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Abstract Form That Invites Exploration

By Christopher Andreae / February 10, 1992

THE power of Anthony Caro's sculptures to act on the imagination resides primarily in their structure. Their refreshing unfamiliarity arises from this artist's persistent strategy of challenging the abstract potential of his own sculptural imagination. For many years he has shown his unwillingness to settle for a formula, to be satisfied with an achievement. He has refused to sit still.

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Energy in Caro's work is not like some indwelling spirit emerging out of inert material, as in Michelangelo's slaves. He seems far more interested in disclosure than enclosure. Energy is not hidden in his work; it is made as visible as possible, outwardly articulated, stimulatingly apparent, escaped.

Collage has definitely inspired him. Collage involves the cutout or torn-out paper, the "found" (rather than tailor-made) fragment, the commonplace object lifted from its usual, useful context and incorporated in a new association, thus making up a new image. The separate components of this image more or less retain their differences, overlaid, or joined together, but not completely merged. Collage, as it was first practiced by the Cubists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque at the beginning of the century,

allowed the familiar to become unexpected. Henri Matisse's "cutouts" of the late 1940s and early '50s developed the idea in a different direction, using scissors to literally slice into colors - into colored paper. Caro, always a great admirer of Matisse, must also have been conscious of these works.

But Caro's "collage" is fully three-dimensional, completely sculptural, and more often than not it has been made of steel (painted surprising commercial gloss colors in the early work, like agricultural machinery). Not that he was the first sculptor to realize the potential (as well as the modernity) of steel parts welded or bolted together. Predecessors include Picasso, Julio Gonzalez, Alexander Calder, David Smith, and some of the sculptors labeled "Constructivists," such as Naum Gabo and George Rickey . And when Caro came to prominence in London in the 1960s, there were other sculptors producing original work in the same medium - Brian Wall, for example.

Nevertheless, welded steel seems to have been consonant with Caro's adventurous imagination to an extraordinary degree; and it has remained his predominant medium, although he has worked in cast bronze, lead, wood, ceramic, and even paper.

He is prolific. And welded steel lends itself to the kind of leaping imagination that prompts - and demands realization of - such a wealth of ideas. The welding of separate steel parts often at tenuous, apparently fragile points impels the eye to leap in unexpected ways. Though no sculptural medium could be described as easy or quick, welded steel approaches a state of necessary urgency compared with carving in stone or wood, or even modeling clay or plaster in preparation for the elaborate business o f casting.

Steel also suits Caro because his particular interest in the lively movement and travel of the eye has nothing to do with the traditional impress of vitality on a sculpture by the movements of the sculptor's hands, with or without tools. Movement in Caro's work is not tactile, but visual. Nor is it sculpture of something. It is simply itself. It describes movement through three dimensions, without being kinetic like Calder's mobiles or Rickey's slowly swaying blades.

Caro's work is closer to Gabo's idea of space as continuous interpenetration. But quite unlike Gabo's imagery, Caro's is more often than not eccentric - apparently uncentered. Its dynamics are interrupted and fragmentary, extending itself, yet suddenly terminated. It does not circle or orbit around itself (as a Gabo sculpture does) in some sort of perpetual or cosmic motion, forever returning home.

Caro's attitude to art is sociable. He works generously with and alongside others. He has been a notable teacher and stimulator. He uses assistants successfully. He shows his work with enthusiasm frequently and across the world. He encourages those art writers he feels have something worthwhile or illuminating to write about his work.

But this sociability is intrinsic to his sculptures: They are not objects standing in monolithic isolation. They involve the viewer. Although for many years his work invited exploration of the spectator's eye only (not his hand or whole body), it certainly was an invitation. For one thing, spectator and sculpture shared the same ground. For another, it was immediately evident that here was no sculpture of private mystery.