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Elemental interiors

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Some artists seem so firmly associated with a certain time that it defines the way that they are perceived throughout their career. For Patrick Caulfield that moment was the late 1960s/early 70s, when his bold work banished the drabness of the 50s with a sense of new possibilities.

Caulfield has come to be seen as one of the most important post-war painters in the uk and is frequently lauded as the modern master of the painted architectural interior. That genre certainly dominates his production, which is reflected in the Hayward's major survey. Over 50 works are included, ranging from the seminal ones of the 1960s and 70s to his most recent.

Seen in quantity, Caulfield's paintings form a visual primer of interior design, cataloguing restaurants, bars, offices, lobbies, pubs and homes in all their elements. In the mid-60s, Caulfield constructed a cartoon- like library of generic architectural elements, his approach reduced to the most straightforward rendering of form with strong black outlines over flat, bright colour fields. Rooftops, roads, ruins and stained-glass windows were stripped-down in a style reminiscent of children's books, so that the artist's decision to pick out the odd crack becomes loaded with significance.

By the mid-70s Caulfield introduced a more complicated schematic approach that borrowed heavily from an architectural graphic and coalesced into what is probably his most satisfying work. In paintings such as Paradise Bar (1974), interiors are meticulously outlined in black on one dominant background colour, with a single concentrated area picked out in technicolour detail. Another candidate for the best work in the exhibition is Office Party (1977). This small still life combines the simplicity of Caulfield's reductiveness with a sophisticated equalisation of different strategies of painting.

Although a virtuoso of composition and collage, Caulfield steadily allowed a preoccupation with his own history and that of painting to creep further into his work, and throughout the 1980s and 90s it becomes increasingly academic and self-referential. The later paintings lack both the elegiac sympathy and the freshness of touch that permeate the pieces from the 1970s. The overly complex combination of photo-realist kitsch, British kitchen-sink dourness and structural references to Cubism handicaps Caulfield's work with cleverness. Attempts to capture the energy of contradiction are emasculated by their knowingness.

Perversely, the Hayward show reinforces the feeling that Caulfield is something of a historical rather than contemporary figure. The contrast of the pivotal paintings from the 1970s with his later output is telling: it suggests that the reason why some artists remain so firmly associated with a certain moment is simply because they, as much as anyone else, cannot escape the awareness that this was when they did their best work.

Simon Morrissey writes on art and architecture

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