By: Matthew Rose
Just outside a former pipe and piano factory in London’s Camden Town, several tons of rusted steel and iron scraps sit parked like refugees from the Industrial Revolution. Acquired from junkyards around Europe, these twisted bits of detritus and mysterious machine parts serve Anthony Caro as the building blocks of his brand of modernism—one that has elevated the 85-year-old British sculptor into the upper reaches of art history.
In 1960 Caro nearly single-handedly changed the look and feel—and weight—of contemporary sculpture, establishing his signature syntax with painted steel I-beams and sheets of steel, as well as his major innovation: the elimination of both figure and plinth from sculpture. Caro unpacked the cube, and out came something unexpected.
“I’ve always thought Cubism was so obviously about sculpture, not painting,” says Caro, conducting a tour of his studio. Two of his assistants grind away at welding joints on a series of new two-ton pieces, sending the acrid odor of smoldering iron into the air. Scattered about are giant ball bearings, old steel drums, an assortment of curved steel shapes, as well as a pair of acetylene tanks and a forklift. Heavy iron chains, navy anchors and iron bulkheads await placement by the artist.
“I took the general down from the horse,” says Caro. “Taking the work off the pedestal and putting it on the ground provided a shift in looking. The viewer was no longer forced to look up, but could look across and through.” While Caro did haul his figurative pieces from the late 1950s down from pedestals to “make them more real”—Woman’s Body (1959) landed on a bench—that wasn’t enough for the artist, who struggled with the enormous weight of the history of sculpture and its addiction to “models of people.” The rumblings that led him to pure abstraction began as far back as 1950, when Caro helped Henry Moore produce his first bronze castings. In return, Moore helped his young assistant by critiquing the drawings and sculptures he made in his small, cramped garage in London.
A successful one-man show in 1957 at the Gimpel Fils gallery in London yielded glowing reviews but left the artist less than satisfied. Even as a teacher at St. Martin’s School of Art, from the mid-’50s until 1979, Caro taught his flock as a fellow student, promising an adventure to see where they could take sculpture. His students turned out to be some of the art world’s most compelling innovators, including Richard Deacon, Barry Flanagan, Gilbert & George and Richard Long.
At a party in London in 1959, Caro heard the high priest of modernism, Clement Greenberg, holding forth about the poverty of British sculpture. “Clement said our reputation was higher than it deserved to be, that there were no decent English sculptors,” remembers Caro, who replied, “You can’t say that until you’ve seen my work.” Always game, the American critic “came to my studio and soon enough, made me question my work. He said, ‘If you want to change your art you need to change your habits.’ Greenberg would ask, ‘Do you need that bit?’ I’d sometimes put a question mark on a piece he noticed. He was an angel in the studio, but sometimes he was wrong. He was like Ezra Pound to T.S. Eliot. We all need editors.”
It was the gristmill of the New York art world that served as Caro’s greatest editor. “In 1959 I met Helen Frankenthaler, Bob Motherwell and Dore Ashton on my first trip,” he recalls. “They said, ‘Oh, we must give you a party.’ Artists and celebrities came. Franz Kline dropped in; Hedy Lamarr was there.” And so was David Smith, the sculptor who only two years before had enjoyed a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Smith said to meet him at the Cedar Tavern. “We did, then went to Chinatown and had a Mongolian hot-pot and talked art.”
That meeting proved critical, not just for Caro but for the future of abstraction in sculpture. Smith, the former automobile assembly-line welder, produced totemic constructions in steel that paved a path away from illusionistic representational sculpture, taking cues from Pablo Picasso and Julio González. Caro, then just 35, was quick to see the possibilities. He heeded Greenberg’s advice, too, and changed his habits: Back in London Caro bought himself an acetylene torch and began welding scrap metal, forcefully discarding what he’d learned.
Twenty Four Hours, Caro’s seminal assemblage in steel, effaced the artist’s fingerprints and literally unpacked the solid forms that had dominated sculpture up to that point. Painted dark brown and black, Twenty Four Hours sat directly on the ground, and, with its three large plates of steel, was decidedly abstract, denying the figure while implying humanity. It was a breakthrough of seismic proportions.
“When I lived in America, my work changed,” Caro says of his stint teaching at Bennington College in Vermont from 1963–65. Smith and Kenneth Noland lived nearby; Jules Olitski, Frank Stella, Larry Poons and Bill Rubin would come up on weekends. “In Britain I was looking at the flowers in the flower bed; there, I was looking at a wider horizon. Morris Louis’ ‘unfurls’ could not have been made in Europe. America offered a sense of a big breeze.”
That big breeze led to works like Midday (1960), which inscribed space in a wholly new way with its giant steel girder painted bright yellow and angled directly off the ground. Time became an integral part of the work, and a visual musicality entered into Caro’s sculptural vocabulary. The pieces were painted a single color or left to rust naturally. Lock, a low-lying threesome of I-beams painted blue, followed in 1962.Early One Morning (1962) an expansive work in steel and aluminum, painted red, combined steel plates, tubes and I-beams across an 18-foot stretch. Light and airy, its references to windows, tables and movement allowed viewers to see through the artwork while they walked around it. There was no single entry point, no front, no back, no inside, no outside, and yet Caro’s objects were as clear as early morning. In 1963, an exhibition of these new works at the Whitechapel Gallery in London heralded the dawn of a new era in abstraction.
Caro developed a unique way of combining objects that drew upon Cubism but offered a brand new language in art. His table pieces from the 1970s, for example, featured Cubist assemblages that seemed to drip off the tables that serve as their bases. These innovations begin not with the world of objects but with the world of modernism itself. They take part in a form of conceptual play that began with the flat Cubist still lifes of Picasso and Braque, who refashioned space using canvas and paint. Caro’s assemblages appear flat, literally quoting Picasso and Braque, but shimmer between two- and three-dimensional illusion. They are brilliant syntheses of modernism.
Since his first abstract works, Caro’s reputation has soared, and hundreds of exhibitions have been staged around the world. After a 1975 mid-career retrospective at MoMA, Caro embraced figuration again with monumental works such as his seriesThe Trojan War and The Barbarians constructed of ceramics, wood and iron. Harking back to direct references to the body, Caro worked closely with ceramics master Hans Spinner out of a desire to be true to his calling: “Why don’t we try this and see what is possible?”
A 1998 exhibition at the National Gallery in London and a 2005 retrospective at the Tate Britain showed Caro pushing on in many directions at once. When he was a teenager, his father, a stockbroker, took his drawings to some esteemed sculptor of the day and returned with the verdict that Caro should try another profession. “My father never lived to see the success,” says Caro, “but my mother did.” Neither was around to cross London’s Millennium Bridge, which Caro codesigned with architect Norman Foster and engineer Chris Wise. The footbridge spans the Thames and connects Tate Modern with St. Paul’s Cathedral.
In October 2008 a Caro retrospective spread out across northern France, from Calais to Dunkirk and Gravelines, culminating in The Chapel of Light, a commission for the bombed-out medieval church of Saint Jean Baptiste in Bourbourg. A pair of wooden towers overlooks the choir, and a walk-in baptismal pool is surrounded by nine metal sculptures that recount Creation. During a lunch with journalists in Dunkirk, Caro was repeatedly asked about his religious thoughts (he was born Jewish), and he replied with some frustration, “When I was designing the Millennium Bridge, no one asked me about bridges.”
If there is a bridge we will continue asking Caro about, it will be the one he constructed that straddles the 20th and 21st centuries, and the aesthetic language he invented that inflects meaning and produces serious wonder.