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Depicting vacated spaces: “Café Interior: Afternoon” (1973) by Patrick Caulfield

Patrick Caulfield (1936-2005) was the quiet man of late 20th-century British painting. He entered the Royal College of Art in 1960, a year after the likes of David Hockney, R.B. Kitaj, Allen Jones and Derek Boshier, but while they went on to become Sixties faces he kept a lower profile. Although he came to notice in the defining exhibitions of the decade — the Young Contemporaries shows and the The New Generation exhibition at the Whitechapel in 1964 that cemented the reputations of Patrick Procktor and Bridget Riley as well as his college peers — he was never a Pop Artist. 

While his work displayed many Pop Art characteristics — its fascination with mass culture and the techniques of commercial art, for example — he was too contemplative to fit in properly. His interest was less in modernity than in the continuation of Modernism. His artistic heroes were formal painters such as Georges Braque, Juan Gris and Fernand Léger: it was 1920s France that fascinated him rather than 1950s America. 

Now a retrospective at Tate Britain gives the opportunity to see just how distinctive Caulfield was, free of the radio interference generated by his contemporaries. 

Caulfield's work concentrates above all on the quiet corners of the urban and domestic world. Using flat areas of colour and strong black outlines he pared down household objects (glasses, jugs, lamps, windows) and interiors into gently evocative mises-en-scène. He used a linear style — "a very old tradition: it's the simplest method of representation" — and domestic paints to remove the artist's hand from the pictures and give them an air of objectivity. He was the anonymous observer who rarely portrayed the human figure but rather the spaces people had just vacated and the vacuums they leave behind. 

According to Howard Hodgkin, Caulfield's pictures nevertheless contain "feelings about what it is to be an artist — about friendship and sociability. He was such a connoisseur of spaces where people gather for pleasure, such as restaurants and bars, and he managed to convey in his paintings the melancholy that can haunt such spaces — born of emptiness and artifice." In this he not only continued the tradition of the Cubist still life but also reworks Edward Hopper as a painter of modern life whose pictures are detached, ironic and occasionally a little bit sad. 

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