Patrick Caulfield has spoken of his ''frustration at not being an abstract painter.'' There must be an element of conscious irony in this remark, since he has, after all, always had a choice. In fact, in his very early work at the start of the 1960s, he did produce some abstract paintings. But he very quickly returned to the use of subject matter.
''Still Life: Mother's Day,'' of 1975, shows how this English artist's approach to subject matter is indeed to ''use'' it - and to surprisingly abstract ends. Here is an interplay of outlined shapes and shadow - silhouettes scrupulously composed into a picture. He allows himself the freedom to treat these elements as an abstract painter would. They provide him with the motifs he needs for arrangement, order, balance: for the self-sufficiency of the painting itself.
Though they seem to be descriptive tools, or a sign language for conveying information, or stylistic techniques borrowed from various sources, it is their independent life which above all occupies Caulfield. In other words, this picture does not pretend to be what it represents. The objects in it have taken on a fresh function. They subserve the picture's own purposes. The table, light, telephone, and bowl, even the startling rose (simultaneously more realistic and somehow less real than anything else in the painting), are all obviously painted.
But it is still not an abstract painting. It acts, characteristically for Caulfield, on many levels. If he is, perhaps self-mockingly, a frustrated abstractionist, he might also be seen as a frustrated romantic. It is as if he cannot quite dismiss the pull of sentiment.
Cold and depersonalized his methods may seem at first sight, but, like some of the earlier European modern artists he admires, the more he would control or eliminate his suspected soft center, the more oddly assertive and touching it would try to be. His art acknowledges his liking for such non-expressionist painters as Magritte, Leger, Gris, all of them having practised a rigorous self-discipline, all subjecting their emotions to rational intelligence, but all , at heart, the gentlest romantics. To the point are some words written by Caulfield about the poet Jules Laforgue, some of whose poems he has illustrated: ''I feel an affinity with his creating a Romantic poetry and then disclaiming it at the same time, but not without pleasure. He'll lead one up the garden path but then with the last line deny the whole poem. But it doesn't wipe it out, it points it up.''
In making a serious, if witty, painting out of the commonplace components, the cliches, of a Mother's Day greeting card, Caulfield took just the kind of risk, from the point of view of taste, that he has consistently specialized in. He has brought to this doubtful subject, with its basically genuine but commercialized sentiment, not only his sense of abstract organization and his reticent romanticism, but several other layers of inspiration. His interest in shadows is one. The introduction of them into his paintings and prints after 1973 came from the observation of their pronounced nature in a new house into which he had moved. ''Once I got into shadows,'' he has written, ''I really went to town; they became compositional elements, in fact more than the objects that the shadows came from. They're all silhouettes. You accept them as shadows, but they're not at all as shadows would be.'' They are actually rather similar to a device used by Gris in his Cubist paintings, suggesting the overlapping of planes.
They are an effective way of emphasizing paradoxically both the three-dimensionality of objects and the flatness of the picture. They make for an intriguing interchange of repeated and echoing shapes. And Caulfield has them reinforce something that is characteristic of most of his paintings: the pinning-down and stilling of images. Shadows are in reality the most fleeting, insubstantial of phenomena, evidence of the ever-restlessness of light. Caulfield, classicist par excellence, makes them fixed, strong and monumental.
If he can analyse Laforgue's poems as ''leading up the garden path,'' he must be only too aware of his own skill at playing visual games in his paintings. Ambiguities and enigmas abound. Perhaps they are necessary elements in the complexity of an artist who continually controls his natural tendencies with some kind of self-contradiction.
His art is all about control. Or balance. Or ''frustration.'' It depends on how you look at it . . . or perhaps it is really about a sneaking affection for the ordinary: a vulnerability protected by the armour of a cool style.