Anthony Caro: Sculpting Space

Anthony Caro was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center in 1997. For a full list of Lifetime Achievement Award recipients, click here.

Promenade, 1996. Painted Steel, 4.9 x 34 x 4.5 m.

The richness and variety of Anthony Caro’s achievements are embedded in his unique approach to sculpture, space, and experience.

Auguste Rodin and Anthony Caro seem, at first glance, to share little in common. The Frenchman’s figurative bronzes are romantic, even melodramatic, commemorative, lush, and extravagant; their surfaces are formed from bumps and hollows; and they mostly range in size from tiny to slightly larger than life. The Englishman’s abstract metal constructions are austere, reserved, geometric, industrial; their syntax is said to be their most salient feature; and while many works rest atop tables, some recent ones have the girth and heft of a shed. Yet something sets these two titans of sculpture apart from their colleagues. At the end of the 19th century, Chevalier Rodin was one of the most famous artists in the world. And, at the end of the 20th century, Sir Anthony Caro occupies a similar stature.

Dark Woods Beach, 1992-94. Waxed Steel, 30.5 x 61 x 40.5 m.

Certainly Caro has been praised, feted, and showered with all sorts of kudos. In his native England as well as in Canada and the United States, prestigious colleges, universities, and art schools such as Cambridge and Yale have given him honorary degrees. Quite some time ago he was inducted by his peers into the American Academy of Arts and Letters and into the Accademia delle Belle Arti di Brera. In 1992 Caro was the first recipient of Japan’s Praemium Imperiale for a lifetime of achievement in sculpture, a prize accompanied by almost $120,000. Most recently, he was the recipient of the International Sculpture Center’s 1997 Lifetime Achievement Award. And there is, of course, his knighthood, bestowed upon him by Queen Elizabeth II in 1987.

Amid all the fuss which has been made over Caro, you might expect his work to have gotten lost. That has hardly been the case, just as it was not with Rodin, whose art acquired even greater celebrity at the Universal Exposition of 1900 in Paris. Caro’s nonrepresentational sculptures are exhibited far and wide. The summer before last, while a huge five-part steel construction was installed in the Tuileries, near the Place de la Concorde in Paris, another architectural piece was being displayed in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City. A retrospective consisting of 113 works by Caro was on view in 1995 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo. And three years before that, 39 sculptures, ranging from Midday (1960), with its painted yellow I-beams, to After Olympia (1986-87), a long multi-part riff on a Greek pediment, were sited all over Trajan Market opposite the Forum in Rome. Moreover, for the artist’s 70th birthday in 1994, celebratory shows were mounted by his long-time dealers, Annely Juda Fine Art in London and the Andre Emmerich Gallery in New York, while others were arranged in Dusseldorf, Seoul, Chicago, and Baltimore.

Beginning, 1995. Wood and painted steel, 28.5 x 21.5 x 15 in.

Anthony Caro was 35 years old when he hit his stride as an artist (remarkably, so was Rodin). Having met with some success as a figurative sculptor, his reputation as someone to watch was enhanced when he turned his back in 1960 on what he had so far achieved. And to have his new steel constructions heralded by the American critics Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried in some of the finest art writing of the 1960s was a boon, too. In addition, what Fried had to say about Caro was never challenged in the same way as other aspects of Fried’s work. Although it was not quite true, Caro assumed the aura of an overnight sensation. When Greenberg used the words “breakthrough” and “best” and phrases such as “the first sculptor to…” and “no other sculptor has…” to describe Caro’s efforts as an abstractionist, he created the kind of spin few other post-War artists have enjoyed.

Yet what was being claimed for Caro turned out not to be hyperbole. By the end of the ’60s he was making a new sort of utterly abstract sculpture. With a horizontal orientation, his work appeared to float, even levitate, just above the ground. It was light, airy, joyful. After having become more familiar with the art of David Smith during a trip to the United States in 1959, Caro began to sculpt with steel. (Rodin’s epiphany also came during a trip, one he took to Florence during 1875, the year Michelangelo was being celebrated there.) In retrospect, it appears that David Smith served as a bridge between what Caro could-and would-do and what Alexander Calder had already achieved. For example, while Calder had used color to heighten the exuberant character of his mobiles, a polychromatic scheme became a key factor in Caro’s being able to transform the stuff of office towers and shipyards into art for gardens and galleries. Moreover, Calder-and later, Donald Judd-became identified with a particular shade of red, which was applied to various works regardless of their size or substance; Caro more carefully calibrated tones and hues. To him, all reds were not alike. His colors were appropriate to, say, that thickness or those dimensions. Consequently, his vivid reds, lively yellows, and odd greens seem so naturally suited to the forms they covered that they have never seemed to function as if they were skin-like.

The Trojan War (installation view), 1994-95. Mixed Media.

And Caro brought new ideas to bear on the notion of mass. Sure, Calder’s wire portraits of 1929 and 1931 dissolved bulk and density. But Caro rose to a new level of lightness of being that had less to do with engineering skills and wafer-thin materials. Almost at once, he did away with assertive central cores. He would often empty out the middle of a piece and position nonrepresentational components as if he were a painter making marks on the left or right edges of a canvas. Having mastered how to manipulate rods, poles, and beams expressively, Caro moved on to heavier, more cumbersome elements. While the art of David Smith got larger and larger over decades, and, you might say, increased by the inch and then the foot, Caro’s oeuvre has tended to gain weight by the pound and the stone.

Caro also made welding a more flexible method than it had been. He wanted to use it for more than adhering one metal shape to another. Once his forms were tacked together, he could readily make changes which would allude to a modeler, a carver, or even other welders. For Caro, metal is as adaptable to modification as paint applied to canvas or pencil to paper. Completing a piece, he has more options to ponder.

When William S. Rubin organized a mid-career survey in 1975 at the Museum of Modern Art, comprised of 33 works by Caro, the 50-year-old artist seemed to be as much American as British. For quite a while, he had been as apt to show his best work in New York as in London. Moreover, what was put on exhibition at the Emmerich Gallery tended to get analyzed in well-illustrated articles by Michael Fried in Artforum. Many of the sculptures seen at MOMA (and later in Minneapolis, Houston, and Boston) have familiar titles (such as Midday, Early One Morning, Prairie, Orangerie, and Sun Feast), which are almost as well-known by name as Rodin’s Age of Bronze, Monument to Balzac, The Thinker, and The Burghers of Calais.

Moonlight Folly, 1992-95. Ivory painted steel, 70.5 x 54 x 48 in.

The high recognition factor of Caro’s titles also underscores his ambition to make masterpieces. Each time he starts a piece, he sets his standards high. He competes with himself, his contemporaries, predecessors like David Smith, Henry Moore, and Calder, and centuries of tradition. Caro does not merely want to be in history books; he wants to rewrite them. His best efforts also raise the question, “Are there any other artists who came to prominence during the ’60s who are associated with unique pieces rather than extended series?” This is neither the situation with painters such as Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski, with whom Caro is generally grouped, nor with any of the Minimalists, with whom his art tends to be set in opposition. Clearly, he holds different attitudes. As Gilbert and Sullivan would put it, “He is an Englishman.” And his uncles and his aunts range from Henri Gaudier-Brzeska to Jacob Epstein, Henry Moore, and Barbara Hepworth. Like Rodin, those who followed in his wake-the Tony Craggs and Richard Deacons-sought counsel and inspiration elsewhere, not wanting to be acorns to his massive oak.

After his solo show at MOMA, Caro continued to grow, change, and follow unanticipated directions. If you were reading art magazines for information on these changes, you would have had little inkling of them. The perception of Caro’s art got lodged in a time warp. His champions became smug; his detractors sniped. Fried was now concentrating on 19th-century art and Greenberg had all but stopped writing. Yet the richness and variety of Caro’s sculpture is embedded in the byways and lanes he has veered off the main road to explore.

Idiosyncrasies abound in his work. But for the critics, the reasoning seems to be, “Since it has long been claimed that the excellence of Caro’s art resides in its syntax, the oddities and escapades must be unimportant.” Go figure.

After Olympia, 1986-87. Rusted and varnished steel, 332.5 x 2342 x 170 cm.

Caro has executed some of his most challenging and compelling art in towns, cities, and countries where he has participated in summer workshops or as a visiting professor, or where he was invited to take advantage of facilities and staff. In such situations he has often seized the opportunity to work with materials other than steel: paper, clay, bronze, wood. There is probably no other eminent modern sculptor, with the exception of Pablo Picasso, of course, who has so consistently and successfully executed work in mediums other than the one with which he is associated.

Then too, Caro always seems to want to keep up with the kids. Unlike other established artists, he seems little interested in proving to a younger generation that he has already done something they are trying to do. Instead he picks up where he left off and integrates what he has subsequently learned or noticed. During the early ’80s he modeled a number of small-sized nudes and oriented them the same way that he positioned table pieces two decades before. When casting in bronze again became prevalent, Caro came up with a way of devising sculptures with this metal as if it were steel. When attitudes about how to display art-in-the-round changed, he even redesigned the pedestals for bodies of his work. While no one has ever called Caro an appropriationist, that is exactly what he was being when he based the formal language of several grand pieces on Old Master paintings such as Peter Paul Rubens’s Descent from the Cross in Antwerp Cathedral, as well as pediments from Greek temples. More recently, this die-hard abstractionist has exhibited figurative drawings done from models-and garnered the rarest of accolades, a rave review from Hilton Kramer. When Caro, during 1993 and 1994, created 38 sculptures from ceramic, wood, and steel (with theatrical lighting for dramatic effect) based on Homer and the Trojan War, he found a way to tell an “abstract” story. If all of the above works were collected together and put on view in one place, a very different account of this British artist would emerge.

Magic Spell, 1995. Steel, wood, and stoneware, 23 x 26.5 x 17 in.

But as Caro approaches his 75th birthday, a new take on his career does appear to be coming into focus. This interpretation is a radical revision, to say the least. This Caro exists independent of David Smith’s precedent; and you don’t have to read Michael Fried to get the picture. If you recall, Caro was initially presented as an ardent abstractionist. Then, while explaining in 1972 how his initial “figurative sculptures were to do with what it’s like to be inside the body,” the artist added that “all sculpture in some way has to do with the body” (Phyllis Tuchman, “An Interview with Anthony Caro,” Artforum, June 1972). But in the light of another comment from the same interview (“Sculptors and architects are necessarily conscious of the body-it’s very important.”), Paul Poorhouse’s revisionist 1991 catalogue, Anthony Caro: Sculpture towards Architecture, makes more sense in its repositioning of the artist. The I-beams, bars, rods, grates, and such, with which Caro has all along been executing sculpture, are not just the stuff which ordinarily serves as the superstructure of buildings; they are metaphors for architecture itself. This British master, then, has been positioning metal components to create spaces that function as if they are rooms, rooms whose walls are defined by steel planes and the like-ergo, the emptied-out centers and cores.

Lately Caro has collaborated with Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, and Tadao Ando, and he himself is drawing the comparisons with architecture. These experiences appear to nourish his art. In a number of recent pieces, he has consciously tried to create ample, dynamic forms that comport themselves in a way that calls building practices to mind. At first, making connections between Caro’s art and the world of architecture seems far-fetched. Wait a while, it won’t seem so absurd. After all, for almost 40 years, Sir Anthony Caro has been sculpting space.

Phyllis Tuchman frequently writes and lectures on sculpture and on Picasso.