Abstract Critical

Anthony Caro at Gagosian: some problems of sculpture

Written by Robin Greenwood

‘One of the most important things about sculpture is the way in which the viewer is invited to look at it. Whether s/he looks up, walks around it, whether it corkscrews like a Michelangelo or moves around like a Brâncuşi—the way in which it would be seen was governing how I approached the sculpture for Park Avenue.’
Anthony Caro, Gagosian press release 2013

‘Caro’s early breakthrough was in taking his sculpture off the plinth and putting the work directly on the ground, often with as many as half a dozen resting points. There is no frontal side or back view: all views are valid, and there is no “right” way to look at the work. This is why photographs are peculiarly misleading…’
Marina Vaizey, The Arts Desk, Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Installation view Anthony Caro: Park Avenue Series. All artwork © Barford Sculptures Ltd. Photo Mike Bruce

Installation view Anthony Caro: Park Avenue Series. All artwork © Barford Sculptures Ltd. Photo Mike Bruce

Three-dimensionality is the elephant in the room marked “abstract” in the house of sculpture. It’s a difficult subject for discussion, and a difficult condition for sculptors to address. So why bother with it? Caro doesn’t worry; sometimes he uses it sparingly, sometimes not at all. I think it is the biggest issue in sculpture right now (and possibly in painting too), because in directly addressing it the abstract artist is forced to abandon the narrow and dated (and admittedly often languidly beautiful) two-dimensional planar aesthetics of high modernism, whilst simultaneously rejecting the pratfalls of post-modernist subjective clap-trap. It provides potential and impetus for a new and true way forward. So important do I regard this issue that I frankly think there is no alternative other than to directly confront it – a notion for which I may well be considered narrow-minded. Yet, could we even begin to crack open this particular nut, I’m disposed to think that abstract art would broaden out considerably from its currently unambitious and unoriginal ruts and furrows. Almost anything that one can do that addresses this issue seems to point inexorably toward exciting uncharted waters.

I’m pretty sure that there is no sculptor working now (myself most definitely included) who can honestly claim a sophisticated and advanced understanding of how three-dimensionality, physicality and spatial configuration can properly come together in abstract sculpture. I’m pretty sure there never has been, to date (in the short history of abstract sculpture, I mean). Nor, for that matter, would there appear to be any writers or critics who can provide insight here. It seems to pass everyone by, and the second quote above is an example of a largely innocent yet complete reversal of the truth – Caro is now, even more than before, a pictorial artist who works from very restricted viewpoints, and whose work is consequently photogenic in a way that better sculpture is often not. Vaizey’s unconsidered review, based upon commonplace observations of objecthood rather than specialist acuity about sculpture (and these commonplaces are precisely what many artists, painter and sculptors alike, think of as belonging to the world of abstract sculpture), refers to Caro’s massive “Park Lane” series of works, the results of his abandoned mega-project for NYC which we caught a filmic glimpse of in construction eighteen months ago (you saw it here first!). These sculptures are now exhibiting in the vast canyons of Gagosian Gallery, King Cross. Caro’s new work has superficial elegance and decoration on a level of endeavour that continues to outstrip his peers and protégés, and to casual observers (and critics) may well appear to demonstrate the height of sculptural sophistication; whereas in reality it comprises a combination of clever technical nous (more commonplaces) and a kind of sculptural naivety practised with absolute confidence, and on an industrial scale.

The architecture of spreading horizontals, familiar from Caro’s celebrated works of the sixties, is to some small degree reprised in this show. The paced-out linear structures of “Early One Morning” and “Prairie” have echoes in the long horizontal pipe-work of the new sculptures. In “Horizon”, 2012, there is even a reiteration of the partial enclosure with a focus of detail in its midst seen first in “Cherry Fair”, 1971. And though these new works are by no means as spatially unencumbered as those early sculptures, being often boxed in or “tail-ended” by heavy-duty plates or window-frame type structures that close off their linear compositions, they do retain a measure of Caro’s seemingly effortless ability to clarify and keep out the clutter. Again, such clarification is far more easily achieved if you are only dealing with one or two limited viewpoints and this work is not by any measure striving for full sculptural three-dimensionality. Look from the end view at some of these works, and, in common with many earlier Caros, the whole thing, clutter or no clutter, disappears.

Torrents, 2012, Steel, rusted, 96 1/8 x 126 x 70 1/8 inches (244 x 320 x 178 cm) © Barford Sculptures Ltd. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery Photo John Hammond

Torrents, 2012, Steel, rusted, 96 1/8 x 126 x 70 1/8 inches (244 x 320 x 178 cm) © Barford Sculptures Ltd. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery Photo John Hammond

“Torrents”, the work chosen by the gallery to publicize the show, is perhaps the nearest of Caro’s works of late to a graceful, open arrangement of forms, “out there” in space, fluent, fluid and ornamental, in the grand manner of Matisse-ian and early Caro-esque modernism. Yet, would the Caro of the sixties and seventies have boxed in the huge musical notes of the floating curves and buffers with such a framework as that which the new work relies upon? Think of “Deep North”, 1969-70, or even right back to “Sculpture Two”, 1962, and their comparative lack of restraining or supportive elements. If that degree of spatial freedom was a figment of our collective imaginations, it was a convincing one at the time. “Torrents” is a work of apparently free and easy formalism, the elements disporting themselves with all the flightiness of an angel’s wing in some medieval fancy; yet ever so quickly do these elements succumb to their own literal, lumbering, massive weight and perfunctory assembly, supported as they are by the structural framing elements. No doubt some observers (like Vaizey) find this contradiction enchanting; for myself, I find this collaging of found elements without recourse to any kind of reciprocation or relation other than an optical one (achieved by the commonplace technical proficiency of Caro’s assistants) makes for extreme physical detachment bordering on – nay, embracing – sculptural implausibility. Once I see the trick (usually a mere matter of welding) I lose the illusion, and the work falls into banality. Most of all, what I miss is any kind of personal engagement with material and space above and beyond the tired siren-calls of modernist eye-candy. In this show, the space is beautiful, the sculptures are beautiful (as soon as you walk through the door), and, if you are into this sort of thing, it must look a treat of modernist abstraction. But, as even Caro’s most ardent admirers must surely admit, they don’t repay long scrutiny. This is what I crave most in new abstract art – works that will look better and better the second, third, fourth time around. This is why I have lost faith in the course Caro and his admirers persist in.

It’s not that I can’t see what he’s doing. The best work in the show, “Laughter and Crying”, which is the first work you address as you enter the main gallery, has as the main event of its occupation of space some rather exciting-looking diagonal activity making its way up and back down again, with these climbing forms set against some perhaps rather clichéd but nevertheless actively looping pipework, flicking up and flicking down. The diagonals, at first sight, have some curving and turning activity integral to them; it looks like some real action, like some real content is taking shape; you can imagine a coherence of sorts; things look like they belong, look like they interact, look like they move in concert. So far so good, and it’s a measure of Caro’s craft that he still makes such things happen. These are to some small degree real (illusionistic) things in real (illusionistic) sculpture, and it puts him ahead of the Gormleys and the Whitereads and the Kapoors (or even the Stellas or Serras). That’s not saying much, and it’s enough praise, because now you’ve entered the room, there is no more substance to be added, no discovery yet to be made by further investigation; not even a consolidation of your first view, let alone an interesting counter-argument or complexity; no development or extended dialogue. That’s it! By walking around it you will only undermine what you thought you first saw. Those long horizontal poles go nowhere, have no part to play beyond their literal horizontality, are tethered in space by welding and not by sculptural intent; they end and that’s that, perhaps with a disk/buffer to cap them, but with no move to make them speak of or to one another. They are parallel in space – that’s the only capacity in which they relate; so they occupy space as architecture or as furniture, but not as parts of any larger or more coherently whole sculptural form. That’s just not good enough. And you will find that the interesting stuff that climbs along the diagonal that attracted you to begin with is just by the merest, lightest touch (reinforced by the biggest weld) laid upon – just placed on, not built into – a slender channel section that forms the structure of that initially exciting diagonal. Where is that structure generated? It pretends to so much largesse, and it would be such a joy to walk around a sculpture with such a big, spatial, ambitious promise as this and discover that, yes, there is more to it than first meets the eye, and the space continues/is developed/is amplified. But oh yes! – to walk around the sculpture and discover for yourself some place, somewhere, where two bits of material do more than just get welded to each other, where they become conjoined in some kind of sculptural wedded bliss; somewhere where two bits of stuff together form a new “thing” that suddenly gives you insight into the rest of the work, that somehow unlocks a spatial vision much bigger than any aesthetic cliché. Ha! – but that would not be Caro’s way.

Anthony Caro RA, Shadows, 2013, Steel, 350 x 8000 x 310cm, © Barford Sculptures Ltd., Photography: John Hammond

Anthony Caro RA, Shadows, 2013, Steel, 350 x 8000 x 310cm, © Barford Sculptures Ltd., Photography: John Hammond

In the opening room of the Royal Academy Summer Show this year, the first thing to see is another big steel sculpture by Caro, and it’s perhaps the worst of the current batch; “Shadows” is a tableau of large-scale side-by-side elements arranged in a row upon a continuous plinth. It’s a configuration Caro has often used before (“After Olympia”, 1986-7; “Promenade”, 1996; etc.), but this time curved around into a semi-circular array. The normal approach to abstract sculpture, wherein the spectator walks around the work, does not apply here; the viewer is asked to remain in one spot whilst the sculpture presents itself as accommodatingly as possible to the static gaze, as a curved frieze; a grand-scale piece of brutalist decoration. The reverse view is a blank. Towards the centre of the work, as addressed from the front, is a tubular element leaning into and against a large buckled steel sheet, as if to suggest it had fallen under gravity and impressed itself conclusively on its yielding neighbour. Nothing remotely so real has happened, of course. The faux physicality of this action is sheer theatre – a “pose” adopted by steel sections, a frozen moment of ersatz sculptural content. It might even have been humorous, had the subject of contemporary sculpture’s reduction to jokedom-all-round not become so sombre a crisis for the discipline. Two key elements of sculpture’s core three-dimensionality, configuration and physicality, are here together parodied and divorced from meaning; the result is a dissolution of sculpture’s true content; a sham.

It is a commonly held view amongst abstract sculptors that the “subject” of sculpture in the early twentieth century went from being the figure to the object, which change thus made it abstract. I don’t really see how this argument stands up. If you are making a sculpture about an object, be it a chair or a bridge or a guitar (even a cubist guitar), or even about an idea of “sculpture as object”, that remains for me some kind of (depleted) figuration or representation. The abstract sculptor cannot rely upon the commonplaces of objects to provide the full and illusionistic three-dimensional qualities sculpture requires. The need is therefore to find three-dimensional content independent of both objecthood and the figure, in which both configuration and physicality take a natural and balanced role. Such content can only be made by spontaneous discovery in the course of working the material; it cannot be pre-determined, and both the organisation of the configuration and the particular nature of each sculpture’s physicality have to be established in this way too. Such discovery is (as it should be) of protracted difficulty, an ongoing but nevertheless properly engaging and all-consuming project. The fact that Caro does not in any way acknowledge this process is entirely his prerogative; but it puts him rather on the outside of any further debate about the future of abstract sculpture.

Robin Greenwood July 2013

Anthony Caro: Park Avenue Series is on at Gagosian, Britannia Street until the 27th of July

  1. david evison said…

    You really should use Caros best work as examples of your theories, and not these fakes on show at Kings Cross.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Been there, done that, where were you?

    • Sam said…

      Hi David, Are you referring to sixties Caro; or does his best work extend further into his career? And do you think that his best work is immune from theories such as Robin’s?; that perhaps it can only be challenged by sculpture not words?

  2. Robert Linsley said…

    Robin, the pictorial is what I always liked about Caro’s works, along with the many associations, the “figurative” aspect that you are so sensitive to. So what you are saying is a challenge to me and very much appreciated as such. Am I missing a whole dimension? If so I want to have it.

    But…there must be something out there that gave you the clue. You have to show me, not just talk about it. And it has to be in your own work. If not then I fear it may be nothing at all.

    No matter how it’s made, any sculpture still has to be looked at, and can only be looked at, so how can it be anything more than a succession of views? And if so, then why shouldn’t those views be restricted in number? The restriction makes clear what it is.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      I think – I hope – it is in my work; at least, my new work, which will appear in Brancaster Chronicles and on abcrit in September. There may well be other indications too, from Anthony Smart and Mark Skilton. It is definitely not fantasy any longer, though we (especially Tony Smart and I) have been talking about it for a long time. And I wouldn’t crit Caro so hard if I hadn’t already lacerated my own work with self-criticism, and wasn’t confident that I’d begun to answer some of those questions.

      No restrictions… I’ve given my reasons at the beginning of the essay.

  3. Robin Greenwood said…

    In the abstractcritical Newsletter, 10.7.13, Sam introduces the two Caro essays posted today and contrasts my “formal critique” with David Sweets interpretation of the work as a metaphor for the “industrial city”.

    So which essay is this example from? “…the convex and concave surfaces of the large curved plates open and close onto the turbulence routed through the work’s centre, tilting towards or away from the flow.” David Sweet’s, of course, and you would be hard-pressed to find as distinctly formalist an offering in my essay. In fact, when I do use that kind of language, it’s almost always to point out shortcomings. What’s more, I would link formalism quite strongly to abstract sculpture’s quest for “objecthood”, the very thing I am criticising here.

    It seems no matter how many times I repeat my distaste, the old duality reasserts itself; i.e. because I won’t talk about metaphorical/allegorical/subjective stuff, therefore I can only be a formalist. Well, I’m not. Not in my writing, not in my sculpture. If I aspire to any label at all, it’s “realist”, though I admit to having some way to go yet before I can merit Monsieur Courbet’s marker.

  4. Peter Reginato said…

    I thought some of the pieces looked like Tonys best work to date. Im not sure if Im getting your point on the 3d issue but Ive noticed with my own work its very subjective what works or looks best to the point that any group show Im in my piece is ALWAYS shown from the back….but not to talk about myself to much I do agree the “Shadows” pieces looks the weakest .Back to 3D the only answer is to do what the Minimalist did but its really a cop out in the sense of resolving one issue but being left with an academic answer to the problem.BTW I like your new work but Im a little surprised by the issues your having with Tony’s ? Heres a piece of mine on Facebook that I think works in the round but Im always surprised by what views get the “Likes” ….Peter

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      A return to minimalism is most definitely not the answer. This would be a return to ‘objecthood’ at it’s most brain-numbingly literal.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Are we talking about “Commie Red”, Peter? If so, I’m not at all sure, judging purely from your array of photos, that it would escape from what I describe in this essay as the literal three-dimensionality of commonplace objects, since despite its surrealist wackyness, it would appear to be basically a tripod arrangement with some other object-like things flying about the top. That’s my guess, but judging sculpture from photos is rather reckless.

  5. Alan Gouk said…

    Bang goes the knighthood, Robin.