This painting was executed during Caulfield’s last term at the Royal College of Art, London (attended 1960-3). At the time, perhaps influenced by Jasper Johns (born 1930), whose paintings of flags and targets of the 1950s had stressed the physical reality, or object nature, of the work as being of equal value to its surface image, art students were particularly interested in using everyday objects as the starting point for their paintings. In common with his contemporaries, such as David Hockney (born 1937) who was studying in the year above him at the Royal College, Caulfield was taking his imagery from the world of the familiar, commenting in 1967 that ‘what we call inspiration results from a careful sifting of everyday experience’ (quoted in Patrick Caulfield: Paintings 1963-81, p.13). His early paintings used repeated patterns derived from such everyday objects as a soap packet, tartan fabric and a simple grid. In 1962 he incorporated structures, composed of strips of wood built into three dimensional grids resembling a garden trellis, into the surface of several paintings. The grids were surmounted by a cut-out image placed in the centre. Caulfield regarded these as unsuccessful and discarded them. Partly as a reaction against the dominant American movements of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, Caulfield looked to the work of European Cubists Juan Gris (1887-1927) and Fernand Léger (1881-1955) for inspiration. In such paintings by Léger as Still Life with a Beer Mug 1921-2 (Tate T02035), flat, monochromatic surfaces and surface patterning emphasise the decorative aspects of the image. In the 1960s Caulfield established his trademark style combining Cubist decoration with the more contemporary methods of sign-making and poster design. The grid background provided an early solution for juxtaposing an illusionistic image with a flat background and combining abstraction with figuration in one work. Two contemporaneous black and white paintings made on hardboard were the first works in which the artist felt he was able successfully to achieve this. These are Black and White Flower Piece and Engagement Ring (De Beers Central Selling Organisation, London).
In Black and White Flower Piece a vase of roses is portrayed in the centre of the image, in front of a simple, trellis-like grid. This was created using masking tape for accuracy and consists of regular, narrow strips of white dividing the background into squares of black. Within each point of intersection, fine black lines following the outlines of the strips create a small square, resulting in further patterning. The grid’s square format refers to the traditional practice of squaring up a drawing, which Caulfield used in depicting the traditional still life subject of the flowers. Painted from a squared-up drawing made from life, the roses are a study in light and shadow – one half of the vase is black and disappears into the background in the space between the grid-lines. Fine black lines and areas of black shadow against white define the complex forms of the flowers which stand out dramatically against the regular pattern of the grid. Caulfield commented: ‘I like to pin down images’ (quoted in Patrick Caulfield: Paintings 1963-81, p.13). The image is painted in a flat, even manner with no visible brushstrokes, in the manner of sign-painting. The artist carefully drew the outlines of the vase of flowers before painting the grid so that no ridges from the masking tape would show through. He deliberately used a square format in order to avoid the landscape and portrait connotations of horizontal and vertical formats. In a similar manner, the use of hardboard – a cheap material normally used by decorators - instead of canvas, set him at a remove from traditional high art, giving his work a distinctly contemporary feel. The use of household gloss enamel paint instead of oil, prior to a transition to acrylic, as well as his non-expressive, quasi-mechanical technique of applying the paint, have contributed to Caulfield’s frequent association with Pop Art. He has resisted this, dubbing it ‘social realism without emotion’ (quoted in Patrick Caulfield: Paintings 1963-92, p.9).
Patrick Caulfield, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1999
Patrick Caulfield: Paintings 1963-81, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London and Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool 1981, p.13, reproduced p.39, pl.2
Patrick Caulfield: Paintings 1963-92, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, London 1992