'Lifting' the ground

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It seems only too obvious that a sculptor has always to defy the ground in some manner -- defy that horizontal inertness on which his sculpture rests. Sculpture relates to (or reacts against) the floor, or raised platform, which supports it, as a painting relates to the edge of its canvas or paper. These usually unavoidable limits of sculpture or painting can either be defied by being taken for granted to such a degree that they are virtually ignorable, or they can be a very practical stimulus to invention: how to defy the bland lifelessness of the framing rectangle, or the flat dullness of the ground, becomes (as not a few twentieth-century painters and sculptors have shown) a matter of significance, even of meaning. This increases in proportion to the abstract nature of the painting or sculpture. As the process of making an image becomes more crucial than any referential or representational purpose it might have, so its internal and external relationships carry greater potency.

The freedom and inventiveness of Anthony Caro's work over the last two decades has brought to sculpture a fresh lightness, as well as a conviction of the continuing vitality of abstraction, and if there is one consistent aim or trait that recurs in his sculpture, it is surely a defiance of the dead ground. This may not be the central purpose or obvious springboard for all his sculptures (and, as said, it is hardly an exclusive concern for Caro), but it does amount to something evident and primary in a great many of his pieces.

On the whole he has avoided the methods used ''to defy the ground'' by the two major sculptors who, in other ways, had the strongest early effect on his work. Caro's sculpture does not rest or recline, immemorial rock in a timeless landscape, as Moore's does. Nor, generally, is it perched high in the air on a column or pedestal, as David Smith's quite often is. More characteristic -- as ''Piece CCLXIX'' shows -- he defies the ground by making the sculpture itself seem to take over the ground's role: like the painter who echoes the framing edge with a painted edge, he solves the problem by taking up the ground's supporting role -- its horizontality -- actually within the sculpture: as a lively and integral part of the sculpture. The difference is that while the ground is essentially passive and neutral, the sculpture is able to reinterpret its dull flatness with a floating exhilaration, or with a kind of vigorous, travelling fluidity, as in this piece. ''Supporting'' becomes part and parcel of the sculpture's activity. It is not a subsidiary element or function, as with a pedestal, half expecting to be discounted by the viewer. Caro invests it, and also those parts that join, span, link or hold, with vitality as well as usefulness.

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Any work of art worth its salt might be said to be defiant -- and not least, defiant of analysis. ''Piece CCLXIX'' is a fine example. As with many other Caros, it does not try to disguise the fact that it is, like a sort of sculptural collage, a happy ''amalgamation of disparates.'' The parts here are almost like ''found objects,'' scraps discarded by the steel industry as waste. They have fluid curls and edges, tense twistings, and unexpected shapings which seem almost natural in their lack of design while at the same time they are clearly the result of powerful processes of melting, cutting, bending and so forth.

David Smith described a series of his sculptures (also made of welded steel parts) as ''new unities.'' That is precisely how Caro's ''Piece CCLXIX'' could be summed up; and it is as a unity that it defies analysis. Particularly, it defies analysis in words, which almost always tend to translate the subtle things that matter most in sculpture into pedestrian, slow-moving and sometimes stunningly obvious statements. ''Piece CCLXIX'' has a wholeness which involves poise, divergence, flow and stability. Whatever is useful in it is, with great economy, also expressive. Above all, it marvellously relates the unrelated.m

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