Abstract Critical

Anthony Caro

Written by Robin Greenwood

This interview with Anthony Caro was recorded on 29th November 2011. The sculptures you see in the studio are very much works-in-progress, cannibalised from quarter-size models for an enormous sculpture project for Park Avenue, New York, which was to span three blocks of the central reservation – a kind of huge drive-past linear sculpture. This project is presently on hold; no doubt we will see the results of these reworked pieces some time in the future. In any event, it is yet another instance of Caro’s willingness and ability to involve himself in a very wide range of activities and produce sculpture from all sorts of starting points, some of which are discussed in the film (his “narrative” work in clay, for example, and how that came about). He has, of course, long championed the view that abstract sculpture can be all sorts of things, from paper relief to complex installation, and operate in all manner of degrees of three-dimensionality.


Nevertheless, Caro states in the interview that not everything and anything can be sculpture; that it is to be considered as a particular language; and that it is “not part of the world”. Needless to say, this begs lots more questions than it answers, which I hope can be expanded upon by others in exchanges on this site. Some further points to listen out for are Caro’s assertion that “without ‘character’, abstract art is extremely boring”, though we don’t quite get down to defining what character in abstract sculpture might be. Perhaps more specifically and importantly, Caro declares that he is, first and foremost, an abstract artist, and that the many figurative/narrative projects he has undertaken over the years are to be regarded as “side-trips” and “excursions”. Of abstraction, he makes the bold claim: “I see that as the main way forward for sculpture as high art”.


It is interesting to compare this with William Tucker’s take on sculpture at the moment, as evidenced by the exchange of views by email elsewhere on this site, where Tucker seems to be perhaps travelling in the opposite direction, questioning the ability of abstract sculpture now to deliver “presence” – which may or may not be an equivalent of Caro’s “character”. You will see in the Tucker exchanges some discussion around the sculptures of Edgar Degas, which I know from his teaching days that Caro also admires. As a personal footnote to the Caro interview, I found myself later that day at a loose end in Piccadilly, and dropped in to see the Degas exhibition at the RA again. Catching the exhibition at a quiet moment late in the afternoon, it was one of the smaller sculptures which claimed all my attention this time, “Arabesque over the right leg, left arm in front” (Rewald XXXVIII). It seemed to me that it accomplished something perhaps yet to be matched in anybody’s abstract sculpture to date, namely, an unrelenting visual excitement wherever and however one looked at it, and a completely convincing and coherent (if complex) three-dimensionality, which never seemed to run itself out. In my opinion, that combination is rare, and it distinguishes this sculpture uncompromisingly from many of the other sculptures (by others, but also some by Degas too) that were in the same show, but not up to the same level. It marks it out for me as a sculpture, rather than a figure (see the Tucker exchanges on this subject); i.e. visual, physical and, in a particular sense of the word… abstract. That day, this little object-not-of-this-world seemed a universe away from sculptures on Park Avenue.


Robin Greenwood

Jan 2012


  1. Robin Greenwood said…

    As to three-dimensionality, see the bit about the Degas above.

  2. Robin Greenwood said…

    RIP Tony Caro. It’s the end of the beginning of abstract sculpture.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      Robin, I thought Caro’s answer to your probing of the problem of frontality was a very interesting one. It sounds like you want a sculpture to have more sides than a person normally does, and if it’s put that way I find it hard to object. Anyway, I posted something about it on my blog – Saturday. http://newabstraction.net

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Sorry Robert, what answer from Caro? You don’t mean…, no you couldn’t.

        And I don’t want sculpture to have any sides, and wasn’t aware that normal people had them either (other than left, right and nasty).

        Which bit of your blog deals with this?

      • Robert Linsley said…

        He said that his work is “literally” 3-D, which it obviously is, and then drew an equivalence between its two-sidedness (front and back) and the two-sidedness of a person (front and back). From this I draw the conclusion that Caro is less of a formalist than we may think, and that the figurative aspect of his work runs deeper than perhaps anyone expected – that’s it not a matter of style but a fundamental stance.

        Fried has gone on about what he calls “facingness,” which also draws together “opticality,” flatness and the tableau.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Yes, less abstract than we have previously thought, perhaps (though this doesn’t preclude formalism). I also think his insistence on ‘character’ as defining the quality of a sculpture is another instance of his covert figuration.

      • Robert Linsley said…

        Notice that he is content with a literal three dimensionality, which provokes the thought that the “sides” of a person are all metaphorical, and that all such metaphors emerge out of the difficulties of face to face encounter.

        The full roundedness of a person is often hard to see. I’m under the impression that you want a sculpture to be literally fully rounded and that you also want that roundedness to be achieved in some way, not just given.

        When Caro’s work is landscape, as in the piece I just put up on e blog

      • Robert Linsley said…

        Sorry, a computer glitch

        The Caro piece I just put on the blog is an interior, but that’s a small distinction. When his work is landscape the figure is implied. In fact the viewer is that figure – a conventional trope. It starts to appear that the figurative is very hard to escape, at least in sculpture. And I’m feeling myself toward the thought that the full three dimensionality that you desire will also not escape. The achievement of full roundedness beyond the literally, factually given will entail some confrontation with what it means for a person to be many-sided, the full roundedness of personality, always embedded in personal encounters, always metaphorical and full of misunderstanding and partial perception.

      • Sam said…

        This from Caro in 1979 – Certain things about the physical world and certain things about what it is like to be in a body are tied up together. Verticality, horizontality, gravity, all of these pertain both to the outside physical world and to the fact that we have bodies, as evidently does the size of a sculpture. These things are of importance in both my early figurative and the later abstract sculpture. In the abstract sculpture they are crucial.

  3. Terry Ryall said…

    So many points to examine/comment on here and none seem to be side-trips. In the spirit of less is more I’ll choose just one for now.
    I hesitate to disagree with Tony Caro (one of my sculpture heroes) but I will anyway, at least with his statement that sculpture is a language “not of the world”. I would argue, whether one believes sculpture to be a language or not, that it is most definitely of this world and that it is the duty of an ambitious sculpture (abstract or figurative) to try and project through its physical and visual reality (not its literal qualities) something about the world that we inhabit and our place in it.
    If “not of the world” then Whereof?