Abstract Form That Invites Exploration

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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.

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,

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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.

The sculpture had about it something of performance, like music or the motion of dance. Caro improvises with the steel pieces, not for wild or empty gesture, but for travel, liftoff, fall-over; for jut, float, and fly. Something wonderfully lighthearted seemed to have taken over sculpture in the early 1960s, but it wasn't frivolous so much as truly witty. It had the singing exuberance of Schubert or Mozart. Caro's sculpture was an outstanding part of that time's move away from Angst and civic solemnity, mass and monumentality.

Nevertheless, his determination to do the unexpected has led him into the the exploration of sculptural possibilities that almost seem the contradiction of his recognizable "style." Caro is no exception to the idea that intuition rather than logic brings about change in an artist's work. He hasn't "progressed" by following some sort of plan and program. Sometimes writing about his work can give that impression, however.

Among his departures from his own precedents have been works placed on table tops or pedestals. (He has often been described as the first sculptor who abandoned the pedestal and placed sculpture directly on the ground.) He is not an artist who makes rules for himself.

Then there are works that respond consciously to older paintings or sculpture by other artists: Manet's painting "Dejeuner sur L'herbe," for instance (Caro's corresponding sculpture bridges, with a feeling of tenuous balance, the space between two table corners); paintings of the "Descent from the Cross" by both Rembrandt and Rubens; and the West pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia in Greece.

In these works "responding" to older figurative art, Caro keeps his abstractness while allowing forms more body and concavity. This translation of other images into his own language is an intriguing balancing act. Sometimes it seems rather forced. But he has clearly felt the need to turn from the lightness of his earlier work toward a greater monumentality, wanting, as he has described it, "to thicken it." This weightiness, however, is still broken and interrupted by spaces - or paradoxically linked by t hose spaces. And when his steel elements curve or move in, toward interior spaces, they are still spaces that are being formed - not solid masses.

Closely connected with this sense of interior space is Caro's interest in the way architecture can be a provocation to sculpture. He has made a number of works that openly use forms of architectural organization or architectural elements: steps and stairs, openings, ramps, different floors, balconies, and roofs. There is a strong trait of serious play here, because these works invite not only the eye but the whole person of the spectator into the inner and outer spaces of the sculpture.

It's significant that his first overt move into "sculpitecture" of this sort was a piece called "Child's Tower Room." He also called another piece a "folly "Lakeside Folly with reference to those fantasy structures the wealthy used to build in their gardens as amusing focal points.

Caro's friend, the architect Richard Rogers, wrote in 1989 that "Tony's new sculptures ... must not be mistaken for buildings for they are not ... they are free from functional laws, they are liberated from the obligation to provide shelter. They offer a mirage of usability but they are not functionable. They transcend need, they are true and powerful sculptures."

His latest exhibited work of this kind is the "Octagon Tower/Tower of Discovery" made on commission for a central space in the Tate Gallery's Duveen galleries, themselves octagonal in shape. Originally to be in wood, it turned out to be practical, given its complexity, only in steel. A team of 26 welder-fitters assisted its making. Its interior complexity is explored via six staircases. The levels and spaces these lead you up and into it are full of surprises and changes of scale.

The experience is hardly minimal; more baroque! The sculpture is actually exciting, strange, awkward, even a touch claustrophobic. It appears to be a little didactic, as if it has been made for those who find the purely visual comprehension and exploration of spaces in sculptures difficult.

Here instead is an opportunity to actually move around in those spaces and feel their variety, concavity, angularity, ups and downs, twists and turns, inward and outward moves. Who knows, Caro's forms might make future connection with abstract sculpture have more "meaning." And they may also instill a fresh approach to experiencing architecture in more vital ways.

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