Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions Master of Pictorial Logic

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions Master of Pictorial Logic

Article excerpt

Patrick Caulfield; Gary Hume Tate Britain, until 1 September Patrick Caulfield Waddington Custot Galleries, 11 Cork Street, W1, until 29 June In the wake of the Roy Lichtenstein blockbuster at Tate Modern comes Patrick Caulfield at Tate Britain, and what a contrast! Where Lichtenstein looks increasingly like a one-trick pony, an assessment driven home by the excessively large show, Caulfield emerges as fresh, witty and visually inventive. Undoubtedly this impression is fostered by the size of the exhibition:

Tate Britain's Linbury Galleries have been divided between Caulfield and Gary Hume, allowing each enough space for a highly focused solo exhibition. There are thus only 35 paintings by Caulfield spanning his entire career, and one leaves his show wanting to see more, not suffering from the usual museum overkill. This is an excellently selected and installed exhibition: a much-deserved tribute to one of the neglected greats of 20th-century art.

A victim of the art historian's lust to categorise and pigeonhole, Patrick Caulfield (1936-2005) is all too frequently lumped with the Pop artists who came to prominence in the mid-1960s. Caulfield always preferred the designation of 'formal artist', and looking at his highly intelligent interpretations of landscape, interior and still-life, this description makes absolute sense. He was a master of pictorial logic and paradox, a painter of contemporary life, drawn to the kitsch and everyday, which he formalised and contained in images of classic restraint and romantic lushness. As the critic Christopher Finch observed, Caulfield was a 'romantic disarmed by his own sense of irony'.

Unlike the Pop artists, he was little interested in American art (with the exception of Edward Hopper and Stuart Davis), and his lodestar was French modernism. He looked to the decorative brilliance of Matisse and Dufy, and the stylisation of Leger, Braque and Gris. To begin with, he deliberately espoused the exotic and decorative, rather than the traditional landscape and nude of English art, avoiding the brushstroke in his paintings, using a sign-painter's technique to achieve those distinctively flat glossy surfaces. He liked painting stereotypes and generic imagery, focusing on imaginary but plausible places of particular types. He painted moments of frozen possibility: interiors where something might be about to happen. Howard Hodgkin has remarked that Caulfield was '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'.

The Tate's show starts with 'Concrete Villa', a black-and-white painting from 1963, before moving swiftly on to the richness of 'Santa Margherita Ligure', hung next to the popular Tate-owned 'Pottery'. This bright assemblage of pots, like a fusty archaeological trove gone psychedelic, is actually quite subversive, playing with space and perspective by flattening half the pots into outline and depicting the nearer ones as if seen almost in the round from above. And the uniformity of handling is curiously broken by the scrubby paint on a couple of purple pots and on the blue-green-grey ones. But perhaps the most exciting painting here is 'Bend in the Road' (1967), a less familiar beauty of marked impact and resonance.

The impressive first section gives way to a more architectural group of paintings from the 1970s, including the sumptuously abstract 'Window at Night' and the very big and intricate 'Entrance', its complex structure badged all over with meticulously naturalistic flowers. …

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