When British artists of the 20th century attempted to be modernistic they often found themselves looking backwards, despite themselves. Many early British conceptual artists used the newfangled media of text and photography to represent landscape, that most traditional of artistic subjects. Postwar painters such as Peter Lanyon and Patrick Heron adulterated purist Greenbergian abstraction with old-fashioned illusionistic depth. Patrick Caulfield emerged in the 1960s as part of ‘the New Generation’, one of those collective culture industry terms – like ‘the Angry Young Men’ of that period’s literary scene – that arbitrarily group disparate talents into media generalizations.
The name ‘New Generation’ derived from a series of group exhibitions initiated in 1964 at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, featuring formalist painting and sculpture, British Pop art, as well as work by artists straddling those camps or existing at a tangent to them, such as Caulfield and Bridget Riley. Whereas Riley’s early paintings must have looked futuristic and chic in the ’60s, Caulfield combined the flat colour-fields of post-painterly abstraction with the graphic dynamism of Pop art without disguising his paintings’ painstaking, traditional techniques, or their age-old motifs: the interior, the still life, the landscape glimpsed through a window. This was at odds with the image of painting as disposable and dispensable presented in the guise of Warholian silkscreen, the dominant face of the very Pop language that Caulfield was shaping to his own ends.
It is fascinating, therefore, that the Caulfield exhibition at Between Bridges – the inaugural presentation at the new Berlin space of the Wolfgang Tillmans-run non-profit, and the first solo exhibition of Caulfield in Germany – consisted not of paintings but of colour silkscreen prints, of which Caulfield made relatively few. The quintessential Pop art medium drains his work of the high-art aura of achieved technique which his oil paintings assert in ironic counterpoint to their graphic brevity. More elusive, the silkscreens are less founded in a reactionary dialectic between contemporary anomie and traditional depth. Caulfield’s silkscreens cast him as a more empirical, less art-referential artist than he appeared in his mini-retrospective at Tate Britain last autumn, which naturally focused on his paintings.
The silkscreen print Found Objects (1968) constellates signs for throwaway everyday matter – a twig, a pebble, a shard of tile – along with less identifiable shapes, and offsets them against a field of undifferentiated violet. Each object is rendered as the sparest cipher, adumbrated, in Caulfield‘s standard manner, by a thin black line. It is as though he were testing the representational limits of his language and watching it founder on objects less given to being resolved into graphic signifiers. Silkscreen printing’s bias towards clear signification over pictorial ambiguity sharpens this test, making the associations to oil painting superfluous.
Loudspeaker (1968) might be taken for an early Riley Op art work, were it not for the pictured frame which situates the mesh of pixellated colour (a speaker cover) in illusionistic space. This is one of those Caulfields which asserts an allegiance both to modernist aesthetics’ formalism as well as – in its subject matter – to its attempts at contemporaneity. But the clash between formalism and illusionism registers as ironic. We are left with a postmodern pun on modernist pretensions. There is a similar slippage in She fled along the avenue (1973), a vignette of cast-iron railings, and one of a series of prints initially used to illustrate Symbolist texts by the French-language poet Jules Laforgue. The lower half could be an abstract stripe painting which gels into image with a horizontal strut of railings viewed diagonally, imposing perspective onto an otherwise flat design. But we register both readings simultaneously, one phasing into the other, and the effect is disorienting.
The concision of Caulfield‘s prints enables these ontological distinctions to come to the fore. In the more complicated structures of his large oil paintings, the art is relational, compositional, more a matter of how elements combine into a picture than of the nature of pictoriality. The prints are deconstructions of the paintings‘ functional system. They recast the relation between artist and viewer, positing the work of art as less a demonstration of spectacle than a question of how perceptual reflexes process and collude with such spectacle. That Caulfield cultivated a graphic, pop-cultural language that implicitly advocates instantaneous visual communication makes such a challenge all the more subversive.