Project – Reflected Light

Research Point – Patrick Caulfield
Patrick Caulfield was born in London in 1936 though he spent the war years in Bolton. Inspired by “Moulin Rouge”, a film about the life of Toulouse Lautrec, he attended evening classes at Harrow School of Art. He then studied at the Chelsea School of Art followed by the Royal Academy. He later returned to the Chelsea School of Art as a part time teacher.

His first exhibition left him branded as a pop artist possibly because the prime movers of the Pop Art movement, David Hockney, Ron Kitaj, Allen Jones and others were a year behind him at the Royal College of Arts. However Caulfield described himself as “not Pop but anti-Pop”  He labelled himself  “a formal artist”. He shunned contemporary art practise and culture and produced prints and paintings of still life, interior landscapes and figure painting.

He depicted everyday objects in blocks of single, and mostly plain, colour often interspersed with geometric shapes. His brushwork was hardly visible and he did not blend his colours preferring contrast and hard edges. His pictures were absent of detail and portrayed flat images and scenes without perspective.

There is little development in his lifetime’s work. His early prints and paintings are much the same as his later works.

However as he became more recognised and his work became more varied he adopted other media such as theatre sets and costumes, designed a stained glass window, a carpet, a tapestry, mosaics and various large paintings.

His influences  were said to be Fernand Leger, Juan Gris, the Fauves, Picasso and other Cubists. It is difficult to agree as these artists produced complex and mostly colourful paintings.

He was quoted as stating – “I like structured painting. I simply try to make a logical, a seemingly logical, space that could exist.”

He is called by some reviewers “a photo realist” but that gives him an undeserved credit. His paintings lack sufficient detail. Other reviewers indicate melancholia in his paintings but whilst his subjects are simple and plainly portrayed his colours are generally bright and pleasing shades of grey.

He was described as an introverted person resigned to sadness and despair though he enjoyed the company and friendship of others and he enjoyed restaurants and pubs coupled with a drink or two.

He was recognised by his peers as “a painters painter” but with only a limited national following by the public, earned from minor exhibitions, he won little international fame. However he was awarded a CBE in 1996.

He died of cancer in 2005 and as often happens it is only in recent years that he is being hailed as being one of the most inventive artists of the twentieth century.

Looking at the online reviews of his paintings I get the feeling that the reviewer is reading things into his paintings that the artist did not have in mind when he painted the picture, i.e. actions or emotions that simply aren’t there.

Insofar that working artists will paint what they are good at and what earns a crust Patrick Caulfield paints simple  pictures that sell.

In a comprehensive article for the Tate the reviewer amongst other dubious accolades acclaims an aspect of a Patrick Caulfield painting to have “brought new heights of stylish sophistication”. How can you make statement like that of such very simple paintings.

An examination of a chronological display of his paintings revealed paintings and prints from about 1962-1975 that were “simplistic” to the point of banality and few of his paintings during this period are worthy of the praise they attract. Some of the colour combinations are fine but the “simplification” for which he gains much praise strikes me as an inability to paint anything better. Whilst After Lunch might appear to be a transitional painting, strangely he reverts back to simple subjects and particularly grey or dark tones from about 1980 and continues in that style with some exceptions through to the end of his life.
If I were Patrick Caulfield I would be a little disappointed in myself if at the age of fifty one I was painting pictures such as Wall Plate Screen and Wall Plate Stones followed ten years later by Wall Plate HIghlight and Wall Plate Stucco. All virtually the same. In terms of artistic advancement, not much
Do these paintings exhibit talent, skill technique or composition. I think not.

Strangely he can do a reasonably good painting – The Hermit, Glazed Earthenware, Pottery, Portrait of a Frenchman and Les Demoiselles exhibit a little appealing skill.
Patrick Caulfield was appreciated for producing something different. Just because an artist does something different doesn’t make him good. He just does something different. To make him good he has to exhibit skill in that direction. Patrick Caulfield doesn’t.

Moving on – does Caulfield use negative space constructively? Is the space surrounding the subject more important to the picture than the subject itself? Alternatively, does a neutral or even a contrasting negative space draw the eye to the subject?

A close up inspection of his actual paintings might reveal he did leave white space in some of his paintings which is not obvious from the online reproductions. However in most of his paintings Patrick Caulfield uses neither of the usual negative space techniques. In most of his simplistic paintings he uses subjects which are everyday objects readily recognised by the brain and therefore the eye will naturally focus in on them. Consequently the negative space has no use or value other than fill.

It’s a bit of a giveaway that Caulfield does not use negative space technique insofar that many of the components in his paintings are outlined with black lines, a la Roy Lichenstein, indicating his approach was to define the shape of the components of the painting at the beginning.

Some might say he appears to use the process of negative space in paintings such as “Curtains Drawn Back”. But would you know what the purple represents if it were not for the surrounding black. You wouldn’t. You can only make sense of the painting when you have read the title.
By his use of blocks of contrasting and harmonious plain colours he does appear to use negative space technique but I do not consider that Patrick Caulfield uses positive or negative space any more than other artists might. Furthermore in all the reviews of his work I have read, some very comprehensive, the terms positive and negative space are never used.

Pictures reproduced from the Tate Gallery


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