Patrick Caulfield

Masterful painter of rich, complex and poetic subtlety
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The Independent Online

Patrick Caulfield should have enjoyed the international renown of Roy Lichtenstein, the American Pop painter of whom he was often misleadingly and wrongly regarded as a follower, but both his self-effacing nature and the subtleties of his art prevented him from graduating to the level of widespread success that was rightfully his due.

Shy of giving interviews or of appearing in the public eye, he shunned the promotional opportunities that propelled others of his generation, including many less gifted than him, into the limelight. Even his association with the origins of Pop Art failed to further his career in the way that might have been expected, in part because he himself was so insistent that the label was not appropriate for his work and that nothing could interest him less than expressing what he considered a false image of a "polished chrome, racy life". By opting instead to produce images that were "ambiguous in time", as he explained to me in 1980, when I was curating his first retrospective of paintings, he sacrificed certain instant career benefits, but assured for his art an atemporal quality that should do much to prolong its longevity well into the 21st century.

In November 2002, on the eve of a solo exhibition of his new paintings at Waddington Galleries in London, Caulfield was informed that he had cancer of the mouth and tongue and would have to face a major operation. More than a year passed before he again felt strong enough and sufficiently motivated to return to painting, having made only a few small but typically beautiful pencil drawings in the meantime. He ordered a canvas measuring 84 x 78in and set slowly to work on a painting that eventually went on view at Waddington in late June 2004.

Executed primarily in flat shades of purple, Bishops depicts one of his characteristically melancholic interiors, possibly the lobby of a hotel or the entrance to an upmarket wine bar, life-sized and devoid as usual of any human figures. He had favoured such subjects since the late 1960s, insistently returning to sites of arm's-length conviviality such as bars, restaurants and hotel lobbies: all anonymous places at which one makes temporary stopovers, locations that convey a sometimes heartbreaking need for interaction, combined with a recognition of every individual's ultimate aloneness.

As he approached the age of 60, a notional retirement age at which others might take up painting as a hobby, he brought a new depth of sadness and regret to paintings such as the ironically titled Happy Hour (1996) of which I wrote at the time:

The prominent "EXIT" sign glimpsed intrusively in the corridor off the main bar is also there as an unwelcome reminder that our time will soon be up and we will have to be on our way.

Caulfield was prompted by this observation to admit privately that it was such thoughts that had given him the idea for the picture: sitting alone in a bar one lunchtime, as was his habit, he wondered to himself, "Why am I sitting here, drinking myself to death?"

The poignancy of such reveries about mortality is even more pronounced in Bishops, made with the implicit understanding that it might be his last painting. Caulfield's previous interiors had often suggested a pause or silence, as if the surface of the canvas were a place through which other people had just passed or into which they were about to enter. The room in this later picture, notionally comforting and enticing, is glimpsed through wooden-framed glass doors shown slightly ajar. The depths witnessed through this transparent portal have a more than usually ominous air. The detail of the brass plates on the door frame, so lovingly painted and nuanced, draw us closer than we might otherwise have chosen to go, but we are left at the threshold.

Given Caulfield's lifelong mastery of visual metaphor and his Roman Catholic upbringing - never discussed, but intermittently avowed in pictures of the ordinary experienced as epiphanies - this can only be a painting about the imminence of his own death and speculation about what lies beyond the Pearly Gates. How typical of him to transform the tragedy of his own situation into an invitation to pleasurable contemplation, and to imagine the afterlife as a mysterious but alluring place of stripped-down luxury.

The kind of place that was Caulfield's idea of heaven in his everyday life is transformed into a wry and haunting vision of Heaven that only he could have conceived. Yet when I wrote to congratulate him, adding that I assumed he had intended the picture as a metaphor, he replied: "I am not conscious of a particular metaphor. This is not surprising, as I seem to work mainly in the dark."

Almost alone among his contemporaries, Caulfield managed not only to remain true to the spirit and methods of the work that first brought him acclaim as a young man in the early 1960s, but to use that language to make increasingly profound art. His greatest paintings were made from the mid-1990s onwards, when each canvas conveyed not only a world in itself but a whole philosophy of existence and a dazzling command of the elements of painting that spoke humbly and respectfully of his affinities with the great masters of the past. His paintings of the 1960s, particularly those made with household gloss on hardboard just after he had completed his studies at the Royal College of Art in 1963, had flaunted a deceptive simplicity by reminding the viewer of "low" forms of visual expression: sign painting, colouring books and comic strips.

Caulfield never abandoned the desire to communicate through a clear, pleasurably decorative and plain-speaking form of figuration, but he found increasingly subtle ways to complicate and enrich that language. This was nowhere more evident than in the paintings of imaginary architectural interiors, initially prompted by photographic illustrations found in books about interior decoration, that became his signature works in the late 1960s. One of his closest friends and most perceptive collectors, the British Library's architect Sir Colin St John Wilson, was not alone in admiring the architectural qualities of Caulfield's rigorously constructed paintings, the sense of space and light as solid forms that the viewer could experience in a strikingly physical way.

Patrick Caulfield was a master at making things feel and look real, only to tease the spectator into acknowledging that everything in the pictures dissolved finally into fantasy. Seducing his audience into employing their analytical powers of perception, he reminded us time and again that everything was a mirage and a mystery: there was finally no accounting for the baffling depths, contradictory perspectives and conflicting light sources in paintings that seemed at first to be the product of pure logic. By dwelling so insistently on the prosaic details of the modern environment, he trapped the spectator into discovering for him or herself the ephemerality and inexplicability of all things.

Appropriately for a painter whose abiding device was the display of light as solid matter, his art was a vehicle for enlightenment. The apparent obsession with the details of modern life gave some the impression that a kind of sociological observation was in play, but, if his ambition had been that limited, his pictures would not have seemed so timeless and so emotionally compelling. Dwelling on such apparently trivial matters served instead as a useful ruse for an artist whose essential aim was to convey, with as little pretension as possible, a metaphysical world view.

On a cursory glance, Caulfield's paintings struck some as cold, aloof and cerebral. Closer examination, however, made apparent a dry wit and humour, as in the small canvas of 1969 Smokeless Coal Fire, and a warmth and affection, as in his celebrated stripped-down 1963 portrait of the Cubist master Juan Gris in a bright blue suit. Behind that cultivated and very English surface, immaculate and emotionally restrained, lay a fundamental Romanticism that he made little effort to disguise. He made several early paintings in homage to Delacroix, sometimes directly, as in his 1963 transcription of Greece Expiring on the Ruins of Missolonghi, but more often obliquely, as in his representations of ruins, exotic pottery, views over rooftops and an old-fashioned artist's studio.

In 1964 he painted Pony - taking that most English but by now hackneyed and despised of subjects - as well as several Mediterranean views that lingered, with gentle irony, on the escapist subject matter favoured by the Fauves and other early Modernists. He found contemporary ways of rephrasing highly traditional, even moral, themes from the history of painting, as in his Still Life with Candle (1964), a contemporary take on the memento mori. Blatantly turning his back on the Swinging Sixties that sought to take him to its bosom, Caulfield created one of the most sustained and visually poetic bodies of work by any artist of that generation.

Although he never became a household name, Caulfield was eagerly collected by museums and by individuals: the purchase by Charles Saatchi of almost all his new paintings in the mid-1990s had an immediate impact on his prices. His instantly recognisable vision was also widely disseminated through the screenprints that he produced from 1964 onwards. His portfolio and book of 22 prints Some Poems of Jules Laforgue, published in 1973, must be counted as one of the great print series of the late 20th century.

A masterful colourist who managed to create consistently surprising conjunctions of sometimes deliberately unpalatable hues, to great visual impact and emotional effect, he was also a consummate draughtsman, able to find the most economical way of depicting familiar objects so that one had the impression of seeing their strangeness for the first time.

I can think of no other British artist of his time who was so uniformly admired by his peers: abstract and figurative painters, gesturalists and Minimalists, Pop artists and conceptual artists alike all saw him as a kindred spirit. So complex and multi-layered was Caulfield's sometimes painfully slow but always consistent production that every artist seemed able to find something to admire in it.

He was regarded with deep affection and respect by those with whom he had studied at the Royal College in the early 1960s, such as David Hockney, Peter Phillips and Allen Jones; by slightly older Pop artists such as Peter Blake and Joe Tilson; by abstract painters such as John Hoyland and by those hovering on the edge of abstraction, such as Howard Hodgkin; and by more conceptually oriented artists such as Michael Craig-Martin, who recognised in Caulfield's linear language of the 1960s and 1970s an elegant and logical turn of mind. Phillips once confided to me, "He's the best of all of us." Most remarkably for an artist of his generation, Caulfield was hugely influential on much younger painters, such as Gary Hume and Paul Morrison, who found possibilities for their own work in the freshness and immediacy of his art.

After studying at Chelsea School of Art from 1956 to 1959 and then at the Royal College from 1960 to 1963, Caulfield quickly established his reputation through his participation in Bryan Robertson's influential "New Generation" exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1964 and in various international Pop Art shows. His first solo exhibition took place in 1965 at the Robert Fraser Gallery, regarded as the hippest and most desirable of London galleries at that time, and in the same year he was awarded the Prix des Jeunes Artistes at the Fourth Paris Biennale. His first painting retrospective, at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool in 1981, touring to the Tate Gallery, was followed by two further retrospectives, at the Serpentine Gallery in London in 1992 and at the Hayward Gallery in 1999 (touring to Luxembourg, Lisbon and the Yale Center for British Art).

Never one to dissipate his energies, Caulfield nevertheless responded with enthusiasm and originality to various commissions, including a mural for London Life's headquarters in Bristol (1982), sets and costumes for Michael Corder's ballet Party Game at the Royal Opera House (1984), a stained-glass window for the Ivy restaurant in London (1990), an enormous carpet for the atrium of the British Council's new building in Manchester (1991-92), a mosaic for the new extension of the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff (1994) and imposing paintings for the shutters of the new West Great Organ in Portsmouth Cathedral (2001).

Caulfield complained more than once of the perpetual crisis he faced when looking for new subjects, notwithstanding the miraculous invention that he displayed when returning to favourite imagery such as bars and restaurant interiors. It seems, therefore, that he greeted such commissions with some relief, for the way they focused his mind. He was often at his best when working to the most apparently stringent restrictions, whether imposed by others or by himself.

Although a record auction price of £190,000 was set for one of his paintings in June 2004, suggesting that his stature was at last being reflected in the marketplace, Caulfield has yet to receive the international recognition that he deserves. Indeed, even in Britain he has been short-changed, being shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1987 (for his "Artist's Eye" exhibition at the National Gallery) but not winning it; being considered as Britain's representative for the Venice Biennale, but being passed over; and even having to share the Jerwood Painting Prize in 1995 with another artist, Maggi Hambling. He was appointed CBE in 1996 and was elected a Royal Academician in 1993, but he did not hunger for such official recognition and never made the effort to network or cultivate influential contacts, much preferring the company of his painter friends.

Of a shy and retiring nature, and at the mercy of an alarming lifelong reliance on alcohol, he was nevertheless an engaging, endearing and loyal friend who was happiest in the company of others rather than in the solitude of the studio. There is no doubt that he will be remembered as one of the great British painters of the late 20th century.