Cemeteries are magnets for euphemism. Take a walk through Highgate Cemetery in London and, as you pass the dozing angels and Egyptian tombs, you’ll read inscriptions that speak of the denizens as ‘simply sleeping’, ‘awakening to eternal life’ or being ‘called home’. That is until you reach a grave above which sits a matte grey slab and a stepped headstone with cut-out letters spelling, simply, ‘DEAD’. There’s no beating about the darkness here, no mollifying the void. Next to the impassioned monuments that surround it, it’s a stark and hilarious one-liner.
It is perhaps not surprising that the grave belongs to the artist Patrick Caulfield for, in his art, he consistently called a spade a spade; or, rather, a chair a chair, a glass a glass, a light a light. His spartan sensibility was not only distinctively modern but carried within it a wry humour that, despite his protestations, forever linked him to the practitioners of pop art.
But Caulfield’s paintings always had a melancholic air of absence that was as distinctive as it was unusual. In works such as After Lunch (1975) or Foyer (1973) his elegant, empty interiors, outlined in black and populated by little more than shadows, had a vacancy to them that was reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s anemically lit households, or the deserted landscapes of Giorgio de Chirico. Even the swathes of colour that defined much of Caulfield’s work generated as little warmth as a knowing, sardonic smile. No one has ever painted stiller still lifes.
When asked, in his latter years, what his epitaph would be, Caulfield had answered: ‘Dead, of course.’ It was presumed to be a bit of drollery but Caulfield had been dead serious, literally, and had been surreptitiously designing the gravestone to be constructed after he passed away. He died in 2005, and the gravestone can be seen as the artist’s last and most characteristic work; an austere, bone-dry joke about the artistic preoccupations of his life. After all, there are no interiors as empty as the grave.