The angry man of sculpture
With admission charges thrown to the winds, we can enter into dialogues with 50 pieces of Anthony Caro’s work in both intimate and grand spaces at Tate Britain. Corinna Lotz reports on a long overdue retrospective for a sculptor who continues to challenge.
Anthony Caro, it seems, was unhappy with the idea of the show being bisected into paying and free sections. In any case, it is impossible to restrict entrance to the Tate's central areas. The happy result is a truly public sculptural installation which even so strains to go beyond the interior spaces to the outdoors.
The opportunity is long overdue. Over the past decade, major Caro retrospectives have been held internationally, but not in Britain, and certainly not in spectacular public settings. A small display of photographs at the beginning of the Tate's promenade provides some clues to the splendour of such events.
In 1992 the Trajan Forum in Rome formed a triumphant backdrop. Then, in 1995, the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art opened with a 114-work Caro show. Athens and Thessaloniki staged major displays in 1997, followed by Venice (1999), Bilbao (2000), and Barcelona (2000). The last London showings were at Kenwood in 1994 (The Trojan War) and the National Gallery in 1998. And even then his 3-D interpretation of Van Gogh's chair got a very mixed press.
But Caro is no stranger to bold actions or risking displeasure from those who would like artists to conform to accepted fashions and dogmas. After an initial training at the traditionalist Royal Academy Schools, Caro knocked unannounced on Henry Moore's door in 1951 to ask if he could work under him. "I actually did very much try to get inside his head and learn everything I could from him… it was fabulous," Caro recalls. The carved and modelled human forms which were the norm in Moore's work and that of most contemporary sculpture, were grossly distorted and stretched and pushed to extremes by his former assistant.
The podgy, deliberately awkward Man Holding His Foot, Man Taking Off His Shirt and Pulling on a Girdle of the 1950s are above all physically present. They are clumsy, stumpy and funny - deliberately flouting notions of how we might relate to sculpture.
A total metamorphosis then occurs. The squidgy brown worm turns into a butterfly. Caro's oxyacetylene welded steel Twenty Four Hours, Sculpture Seven, Early One Morning, and Month of May are a revelation and a seeming release from the weight of the mass. This is solid steel - and by balancing the delicate with the heavy, the focus is now on sensations arising from pure colour and form.
The change from the lumpy figures to the airy constructions of the 1960s seems unbelievable. And yet, there is a connection. Caro looks at how we experience the life of an intensely-lived present moment from within, not from its outer surface, captured with gusto and humour. The wonderful, hovering Early One Morning of 1962 was acquired by the Tate as early as 1966 and no one can now challenge its innovative qualities, not to speak of its aesthetic pleasures. Welded steel sculpture has become part of the 20th century way of seeing the world, ingratiating itself into the collective psyche.
It is difficult today to appreciate quite what a breakthrough bringing this industrial technique into British fine art was in its time. In the postwar period, Moore and Barbara Hepworth were the patron saints of British sculpture. Caro's break with his teacher Moore symbolised a sea change in British - and international - culture. The last cobwebs of wartime austerity and repressiveness were swept away. A new generation was breaking loose.
Sculpture Seven, 1961
The crucible for contemporary British sculpture - and ideas about art - now became the 25-year collaboration between Frank Martin and Caro at St Martin's School of Art. Recruited in 1953 by the visionary teacher Martin, Caro decided he was going to "teach as a student"1. "I made it clear that we were all engaged on an adventure, to push sculpture where it has never been."
It was a great enterprise which transformed not only sculpture but a whole approach to art education. As another member of St Martin's, Tim Scott, has explained: "Frank Martin's teaching policy was based on the idea of informal argument and discussion between staff and students, the famous St Martin's crits... Martin saw that there was a hidden treasure in the cultural life of the country ... the sculpture school was above all a partnership with Caro that established a new ethos of breaking with tradition and thinking freshly about sculpture."
Caro made his first trip to the USA in 1959. Meeting abstract painters like Kenneth Noland, seeing the abstract steels made by David Smith and exchanging ideas with critic Clement Greenberg revolutionised Caro's approach. As John Golding has written: "He recognised that developments in American painting were in advance of those in contemporary sculpture."2
Cut-out sheets of steel, pipes, rods, sickles, propeller-like twisted oblongs, grilles and grids, semi-circles and cylinders all move around in exciting combinations. They probe and go beyond the limits of what could be done on the edge of plinths and tables. From the painted steel of the 1960s, Caro then went on to use great sheets of rusted steel in the 1970s. From 1982, Caro began to organise the Triangle Artists' Workshops in upstate New York with his wife Sheila Girling and critic Robert Loder. Initially they involved artists from the US, Britain and Canada. The project was extended to Barcelona in 1987. Over 90 workshops in 28 countries have been organised since, taking forward the idea of collective work with active critical debate which was begun at St Martin's.
It was a way in which Caro and those with whom he worked could reach beyond themselves and make sculpture into a social and community enterprise. He refused to stand still. From steel he moved into other media, including wood, bronze, brass and stoneware.
His Child's Tower Room of 1983-1984 was a spiralling, diagonal climbing toy just under four metres high. Its curving, sensuously grained Japanese oak brings softer, baroque qualities into play. But a modernist, constructivist content is also present. The piece is a revival of the pioneering Monument to the Third International made by Russian Constructivist Vladimir Tatlin in 1920. A photograph of an architectural/sculptural "village" made with Frank Gehry, Girling and Jon Isherwood in 1987 shows the utopian aspirations even more powerfully.
After visits to Greece and India, Caro found new impetus and inspiration from great masterpieces of the past. From abstract classical rectilinearity, Caro introduced curves in the 1980s. Then perhaps through his inspiration from other artists such as Manet, Picasso, Rembrandt and Rubens, he returned to a new kind of figuration. In the 1990s, Caro began to experiment with stoneware and wood, learning techniques from ceramicist Hans Spinner. A series of Book Sculptures (not shown at the Tate) were a kind of build-up to the dramatic contrasts of texture and material that were taken onto monumental level in The Last Judgement.
He has a grand vision but he expresses it with down-to-earth means and images as well as a wicked sense of humour. Caro has retained his ability to shock and awe. Many people have found it a lot easier to admire the abstract steel constructions which marked his greatest wrench from the past. But even while he approached his 80th year Caro declined to rest on his laurels. Critics, both favourable and disparaging, have spoken of the "human" qualities which suddenly and perhaps strangely speak out from his work, even the most abstract constructions.
Caro has refused to comply with the fashionable post-modern convention that artists are not supposed to have strong political views. He wants to comment on humanity's triumphs as well as its horrors. His The Last Judgement which has provoked a lot of negative press, is full of allusions to monstrous events conceived in a theatrical, operatic way. "I felt oppressed by the political and moral bankruptcy of people's attitudes," he remarked in 1999. "I just felt the need to do it."
Speaking on the eve of this show Caro said in an interview: "Politics suddenly came into my work. I'm disgusted by the way things are happening. I think that Bush and Blair are war criminals. I wouldn't shake hands with Blair if I had the opportunity to do it. He has no honour at all. I found myself getting intimate with politics with The Trojan War. But what is the narrative about? Is it about the Trojan War or is it about the Kosovan war? It's difficult to know. I think it probably went over the top a bit in The Barbarians. I don't want to preach. But I'm angry."
Caro at Tate Britain
Caro, edited by Paul Moorhouse with essays by Michael Fried and Dave Hickey.
Tate Publishing. £24.99
This article first appeared in Socialist Future Review Spring 2005