On the edge of the impossible; Sculptor Anthony Caro

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Anthony Caro's sculpture first received international attention and wide exposure in the 1960s. This London-born, London-based sculptor had broken away from the conventions of modeled or carved volumetric sculpture, and, using welded and painted steel parts, was making abstract sculpture of extraordinary freedom and inventiveness. One critic wrote that Caro had "altered the premise of sculpture. . . . His forms flow along the ground or rise on diagonals. . . ." Another claimed that he had altered "profoundly the history not just of sculpture but of abstraction." Arguing that Caro's "intense preoccupation" was with the "livedness of the body," michael Fried wrote: "In Caro's art the physicality of the body is itself liberated from the body's limits."

In the early 50s Caro had been an assistant to Henry Moore. It was, however, the inspiration of the American sculptor David Smith, encountered on his first of many visits to the United States in 1959, that proved crucial to his development. A highly productive artist, Caro continues to make both large and small sculptures, continually breaking new ground on both sides of the Atlantic. His work has been exhibited extensively. At present there is an exhibit, sponsored by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, on the grounds of the Christian Science Center.

The following is an edited version of a discussion he had recently with Christopher Andreae at Mr. Caro's home in London.m

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Your work has become almost exclusively associated with the material or welded steel -- but you tell me you have recently been making sculpture using clay and bronze. This has been kept rather secret, hasn't it?

The bronze sculptures I've kept under wraps because I hadn't got them right. But now I have and I'm going to show them in the autumn at the Acquavella Galleries in New york, on 79th Street.

How have you been using these materials?

I worked in Syracuse, New York, in a ceramic workshop. I was working for the first time in ceramicist's clay, which is not so oily as sculptor's clay; it was a different way of working -- an entirely new thing for me. I tried all sorts of things, among other things putting pots together; but it didn't seem to work. It looked too like a bastardized form of pottery. But then those pot-shapes werem suitable for casting in bronze as parts for sculptures. I had them sent over the London, cast them in bronze, cut some of them up and put them with flat sheets, some brass, some bronze; the sheets and the parts go into the same sculpture. I was trying to get a different sort of unit from the H-beam and the steel shapes I had used before in the steel sculptures.

Criticism of your work has been very articulate. I wonder if this has actually preceded your work in any way, or just stemmed from it. Mondrian said the theory comes afterwards, the work first.

Dissatisfaction, I think, comes first of all. You don't feel happy about what was done before, and that bothers you and you say, "I must change," and then you try to think of an intelligent way to go, a way that suits you. There are just two critics who have really helped me at that level, right in the studio, though never in terms of theory. They are Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried. Greenberg has often pointed out possibilities or directions which you've never dreamed of. -- "The very thing in your studio you had taken for granted is the onem thing," he'd say -- "Why don't you pay attention to that?" And this suddenly sets your mind going a while new way. It's like talking to another artist whose mind is in tune with yours. It's intuitive with Clem. Michael Fried is also incredibly in touch and intelligent in the studio. And then, of course, you also worry a lot yourself. And Sheila, my wife, and I have always talked a lot about art in terms of what makes sense.

Do you have a feel that art is something which progresses, which actually develops?

My son came out with a rather good expression when he was seven He called it "the Onward of Art." I don't know about it progressing.m It's more a matter of art keeping on the move. It doesn't always go steadily onward, but it's up to artists to try to keep it alive.

It keeps alive through change?

No. It keeps alive through quality. Changes are forced on art, yes, because almost no art is so satisfying that you don't want to make another work of art.

You once said that "the best art has never needed to force its claims on our attention." You've also written of your distaste for the "insistence with which so much bad sculpture makes its presence felt." Does this in any way parallel what I believe is your preference for the music of Mozart rather than Beethoven?

I happen to like some Beethoven too. some of his last quartets are marvelous. But there's clarity as well as depth of feeling in Mozart -- or Schubert -- a complete lack of self-pity. I think it's really wrong, though, to take Beethoven as an example because he's too good. If you take some very romantic composers you don't like particularly you could say that they are all the time trying to makem you feel things. I'd be on much safer ground if I talked about German Expressionism compared with Matisse. Expressionist art is an arm-twister, forcing you to feel the painter's way. Matisse, on the other hand, is incredible; his attitude is "take it or leave it." He seems to say, "Just enjoy my work and maybe it will be uplifting in some way, but I'm not going to makem it uplifting. I'm just going to make it." It was very courageous of him to have talked about wishing his art to provide relaxation for "tired businessmen."

Doesn't this lack of insistence have something to do with your idea of bringing the sculpture down off the pedestal and onto the ground?

Yes. That's a good point. I think I did find that the underbelly of sculpture is pretentiousness and rhetoric. I like the idea of relating it to people without any extra credits. Originally, in my early clay figures, I wanted to make the sculpture itself more human in scale, sitting it on the ground, and I wanted to try to make it as real as talking to another person; wanted it to have that sort of reality. The more recent pieces, made in the 70s , that are going to be shown at the Christian Science Center in Boston, are much bigger than I usually make, and yet they still sit on the ground in a straight- forward, untheatrical relationship to the viewer.

What about their relationship to the architecture?

I'm not really concerned with that. What does please me is the fact that in this new show many of them will be on a paved courtyard. That's ideal for my work: the sculpture looks as if it rests onm and not inm the ground. These works were certainly not made with any specific architectural setting in mind. They were not even made as "public" sculpture; and though they are fairly big they are not monumental or civic in the rather pompous "important" sense people use when speaking of corporation art. They were madem outdoors, almost all of them. They were made in relation to that quite different scale that pertains outdoors. For this reason they are probably more capable of holding outdoor space than sculptures I've made in the studio.

These are steel, made in the States?

In Toronto, in a big steel yard. The workmen there really did enter into it -- were really good. I'd start with a crane driver or a welder who'd be skeptical or critical perhaps, and then he'd soon get involved and start to enjoy it as much as I did.

A friend I saw yesterday told me to ask you how it is that your sculptures look so personal when a lot of other people have worked on them and when they are fabricated in factories.

That's nice -- that he says they look personal. I'd like them to. I do not make a practice of having works made away from me in factories as some sculptors do. But often I have a lot of people working with me and I like to use other people as a kind of sounding board and say, "Well, what do youm think?"

This is interesting. There seems to be a lot of imaginary or introverted work around because artists don't care very much how anyone else is likely to respond to it. But the idea of objectifying something, for someone else to see it, is necessary.

That's true. I think that there are a lot more possibilities available than the artist can possibly find in his own mind. If you rely solely on your own mind, your own invention -- it's like trying to write a book never having read one. It's limiting yourself, and often because of a sort of vanity. Though there are times when you've got to be alone. When I first made steel sculptures I just worked away in this garage here, and I'd sit there alone for days. At that time I would make no more than five sculptures a year and felt that was doing well. Now I love it when somebody comes in my studio, someone really in touch with my endeavor, and says, "Why don't you try this?" I don't think that the artist ism special in that way. I don't think art is "precious" in that sense. Art is precious, using the word in the othe sense when it's successful, when it's true and beautiful. When I taught I wouldn't allow students to work in separate little boxes, shielded from each other by walls: "This is my studio, this little box, and I never talk to the chap in the next little box." I think that's very bad. The whole point of learning together in an art school is mixing, tripping over each other's work, necessarily aware of what other students are doing, passing critical comments with trust. That's how you grow. I've learned a lot from working with other artists, because each of them has a different way of going about making art, and it's always different from mine. As a result, now, I've more ways at my disposal for making art. I don't feel the necessity to say: "I'm going to do it thatm way because it's my way." I want to stay open to other possible ways of attacking it. . . . Of course, the techniques of sculpture tend to involve a lot of people, more than painting. Painting is a more solitary occupation.

I wonder -- was there a link between your painted sculpture of the 60s and Matisse's paintings? An openness about them perhaps?

Yes, very much. I looked a lot of reproductions of Matisse paintings. There's a sculpture I made which comes out of Matisse's painting "The Red Studio." Yet it's not readily recognizable as such because it's much closer to sculpture than to painting. My sculpture "Early One Morning," which is in the Tate Gallery, relates to Matisse's picture "The Window." I would look at these pictures and notice how diagonals or horizontals or verticals -- or blocks -- interact on each other, and if it could take me somewhere in the sculpture I would let it. In the case of Matisse's "Window," I remember I was sitting in the studio very stuck with sculpture and looking at this book of Matisse's paintings, when suddenly I thought, "Well, that's an idea: I could do that -- look how he's done a sort of curve that goes . . . beyond."m . . . I'm explaining this badly . . . then you take a chance and do something that is outside what you could have expected yourself to do otherwise.

When I first saw "Early One Morning" I thought "This is extraordinary," and I couldn't understand why such an abstract sculpture acted on me the way it did -- why I identified with it. I can understand identifying with a figurative sculpture because it's the same shape as I am. Fried says your work has to do with being inside the human body, feeling what it is like to move inside the body. What do you say to this?

I don't think it's wrong -- it may be right especially in my early steel sculptures. The sculpture is like a dance. But some identification with the human body is probably true of any sort of art that moves you, isn't it? Music is a kind of surrogate singing. Sculpture is surrogate dancing, perhaps. . . .

The activity in your sculpture seems very crucial. I'm intrigued that when people try to describe it in words they tend to do so in verbs, not in nouns -- sometimes a whole string of verbs. They say it "leaps" or "jumps" or "twists." Different from Rodin's description of sculpture, for instance, when he said it is an art of "bumps and hollows" -- both nouns.

That's interesting. I think that might be because of its horizontality -- it does kind of travel. . . . That use of verbs to describe it is something I'd never thought of. I do think it's one of the differences between David Smith and me. I regard David Smith as the greatest sculptor of the century, without any hesitation. I don't think that my sculpture was a big move away from him. But I do think that where the difference lies is that David's has to do with a "noun" thing -- it's "put" -- it's always a "put" thing. Whereas mine has almost always more to do with direction and joining: it leads you on, somehow.

Another interesting statement Fried made was this: "In general, Caro's abstract sculptures inhabit another world from the literal, contingent one in which we live -- a world which, so to speak, everywhere parallels our own but whose apartness is perceived as all the more exhilarating on that account.

When he gave a lecture about me he pointed out several things I hadn't realized about my work. He always does. He said that there was very often a sort of barrier in the sculpture, so that our eye gets in there but wem don't. There's an invitation, but it's an invitation to the eye; your eyem is invited to touch the handles which are part of my early "table pieces," but you don't actually want to go and lift them up with your hands. Or you imagine you can walk into my larger sculptures but you are kind of stopped doing so by the configuration of the steel -- that is what Mike Fried was saying, though he said it much better than I am doing. It certainly rang a bell with me. They are "walk-into-for-the-eyes," not "walk-into-with- the-feet" sculptures. The viewer is responding to the sculpture with his eyes rather than, say, making a kind of physical identificationwith it, as one does with a Rodin. It is important because it stresses the abstractness of the sculpture.

Did the color on the painted pieces also help to abstract them?

I suppose it did in a way.

You aren't using color at all in that sense now?

I did use color a bit lately in some of the writing pieces. I don't know what the future will bring, because I think that the foray into bronze is not necessarily a thing that's going to stay forever with me. I prefer working in steel, and I fell more at home in it. But I've got to findm my way back, if I go back into steel. What will happen about color then I have no idea. I think the use of color, originally, was a reaction to unpainted steel and to bronze sculptures. I felt I wanted my work to look more like a new thing, so I painted it green or whatever. Then after a bit it wasn't so much the applied colors as the shininess of the surface that was important. After that I found it was no longer an issue. And it disappeared altogether. I don't know that it might not come back. I don't know what will happen. Something that's suprised me in the David Smith show, in London recently, is how much attention he paid to color, to finish. With me, color has been always a little apart from the sculpture, it comes after it. It seems like an afterthought, a clarifying, like giving the work a title -- it isn't quite the main road. I think color couldm start being interesting again. But the discussion of structure and the idea of weight are more urgent problems in sculptor's minds at this moment.

The architect who designed the Sidney Opera House, Joern Utzon, has talked about being always on the edge of the possible -- or as I find I've been misquoting it, "the edge of the impossible." Do you feel your sculpture is like that? In the 60s that seemed to me rather what you were trying to do: things that tipped off the edges of tables and seemed to fly, and float, and so on.

I like the questions you have asked me. I do think that the fun of making art is to be on the "edge of the impossible." I welcome adventure and risk. I think recklessness, just controlled, is what it's about, and discovery. If you're just going to make what you already know then you might as well retire. Right? Impossible has become different now from what it was 20 years ago. In the 60s, opening, extending, were teh issues; now that "sky's-the- limit" era is over, the "impossible" has become more internal.

Does earlier work tend to look too innocent? Surely it's not possible to have the same kind of optimism now as in the 60s?

It would be a tragedy for sculpture if it closed down into something safe, something academic. Unlike painting, sculpture in this century has seemed to find it difficult to grow out of its immediate past. The sort of recklessness which in 1960 meant to paint a sculpture bright blue just isn't on, now.That was innocent then: make it 20 ft. long, paint it blue, put it along the floor -- each one of these things had never been done and you could do them and feel you were shaking yourself -- challenging the past, taking sculpture a step further. But now it's just commonplace. Now much more outrageous things are called by the name of "sculpture" -- but it's too easy to do things in the pursuit of the "far-out." Where, exactly, is the edge now? The real "edge of the impossible" for sculpture is probably in the rediscovery of volume and mass, and sculpture's relation to architecture. . . . The steady reinvention of sculpture.m

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