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Art, and my imagination, go technicolor

In '60s art, wonderful, frivolous color started bursting out everywhere like wayward fireworks.

By Christopher Andreae / April 17, 2003

Until then, sculpture had been brown. I exaggerate. But when, in the 1960s, I first saw the work of young sculptors making brightly colored sculpture out of fiberglass and painted steel, it was as if a fascinating new element had been invited into the world of sculpture. The color was fresh, daring, and lighthearted, challenging the universal sculptural brown. It was like spring after a long dreary winter.

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It seemed to me an exhilarating escape from traditional materials - stone, wood, clay, bronze. Their inherent color was now no longer all the color sculpture needed. The mood had changed. In the postwar '50s, brownness had even invaded paintings. I abandoned art school after a week in the face of this attitude. I remember sitting dismayed in front of a particularly brown painting by one of the teachers. Just not my scene.

Working as a writer in London for a couple of years in the '60s, however, I witnessed the most disgracefully frivolous sense of color bursting out everywhere like wayward fireworks. Wonderful.

Going to art galleries became exciting, unpredictable. To close your mind to all this energy and exploration was pointless. To be open was infinitely more enjoyable.

I didn't like everything I saw, but my inbred traditionalism was being shattered. I was "discovering" modern art. I found it enthralling. I loved most the freeing of color from mere description. Why did red have to be used only to picture a tomato or a hat? Red was simply - and complexly - just red. Painters were stimulated by the idea of "pure color" straight from the pot. Painting naturally made this break first. But then independent color was carried over from painting into the three-dimensional explorations of abstract sculpture.

Quite a lot of what I liked was issuing from a diverse group of sculptors who had trained with Anthony Caro at London's St. Martin's School of Art. And Caro's own works were open, asymmetrical, unmonumental - and colored - structures. They were vital movements, almost dances, of painted steel shapes that floated, angled, circled, curved, leaned, or leaped across the floor. Though made of heavy steel elements, they seemed to be a weightless balancing act. They invited movement of eye and body in the viewer. Above all, they lifted the whole idea of sculpture out of its long association with "In Memoriam."

Although I'd seen nothing like this before, I didn't have to work at "getting" the abstract language at all. In an interview in 1980, Caro told me: "I think the use of color, originally, was a reaction to unpainted steel and to bronze sculptures. I felt I wanted my work to look more like a new thing, so I painted it green or whatever." But he also added: "With me, color has always been a little apart from the sculpture, it comes after it. It seems like an afterthought, a clarifying...."

When I'd first seen it, though, his color did not seem like an afterthought. His structures were underneath the color. How could one separate sculptures like his brilliant red "Early One Morning" or the rich clear yellow of his "Sun Feast," from the impact of their all-over color? What seemed to the sculptor a finishing, struck me as a primary.

One day, still in London but about to move to the United States, I was leafing through art magazines when I came across an American artist's work for the first time. It turned out that Caro himself had come to know his work on a 1959 visit to America. Yet I came to David Smith's sculpture having first seen Caro's, which in certain ways had grown out of Smith's. We do this; we see the history of art retrospectively. We see Michelangelo through the eyes of Henry Moore. Or knowing Picasso, we then look at Raphael.