New York

Patrick Caulfield

O.K. Harris Works of Art

I refer to the following quote from Christopher Finch’s book about English Pop art Image as Language (London, 1969), to get at the critical ambiance which has typically surrounded Patrick Caulfrield’s art:

Of the painters discussed in this book, Patrick Caulfield is the most specifically European. He has learned from the Americans but remains firmly within the European tradition. It is true—though not the whole truth—to say that the subject of his paintings is the European tradition. For him the greatest benefit of contact with the new American painting has been that it has given him a more objective view of European art.

Now I regard this as a revealing statement. Caulfield is the same age as, for example, Frank Stella. I think it’s reasonable to say that the European tradition—as if there were but one—is also the subject of Stella’s paintings. The distinction, then, is between the concern for a European past possible in an American artist’s work, and that concern as it occurs in art made by a European who hasn’t been transplanted at some point in his family’s history. One wonders what kind of objectivity the latter sort of artist would gain from America. It would be an objectivity, perhaps, derived from the fact that America is now the center of power that Europe once was. This provides a reflexivity between America’s present and Europe’s past which, in more than one sense, leaves the contemporary European disinherited. However, the objectivity of the powerful is surely of a very special kind, no less particular than the point of view of the powerless. Objects which amount to cultural self-criticisms—depictions—of either would seem to be equally possible. I suggest that the “objectivity” that Caul-field’s supposed to have learned from the Americans confirms the sense in which the powerless are committed to the terminology of the powerful. Which is to say, European artists are obliged to see themselves as provincial if they are to see themselves at all. Art clusters around centers of power, and is always imperialist in that it makes the vernacular of one region serve as a universal code. Caulfield’s use of a hard, overall, drawn line to structure the work has always seemed responsive to American art. And it has always eschewed the sometimes gruff authoritativeness of its American sources or counterparts, in favor of something else. What that something else might be isn’t entirely clear to me (perhaps because I’m English), but it certainly has to do with a kind of prevarication which is, in my opinion, generally symptomatic of the English fascination with things American. Compare the painted interpretation of Delacroix’ Venus Expiring in the Ruins of Missolonghi that Caulfield made in about 1967 with one of Lichtenstein’s Légers. English Pop art has, I think, always resembled the sales catalogue rather than the strip cartoon. Part of the story, at least, is about being a client rather than an actor.

Caulfield—who started to exhibit in 1961—has stood out as an artist able to turn this generically defining air of ambivalent provincialism into his greatest strength. I should not say, as Finch does, that “we [are] able to recognize in Caulfield a notable representative of a familiar European tradition—the romantic disarmed by his own irony.” I should prefer to say an ironist trapped by his own romanticism. More recently, Caulfield appears to have moved from images possessed of a certain independence or anonymity—View Inside the Cave, 1966, Portrait of a Frenchman, 1971—to studies of spaces that are more specifically extensions of his own life, like, In My Room, 1974. It seems, too, as if Caulfield’s paintings have gotten larger as he’s narrowed his subject matter to himself. This fits the romanticism tag and certainly seems to contain an irony. In My Room is a nearly square painting, slightly higher than it is wide. This proportion is repeated within the work, which is arranged on horizontal and vertical axes whose mutual disposition is likewise slightly asymmetrical, so that the painting’s design allows for and corresponds to the slight obliqueness of the point of view. The horizontal and vertical axes meet, coyly, at the left of the stovepipe. The painting is about nine feet high, and might therefore be hung with this convergence located at the viewer’s eye level, making the perspective of the painting coterminous with that of the spectator. It’s painted in one color, anunmistakably acrylic salmon. The angle of the chairs, which closes off the composition in front of the stove, reflects that of the wall behind. There are two chairs at the left as opposed to one on the right, to balance the stove and to connect the foreground with the vertical area of tone at the left. Outside the window, a similarly dark silhouette of a building with a lit window gives us a bit of deep space.

Irony, imprisoned, might well turn into disingenuousness. Backs turned to the world, the recliners are after all pulled up close to an unlit fire. Caulfield, to return to the sales catalogue, defines his romanticism by persisting in the claim that we learn something by turning art into a prism through which to consider the implications of our own affluence. What connects the pitchfork at the middle of the painting with the angle-poise lamp at the back is an uncontrollable pathos, the pathos of the educated consumer.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe