work of his student days and early career, the confident, rigorously structured work of the early 1970s, the period during which he renounced the use of black line as the main solution to painting, the mixed-language paintings of the 1980s and finally the late ‘shadow’ work seen in Tate Britain’s elegiac final room.

The exhibition opened with three paintings on hardboard. Concrete Villa, Brunn 1963 contains a tiny self-portrait, the only one in the show, depicting the artist as a seated figure on the roof of a modern house. This monochrome house is caught in a black grid that sits on a blurred grey mass so that the whole image is pinned like a butterfly on a board. The only other fully realised figure in the show is the Portrait of Juan Gris 1963. Reminiscent of the cover of the novel Emil and the Detectives, a cut-out figure is stuck down onto the surface of the painting – pinned in a similar way – giving it a sensibility closer to a graphic version of Vorticism than to the comic-book look of a Lichtenstein. 

This first room was the least successful, giving the impression of an over-concise series of jump cuts. A larger selection of work would perhaps have given more impetus to the show’s start, making a clearer argument to illuminate what follows. Bend in the road (1967) stands out here – a fiercely intelligent image which processes Cézanne’s Bend in the road (1905) down to a black outline and two colours. Caulfield’s control and understanding of colour combined with his skilful incorporation of the black were his greatest innovations in terms of the construction of a modern image.
Like its precursors, this exhibition stressed the Pop aspect of Caulfield’s work but it is a mistake to pigeonhole him as a Pop artist at all. What Caulfield did best was to reduce the painted image to its basic elements and although, like the Pop artists, he sometimes used found imagery as a source, his paintings were in fact often composed through the studied practice of looking and re-evaluating how a painting could be made – in effect a traditional, art-historical approach. Caulfield wanted contemporary coherence without his work becoming a conceptual, minimalist or ironic exercise.

For a British painter to take on the interior space as a subject – which had, since Bloomsbury and the claustrophobic Post-Impressionism of Walter Sickert, been dominated by Kitchen Sink miserabilism and the tonal constraint of the Euston Road School painters – was both perverse and stubborn in equal measure. So much of Caulfield’s work was a result of choices about what he did not want to do. He did not want the provincialism of Euston Road, but wished instead to embrace the new ‘design for living’, ‘Habitat’ look, proclaiming a new ‘surface’ utopia of sorts and shrugging off the shambolic greys of much of contemporary British art’s worthiness and minimalism. ‘I wanted to choose something that was alien to my actual daily circumstances, something that had a more decorative quality than art was supposed to have’.3

Dining recess (1972; Fig.82) is the most successful example of the pared-down, under­stated but hard-core black outline paintings that Caulfield employed throughout the early 1970s. It is spiked with the DNA of Edouard Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1881–82). A single, perfectly round light hovers from the ceiling as a focus point, illuminating abso­lutely nothing more than itself like a desul­tory moon in a Japanese woodcut. The majority of the painting is a flat irreproducible grey-into-aubergine colour set off with the flat twilight blue of a triangular window up above. Everything else in the painting is delineated in black outline. One black line running up the right-hand side of the painting has small indents all the way up – a witty and subtle indication of tongue-and-groove panelling. These small details, combined with the directness of the execution of all Caulfield’s paintings of this period, give Dining recess its singular identity.

In the fraught period of the early 1970s when painting as a medium was having to justify its existence against the shift away from object-based art, Caulfield carved out a literal space for painting in which to function, a space in the built environment. This was often represented by the transitory space between the domestic and the world of work – the corridor, the foyer, the entrance, the ante-room or even the curry house – and took into consideration the way that the space that people meet in had been painted in the past. For example, Tandoori restaurant (1971; Fig.83) has the structure of a Pieter Saenredam church interior: the atmosphere is transported to a woozy late afternoon in London. The perspective spirals away to the left where the viewer sees both ceiling and floor at the same time, giving a feeling of falling or staggering and then returning to the vertical. The perspective sways and cries out to be straightened. The violet orange that holds the centre of the image becomes nausea-inducing in the blinding strength of light.

In the second half of the exhibition we began to see examples of Caulfield’s tiring of the use of black outline alone as the solution to each painting, perhaps bored by the strictures the technique imposed. Forecourt (1975) seems relaxed in its acceptance of a mash-up of styles, trompe l’œil flowers proliferate with varying degrees of success, floating up and away from the picture plane and refusing to be pinned down by outline. This mashing up occasionally falters as in Still life Muroochydore (1980–81), a confused painting where the black line seems to be in crisis. Certain areas are tackled in a more painterly way; not quite Photorealist plates of food sit awkwardly in front of a tentative mixture of painting styles, the lettuce leaves and halved hard-boiled eggs crying out for an outline of sorts.

By the 1980s Caulfield had started to experiment further, using various painting techniques and textured areas, as in Interior with a picture (1985–86; Fig.84). Here the black outline has become the chubby line of Léger, seen on the balustrades and in other areas of the work, allowing delineation by cut out overlaid colour as shadow, while a Photorealist still life appears collaged onto the surface.

In the last part of the exhibition, the sense of ennui that features in so many earlier paintings engulfed the room. Bishops (2004; Fig.85), a predominantly purple painting, has at its centre a yellow lampshade hovering like a spectre behind the Photorealist brass handles of double doors. In the gap between the handles there is a slash of pure white light. In among the shadows, pools of artificial light take the eye around this peculiar ante-room but it is impossible to settle on a viewpoint. In the background, the outline of a violet lamp is silhouetted: it appears again in Braque curtain (2005), the last painting Caulfield worked on, this time in black: the sombreness of the single table lamp sucks air from the space as a resounding full stop

Caulfield described himself as a ‘romantic undermined by his own sense of irony’. I think the longevity of these images will be ensured by Caulfield’s creation of a deceptively simple process – his paintings are immediately accessible and draw the viewer in, while their very simplicity belies an underlying sophistication the comprehension of which is subject to a much slower burn. Like Hitchcock’s films, Caulfield’s work attracted great popular response at the time it was made. These paintings’ deeper significance has emerged gradually over the last two decades, as the subtext of Caulfield’s work, like the unconscious, has risen to the surface.