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
EDINBURGH — 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.
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.
Along with the London retrospective, Caro's latest change of habit was recently on view in north London, at Kenwood House, Hampstead (it closed April 6, but will be seen again in November at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in Wakefield, England). This is a group of sculptures called ``The Trojan War.'' This is more than just some loosely associative title, however (as many of his titles have certainly been in the past). Each sculpture is named after a character in the ``Iliad'' or some other notable feature of the story of the gods and heroes of the Trojan War. And the catalog supplies added descriptions of everyone from Zeus and Apollo to Achilles and Hector alongside photographs of the appropriate sculpture.
Never (to my knowledge) has Caro been so explicitly literary in his sculpture or come so close to the illustrative. He has recently made some sculpture that specifically reinterprets ancient Greek sculpture from the Parthenon into his own visual language. Another set of works engages in a kind of dialogue with certain Old Master paintings, stimulated by the challenge they present to his conviction that his abstract language can express the deepest humanity without becoming pictorial or descriptive. But since his very earliest figurative clay sculpture of the '50s - strange lumpish attempts probably better forgotten, valuable mainly as evidence of failures leading to subsequent breakthrough - he has not made sculpture so suggestive of the human figure as these Trojan War sculptures.
At first one is tempted to feel the Trojan War works are almost a betrayal of the qualities that have made Caro's other work individual. His familiar use of welded steel collage in three dimensions is still here in some works, but it is now put at the service of infolded, cerebral, rather disturbing ceramic clay forms - supporting, framing, and presenting them. These clay forms are often unmistakably readable as heads, but they are hardly heroic and, like lumps of primeval matter, perhaps dug up by an archaeologist, they are rather absurd and dumb.
The abstract steel frameworks act as the other parts of the figures (though with no attempt to describe anatomy) while also contributing to the overall feeling of each piece. Sometimes they are period props - spears, helmets, shields, and so forth. Large, deeply grained hunks of wood are also used as pedestals - the monumental pedestals that Caro, according to all the art books, is famous for having thrown out of sculpture.
Above all, the Trojan War sculptures psychologically engage the viewer with less indirection or abstractness than this sculptor has previously attempted or intended.
It is, however, only when you try to understand the relationship between these sculptures and the word descriptions of the ``Iliad'' that it dawns that Caro is really still Caro. He is still working in the language of abstract sculpture, not illustrating history or poetry or portraying characters with much specificity. He relates to them as a source of inspiration, perhaps, as an incentive to keep his sculpture alive, as a challenge to what sculpture can do or might be. If he reinvents Homer at all - and even that is questionable - it is in terms entirely his own. There is an unmistakable element of irony in the fact that Caro's sculptural language and Homer's narrative are scarcely able to relate, and it may be that Caro is questioning in these works his own attitudes to the past.
In the process, however, Caro's sculptural terms have shifted a little. The shift is not so much in the direction of literature as towards consciousness of earlier sculptors' work, as if to acknowledge or face their challenge, too: in particular, Brancusi and Gonzalez. They seem to me to have quite as much to do with Caro's Trojan War sculptures as an epic Greek poem surviving from about the 8th century BC.
* Anthony Caro sculpture from the 1950s through 1994 is on view at the Annely Juda Fine Art gallery in London through May 7.