Anthony Caro at Mitchell-Innes & Nash
“Anthony Caro: Painted Sculpture” at Mitchell-Innes & Nash until February 6
1018 Madison Avenue between 78th and 79th Streets, 212-744-7400
You could call Sir Anthony Caro the Madonna of sculpture. However irreverent to recall the Pop diva in relation to so high-minded a modernist as Mr. Caro, the sculptor shares with the entertainer a protean capacity for personal reinvention while never leaving the viewer in any doubt that a piece is his.
Mr. Caro has been celebrating his 80th year with a slew of exhibitions and publications that mark his stature as one of the giants of sculpture of the last 100 years, which will culminate, later this month, with London’s Tate Modern’s much anticipated retrospective. With Mr. Caro’s radical shifts in gear it will be fascinating to experience how the career adds up, to see what kind of whole emerges from such disperate parts. The last forty five years have witnessed expressive modeled figuration, hard-edged, garishly colored steel assemblages, intimate, enigmatic handsized works, almostly brutally abstract statements that insist of their pure opticality, architectural entities you can climb or walk through, mythological series. Will the galleries resonate order or competition with the contrasts of color and rust, engineered shapes and accidental ones, found and manipulated forms, pure formalism and complex narrative?
There is also a major new monograph just out that charts the sculptor’s evolution in painstaking detail. Its author, Ian Barker, who worked with Mr. Caro for forty years as an exhibition organizer and dealer, has drawn extensively on personal correspondence and the critical record.
There have been various New York gallery shows over the year, exploring different aspects of his oeuvre. The show that opens today at Mitchell-Innes and Nash, for instance, offers a spritely selection of canonical painted sculpture of the 1960s together with examples of his latest work in galvanized steel. These still have the power to startle, despite all that has happened in sculpture in the last half-century to radically overturn any confusion of the medium with classical statuary.
In theory, vintage Caros ought to take their place politely in the history of art. They may have been radical in their time, but so much has happened since, you could argue. His American contemporaries, the minimalists, took reduction of means and inflation of scale to a much greater degree, and since then sculpture has moved into ever more zany, more wacky territory. And yet, it is the very fact that these insist on working as sculpture that makes them radical and timeless.
Take “Aroma,” (1966) in polished and lacquered steel, for instance. It looks to be made from standard building components left close to their intended form: a beam and three pipes at once prop up and interrupt the central, dominating element, a sheet of mesh. For all that this is a supremely elegant arrangement of subtle lines in a rich color, the elements somehow preserve their brazen insolence as forms out of place. The mesh was the kind that, in the construction process, would have been buried in concrete, so it becomes symbolic of its alienation that it should be so exposed in art. It is also a rigidly flat grid that ironically becomes the central motif of a sculptural form that eludes any attempt at a full-frontal view.
Mr. Caro’s first reinvention took place after a trip to America in 1959. After studying engineering at Cambridge, his early artistic training had been conservative, under the Royal Academician Charles Wheeler. As he later recounted, “”I had gone into sculpture thinking I would be one of the chaps who does statues of Montgomery.” He was saved from this fate by Henry Moore, who he visited unannounced one day and by whom he was later taken on as an assistant. His first successes had come with a series of expressionist figures redolent of the existentialism of the 1950s, but exposure to the constructed sculpture of David Smith, and to the circle of artists gathered around the critic Clement Greenberg, opened him up to a whole new set of possibilities. When he returned to London and began welding together found metal scrap it looked like he was more influenced by his engineering studies than by Wheeler or Moore.
Moore was more than a stepping stone towards a cooler, sharper modernism: In fact, Mr. Caro’s whole career can actually be viewed through the lense of his at times oedipal relations to this sculptural giant. Shortly after his seminal exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 1963, which launched his spare, colorful pedestal-free welded constructions to the pubic, Mr. Caro published a stinging review of his mentor. “My generation abhors the idea of a father figure, and his work is bitterly attacked by artists and critics under forty when it fails to measure up to the outsize scale it has been given.” A couple of decades later, Mr. Caro himself would be making gargantuan, heroic, almost romantic works, installed in such settings at the Trajan Markets in Rome, that directly recalled the bombast of Moore’s similar treatment twenty years earlier in Florence. And as an influential teacher at St Martin’s School in London, Mr. Caro’s formalism would be shrugged off by artists like Richard Long and Gilbert and George who took the medium to conceptual and performance ends that Mr. Caro rejects.
In international perception, then, Mr. Caro is very much the successor of Moore. For his 1970s extension to the National Gallery of Art, for instance, I.M.Pei had a Moore commissioned for the exterior, and a Caro “Ledge Piece” for the building’s atrium. Putting the Caro inside is almost symbolic of his difference from the landscape vision of Moore. As Mr. Caro’s great critical champion Michael Fried once put it, his art is concerned with “internal and exhaustive relations.” The 1960s works, with their raw, exposed syntax, were clearly in tune with that decade’s obsession with semiotics, with laying bare the interstices of language and social structures. Mr. Caro, however, later described his subsequent return to more psychologically complex, expressive, even figurative sculpture in terms that don’t seem too caught up with critical theory. In 1980 he wrote: “Twenty years ago we were trying to find ways to make art with clarity and economy, to establish our grammar. Now we can write fuller sentences. We can allow for more weight and pressure without throwing overboard the gains that were won then.”
One of his most audacious and significant moves in the early 1960s was to do away with the pedestal—and more than that, to make sculpture that doesn’t grow from a single root but has multiple points of contact with the ground. A whole generation of sculptors were influenced by this move, and followed suit. But Caro himself went on to re-introduce the pedestal as a vital, rather than passive component, with works intended to emphasize their hand-held, intimate scale. “Table Piece XXVIII,” (1967) at Mitchell-Innes & Nash joins a tilting cone to a double-bent pipe that pivots on the side edge of the supporting pedestal. Crucially, and typically, the table pieces drop below the table line in a way that plays with space: they are at once floating and grounded.
The same is true in trumps with the major piece that dominates this show, “Cadence,” (1968-72), a sprawling arrangement of sheets and pipes painted in a gorgeously saturating mustardy yellow. The color and form are similar to one of his classic pieces which will be seen at the Tate, “Prairie, (1967), and was in fact made on request as a redux of that piece for the color field painter Kenneth Noland, who has loaned the work. A couple of years earlier, incidentally, Mr. Noland had passed onto Mr. Caro the stock of metal parts he had acquired from the family of David Smith, who was killed in a car crash in 1965. “Prairie” was the tradename for the color used, making it a richly ambiguous title. On the one hand, there is the material, industrial sensibility of naming for a color brand, but at the same time the name evokes a pastoral sense of farm machinery and bucolic color.
“Cadence” is a defining early Caro: it demands to be seen from every angle, is a radically open form, yet far from inviting the viewer in it frustrates sculptural empathy. In a way you have to stand well back from it and have it float within the cube of the gallery, to work on your retina in a purely optical fashion. The pre-formed metal components are emphatic, giving weight and measure to the piece, but the color etherealizes the form. Color doesn’t just give sumptuous lightness to the piece: it democratizes the components, forcing attention to the relations of parts to whole.
In a way, early Caros have weathered so well precisely because their author moved on. They look fresh and authentic because they haven’t been compromised by rehashes and endless variations (at least not by Mr. Caro himself.) Despite their clipped and measured tone, these colored constructive sculptures are imbued with a restless energy that would later take contrastive turns towards beat-up, rusty, expressive form, or whimsical, baroque, playful arrangements—and both directions, in their way, are anticipated. Even though his rules changed—an insistence that sculpture was “eyes only” in one decade gave way to to explorations of sculpture that merged with architecture, which he called “sculpitecture,” in the next—what didn’t change was the sense of needing rules, and needing to break them.