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A Writer Revisits Two Artists' Careers He Follows Closely

Anthony Caro's 40 years as a sculptor offer a rich sampling of ideas rendered, cast aside, and reimagined

By Christopher AndreaeStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 14, 1994


LONGTIME art and travel writers have one thing in common: After practicing our crafts for a decade or three, we sometimes revisit an artist or a place. As a writer mostly of the first kind, I'd say that art writers have a far more interesting time of it in this respect.

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I would much rather see a 70th-birthday exhibition of sculpture by Anthony Caro, or an exhibition of new work by Scottish painter Gwen Hardie, than visit Cardiff, Wales, for the fourth time or even Vienna for the third. I have revisited Caro's sculpture numerous times since it first came to prominence, and Hardie (born in 1962 and well under half Caro's age) is firmly on the list of artists I want to watch as they develop (see review, below).

Countries and cities do change and develop, of course. But through the life stream of any contemporary artist worth revisiting courses the necessity and urgency of evolution, new directions, reconsideration, fresh seeing, and second thoughts. When interviewed by Lawrence Alloway about the radical developments in his work in the early 1960s, Caro called it changing his habits.

It has been claimed more than once that the abstract painted-steel sculptures Caro came up with in the '60s suddenly and unpredictably extended the possibilities of sculpture.

Bryan Robertson reiterates this conviction in his introductory essay for a Caro retrospective in London, going even further than usual by claiming that Caro's work in the early '60s is to sculpture what Picasso and Braque's Cubism was to painting: ``The presence, the identity and possibilities of sculpture were changed everywhere by Caro in 1963, just as the possibilities for painting were transformed by Picasso in 1909.''

Robertson was there when Caro's work made its first public mark. Robertson was director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery and organized the 1963 show of Caro's steel sculpture, now describing it as having been a ``raw shock'' accompanied by ``an agreeable pitch of exhilaration.'' These bright new sculptures, he writes, ``seemed straight away to clear one's eyesight.''

If Robertson's claims do sound over-the-top today, nevertheless Caro's sculpture conveyed then, and has to an admirable degree continued to convey, the feeling of an escape into uncharted territory. It is not really possible to analyze the character of Caro's work (though attempts to do so have been legion). But at the outset, the sculpture had certain noticeable traits: the undisguised steel elements of its construction; an airiness and linear travel of its form-language; vivid painted color; and a release from mere surface, interior structures, massive forms, and predictable kinds of balance, centeredness, or verticality. It was also a welcome abandonment of the anguish or rhetorical solemnity that much contemporary sculpture seemed destined to express.

Each of these initial traits has been challenged over the years by Caro himself, in his work, and yet his individuality has grown and stayed intact. Much of the work in the current London show is not painted but rusted and waxed. Many of his sculptures have explored internal and hidden spaces, and have by no means always been linear. At one time (though no example is on view), the sculptor went against previous convictions and worked in the old material of bronze instead of steel; he has also worked in clay, wood, paper, and other materials. But his vision has remained his own, and its communication of feeling, like the experience of music or dance - connecting in some inexplicable but exciting way with the viewer's own movements of mind and body - has continued.