Caro's New Sculpture (1972)
Artforum, Vol. 10, (June, 1972).
Sculpture has always been devoted to, and reached its highest expression, depicting the human figure. Sculpture concentrated especially on the figure because the physical difficulties of the medium would not allow panoramic depiction. Therefore sculpture never had a tradition of openness and extension - qualities natural to it - counting instead on the movement and surface of a mass. Ironically it was painting, the art of surface, which handed sculpture an instant tradition of openness and extension.
Painting is naturally adapted to the depiction of real images in (an illusion of) deep space. The integration of a realist painting is essentially guaranteed by that illusion because it makes a box in which objects can stand in relation to one another. In the last half of the 19th century the best painters saw that the quality of their art was specifically carried by the materials from which it was made. This gave more esthetic authority to materials, and materials as such became more evident in the picture. As materials came out from behind depiction they began to conform visually to the basic condition of the art - surface - and as paint spread across surface the illusion of deep space, which is fragile because unnatural to the art, faltered. Relationship was impeded because there was no more room to move around in and the integrity of painting was threatened.
Inspiration fought back, as always; we see it in the layered transparencies of Cézanne's watercolors, the disjointed openness of the Fauves, and especially the colored haze of the late Monet, which threatened to dissolve pictorial parts and bring everything up flat on the surface.
Cubism put things in order by systematizing outline in terms of the edge of the canvas and homogenizing the surface in terms of hue. Thus Cubism retained density of incident and reconciled actual and apparent flatness, and offered up its regular pictorial elements to specific relationships. Relationship is clarified by openness, so openness was implicit in the Cubist style, as it was in the Impressionist style, as it seems to be in painting itself.
Sculpture, the natural heir of Cubism, staggered back from the violence of Cubism and fell into stylistic disarray. Though Cubism convulsed painting it came up within painting as part of an evolution. Sculpture was totally unprepared. Original Cubist sculpture imitated Cubist painting slavishly. There were a few, such as Picasso's Guitar of 1913, which took up the Cubist potential for construction, but these were exceptions proving the rule. Laurens, Gris, Braque, Weber, Lipchitz and the Futurists all made Cubist sculpture, but it was closed, figural, Cubist on the surface only, and from painting, if not painterly. Constructivism petered out, unsupported by genius. Further on, in the years around 1930, some wonderful Cubist, open welded metal sculptures were made by Picasso and Gonzales. But even Picasso saw these pieces as a novelty out of a painting style rather than the foundation of a new art. If only he had run down what he started then, and given up painting! His abandonment of open welded sculpture is one of the surest symptoms of his abandonment of the high standards he had set 20 years before.
Then still later, in the '40s and '50s, after the lesson of openness was learned by ambitious sculptors, the structuring of their work reflected timidity as pictorial flatness and they fought against the inevitable Cubist reduction of sculptural elements. This open sculpture, beginning with Calder's adaption of Miro's images to three dimensions and continuing up to today, has been infected with leftovers of figuration which tried to hold on to "content": organic, biomorphic shape, precious surfaces, images of undersea or universe (always titled "Chronos," as I recall), evil-looking tropical-plant-insect forms, and all the rest. Though we see now, and will see more clearly in the future, that the full exercise of the Cubist style in three dimensions demands separable, more-or-less similar parts, the memory of the monolith and the qualities that came in its company was long and strong and hung on for nearly two generations. No one saw the differences between simplicity, clarity, and regularity of parts and geometric regularity of the whole, and no one got the idea that reference back to "real" states of being was more easily and clearly achieved by specifically differentiated and assembled parts than by the articulated surface of a mass.
David Smith was always a better sculptor than the rest, even when he used biomorphic forms. Inspiration consumes the impediments of style. And style, the style in the air in the '40s and '50s, worked against Smith. Clement Greenberg pointed out to me, in conversation, that during this time there was an overwhelming fear of the strict and regular. This can be seen in the art of the time, and it can be seen particularly in the extreme hostile reaction, even and especially from artists, to Newman's painting. The change came in the years around 1960, as simplified regular forms grew up like bulkheads against the endless waves of latter-day Abstract Expressionism. The new "geometry" was more visible in painting, if only because the differences were more exaggerated. But in the long run sculpture got the best of it. In effect the "hard-edges" of '60s painting embarrassed sculpture back to the source of its greatest strength. Smith had been chipping away at figuration and the monolith since he took up open welded sculpture in the early '30s. In the '60s, in the five or six years before his death, he celebrated a breakthrough with explosions of work: Voltri, Zig, Cubi - whole sets of disarmingly awkward, blunt, all-or-nothing sculpture. He honed his elements down and stretched them out as far as they would go, and began to break up the based vertical with the table pieces, the wheeled pieces and the scattered, off-balance haphazardness of Cubi. At the same time, Caro, a very different sculptural personality, turned away from his figure pieces to work with extremely simple arrangements of steel - the seeds and roots of the rampant complexities of today.
Looking back, the conclusions Smith and Caro came to seem inevitable, as all such things do. This is the stuff of art history. The point of change, for Caro especially, was not so much the simplification of parts as it was the attitude toward sculpture-making induced by the use of these parts. Smith gradually, and Caro suddenly, saw sculpture differently - as plastic rather than glyptic, as pieces making up a whole rather than a whole made up of pieces, as discovery upon assembling rather than variation of a mass. Although the technique of assembling had been well-employed by many sculptors it had not taken hold as the sole vehicle of inspiration. Sculpture would not take its whole form from the full exercise of the attitude untainted by old ghosts of esthetic authority.
Caro is Smith's heir; he could assume much that Smith had to fight for. This does not show up as imitation because Caro is too original, and his sculpture is effectively different, putting delicacy in place of muscle and subtlety in place of bluntness. Caro's art reflects a thoroughly pondered carefulness quite unlike Smith's muscular bravura. Smith purified the medium for Caro but he gave him not a style but a set of materials and a declaration of what can be allowed for sculpture. ("Every generation allows for sculpture or painting a little different theater of operations than before. And all new art at the time it is made, is about going as close to the edge as possible, but without losing one's foothold.")
Caro's career has progressed remorselessly. His body of work and its regular evolution is as heavy, deliberate, and logically continuous as the sculpture itself is fragile, delicate, and surprising. He has worked from the simplest beginnings into great elaboration of structure and feeling, carrying Cubism way beyond the original appearance of the style. It is one of the symptoms of the great quality of Caro's art, just as it is of Pollock's, that the spirit of Cubism is retained as its features are purged and transformed. There's hardly a note of trueing and fairing, of "musical" answer and repeat, of the mechanical, angular posturing of Cubist planes or any of the bitter refuse of failed post-Cubist Cubism. ("Answering curves and licks leads straight into sheer design. Similarly, so can that rectangle be a bad master. But they're all bad masters, these things; it's like being trapped by a style.")
This may show Caro's strength, but more remarkable, and to me unique, is his ability to make specific physical situations esthetically moving in terms of these situations, despite his clear abstract means. It is as though he clarified, by retranslation, all the feckless striving for effect of the biomorphism of the '50s, bringing it into the open by evoking rather than picturing, to make feeling spring readily from mere physical fact. The range is astonishing: lying, huddling, drooping, sagging, touching, extending, floating and leaning are brought down into cold steel and the power to move us arises just so, just as we wonder at trompe l'oeil. Evaluating (not perceiving or describing) these evocations is very difficult. Certainly they are one with his style "...the form and content, problem solving and expression to be so integrated that they are indivisible"), but it is not the style and materials which make up these evocations, it is the evocations, or their antecedents, which dictate the disposition of the elements. Caro's famous elimination of the sculpture base is a case in point. Baseless horizontality is not just a clever invention upon which he has elaborated but the necessary vehicle for his brand of sculptural expression. ("When you're lying down you feel heavy; your weight causes you to feel flattened and pressed down.") If an entire piece is suffused with repeated facts of supporting it is difficult for another species of relationship to be effectively manifest because all varieties of extension, attachment, and placement play second fiddle to the single, primary fact of being held up. The ground, or floor, is altogether anonymous as a support; we are not required to question it, and parts and their relationships can easily take on the various qualities given them. Caro has shown us that the ground as support allows his sculpture a greater breadth of expression. Assuming that sculpture continues as the open assembling of relatively simple parts this may be an imperative not only for Caro, but for sculpture. (I say "may" advisedly because getting up off the ground is a most interesting problem for sculpture right now.)
But is Caro's "apotheosis" of material relationships his own thing or must it enter as part of the mainstream of sculpture? His elaborations of feeling, and their specificity, seem to run against the current of high art, but perhaps I think like a painter and perhaps the modernist refinement of means, which Greenberg has described so aptly, is more generative for sculpture than for painting. It has given sculpture an alphabet, building blocks which enhance and simplify the creation of relationships. Painting relationships, or the clarity of painting relationships, reduce with refinement, and pit it against such forbidding brass tacks problems: the exhaustion of illusion, the insistence of flatness, the self-consciousness of surface. Painting seems to be on a narrowing path of means which ultimately may constrict expression. While writing this essay it often came to my mind how rich Caro's work is, how it can be met and grasped in big and little chunks. We don't dwell on the detail of our best painting. I described one mechanical cause for these difficulties in "Color Painting and the Map Problem" (Artforum, March, 1970). But painters can take heart - it takes only one genius to crumble anxious speculation.
Caro himself seems to be suffering an "embarrassment of riches." Recently his art has gone so far over to rococo intricacies of material and feeling that he has deliberately pulled back. Since about 1970 the evolution of his work has shown inconsistencies such as squared-off regularity and formal blankness, and symmetry intrudes and displaces. Apparently this is a conscious effort ("I would like to make sculptures that are more abstract"), and I venture that it is a mistake. All the evidence of the last 10 or 12 years tells us that Caro's work gets better as it is less abstract in effect and more playful, convoluted and erratic in appearance. His tools are abstract enough; if the effects are abstract the sculpture is stifled. It's like assuming you must make a rectangular house because you have rectangular bricks.
The five sculptures I saw in the main galleries at Emmerich last February bear me out. Cool Deck and Cherry Fair were the best. Behold was very good. Bringing up the rear were Shadow, and one of the largest Caro's I have ever seen, Grant. The best pieces are involved and eccentric, have great internal variety, and are full of the Caro "feel." The worst are regular, symmetrical, "abstract," dumb, and boxy. This "worst" is relative. Shadow is a very fine piece. Grant would knock over everything else in, say, a Whitney sculpture annual. It is clearly better despite its faults, than the monumental sculpture of Calder, Tony Smith, and the rest. But it is not Caro at his top form.
Grant is too regular, too symmetrical, and too big. The trestles supporting the body of the piece are parallel and, though not actually identical, became visually identical and look like a track along which the upper parts could glide. Thereafter the whole sculpture becomes more regular visually than actually, and this obscures the variety which gives Caro's sculpture its quality. Though Caro's sculptural intelligence is evident throughout, Grant remains a monolithic exoskeleton, sullen and unyielding, opaque, as if it had a skin around it which won't let us in. The inner culprit is Caro's intent to monumentalize, to elicit profundity from simplicity. The mechanical difficulty, which defeated Grant in the making, is size.
Grant is about 12 feet wide and 6 feet high. The elements he chose are not just actually very heavy, they look heavy in the context of the sculpture. This is emphasized by architectural regularity and the sturdy trestlelike support. All this conspires to defeat Caro's genius for lightness, fragility, the strained varieties of touching and holding away, and all the extraordinary effects of feeling he usually wields with such apparent ease. I would say he must lighten the load as a piece gets larger. He certainly can make good large sculpture. Prairie (1967) is about 10 by 20 feet, and it is an amazing feat of sculptural levitation, nicely described on these pages by Michael Fried. Caro can do it, but he must do it carefully. Large size blunts the delicacies of feeling which come up easily from "life" size. One piece lying on another can be poignant small and dumb large. Caro's range is narrower in large size, so the conception must be strong and precise, as it was in Prairie, and must carefully consider the size of the viewer and the size of the room - things he can be relaxed about when working smaller. (" ... my sculptures now are partly dependent upon the spectator's height from the floor when he is standing up...there are quite unsuitable sites for certain sculptures.") Grant might be a better sculpture in a different setting - I recall trying to get farther from it than the gallery walls would allow - but it would not be better if it were simply smaller, for it is in the making that these problems come up. The inhibitions of large size are difficulties of rendering rather than final effect, though it is final effect that counts.
Shadow is much smaller than Grant but it is also quite regular and symmetrical; unlike Grant, Shadow seems less regular and symmetrical than it actually is, and it matters less, because the even horizontality declares itself so forthrightly, and this gives the few variations more visual importance. The low horizon, the dark grayish green color, and the succession of steps induce a sense of miniature landscape; playing against this are two exquisitely placed off-center parts and the illusion that the smaller, "grounded" part of the piece holds up the larger part against physical possibility.
The "hovering" of the dark greenish horizons is the stuff of Shadow, the apex, what it was built into. Shadow is a piece I could admire with little reserve were it not for the visual ambiguity of the actual supports: the short, partially hidden legs which really keep the thing up. A partially hidden support obliges us to maintain the knowledge of its existence even when we cannot see it. This disturbs seeing, is unnatural to seeing as a wholly exposed illusion is not. Prairie again serves as comparison; its long poles float by means of frank visual deception, as Michael Fried has noted. When the mechanics of an illusion are out in the open we accept them as an illusion and go on looking, just as we accept the artificialities of realist painting. Conversely, a completely hidden support, whether it is visually out of reach, or submerged in complexity, as it is in Cool Deck, is OK; again, we don't have to think about it.
Another strike against Shadow is its blank impenetrability, not because it goes against the piece - except for the support Shadow is quite consistent internally - but because three of the five sculptures in the gallery show us how much openness counts for Caro. Behold is like Shadow in some ways. It is fairly small, boxy, and rather regular. But it is literally wide open. Its relationships are more between things than over their surface, and it is a much better sculpture.
Behold looks like a crude coffin smashed open by a tremendous force from within. The sense of wrenching is reinforced by the random welds, which hold the tilted sides hesitantly, like the exposed nails of a wooden box pulled apart. Then there is an odd softness or pliancy somehow induced by the precise set and angle of the shorter side plate, and the gentle "lift" of the short I beam beneath. These things give off a sensuality, even sexuality, which contradicts the odd, angular metallic parts. The singular presence of Behold is remarkable. It has such consistency of feeling, which in the making must have been an incredible continuity of feeling. The one false note was the little slab at the open end of the "box," which reaches for the floor but stops before it touches. It seems to have been meant to enforce the idea that the piece has been raised, or is rising, but it is too small and stout and set on too squarely.
Cool Deck and Cherry Fair show Caro at his best. They are full of eccentric angles, odd elements, and crazy dispositions of parts. Cool Deck is probably the best sculpture in the show - if only because it is faultless - but Cherry Fair is my favorite. It has a big canted angular section of what appears to be truck siding partially enclosing a mess of steel scraps spraying up and then out at the tip like the branches of a bush, all on a single plane at an odd angle to the opposing tilt of the enclosure. Nothing lines up with the floor except the foot supporting the "spray" and a many-angled piece at one end setting square on its edge. The "spray" has two sections. The inside, from the enclosure to the L beam, seems pulled out, attenuated, like pulled apart chewing gum, or a drawer with no sides and a split and broken bottom. The outside is an uneven circle of bits and pieces of rod, plate, and T, I, and L beams, like a flower with variously bent and splayed petals. The whole thing is imaginative, quirky, and amusing. It takes on all sorts of qualities of character according to the angle and height of view. The "backside" can seem like a huge, squat, awkward animal - a tortoise that has lost his shell. The "front" feels like settling and growing, perhaps an underwater hulk sheltering weeds and quick fish, or an old graveyard wall enclosing a forsythia. Cherry Fair does not picture these things; its liveliness prompts the imagination. There are lovely touches throughout: the slack drooping of a bar, the uneasy union of flat repose and hanging-in-space of the "spray," the fistlike "tail" pushing against the floor to tilt the bulky, angled enclosure, the short piece of I beam which seems to have slid into a comfortable spot. Cherry Fair is sculpture at it's best - playful, baroque, inventive. I write about it less as a set of sculptural dynamics than as a melange of feeling, to express in words less about competence and achievement and more about affection and imagination. Sculptural problems seem remote; he is working from strength. And Caro's strength is sculpture's strength.
When I spot what I think are faults in a Caro it is with the same degree of feeling. I want to get down and cut and weld and see what I could come up with. Rethinking a Caro sculpture is one of the joys of looking at it. It is like telling Willie Mays how he could have caught that fly. Again I disagree with supports. I would like to take away the foot at the big angle and the I beam support of the sprayed-out section and make up a trickier way to hold things up. These two pieces are not really bad where they are, just inert. Cherry Fair is so alive, every rod and plate is so suffused with qualities of lying, reaching, sagging, slanting, facing, tipping, touching, poking, resting - and so on - that a part can look out of whack just by looking like what it is.
I can't find any fault with Cool Deck. It is made of similar long diamonds in various sizes, partly folded, concave side up, which suggest kites or African shields. They huddle together but "float" independently, like sampans gathered in a harbor on a choppy sea. Three thin rectangular rods cross the group, welded where they touch, and two longer rods extend away as outriggers. The sensation is of jostling and slight heaving. These effects, and the raised "front" of the piece, make the floor look like a direct support only at the lower end. Even there the "kite" is slightly lifted, so the rods seem let down and dragging rather than supportive, and this deliberate illusion of supportive weakness is enhanced by a flat plate between the "kite" and one rod. Thus the weight of Cool Deck, obviously considerable, is totally denied. ("All sculptors have dreams of defying gravity.") The three shorter crossing rods perch precariously on the "kites," apparently ready to fall off at the slightest bobbing motion, barely, tenuously, holding the light fragile forms together, as if they might blow away in the wind.
The other dazzling feat of Cool Deck is the casual enforcement of openness in an essentially closed sculpture. The "kites" seem pushed together as if they had been carelessly swept into a low pile. This is the character of the piece. But Caro's is an art of relationships. Closed forms, no matter how expressive, tend to cancel out. Shadow suffers a bit from this. The "kites" of Cool Deck, by themselves, would be seen as a self-contained unit rather than related pieces. Caro's solution has the simplicity typical of invention. The two long rods are extended outside the main body, which opens up the sculpture; they are crossed at an angle similar to the "kites," bringing the kite form into open territory, forming a relaxed skeleton or armature, as if several of the "kites" remained uncovered. This added openness, incidentally, can be seen as the converse of the closing, settling quality of the upright rectangle in Prairie. Like Prairie, Cool Deck is one of those solemn masterpieces Caro turns out with regularity.
There are a couple of other things which can be mentioned in closing: Caro's titles and the colors of the sculpture. Titles are not important, it is often said. This may be right, but I work hard on titles for my paintings, and I like Caro's sculpture so much I can't help wishing he would do better with his. The titles seem to get worse as the sculpture gets better. I remember noting this before, but I can't remember what show it was. It is certainly true here. Except for its roughly burnished steel color Cool Deck is anything but cool, and there is nothing decklike about it. Cherry Fair may have a special or private meaning. There is no hint in the anonymous primer-like color or the form, except for the "spray," which might be likened to a "fair cherry in Spring." Behold could be better named. It does open up, like the arms of a worshipper, but it is so sensual and material in feeling. Shadow hints at dark, low-lying forms. And the heavy, laconic chunky sound of Grant fits it just right.
Caro's color is rather expressionless, which in itself may be an achievement, color being the problem it is for sculpture. The dark grayish green comes up to help on Shadow, emphasizing the somber horizon, and the steel color of Cool Deck is a tricky irony on its fragile lightness; the frank admission of steel only emphasizes the strength of the illusion. The varnished rust color of Behold goes well with it. Grant and Cherry Fair each had a variety of metal priming paint, that of Cherry Fair somewhat more reddish. Both are rather inert. Caro's colors are kept in the service of form, once in a while rising to some mild expressive function. They are part of the manifest care and intelligence he gives his art.
It happens often enough that an artist of the first rank is not given the honor he is due. Caro is no exception, in this country anyway. His stuff is hard to avoid, of course; he has had one-man shows and representation in important museum shows. But any artist worth a hill of beans can manage that nowadays. Greenberg and Fried have celebrated his virtues, but right as they may be, their advocacy only fires the hostility of countless museum minions. Think of the second-rate sculptors who have had major museum retrospectives, the acres of art magazine pages given over to artists making faces and digging holes, the obligatory, monumental clots of metal fronting half the art museums in the country. I think particularly of Princeton, where I studied, spending a million dollars for contemporary sculpture, and not a Caro in sight. And the Museum of Modern Art surely could improve its record with a Caro retrospective. He's the best we've got, and I mean better than Calder, Moore, Nevelson, and all the rest. We should be able to see more of his work.