Influence, Exchange and Stimulus: A Converstion with Sir Anthony Caro

Installation view of “Caro at Longsides”: (left) Goodwood Steps, 1996, varnished steel, 395 x 650 x 3,340 cm.; (right) Index, 1994–2001, rusted steel, 274 x 301 x 159 cm.

Sir Anthony Caro is widely regarded as being the most important of the postwar British sculptors, one whose influence on the aptly named New Generation group was enormous. As a regular if part-time teacher in the sculpture department of St Martins School of Art, London (1953–79), he was also in a position to influence, whether positively or negatively, artists such as Richard Deacon, Barry Flanagan, Gilbert & George, Hamish Fulton, Richard Long, Bill Woodrow, and a host of others.

Caro managed, in spectacular fashion, to develop a consistent transatlantic presence, in part because of the support of the critics Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried and painters such as Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler, and Jules Olitski. Caro taught at Bennington College in Vermont, and in the early ’80s he initiated the annual Triangle Workshops in New York. He also met David Smith on his first visit to America in 1959 and is often seen as the logical successor to Smith.

It is intriguing, considering that Caro made his name on the strength of his “abstract” sculptures, that figurative elements consistently re-emerge in his work, so much so, in fact, that nowadays he can alternate quite happily between figuration and abstraction, abstraction thus becoming simply a genre to work in.

Recent Caro exhibitions include “Caro at Longsides: Sculpture at Yorkshire Sculpture Park” and “A Sculptor’s Development” at Lewes Town Hall in Sussex. In view of Caro’s long association with teaching, it is particularly satisfying that the latter exhibition was conceived as an educational package. Paul Myles, one of the organizers, developed a welding booth, which can be used inside a wooden building, and welding workshops, even for the very young, were run alongside the show itself. Groups of children were bused up to Caro’s studio, where he worked with them and they interviewed him—a useful educational model.

Brian McAvera: Can you tell us something of the circumstances of your childhood? Were there any images that imprinted themselves upon you? I am thinking of Henry Moore, for example, playing in a quarry as a child.

Anthony Caro: My first memory—I guess I was three—dates from the time when we were living at Porchester Terrace in London. I was running down the street after my brother and sister, all of us after the Muffin Man. He wore a white apron and had a tray of muffins on his head and rang a bell. I was trying to catch my older brother and sister. In fact, in my childhood I was always the slowest, always trying to catch up.

My father was a stockbroker. We moved to the country near Farnham. I remember the view from the house: bracken and gorse, the sort of sour soil I don’t like. I prefer chalk. The house was bravely and tastefully furnished. My father had good taste. We didn’t talk about pictures. My mother was very creative in a visual way, doing embroidery, arranging flowers. She lived to be 100. In her last years she did a lot of appliqué work, on cushions. Very collage-like. Never tried to make it into “Art.” Her uncle was the painter Frank Emmanuel. He and his brother stood up on chairs at the Picasso and Matisse exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum and remonstrated; they started a society for “Sanity in Art.”

BM: In 1937 you attended Charterhouse School, and later you were apprenticed to the sculptor Charles Wheeler during school holidays. How did this come about? What, at this early age, propelled you into sculpture?

AC: At the age of 16 I made a head out of clay. I enjoyed it. I went to the local art school in Farnham, doing portrait heads and figures. My father wanted me to be a stockbroker. I said, “It’s not real enough, buying and selling bits of paper.” It was too conceptual.

Charles Wheeler was a real old-fashioned sculptor. He did one of the two fountains in Trafalgar Square and big carvings on the Bank of England and the Ministry of Defense building. He had an assistant called Chadwick: I learned a lot from him. He made me a bench, which I still have. Wheeler was part of the Wolverhampton School of Sculpture, as was Geoffrey Deeley.

Wheeler sent me to Deeley to study at the Regent Street Polytechnic. They were followers of Carl Milles, and I was very taken with his work. In fact, in 1947 I went with my sister to Sweden to see his sculpture garden: decorative works—dolphins with ladies on their backs and mermaids. We all have our moments of liking bad art. Henry Moore once told me that early on he had liked the work of Frank Brangwyn.

All Night Long, 1994–2001. Rusted and varnished steel, 155 x 551 x 285 cm.

BM: You studied engineering at Cambridge. How important was this in relation to your work from 1960 onward?

AC: Not at all. I was a bad engineering student. We studied heat engines and such things (really boring), plus a few practical subjects such as surveying, which I enjoyed. Whether a sculpture stands up is really common sense, it is not engineering. I had hated boarding school, but I loved Cambridge. It was enormously valuable to be there. It formed me. I found that I was a person at Cambridge. I made friends, some of them religious people, some of them interested in philosophy. We have stayed friends.

BM: You served in the Fleet Air Arm between 1944 and 1946. What were you doing, and did the experience have any lasting impact?

AC: I was an Air Engineer officer and became sub- lieutenant. I was stationed at Warrington. Ran 10 miles with a pack on my back. Then I went to Plymouth and various Air Arm stations in England, Scotland, and on the Isle of Man. The first day I arrived at Fraserburgh, I was told: “Right Caro, go to the funeral,” of someone I’d never met. Life in the armed forces is insane. It was during this period that I decided I definitely wanted to be a sculptor. My father had discouraged me, he thought the art life was for dilettantes. Later he was very supportive.

BM: In retrospect, the experience of academic teaching (Charles Wheeler, Geoffrey Deeley, then the various Royal Academy sculptors) clearly left its mark, not only in terms of the figurative elements in your earlier work, to which you later returned, but also, perhaps, in the sense of imbibing a notion of professionalism. How would you evaluate the teaching you had in relation to your subsequent work?

AC: I was never a great craftsman; for me that is the boring part. At the Royal Academy Schools in those days they had a different academician every term to teach. Each told us about his specialty, so I learned about building in terra cotta or carving ivory or monumental stone carving or whatever from the different sculptors. I did not want my father to think I was being a dilettante, so I took sculpture seriously. I needed to push at the subject to build up my own self-respect.

BM: As Henry Moore’s assistant you enlarged small-scale models into larger works. You noted, much later, that this was a process that was emphatically not the way you worked. So what did this job or process teach you? And what do you think you imbibed from Moore, bearing in mind that many critics claim a vestigial presence of Moore’s nudes in your horizontal sculptural works?

AC: I was a student at the Royal Academy Schools, recently married. After a couple of years there, I decided that the school was too academic. I’d gone as far as I could with the help of those who had taught me so far (Wheeler, Machin, and so forth). There were two names in contemporary sculpture in England: Henry Moore and Reg Butler. Moore wasn’t famous then. I drove up to his house, knocked at the door and said, “I want to be your assistant.”

“You might have telephoned,” he said. “But come in and have a cup of tea.” Six months later we moved to Much Hadham and I started to work for him. I knew nothing about modern art. Until then I had never seen a piece of African sculpture, had no idea of Surrealism or Cubism. Things like these had not been on my horizon. I thought being a sculptor meant doing a statue of a general on a horse.

I drove Henry into London every week, and he talked to me a lot on these journeys. He knew I was interested in ideas and sculpture. He let me take books from his library—every day one or two—and so I got a breadth of knowledge of art. Moore was making things alongside us in the studio. I looked at his sketchbooks all the time. I was still a part-time student at the Royal Academy, being taught drawing by painters. Henry criticized my drawings and taught me how a sculptor can express sculptural form on a flat white surface.

Promenade, 1996. Painted steel, 490 x 340 x 4,500 cm.

BM: You taught at St Martins School of Art for a long time. Teaching can do strange things to artists. It can eat not only into their time but also into their emotional freightage. Sometimes it can generate intense stimuli, though rarely for long periods. Why did you do it for so long and what did you get out of it?

AC: I loved it. It was stimulating. I enjoy exploring ideas, pushing the limits of the subject. I like having people to bounce off. From the earliest days, the students and I were all absolutely equal. We were trying to keep sculpture alive, to give it new life. The days at Bennington College [in 1963] or The Triangle Workshops in the ’80s [initiated by Caro and Robert Loder at Pine Plains, New York, in 1982] were not so different, either.

BM: Your so-called “pupil-associates,” Tim Scott, Phillip King, David Annesley, Michael Bolus, Isaac Witkin, and William Tucker, all studied with you in the late ’50s when you yourself were still working in plaster. All went on to teach at St Martins and basically became The New Generation. In hindsight, do you think you exerted a perhaps unfortunate influence, or do you consider it to have been beneficial?

AC: I didn’t bring my work into school. And we were all quite different. Yes, I do think that groups push things forward. In art schools I believe in close encounters, almost tripping over one another in the studio—in the Slade School of Art, each student was alone in his or her own “inspiration box.” Not for me. My students would work in the same big room, and every two weeks we’d look at each other’s work and criticize it in an affirmative and friendly spirit.

That has always been my attitude. And those New Generation artists were absolutely not clones of me, they were good artists in their own right. There was a head of steam—both at St Martins and later in America. We were a group of explorers. I like this sort of relationship, indeed I initiated it, so it focused around me. In the earliest St Martins days I really liked the work of Dubuffet and De Kooning, but hadn’t got around to Jackson Pollock. Eduardo Chillida, William Turnbull, and Eduardo Paolozzi knew Braque and Giacometti personally. Paris was not my world: New York was my world.

I came back from America in 1960, prepared to go through a big change in my own work. I had met Clement Greenberg and his wife in England at a party given by Turnbull. In 1958 I had already tried, and failed, to get a travel grant to go to the U.S. In 1959 I got it. Clem said “Look me up,” so I did.

At Turnbull’s party I remember he said, “English sculpture is no good—Chadwick, Butler, and so on.” I said, “But you haven’t seen my work.” He agreed to come to my studio. I collected him and we talked about sculpture for hours. I had made a large figure [Woman’s Body, 1959] that I wasn’t really happy with. I had cast rocks and stones, but it was still a clay person, not a thing in its own right. When I went to America I was trying to break through to something new. Clem made me see possibilities. Steel was foreign to me. So when I got back to London, I went to a steelyard in the East End and bought some scrap steel. I knew nothing about working directly in metal. I said to Frank Martin, the head of sculpture at St Martins, “How do you join two bits of steel?” That shows how little I knew. I made three or four big pieces, and they were in the courtyard of my house.

I had met Michael Fried, who was at Oxford, in the summer of 1960. I asked him to see my work. When he saw my sculptures in the courtyard, he jumped with pleasure and excitement. He was the first person outside of my sculptor friends to see them. I sent photos to Kenneth Noland and Greenberg who both liked them. Then, thanks to Noland, I was asked to teach at Bennington.

We forget what it was like in the ’60s. It’s the air you breathe: Poons, Stella, Frankenthaler, Motherwell, Noland, Olitski, and, of course, David Smith. When I look at their works, they were by far the best artists of that period.

Dream City, 1992–94. Rusted steel, 243.8 x 304.8 x 213.4 cm.

BM: Greenberg regarded a work such as Twenty-Four Hours as being abstract. In fact, many of your American commentators regarded you as abstract, whereas the English tended to see specific associations in your work—the disk in Twenty-Four Hours, for example, reading as a clock or as the sun. If you regarded them as abstract, why did you give them associational titles?

AC: The English have always tended to make literary assumptions. Americans are more comfortable with abstraction. Anyway, the titles of works such as Twenty-Four Hours came after the sculpture was completed.

BM: Many of the titles come from song titles of the period, don’t they?

AC: Quite correct. The first abstract sculptures I simply numbered, but the numbers became too many and too hard to remember. Noland had a book of racehorse names. I use the titles of songs. The names of drinks. Pompadour was called by the name of the paint I used, Pompadour Pink. I regard the names as I do the color—a lead into the way you look at a sculpture. I try to get them right but they are never quite right.

Babylon, 1997–2001. Jarrah wood railway sleepers, spiked and bolted together, 380 x 1,005 x 423 cm.

BM: There’s a clear argument for saying that the influence of Greenberg and Fried, which was enormous on you and on several generations of artists, led up a dead end. You yourself returned to figurative sculpture. Why?

AC: Fried and Greenberg never gave directions, never said to me, “This is the way to go.” They responded to what they saw. Clem was never a formalist, that name was wished on him by those who didn’t like his approach. He thought highly of F.E. McWilliam; he liked Frank Dobson’s sculpture, probably more than he did Henry Moore’s. Before Clem died I took the catalogue of “The Trojan War” to show to him and he said, “It looks good. I like it.” Yet it’s not abstract.

The buzz around the name of Clem has been so hostile, and he is drawn as a kind of devil. Not so. In looking at art, Clem and Michael were clear and hard-nosed. Clem did not want to hear what an artist had to say about his work or the ideas that lay behind the art he made. He wanted a clean look and to respond to how it hit him. You never knew what he was going to like or why. In the studio, he was utterly honest. He had a wonderful eye—what a way to look at art. Mike you could talk to about your theories. For instance, he was very helpful about my table sculptures. He was the one who pointed out the difference between table level and floor level, “The table has an edge.” With Clem, you’d do it, then he’d look. Maybe he would say, “There’s something wrong with the left-hand side of the piece.” With Mike, you could talk to him about the dreams you were nursing in your head. Clem was 15 years older than me; Mike about 15 years younger.

When I look back on myself in the ’60s I see a tough, directed person. I didn’t respect anyone who didn’t think like me. If I hadn’t been brutally obsessive, I would have been sliced into little pieces. We were so arrogant. We were explorers going into uncharted territory—so we didn’t go unarmed.

BM: Did your preoccupation with the notion of weightlessness stem from Gabo?

AC: Absolutely not. I never really liked Hepworth, Gabo, or Pevsner—too close to design. I wanted it real. “The most material of means to get the most immaterial of effects,” as Clem said of Pollock. I love that. Having something as weighty and tangible as steel or wood and then making it fly. That’s why I prefer Pollock to Rothko.

BM: Rothko’s a stage designer.

AC: Exactly.

BM: How about Kenneth Martin’s screw mobiles. Very industrialized. Did they influence you?

AC: Kenneth Martin was a lovely man, but he never influenced me. It always struck me that his mobiles were cold abstractions. I like nothing less than cold art. Nicholson is cold, Mondrian is not. I always said I’d never make things that aren’t human in feeling! I want to touch the gut, the heart.

BM: Can you comment on the influence of painters on your sculpture. I’m thinking of Noland who actually painted some of your work, Frankenthaler in whose studio you worked and she in yours, Morris Louis, and Olitski. Your first exhibition was one for painter-sculptors.

AC: I worked next to Noland in the ’60s and ’70s. We are the same age. When we first met in 1959, we talked one whole night, about everything; he is totally without bullshit. We became friends. I had seen his work—the circles, which were entirely new to me. Ken was lacking in literary cleverness and yet really smart. I’d not met an artist like this before—unlike with the European artists, there was no talk about Sartre and Camus or Existentialism. After I’d sent him photos of new work I was asked to teach at Bennington. Ken had got hold of Jules Olitski too. The three of us, together with our wives, would meet almost every night and talk about art or play ping-pong or poker. About 10 years ago we met again to do a workshop together in Hartford, Connecticut.

Elephant Palace, 1989. Welded brass, 188 x 303.5 x 190.5 cm.

BM: What about Frank Stella?

AC: Stella was making the black and silver stripes at the time. He was younger than we were. There was Larry Poons and company—Helen Frankenthaler, Bob Motherwell, Ray Parker, Paul Feeley—all of them would come up to Ken’s place. Looking at each other’s work was an enormous stimulus, not only to hone one’s eye, but also to give ideas: “I wonder if it could be done in sculpture?” Eyelit, for example, as near as dammit a line, as close to a monolith as you could go. Ken told me, “If I have a criticism, it’s that you put too much into one sculpture. Work in series.” That was the way we talked. He himself had learned that from David Smith.

Jules was making his colors flow, spraying. I used ploughshares in my work: the softness came out of Olitski. We were all thinking, talking, working. One day Jules produced something with five little dots in the corner. What was he doing? Ten years earlier, it was happening with Tucker, King, Scott, and Bolus. You need trust. You try to get on each other’s wavelength.

BM: Was the connection to David Smith, whose work you are often seen as continuing, that of his attitude of bringing the business of art into line with everyday life?

AC: “Bringing art into line with everyday life” is getting things back to front. David Smith made a point of saying, “I’m just a welder,” but that was a smokescreen. He was extremely intelligent. He told me, “My wife said, I need a new cooker, but I bought drawing paper instead.” David was a big man. He looked like a workman, lived with working people, he wouldn’t tolerate bullshit.

BM: You once said that you had swallowed art history, “getting it inside yourself, making a pool or pond inside yourself on which you are going to be able to set sail.” Do you still think the same way?

AC: I did that. Much of my life in the studio is on autopilot. I’ll look at any idea. I’ll listen to anybody’s take, even a child’s. Some of my sculptures have come out of the Old Masters. Everyone draws from earlier artists.

BM: Your post-1960s work is often regarded as a protest against the preciousness and rhetoric of some of Moore’s bronzes. Are you aware of rhetoric in work o…f your own, such as Orangerie?

AC: I don’t see rhetoric in Orangerie. I am aware of the dangers of rhetoric. You have to leave a lot for the viewer. It’s not good to overstate. The viewer has to contribute.

BM: You once said that you objected to viewers walking into a sculpture—which means that they lose any sense of tactility. Do you still hold that attitude?

AC: You use your eye as a surrogate for the body. If it’s a sculpture for children or a public sculpture, then by all means invite the spectator to interact in a physical way. I hate the “I can run my hand over it” sort of tactility. By and large the idea of sculpture for the blind is nonsense. Distancing yourself, and imagining yourself in, but not going in, has been an important feature of a lot of my work. A sculpture has an invisible barrier around it.

Installation view of “Caro at Longsides”: (foreground) Goodwood Steps, 1996, varnished steel, 395 x 650 x 3,340 cm.; (background) Egyptian, 1994–2001. Rusted and varnished steel, 122 x 232 x 207 cm.

But when we talk about public sculpture there is a problem: you have to involve the spectators. A lump of metal as a monument is pretentious; almost always the bigger it is, the worse it is. Art is special. It’s a distillation of life.

BM: To go back full circle to your early figurative years—some critics consider Man Holding His Foot to derive from Michelangelo or ancient stone carvings. For myself, I thought it might have been suggested by Rodin’s Earth.

AC: The ancestor in art is Picasso. Moore is a smooth artist. Picasso is rougher. In the ’50s, after I had seen his “angry” animals, I made some sculptures of bulls. But then I thought, “Am I making bulls because I’m scared to make a human?” and so I tackled a human head-on—Man Holding His Foot.

BM: Was the idea of making a sculptural “bricolage,” using stones etc., for casting, suggested by Picasso also?

AC: No. That came from Moore. A tree had fallen, and I made a bull out of it. I need ways of getting going. I once put 20 lumps of clay around the studio, then started hitting them, dropping them on the floor, going round with eyes closed, then seeing what had happened to the lumps—ways of getting started.

Brian McAvera is an art writer and playwright living in Northern Ireland.