Mr. Caro has devoted
a career to breaking rules: first the received ones that greeted his
arrival on the scene in the late 1950s, and subsequently the ones he
invented himself, often to be followed dogmatically by acolytes. He
insisted, for instance, on distancing sculpture from conventional statuary
by placing it directly on the ground, without a pedestal of any kind.
But then he re-embraced the plinth with aplomb, making the support vital
and integral to the sculptural experience.
In the monumental sculptures
for which he is best known, Mr. Caro reveals his twin allegiances to
the soft modernism of Moore and the hard modernism of David Smith. His
language oscillates disarmingly between the brutal and the whimsical,
regardless of scale. In these smaller works, however, there is an uncharacteristic
degree of expressivity and involvedness. We see him looking over the
shoulders of his "two fathers", as he has identified his mentors,
to the common sculptural grandfather: Picasso.
The appropriately calligraphic
"writing pieces", in particular, recall Picasso's early forays
into direct welding, with Julio Gonzalez as his guide. "Writing
Piece 'This'," (1979) employs as its found elements a rusty saw
and some kind of handle or crank. There is barely any sense of "appropriation"
in the Pop or surreal sense, but that doesn't necessarily make Mr. Caro
the pure formalist he has been cracked up to be: There are complex language
games at play, as components both shed and regain their powers of signification.
These enigmatic pieces can
evoke another kind of writing, which also militates against formalism:
a sense of narrative. This is not to suggest that specific stories are
being told-he is resolutely abstract; rather, the structure and complexity
of the pieces denies the viewer the satisfaction of the single take,
forcing an extended, almost sequential reading of the different events
going on within. "Table Bronze 'Chemical Box', (1987) for instance,
is an animated grid in the tradition of early Smith, the pictograms
of Torres-Garcia, or even the Surrealist phase of Giacometti.
The variety of materials,
including not just different metals but, cohabiting in single pieces,
the welding and casting processes, all suggest restless inquiry. And
yet despite his protean creativity there is a strange aloofness of touch,
a lack of overt sensuality. Perhaps this is because so much of the grunt
work is done by assistants. But somehow the restraint seems more intentional,
an insistence that the true content is the relationship of parts, not
the fashioning or finding of the parts themselves. This suggests that
with all his dancing around and breaking of rules, Mr. Caro is, at heart,
a formalist after all.
In Pure Mind 2003
bronze, 34 x 16 x 16 inches, edition 1/6
Courtesy Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, New York
To the circle around Clement
Greenberg, the New York critic who was so instrumental in promoting
Mr. Caro at the outset of his career, Michael Steiner was the "white
hope" for an American link in the constructivist chain. At the
tender age of 18, Mr. Steiner staged his first solo exhibition in New
York in 1966, just around the time when Mr. Caro's ascension was being
assured. Of the two, Mr. Steiner now seems more faithful to the idiom
of open-form construction.
His current show at Salander's-lie
Mr. Caro's at Artemis-reveals an uncharacteristic intimacy, in terms
both of size and touch. Hardly intimate in mood, however, these grids
have the unavoidable connotation of cages. The mottled surfaces, though
literally sensitive to touch (they are cast from wax and patinated to
look as if they were painted in dollops of tar) are alienating in their
In a formal sense these works
achieve their density through a fugal relationship of one grid misregistering
with another (one grid will be on the diagonal to another on the vertical/horizontal,
for instance). Large luminous gouaches play on a similar motif.
Other pieces court utility:
they evoke machines or boats, with slats, pistons, and portholes, without
reading literally as functional objects per se. In their ponderous way,
these pieces hint at whimsy, but they are in a minority in this show.
The lasting impression made by the bronze jails, with their grim surfaces
and austere structures, is of tragic grandeur.
Morris Louis Theta
acrylic resin on canvas, 101-3/4 x 130 inches
Courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery
With these two Greenberg
protégés under your belt, you will want to visit one of
the critic's favorite painters, Morris Louis. Paul Kasmin has a varied
selection of large canvases from 1958-60, the years when, quite late
in his truncated career, Louis hit his stride.
The artist was a prodigious
editor of his own work, often taking his destructive cue from a shake
of Greenberg's head. While this show includes top notch examples of
familiar Louis motifs within his stain painting idiom, including "Bronze",
a "veil" from 1958, and "Delta Upsilon," and "Theta
Gamma," two "stripes" from 1960, the show includes works
in which there are dense and, by Louis's standards, almost brushy expanses
of flat color. "Addition VI," (1959) closely recalls Helen
Frankenthaler's "Mountain and Sea," (1952), whose seminal
influence on Louis is well documented.
The chance to see works in
the estate of the artist that the artist himself might never have exhibited
is raising eyebrows among the Greenbergian "faithful" (I visited
the show with a stalwart) but actually it can only do Louis good. The
best case scenario is posthumous reinvention. The second best is confirmation
that he had good taste as an editor and knew the worth of his more canonical
inventions, despite the relative obscurity in which he worked, painting
in a suburban dining room in Washington DC.: "Theta Gamma",
for instance, which really belongs in a museum (although American museums
have plenty of Louis's languishing in their vaults).
His genius was to discover
forms distinct enough to avoid geometric reduction yet impersonal enough
to convey color as an end in itself.