Pop Art’s influence on art happening now is epic. It is the aesthetic that seems to most suit the digital age, with our predilection for simple, bold graphics and bright, high impact colours, artists and designers all over are mining the archives for new visual references from an era that changed art forever.
Patrick Caulfield, Foyer, 1973; Collection David Bowie © The estate of Patrick Caulfield. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2013.
But Patrick Caulfield wasn’t really happy about Pop Art. In his career as a painter and printmaker (from academic credentials from the Chelsea and the Royal College of Art to a CBE and Turner Prize nomination), he tried to distance himself from the associations with the hip movement.
Perhaps he felt himself more serious than his hipster peers. He was certainly traditional in his approach, using those most recognizable bold black lines, playing with composition and space to challenge representations of the world around him. But there is a wistful tension between the pop-ish colour palettes, often in a max-impact single hue, that are the great seductive appeal of this show, visually speaking, and the loneliness contained in the canvases; none expresses this tension more clearly, perhaps, than Still Life With Dagger (1963) – an emo's take on still life.
The only human figure in the show appears in Portrait of Juan Gris (1963) – which Tate for no apparent clarity chose as one of the main press images for the show – but aside from this: scene after scene of life without life on a two-dimensional plane. Caulfield irons out objects and flattens interiors.
People are conspicuous by their absence, and in respect to the titles Caulfield chooses – Still Life: Mother’s Day (1975) – his bright colours become sardonic. These vacated scenes imply a kind of unforgiving coldness and sterility in objects that can never replace human contact – despite their trendy and vibrant colours, which speak in the language of advertising (Caulfield in fact started out his career at agency Crosse & Blackwell).
Patrick Caulfield, Café Interior: Afternoon, 1973; Private collection © The Estate of Patrick Caulfield. All rights reserved, DACS 2013.
From early studies and investigations of still life painting, reinvented, such as Vase on Display (1971) and Coloured Still Life (1967) – compositionally gorgeous and memorable in their simplicity – the exhibition moves to Caulfield’s later dabbling with photorealism, as he began to drop his thick black lines. There’s nothing surprising in the way the show is neatly arranged, really, but Caulfield is a charm, not only for the way he portrays the ubiquitous surfaces and scenes of our lives, but for the way he himself was such a fan of art and applied the techniques of his heros in new ways.
The big thing missing are Caulfield’s silk screens, not included in this survey of his work, a real shame given he was particularly successful with that medium, and it would be especially relevant given the excitement about printmaking in London’s local art scene right now.
[Image on top: Patrick Caulfield, After Lunch, 1975; Tate © The estate of Patrick Caulfield / Photo: Tate Photography]