Art review: Patrick Caulfield, Tate Britain, London

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For no good reason, Tate Britain has decided to show a retrospective of Patrick Caulfield alongside a general review of the work of Gary Hume. It’s a comparison that does neither  artist much favour.

Caulfield, who died in 2005, was part of the “New Generation” of artists who came to the fore in the Sixties and was a quite different artist than the YBAs such as Hume who followed him. True, he used gloss paint and he went for big and bold imagery in his pictures. But, though his interiors were contemporary in feel, his artistic concerns were always traditional. What he wanted, and achieved, was to use space and plotted line to  express the urban world around him.

Go into a room of Caulfield’s  canvases, as you do in the Tate, and you are immediately taken up by the bright lights, synthetic colours and shiny  surfaces of the modern world. But it is a world, in its empty rooms and geometric shapes, a lonely one. Caulfield only made one major figurative painter and it’s a remarkable one. Portrait of Juan Gris is of the Surrealist Spanish painter, and indicates the extent to which he looked to the previous generation, Fernand Léger and the Americans Edward Hopper and Stuart Davis, as his models.

What interested him was the way that they used space and light to  capture and freeze place and time. By sharply delineating objects by black lines or sharp colour change, you could make them all the more still and, in their way, meaningful. It was an  approach that set him apart from the Pop artists, with whom he is often  associated, with their concerns with the rhythms and actual materials of the contemporary world.

In many ways, Caulfield remained the theatrical set designer of his childhood games. His canvases work best when they set a scene, as in Inner  Office of 1973, Office Party of 1977,  and seem to work less where he  becomes most complex, adding  photographically realistic touches to the composition and conflicting  balances of shapes.

The Tate has examples of both,  although to understand fully the painstaking craftsman Caulfield was, you need to go to parallel exhibitions being held at his old gallery, Waddington Custot, which is showing both his preparatory drawings and finished works, and Alan Cristea, which is exhibiting his silk screen prints, of which he was a real master.

To 1 September (020 7887 8888)

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