Out in the Midday Sun: Sir Anthony Caro on the Roof at the Met
Anthony Caro on the Roof at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden
April 26 to October 30, 2011
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York City, 212-879-5500
This year’s summer exhibition on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 8,000 square-foot roof garden features five works by Sir Anthony Caro, the most influential British sculptor of his generation. Gently suspended above the verdant carpet of Central Park, and embraced by the New York skyline, the roof garden is not just a pleasant context for viewing art in general but, as it turns out, is uniquely suited to experiencing Caro’s art in particular as it prepares the viewer for the radical shift in perspective that his sculpture provides.
Still prolific at 87, Caro, , who lives in London, is best known for his innovations in modernist sculpture. He began to make abstract sculptures welded together from scrap metal in the early 1960s. He brought an investigation of pure form, line, and material to sculpture at the same time that his contemporaries Kenneth Noland and Frank Stella were accomplishing this in painting. The current show offers a representative sampling of Caro’s iconic, large-scale steel compositions from the past 50 years, beginning with Midday (1960), commonly regarded as his first masterpiece, and extending through the decades to a new work named, appropriately enough, End Up (2010). With the exception of Odalisque (1984), which is in the Metropolitan’s collection, the works are on loan.
The Met’s roof garden provides a transformed view of one’s everyday surroundings: rather than being immersed in the lush greenery of Central Park, one is suddenly able to look down on it and across it, from above. The buildings that normally tower overhead, almost invisible from the street, now meet our level gaze. This perspectival shift is exactly what Caro accomplished with his ground breaking welded steel sculptures of the 1960s: they sat down and along the ground, beneath and before viewers, rather than above them. By removing the pedestal and offering boldly physical, abstract forms that confront us in our own space, at our own scale, Caro inverts the traditional relationship of the beholder and object. Rather than gazing up at a sculpture on a raised base or platform, we apprehend the works by looking down on them from above (as with After Summer and End Up) or confronting them at eye level (Midday, Odalisque, Blazon). Our rooftop position—suspended above yet within the city—prepares us for a similar position vis-à-vis Caro’s remarkable forms.
The two strongest pieces in the show, After Summer and Midday, are also the pieces that most strongly embody this transformation in perspective. After Summer (1968) consists of a pair of long parallel beams set on edge along the ground, with a series of curved pieces of steel made from quartered tank ends affixed to the beams like sails. The symmetrical layering of the curved, pointed shapes, along with the creamy light-grey color, makes the work formally rigorous yet soft. (Ken Johnson disapprovingly calls the piece “militaristic” in his recent New York Times review of the show, a description that caused me to wonder whether we had in fact seen the same work). Because the piece is twenty-four feet long but only five feet tall, the sculpture sits just below eye level. It unfurls slightly beneath and away from us along the ground as if we were gazing out at sea upon undulating waves.
Midday, on the other hand, is slightly taller and longer than we are. It confronts us with a bold physicality—aided by the fresh intensity of its yellow color—that we relate to as if it were a living body, despite its consisting of I-beams, panels, and bolts. Clement Greenberg, who was a close friend and supporter of Caro, wrote that in his sculptures we find “an emphasis on abstractness, on radical unlikeness to nature.” It is true that the tilted series of I-beams and welded steel panels that make up Midday do not immediately suggest organic forms. Nevertheless, its mysterious power derives in part from the fact that its proportions and angles suggest a reclining figure. (Let us not forget that Caro began his career as Henry Moore’s assistant.) On the other hand, the play of angular shapes that dance along its surface is complemented beautifully by the ribbon of New York City skyline just beyond it, reminding us of the everyday use for those steel beams and bolts.
Another sculpture whose visual impact is enhanced by its current setting is the bold red Blazon (1987-90). Like two other sculptures in the exhibition, Odalisque and End Up, Blazon is much more dense and compressed as a form than After Summer and Midday. Rather than looking through the work, we must look at, into, and around its complex layering of shapes. The sculpture’s monumental height and weight are offset by the open railing set into one side, suggesting a balcony from which a viewer might gaze out (or be gazed at). This touch of human scale brings balance to its imposing mass, which is further offset by the buildings in the background that echo its verticality.
Michael Fried has often praised Caro’s sculptures for their self-contained, fully present quality. For Fried, Caro’s art is a strong counterpoint to what he famously decries, in his essay, “Art and Objecthood,” as the essentially theatrical aspect of Minimal art, which relies on both its viewer and surroundings to complete the work. The fact that these five Caro sculptures happen to work so beautifully in their current, temporary location on the roof of the Metropolitan does not disprove Fried’s observation regarding their formal self-sufficiency. Nevertheless, it shows the power that the right setting can have in releasing the full impact of these sculptures, and helps us to experience just what a master of perspective Caro can be.