Review of Patrick Caulfield exhibition at Tate Britain

There are two pieces of information that every piece on Caulfield should include, and with that announcement comes the further one that this article will be no exception. One is that Caulfield hated being called a “Pop” artist, but whether we respect his wishes and refer to him instead as a “formal” artist or not is our choice. The second and more important piece of information is the statement that Caulfield is “a Romantic disarmed by his own irony”, a phrase coined by Christopher Finch that seems to have the last word on Caulfield despite the artist’s international underratedness.

Caulfield’s romance and irony seem symbiotic from the start, and grow in strength with each other. The majority of his work sees his gaze turned towards the croissant-and-orange-juice world of 60s, 70s and 80s pan-European glamour that was either becoming déclassé enough to be featured in magazines and holiday brochures, or was an ersatz “dream life” created by said magazines (built, according to Caulfield’s gaze, with the wheels already slightly coming off). This son of a factory worker knew from the outset that real money doesn’t talk about it. The irony disarming the romance is in Caulfield’s declarations of that romance – the gap between the expected tacitness of a glitz lifestyle and the announcing you have such a lifestyle, which means you don’t. The give-away is fascination.

This progression starts from the moment he left the RCA in 1963, and starts with an initially superficial re-stylisation of the work of Juan Gris. From early Gris we get a bold brassy palate, and affection for then-contemporary objects (cf. Gris’ Le Lavabo, 1912 – Art Deco painted Art Deco). From late Gris we get the technique of placing an object in a picture rather than including it, i.e. not trying to incorporate an object into a rationalised picture space, but parachuting it in so it is unrelated to the rest of the parachuted objects aside from compositionally; in sharing a picture with them. From Gris in general we get black outlines. This leads to a distinctly Caulfield aesthetic right from the start, with a more intellectual engagement with Cubism coming slightly later as in (e.g.) Stereophonic Record Player, 1968, where a life-size object is isolated, in non-pictorial space, drawing maximum attention to the object, made tangible by its solitude and closeness.

Caulfield’s change from Gris, however, is in acknowledging the social-cultural position of an object. Cubist paintings draw on whatever was lying around a bohemian studio – wine glasses, bottles, fruit, guitars. Caulfield, however, acknowledges the post-war switch from objects surrounding a life to a life defined by objects, and this social cunning leads to a certain breakthrough, represented in this exhibition by Café Interior: Afternoon (1973) and (not in the exhibition) in his work illustrating some poems of Jules Laforgue. Caulfield begins to experiment with viewpoint, which in Café Interior: Afternoon is dropped about 2 feet from the angle you would see this scene from if you walked into it in real life. The café is not just presented; it is presented with a certain spin, a sophisticated kind of pop-culture knowledge that asks difficult questions of a few chairs: what has/will/would go on there; who would sit, not just in a café, but this café, on those chairs. The attitudes of the people who would belong in this scene is entirely implied by their objects; this is not a presentation of wealth and glamour, it is a keen-eyed look at the subtleties of aspiration; an implication of a gap between expectation and fact that is the essence of true irony.

The last room, spanning the mid-80s onwards, sees a return to late Gris and the work of the mid-60s, but while Gris’ perspectival oddness comes from his use of different viewpoints (and essentially ignoring a need for rational space), the surprise in Caulfield’s late work is that the space actually does work. The problem is that there are not enough objects or tonal gradations to allow the eye its normal habit of experiencing gradual change in depth along a diagonal. So although in Hemingway Never Ate Here (1999) or Registry Office (1997) each corner or detail is in a logical place related to the other realist details, the sense of Cubist fragmentedness comes because of elision, throwing emphasis on the very Spanish things Hemingway never touched, or flowers, a lock, upholstery studs, and an opening in curtains. Caulfield’s focus on single objects is undiminished, again stripped of surroundings to focus on their unreal connotations. You shouldn’t necessarily believe what Caulfield’s objects try to imply, but Caulfield traps them mid-implication. It’s a kind of incredulity made solid.

Jack Castle

Patrick Caulfield, 5 June until 1 September, Tate Britain, Millbank, London, SW1P 4RG.


1. Patrick Caulfield, Portrait of Juan Gris, 1963. Pallant House Gallery, Chichester © The Estate of Patrick Caulfield
2. Patrick Caulfield, Bishops 2004. Private Collection. © The estate of Patrick Caulfield