Anthony Caro's New Sculpture (1984)
Arts, Summer 1984, pp. 128 - 130.
Anthony Caro's sixtieth birthday was last March 8th, the same day by coincidence, that I began this essay. The exhibitions at Acquavella and Andre Emmerich are a commemoration of sorts. There are four distinct types of sculpture, each in its own space. Most artists work toward a show; Caro needs four floors of two galleries just to accommodate what he's done recently as a matter of course. He also keeps busy running the Triangle Workshop in Pine Plains, New York, which he founded, an enterprise which one day may be seen as a point of focus for the continuation of serious art in our time. The man's energy is boundless, and so is his importance to us. I think he's been the best sculptor in the world for the past couple of decades. That his sixtieth, and these shows, are not at the center of art-world honors and media ballyhoo tells me that my opinion is not shared by the "artocracy," as I like to call it, and I anticipate that the reaction to this four-barreled charge of fine new work by our best sculptor will be fairly extensive, respectful, and lukewarm.
Though it cannot truly be said that any style guarantees the quality of the art which comes up within it, there have been a few in modern times, such as Impressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism, which were peculiarly enabling during their time of vitality. Fauvism, particularly, catalyzed some pretty slim talent. One of the first jobs of genius is to recognize the appropriate vehicle for its own best revelation. Open welded steel has been such a vehicle for sculpture, but, unlike those painting styles, it has had a long, eccentric, and disjointed history.
Open abstraction with simplified parts was a gift from painting to sculpture, its natural medium. Open sculpture which is pieced, rather than carved and modeled, popped up out of Cubism around 1912 as the "guitar" wall reliefs of Picasso. Their concurrent pictorial equivalent was the charcoal and newspaper collage. Both came about as a kind of play and may have been dismissed as such. They were at once too radical and too insubstantial for Picasso and his colleagues to take seriously. The "guitars" especially must have seemed slight, just fooling around, toys, like the painted tin toys of the time. But genius at play is the source of great art. Picasso had genius to spare back then; perhaps we should not take him to task for failing to follow through on everything.
At any rate, the authority of the monolith endured, and Cubist sculpture followed the lead of the glyptic 1909 Head of Picasso. Good as much of this sculpture was, it merely shifted the optically hewn surfaces of Cubist painting into three dimensions. Real openness - extension, space between - with all its implications, languished, in painting as well as sculpture. Never has such a fruitful invention clung so fitfully to life. It reappeared, cleaned up and squared off, as Constructivism, and came briefly to life in the years around 1930 when Picasso teamed up with Gonzalez. Once again Picasso let the impulse lapse. His later sculpture returned to the brutal, anecdotal sentimentality we so often see in his graphic work and later painting, work often marked by genius but spiritually inimical to the dazzling formal invention we see in his best work. In the '30s and '40s literal openness found its way into sculpture, but the referential overlay of Surrealism and the clean-cut, trued-up "purity" of Constructivism retarded the uncompromised fresh start that openness implied and offered.
David Smith's genius consumed these impediments, reshaping unwilling Surrealism into his own brand of muscular, opened-out, elementally simplified abstraction, which he ultimately bequeathed to Caro. Like Smith, Caro became a tenuous bridge, a single wire carrying the charge of high sculptural art. Now, finally, inheriting from Caro, evolving with and against his example, we have a fine lot of welded steel sculptors, including a wonderfully gifted group working in, of all places, Edmonton, Alberta, way up in the Canadian outback. Isolation from New York may be more a blessing than a curse these days.
Caro's conversion nearly twenty-five years ago from figural to pieced abstract sculpture was also influenced by the work and example or his friend and exact contemporary, Kenneth Noland, who was reacting against the messy excess of latter-day Abstract Expressionism. Noland's thorough and extreme reclarification of the terms of painting became a gift to sculpture similar to Cubism's fifty years earlier. It took fifty years for open pieced abstract sculpture to come into its own; it may take another fifty for us to see how rich and variable it then became. Noland's approach to form, carried over into sculpture, allowed Caro to bring to light, by formal translation, everything that had strained for release from the tortured figures of the previous years. Once in hand, Caro set about, in full reflection and ease, to assemble sculpture in which figuration - still the soul of the art - is sublimated and transformed, so that instead of seeing a figure we feel what a figure feels. And we feel it magically, for it springs from plain non-figurative physical fact.
In effect, Caro found the way past all the unavailing struggle for "content" which plagued sculpture in the '50s much as it does painting today. He realized, in his art, that the sensual rendering of physical states of being could come up in sculpture more freely, more explicitly, and more poignantly by the arrangement of simple non-figurative pieces of metal than by the depiction of a figure, by evoking rather than picturing. It is as if sensation itself had been taken apart and rearranged right along with the pieced metal from which it arises. Although any sculpture is an arrangement of form, Caro's is less formal than affectional. Maybe that's why it fends off analysis.
This suffusion of dead metal with somatic liveliness and suggestions of figuration has always puzzled me. Is it like trompe l'oeil, where we must marvel at an illusion before we can get down to the art? I think not. A few months ago I listened to a friend who has a good eye (but little experience looking at art) enthuse over the perspective in a Boudin I had helped him buy. I was polite about it; it was OK perspective, nothing special. Then I realized that though he spoke of "good" perspective, he was apprehending good painting. The perspective was "good" because the painting was good. And that's how it is with Caro. We see those bits of life because the work is alive, The life itself remains as unfathomable as it is evident.
This is confirmed by Caro's failures, which are rare, and I think not in evidence here. He never does anything really bad, never takes the kind of pratfall Smith and Hofmann did, to name two - though I hasten to add that "bad" Smiths always get better, and "bad" Hofmanns always dominate whatever wall they find themselves on. Caro's bad ones are circumspect, poised and correct, declaring themselves like certain numb-spirited Englishmen, by the ghostly absence of the giveaway traces of human response our instincts tell us to heed. Incidentally, this quality of Caro's art, this ability to walk a tightrope and freeze without failing, is quite in keeping with his chosen form of art-making and his approach to it. It is so palpably an art of editing, of adding and taking away, of adjusting and refining. Caro has the eye of a great editor, one which will not only save a passable piece from disaster but also keep a great one in bounds while simultaneously diverting us with the evidence of the discipline the editing sets against his invention.
It may be obvious from what I have said, even if one has not seen the work, that Caro's is not an art of ego and pride, of domination, trumpeted meaning, and cocky independence. Such traits would preclude the delicate varieties of feeling I note here. Furthermore, Caro's sculptures, themselves so full of tender relationships, are never far from one themselves; they hug the floor, open up to the air, depend from the table, tease gravity. The new ones, however, most of them, are more apart from their environment, more "inward." They don't extend much. They are less conspicuously brilliant, more idiosyncratic, and often more complicated without turning busy or dull. The affectional connections and dispositions are less clearly expressed, less nervy, more subtle and sure in their quirkiness, in the breezy clutter of some, the frank eccentric figural suggestiveness of others, and the flavor many have of something once known but long forgotten. The four types are quite distinct, the differences in character influenced by the size of the pieces and the nature of the materials they are made from. Most of them evince that ramshackle serenity which is Caro's version of the self- sufficiency shared by all great art.
The steel pieces, on Emmerich's fifth floor, are quite large and very heavy. They are made up of steel stock together with what look like pickings from a shipyard: chain links, hull plates, buoys, cleats. They are pieced but don't really show it. Their hulking, involuted irregularity suggests once well-made massive objects now coming apart at the seams, and this appearance of rending and splitting offsets the preponderant sense of enclosure. Caro is more mindful of volume here than I've seen before. There's more attention to insides, more interesting planes, less interest in attachment and extension. They enclose without hiding, caressing the space they surround, "modeling" it, as one would model clay. This is something new for Caro.
One of the delights of these large pieces is the unintended figuration they are riddled with, stuck here and there, nonchalantly, like the metal: the rounded, feminine slabs of Odalisque, the "pigeon-toed" support of Bitter Sky, and the headlock the cut oval atop the piece has on the tilted vertical bar, the stolid stance, and the maternal "arm" of Dream Garden.
The Pine Plains sculpture, downstairs at Acquavella, was made over the last two summers at Triangle. The "Plains" pieces were made in 1982, the "Pine" pieces in 1988. They are steel, but differ from the sculpture at Emmerich by their smaller size and by the less inturned, more "arranged" structure. That they are more what we expect from Caro does not compromise their originality. Some, like Plains Rise and Pine Drawn, are open, even linear. Others, like Pine Hollow, are tightly wound. There is much of the same stately dishabille which we find more frankly stated in the other pieces. Several have the squat dilapidation of old farm machinery, a dilapidation so thoroughly pondered that the similarity soon seems as frivolous as it is apparent. There is much of the round-against-straight we see in the larger sculpture. Here, however, the curved sections do not nestle and enclose. They strain away (Pine Hollow, Pine Lift, Pine Plain), open out (Pine Gate), rock and totter (Pine Hood), lie back agape (Pine Butt), or stand mute and staring (Plains Heat). Apparently there were plenty of those large round tank ends and half-moon profile cuts lying around up at Triangle. It's all the same to Caro. If he were abandoned on the Sahara he'd make sand castles.
Acquavella is showing the bronze and brass pieces upstairs. They are "life-size," four or five feet tall, welded together partly from stock and partly from forms cast, accumulated, and used at random. I don't remember Caro making up basic elements like this before. One section, for example, derived from a paper sculpture Caro was unhappy with. He had it fabricated, revised it, and set it into one of these pieces. Another was made by pouring wax into the form-fitting seat of a plastic chair, peeling it off and casting it as it was. There are castings of pot shards and other flotsam, and of sundry chunks and slabs of wax and clay. This is why so many of the curved and rounded sections have the quality of a fruit peel, or the curl a spoon lifts from hard ice cream, rather than the machined regularity of cut pipe and tube; this, together with the absence of alignment and the natural richness of the bronze, accounts for the overall impression of lazy malleability.
These bronzes are very open but very "connected." Each part has its own distinct space and character, and they tack onto each other with apparently haphazard abandon, as if they had drifted, lightly magnetized, into their fragile conglomerations. This very excess of connection diminishes its importance and increases that of placement, surface, and the attributes of the parts. The tone of most of these sculptures is set by Caro's characteristic barely tilted verticals, and the verticality accommodates a posture of lassitude as the bronze units variously bend, clamber, haul, recline, zigzag about like leaves in a small stream, and otherwise playfully recognize gravity. There's a clean sweetness about them, a whimsical precision of feeling which puts me in mind of Schubert. And, again, as we relish the work, we find those figurative allusions. Rapture struggles with its load of folded bronze, like a schoolboy carrying too many books. Remembering bends over, tending. The River stands alert, like an antelope at a watering bole. The Secret, according to the aspect, sits patiently or extends a helping hand.
Even more than the other work, the lead and wood pieces, on Emmerich's ninth floor, luxuriate the eye. The color will come as a surprise to some. That golden-oak against dead gray lead was distracting at first, too immediately likeable, like some weathered antique. Likeableness can get in the way of seeing; it has a way of muddling judgment. But that waned as I got used to the work, as I took in the juxtaposition of the lead's soft, draping weight against the determined rigidity of the wood. The color, at first cloying, soon took its place as a felicitous and appropriate vehicle of differentiation.
Although most of them are rather blocky and compressed, the lead and wood pieces have an unnaturally high sense of the third dimension about them. Like all this sculpture, they resist quick inspection. A view from one aspect hides another which will be unexpectedly different. Summer Again is a different sculpture at different angles. You've got to get down and check out both ends of that wood-smothering lead blanket to comprehend Flat Hat. And Lay Bye transforms itself as one looks down on it from above and then from the side. By the same token, they are generous to sustained viewing. See the way On the Double struggles, like Laocoon, against the enveloping lead. The wilted lead sheet collapsing against the sturdy upright of Curly evokes the pathos of a deposition without depicting one. The remarkable Rose Bloom staggers, sway-backed and pregnant. The roughly resolidified lead "spray" of Wave Spray disports sidelong, like sea foam up a beach.
I've been making a lot of the figuration I see running through this work. You can see it or not, however you want to, any way you please. Caro sees a rose bloom where I see the old gray mare. It doesn't matter. These things are not visual facts, they are symptoms of life. There are no abstract figures here, no ingratiating concessions to "meaning" and "content." The sculpture is just too rich not to be suggestive and too strong to be bothered. Their utter self containment implicitly demands sensual apprehension, discouraging analysis and sanctioning analogy, and we are reduced, not without a certain sense of relief, to observing and noting. We engage them enthusiastically and we are grateful for the pleasures they afford.
Though it is possible for the practiced eye to quickly see how good this work is, it encourages contemplation. In fact, it insists on it. These pieces make you adjust to their pace and presence, and they yield up slowly. It is interesting that for at least half a generation our best art has grown more relaxed, confident, and contemplative even as the worst becomes more frantically obvious. And it is interesting how alive in every joint a few connected pieces of steel can be, and how pathetically debilitated a whole museum full of screeching "expressionism." It'll take Caro and the few other quiet geniuses to get us through these perilous times. High art is riding with them.