RA Magazine Summer 2013
Issue Number: 119
Preview: Caulfield and Hume at Tate Britain
Simon Wilson compares two artists who shaped the course of recent painting and are now celebrated at Tate Britain
At a glittering London gallery opening on 1 April 1970 a furious voice was suddenly heard above the hubbub, screaming ‘I am not a Pop artist!’. The blonde mop and distinctive Yorkshire accent of the speaker instantly identified David Hockney, later RA. Equally resistant to the label of Pop was Hockney’s hugely gifted contemporary, Patrick Caulfield, also to become an RA.
Patrick Caulfield, 'After Lunch', 1975. Tate/© The estate of Patrick Caulfield/Photo Tate Photography. Caulfield was as much loved as he was admired and was greatly mourned when he died in 2005. Now Tate Britain is mounting a survey of 30 works from throughout his career. Interestingly, this show is paired with a survey of a painter of the next generation, Gary Hume RA.
Just as Caulfield was, like it or not, indelibly associated with 1960s Pop, so Hume was identified with the Young British Artists or YBAs who erupted into notoriety following the famous 1988 ‘Freeze’ exhibition organised by Damien Hirst in an abandoned building in the London Docklands.
Pop and YBA were equally movements of revolt and renewal. Pop against the dominance of abstract art and high-minded Modernism in the 1950s, and YBA against the extreme modes of abstraction, notably Minimalism, that had continued in parallel with Pop. Both movements sought to bring art back into contact with the real and the everyday in striking new ways.
Caulfield and Hume both stood at a radical tangent to their respective movements. Caulfield entirely rejected the trashy pop culture sources that so enchanted his fellows, including their characteristic 1960s fascination with the erotic. Hume similarly eschewed his own cohort’s rather earthier preoccupations with sex and death.
For sex both substituted an often sumptuous sensuality of surface, colour and composition. Both were determinedly pure painters, Caulfield in a context where artists were already responding to the advances of mixed media, and Hume in the late 1980s when painting was considered to have been eclipsed as a medium. The achievement of both was to reinvent figurative painting in ways relevant to their moment, and in the case of Hume to give a fresh and seductive twist to the medium itself by exploiting today’s hi-tech, high-gloss household paints and their almost infinite ranges of colour, applied to polished aluminium panel.
Both artists drew subtly and knowingly on tradition which, crucially for their critical reception and their place in art history, included Modernism and its non-negotiable insistence that, to quote one of its early theorists, Maurice Denis, ‘a painting is a flat surface on which colours are arranged in a certain order’. The results are works which are simultaneously powerful abstractions – deploying colour, line and form for their own sake – and equally powerful evocations of life and the world we inhabit. They thus play tellingly on another key preoccupation of Modernism, the relationship between art and life.
Gary Hume RA, 'Tulips', 2009. Private collection/© Gary Hume. In one of his most compelling canvases, After Lunch (1975), Caulfield revels in the ambiguities of the interior, reducing its complexities to abstract patterns and grids which engage the viewer in an exhilarating game of decoding them into the vivid representations of reality that they are. These elements are set against the immaculate photorealism of what might be a view through a window but in fact has to be a poster on a room divider. The fish tank in front of it contains a knowing nod to Matisse’s famous goldfish.
Formally it is a tour de force. But then its almost surreal oddness begins to assert itself, its extreme silent emptiness, the melancholy of the sidelined waiter and the prominence of the empty chair, which certainly taps the tradition of chairs as emblems of absence and mortality. Indeed, the whole painting is a brilliant updating of the vanitas or memento mori subject.
Gary Hume goes further on the high wire between representation and abstraction, as can be seen in a work such as Tulips (2009). But he more than compensates by the sheer seductiveness of his luscious surfaces and strange, alluring hues. Like Caulfield, his primary preoccupation is still life (even his figures become still life) and his works too explore still life’s potential to murmur intimations of mortality: in Tulips the upward-thrusting, burgeoning burgundy bloom contrasts tellingly with the bowed, greenish-brown, blown blossoms beneath it.
These twin exhibitions at Tate Britain offer sheer pleasure in painting, combined with an exceptional opportunity to engage with the playfulness, as well as the seriousness of mind, of two outstanding painters.
© RA Magazine
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