Issue Number: 91
Since his death last September, there have been many tributes to Patrick Caulfield and now the RA is celebrating his career with a memorial display of paintings and prints in the Summer Exhibition. The selection of twelve paintings and 22 screenprints spans the period 1963–2004, providing a timely overview of the development of a signature style that has become so familiar as to have entered the collective consciousness. It is an indication of his standing today that his influence continues to be acknowledged and referenced in the work of subsequent generations of artists.
Patrick Caulfield RA, Holiday Home
Caulfield made his mark early with a series of emblematic paintings. While often associated with British Pop Art due to the cool, almost detached style of his painting, in truth he was more interested in the traditions of European painting, and throughout his long career he constantly returned to his favoured subjects, the interior and the still life.
Among the paintings on display, four seminal works come from the Tate collection: Greece Expiring on the Ruins of Missolonghi (After Delacroix) (1963), an early calling card made in his final year at the Royal College of Art; the ever-popular Pottery (1969, right); and two of his greatest paintings, After Lunch (1975) and Interior with a Picture (1985–86), both of which combine photo-realist pictures within larger compositions of light and shadow. In the last decade of his life, Caulfield produced some of his finest paintings and it is therefore fitting that six of the selected works date from 1995 onwards. Room (1995), Fruit Display (1996) and Happy Hour, (1996) were produced during a period of sustained activity and are three of the paintings from the group that made up the final room of his retrospective exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in 1999.
In addition to the paintings, also included are the 22 screenprints produced in conjunction with the limited-edition book, Some Poems of Jules Laforgue, published in 1973. Caulfield made many screenprints over a 35-year period and here he was at his most masterly and enigmatic. Referring to them as ‘complementary images’ to the poems, with a supreme lightness of touch and economy of means, he conjured up an inescapable sense of solitude and the passing of time.
Caulfield had a long and sustained career with many high points. He did not complain, but if he did have regrets these were perhaps because his work was never shown to a serious degree in either New York or Paris. He was honoured with three retrospectives in his lifetime and, should a posthumous survey occur in the near future, it is to be hoped that this long overdue recognition can finally be achieved for one of the most important British artists of the last 50 years.
The official launch of British Pop Art – a movement Eduardo Paolozzi did much to shape – happened at the ICA in the summer of 1952. It was here that the artist gave his celebrated ‘multi-evocative’ Bunk! performance – with help from an epidiascope (a primitive projector) and some American advertisements, comic strips and magazine covers he had collected and collaged in Paris and London between 1947 and 1952. Paolozzi subsequently, in 1972, facsimiled many of these images by lithograph and screenprint for the Bunk! collection, which is included in the summer RA tribute to him, as is his bronze sculpture His Majesty the Wheel.
Art works by the Late Prof Sir Eduardo Paolozzi RA in the Summer Exhibition 2006 Art works by the Late Prof Sir Eduardo Paolozzi RA in the Summer Exhibition 2006 Art works by the Late Prof Sir Eduardo Paolozzi RA in the Summer Exhibition 2006
Here the wheel – according to Paolozzi ‘a quickly read symbol of the manmade object’ – became part of a new kind of crumbling triumphal arch. He was also inspired by a recent Time magazine article that had referred to corrupt American union boss Jimmy Hoffa as ‘the big wheel’. Both Bunk! and Wheel involved ‘the metamorphosis of rubbish’ and – like a lot of Paolozzi’s art – also explored the complex connection between organisms and machines. A few years later, he made the series of screenprints As Is When (1965) – inspired by the life of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and posing yet more questions about art and language and technology.
These works reveal some of the wellsprings of Paolozzi’s art – as a printmaker, sculptor, curator and teacher. They explore several of the themes to which he would return, again and again, throughout his career as an artist from 1947 to the mid-1990s. They include breaking down conventional boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘low’, commenting on the destruction of the planet and exploring the interconnections between science, technology and art. J. G. Ballard once observed that Paolozzi’s art resembled ‘buried tablets from a sunken empire town’, which would be rediscovered or excavated by future generations and tell them much of what they needed to know about life at the end of the second millennium. These buried tablets would make the art of many of his contemporaries seem very parochial indeed.
These works, from Bunk! onwards, also signalled Paolozzi’s relish for ruffling the feathers of the art establishment. Famously generous to his friends – he would give away artists’ proofs, little plaster maquettes and expensive picture books as if they were greetings cards – he never stayed with dealers for long. His early sculptures deliberately goaded a then-influential Henry Moore; his silkscreen pop images challenged the preciousness of much 1950s printmaking; his exhibition at the Tate in the autumn of 1971 – the only major retrospective he ever had in Britain – included an aluminium skip filled with rejected sculptures, as well as castings of dogs’ squeaky toys. And he published the confidential accounts of the 1981 Royal Academy exhibition A New Spirit in Painting, beneath a version of the catalogue cover, in the hope that it might stimulate debate about the show and how much it had cost. He was disappointed when no one noticed. As a result of such provocations, he remained a prophet without enough honour in his own country. There were no dealers rooting for him, and he was uncomfortable with snobbery of all descriptions. Some fellow artists were surprised when he agreed to become a Royal Academician, but he thrived on the tension of being inside and outside.
Paolozzi often said that he was a Surrealist at heart and that his formation in Paris had been among collagists and creators of cabinets of curiosities. He also said that ‘Pop’ was to him a phase that died with the 1960s. But it was as a pioneer of Pop Art that he was best known. And, in this incarnation, American images of plenty intrigued and sometimes disgusted this son of Italian immigrants who owned a small ice-cream shop in Leith, Scotland. Paolozzi called these images ‘ready-made metaphors for the dreams of the masses’. They were the keys to Bunk!. Yet, when he actually had the chance to visit the United States in 1968, as a visiting professor at Berkeley, California, he did not stay for long. He avoided art galleries and museums, and instead went to Disneyland, to the wax museums, to Frederick’s Lingerie showrooms and to Paramount Studios. He also visited the University of California’s computer centre (which seemed like science fiction in those days), the Douglas Aircraft Company and General Motors assembly line. Then he came home. The imagery somehow made more sense to him from this side of the Atlantic.
As Ballard has suggested, there could scarcely be a more complete modern artist than Paolozzi. He could manipulate – all the time, and with obsessive creativity – the media of drawing, lithography, silkscreen and sculpture using a variety of metals and processes; he had the strength and appetite to absorb whole chunks of contemporary reality, mix them with his own preoccupations, then reassemble them into a strangely beautiful and coherent whole.
Surfing around ideas, collage and assembly were central to almost everything he created from the early surrealism to the later public sculpture. I remember when we went to see Bladerunner together and after the screening we bumped into a young design guru with whom we were planning to work on a ‘robots’ exhibition. ‘What did you think of the film?’ asked Paolozzi. The designer replied: ‘Well, I’m just going home to listen to some Scarlatti to clear my palate.’ The expression on Paolozzi’s face was priceless. He said to me on the way home to Dovehouse Street ‘We can’t work with this man, can we?’ I agreed.
He had particularly enjoyed Bladerunner because the replicant manufacturer’s workshop was so very like his own studio in London.