Abstract Critical

Steel Sculpture Part I: From Gabo to Caro

Written by Alan Gouk

Anthony Caro, Sculpture Two, 1962, steel, 208 x 361 x 259cm. Photograph: John Riddy, Courtesy of Barford Sculptures

Anthony Caro, Sculpture Two, 1962, steel, 208 x 361 x 259cm. Photograph: John Riddy, Courtesy of Barford Sculptures

“In the art of sculpture every material has its own aesthetic properties. The emotions aroused by materials are caused by their own intrinsic properties… In sculpture as well as in technics the method of working is set by the material itself.”

“Shapes exult and shapes depress, they elevate and make desperate; they order and confuse; they are able to harmonise our psychical forces and to disturb them.”

“Sculpture personifies and inspires the ideas of all great epochs. It manifests the spiritual rhythm and directs it.”

Naum Gabo, 1920 and 1937


In retrospect Robert Motherwell emerges as the least bombastic, the least riven with romantic afflatus and the most dialectic in his thought of the Abstract Expressionists, though he has his senior moments later in his career. “Actually my mind in most areas is tentative and speculative”, 1969, (rather than dogmatic).

In an early essay which would form the cornerstone of his artistic identity and philosophy of art, The Modern Painter’s World (subtitled ‘The Place of the Spiritual in a World of Property’), 1944, he quotes from Bosanquet’s Three Lectures on Aesthetic, ‘When a “body-and-mind” is, as a whole, in any experience, that is the chief feature… of what we mean by feeling. Think of him as he sings, or loves, or fights. When he is as one, I believe it is always through feeling…’

And Motherwell adds, “For the painter, painting is his thought’s medium”. “Painting is a medium in which the mind can actualise itself; it is a medium of thought.”  “Painting is a reality among realities, which has been felt and formed.” “The content of painting is our response to the painting’s qualitative character, as made apprehendable by its form. This content is the feeling ‘body-and-mind’.”

And in Beyond the Aesthetic, 1946, “Feelings must have a medium in order to function at all… It is the medium or the specific configuration of the medium, that we can call a work of art that brings feeling into being…” (This echoes Croce’s notion that intuition only exists in the expression of it, realises itself in the mode in which it is expressed). Motherwell goes on to say that the best artists do not impose themselves on the medium; rather the medium realises itself through them (echoing T.S Eliot in What is a Classic?). “No true artist ends with the style that he expected to have when he began, anymore than anyone’s life unrolls in the particular manner that one expected when young, that it is only by giving oneself completely to the painting medium that one finds oneself and one’s own style.” This gives “the medium” the sense of something fluid, that can take the imprint of the artist’s spirit by virtue of its very mobility, its malleability in direct relation to feeling, intuition and thought. What then in the case of sculpture, where the intractability of the material places an inevitable barrier between thought, feeling and the action of “body-and-mind”, and places one at a distance from spontaneity? This is the perennial difficulty for sculpture, with its heavy emphasis on craft and laborious actualisation and it is those artists who are most inside the making process, inside “the métier” as Rilke called it, who proceed by feeling, who have the greatest chances. And it is perhaps for this reason that construction in steel has come to play the leading role in the development of modern sculpture, since its pliability, ductility and plastic qualities, allied to its formal range in shaping both mass and space by subtraction as well as addition is most in tune with the architectural aspirations of our age (as first articulated by Naum Gabo in 1920, and by the Bauhaus theorists before him).

In the present context it is Gabo’s writings about sculpture, rather than the work itself which places him as of central importance in the formation of what have become the central tenets of modernist sculpture, or that branch of it which finds expression in construction in steel. In the Realist Manifesto of 1920 he states:

‘We renounce volume as a pictorial and plastic form of space. One cannot measure space in volumes as one cannot measure liquid in yards. We renounce in sculpture the mass as a sculptural element. Thus we bring back to sculpture the line as a direction and in it we affirm depth as the one form of space.”

And in 1937 – “We consider space… as an absolute sculptural element released from any closed volume, and we represent it from inside with its own specific properties. In our sculpture space has ceased to be for us a logical abstraction or a transcendental idea, and has become a malleable material element.’

This leads directly to the sculpture of Gonzalez, via the intermediary of Picasso, whose first constructions, aided by Gonzalez, date from 1928, after Gabo’s pioneering formulations. By what route two such very different minds as Gabo and Gonzalez came in touch with one another, or whether in fact, they knew of each other’s ideas is not known; no doubt Picasso’s Guitar Construction of 1912-13 was the catalyst. I can do no better than to quote William Tucker (from the Language of Sculpture) on Gonzalez:

“‘Drawing in space’ is the conventional summary of Gonzalez’s contribution to modern sculpture; and usually connotes the assembly in three dimensions of linear elements, as for example in the Large Maternity or the Woman Combing her Hair; the transposition of line drawing into sculpture. In this particular area the obvious precursor is Picasso, notably in the Construction in Wire of 1928-30. What is peculiar to Gonzalez, and the index of his unique position in modern sculpture is the identification of drawing with making. The seed of Picasso’s original Cubist constructions in wood bore fruit in steel in the hands of Gonzalez: not only the assembly part by part, but the previous and separate shaping of parts as bar forged, drawn or bent, steel rolled, cut or folded, volumes made by the enclosure of the void: the components thus made, joined at points or edges, and situated in relation to gravity in ways inaccessible to the traditional materials of sculpture. The action of the sculptor’s tools becomes the form of the end material: the tensile potential of steel ‘as it comes’ i.e. in varieties of bar or sheet – is turned, in the sculptor’s hands, to sheer invention.” (1974)

For one of such modest ambition and seeming lack of ego, Gonzalez, whilst happy to defer to Picasso, and acknowledging him as master, has had much the greater influence on the development of steel sculpture, not only because he passed the torch directly to David Smith, but through the complex disjunctive “syntax” of his most innovative works, which pre-figure so many of the practices which we now associate with radically anti-naturalistic abstraction.

Most of all, there is the consummate subtlety of his craftsmanship, inseparable from his formal inventiveness. No one since has made the plasticity of steel (or iron) as eloquently expressive in itself, and conveyed a sensibility of such refinement through the handling of surface. And though the composite nature of the way the sculptures have been made (perhaps passing through an intermediate stage after drawing that involves cut sections of wood or leather, nails and found parts) is disguised in the bronze works, the bronzes speak just as eloquently of their metal-working vision as do the sculptures in iron, forged, hammered and welded.

Whereas Picasso pushes abstract signs toward the point of recognition of a figurative reading, Gonzales works in the opposite direction, pushing vestigial signs for teeth, hair, etc. to the margins of an inanimate structure having little reference to skeletal or anatomical forms, though this is anticipated in the Apollinaire Maquettes of 1928. Those constructions in metal, using found parts which Gabo helped Picasso to make, Head of a Woman 1929-30, for example, formed a template for Gonzalez whose departure from figuration becomes the more radical for those concerned with construction in steel, at least.

Gonzalez began as a painter, as did David Smith, and he seems to have known little of the historical background of iron sculpture, other than of his own regional craft expertise in silversmithing, but as Smith says, for Gonzalez (and himself), conception and inspiration over-rode technique, and making followed, prompted by drawings of surrealist fantasy objects culled from these vestigial signs.

As Smith says – ‘There was no effort to produce an outstanding welding bead, only a natural, untutored seam, rather casual and slow, as if the need to join parts was the only concern of the man and the torch. In the best work nothing stood out as Spanish iron-working. This had been left behind for the aesthetic end’ (1956).

David Smith would be considered one of the painter / sculptors in the line of Matisse, Picasso, and Miro, strongly influenced in his early blacksmithing works by Gonzalez of course and the surrealism of Miro, Gorky and early Pollock, were it not for one feature, his intuitive feeling for the plastic potential of welding not only to fuse, to meld discrete elements into an organic whole as if drawn together by a magnetic pull, but also to open up the entire history of metal-craft from bronze age Minoan and Mesopotamian, to Iron age Hittite, Sardinian, Viking and Celtic, and from the burial mound cults of “Russia” to the gold, silver and bronze artefacts of the near east, the Scythians and the Persians (of Luristan).

Elsewhere in his 1956 essay on Gonzalez, he says – ‘Wrought metal sculpture goes back to the Bulls of El-Ubaid (3000 BC) and the life-sized figure of Pepi I from Heirakunpolis (2300 BC). A whole age of iron welding and forming flowered in Syria in the eleventh to ninth century BC. The iron head-rest of Tutankhamen (1350 BC), believed to have come from Syria, was welded. In Genesis, Tubal Cain, husband of Zilah, is referred to as the instructor of every artificer in bronze and iron. Iron welding and working has been in evidence in almost every period of culture in both art and function.’ It is clear that Smith has spent some time researching this history.

Like all conscientious modernists, this inveterate haunter or enchanted hunter of museums, not least on his trips to Europe, could access and revel in the many layered resonances which such time-encrusted little objects could inspire, and apply this rich matrix to his own immediate surrealist-based dream-landscaping preoccupations. Welding, in those early blacksmithing works right up to the Agricolas of 1958, allowed discrete parts not just to touch but to flow into one another so that the work, if struck with a hammer, would sing, ring, resound like a bell, an entire tensile organism tuned up both structurally and visually. Of course not all Smith’s early sculptures have this quality. Some are too composite for that (including bronze cast elements and bolted connections) like Cloistral Landscape, 1946, Royal Incubator, 1949, Egyptian Landscape, 1951. Those which seem to coalesce by magnetic attraction, Volton XVIIIVoltri-Bolton X, for example, are predominately centripetal in organisation, stand against gravity like crazy man-made sentinels, like railway signals of no functional purpose save to assert their total implausibility as objects, governed only by an imaginative espirt de coeur of the sculptor who saw them as “personages”, a word with surrealist overtones. The pinnacle of the tensile, welded constructions is Australia, 1951.

Australia may well have begun as a “drawing”, an assembly of elements laid out on the ground (as we see Smith working on Voltri-Bolton X, 1962) but once the decision had been taken to raise the structure on “legs” arching upwards to a secondary base within the work, from where the super-structure is cantilevered, Australia took off as a tensile structure, dynamically poised in gravity, creating a paradigm for sculpture still awaiting a full second realisation (Smith himself took it no further). “Smith stretches steel, stresses its junctions, takes balance to its limits, just as Degas stretched and stressed the human body in attitudes that were in themselves structures before work on the sculpture was started”. This insight of Tucker’s was the kernel from which sprang the body-based experiments of the early 80s by Anthony Smart and Katherine Gili (and others). It still awaits a fully abstract realisation, though Tim Scott’s Song for Chile II, 1994, [1] suggests a way, as do Gili’s Bitter Joy, 2005, and Robin Greenwood’s 1998-2000 sculptures.

Tim Scott, Song for Chile II, 1994, steel, 250 x 120 x 220 cm

Tim Scott, Song for Chile II, 1994, steel, 250 x 120 x 220 cm


Robin Greenwood, B3, 1998-2000, steel, H. 95 cm

Robin Greenwood, B3, 1998-2000, steel, H. 95 cm


Katherine Gili, Bitter Joy, 2005, steel, 146 x 162 x 81 cm

Katherine Gili, Bitter Joy, 2005, steel, 146 x 162 x 81 cm

The astonishing claims which Clement Greenberg made for Smith (and Pollock) as early as 1943, at a point where Smith was only beginning, making small-scale tentative works indebted to Gonzalez and the surrealists, suggest that Greenberg was intent on mobilising support for the idea of a vital American art of budding international importance in advance of the facts, just as his account of the “optical” in sculpture could be sustained by very little concrete evidence when first explicitly stated (in 1958) (though it had been implicit for years before then), and was more of a figment of his imagination, prophetic, self-fulfilling, the vision of a critic, anticipating the practice of artists. In 1946 Greenberg had reiterated the conception first mooted by Gabo in 1920, that sculpture was concerned with transparency, the enclosure of space by line and not concerned with volume. However, whereas Gabo sought to distance his art from the cubist root at least in word, if not deed, and whereas Smith had said he was “more Assyrian than Cubist”, Greenberg claimed that the new sculpture derived from cubist collage, and stressed the cubist origins of Smith’s drawing and planar construction as a kind of collage (or assemblage), though this, like many of Greenberg’s citings of cubism is problematic and hard to discern in 1946 (an idée fixe which he would shed in the following years under pressure from the evolving art of the painters). As the 1950s progressed Greenberg’s notion of opticality evolved in tandem with exposure to the new painting, and began to fuse with his awareness of developments in the painting of Pollock, Rothko and Newman. As Andrew Causey writes in Sculpture Since 1945 – in 1958, Greenberg “began to use the word ‘optical’ to describe sculpture that appealed through the eye to the intellect rather than the touch.”


Pictorialism and Caro

Anthony Caro, Capital, 1960, steel, 245 x 241 x 132 cm. Photo Mick Hales, courtesy of Barford Sculptures

Anthony Caro, Capital, 1960, steel, 245 x 241 x 132 cm. Photo Mick Hales, courtesy of Barford Sculptures

Anthony Caro’s Damascene conversion to abstraction in sculpture (on his trip to America of 1960) has acquired mythic status, not least in his own evaluation of it, and like all myths there is a grain of human truth there. How else account for the remarkable explosion of ground-breaking innovations which gave rise to the works exhibited at the Whitechapel in 1963? We read that the date for this show was postponed from the year before, much to the artist’s chagrin. Why the urgency? Perhaps it was knowledge of what Smith had done at Spoleto in 1962 that spurred Caro on to produce a sizeable body of work so quickly. Caro clearly felt that he was on to a major discovery, and one so topical, so contemporary that delay would blunt its impact, perhaps even be overtaken by others. There were after all other antecedents, chief among them the celebrated Brutalism of Peter and Alison Smithson at Hunstanton School (1954). The architectural magazines had been full of photographs of the interior exposed I-beams painted in bright colours. And the Smithsons were well known to Caro, as movers and shakers at the ICA. Caro’s sculpture of the fifties was Brutalism in representational form but in 1958-59 the lure of the human body was too strong for him to make a leap so gigantic as the one he would subsequently make.

Then there were the Situation painters, and the advocacy of Roger Coleman and Lawrence Alloway, and chief among them the sculptor / painter William Turnbull, who may well feel aggrieved that his role in advancing the cause of abstraction in sculpture has been eclipsed by the spectacular breakthrough of Caro. Totemic and monolithic though his wood sculptures are, they anticipated Caro in the placing and poising of literally very heavy elements in ways that challenge gravity.

Simply in terms of construction with steel and the acceptance of abstraction, Robert Adams and Brian Wall (also Reg Butler and the Dane, Robert Jacobsen) had been working in this mode for some time before it occurred to Caro that such a mode could carry feeling.

In short, the conversion to abstraction could have been prompted by considerations much nearer to home (as had occurred with Victor Pasmore in 1949 and Patrick Heron in 1956). It was in the air throughout the 1950s, but Caro had chosen to take the route followed by William Scott, the French existentialist line of Dubuffet, Giacometti, Germaine Richier, and of course Henry Moore, whose general taste and values had been decisive for Caro. David Sylvester’s advocacy both of Moore and Bacon epitomises the humanist tendencies which dominated English attitudes, his notorious early dismissal of Jackson Pollock indicating the opposite pole of taste from that of Alloway.

All that Caro seems to have taken from David Smith (and Greenberg) at this stage (he would see much more in Smith later) was the liberating recognition that industrial materials, steel, concrete, glass, aluminium, in their naked un-worked states could carry the kinds of emotion hitherto invested in his figures, indeed could do so more directly, with greater “purity” than through the language of bodily representation. This in itself was a giant step for one so immersed in having clay take on the burden of representing massive bodily forces, inertia, gravitational pressures.

And the influence of painting, even at this early stage, cannot be gainsayed and not only the literalist tendencies of his friend Kenneth Noland for whom the shape of the “support” interacting with the laying down of bands of coloured paint which echoed or contradicted it, gave rise, when raised from the floor, to a tension between the object (the stretched canvas over frame) and a surprising optical phenomenon when one’s gaze is sustained at the whole image – not only he, but the paintings of the Situation artists as well – William Turnbull again, and Robyn Denny, who were busy adjusting to the innovations of the most abstract of the Abstract Expressionists, Newman and Reinhardt (with Frank Stella looming on the horizon).

This ambiguity between literal object and illusion is one of the key features of the art of the 1960s, manifest in the shaped canvas boom of Stella, Richard Smith, Larry Zox, David Novros and many others, but also in the minimalist sculpture of Judd and Morris and in the reaction against minimalism by the New Generation sculptors, TuckerScottPhilip King, Michael Bolus and David Annesley.

Anthony Caro, Midday, 1960, steel, 240 x 96 x 366cm. Photo: John Riddy, courtesy of Barford Sculptures

Anthony Caro, Midday, 1960, steel, 240 x 96 x 366cm. Photo: John Riddy, courtesy of Barford Sculptures

Caro’s Second Sculpture, 1960, Capital, 1960, Sculpture Seven, 1961 and Twenty Four Hours, 1960 are attempts to assimilate to sculpture the new aesthetic (in English terms) of the Situation painters and of Noland (with a nod to the architecture of the Smithsons). Midday, 1960 is a different matter. Here the physical actions Caro must have experienced in moving Moore’s two and three piece reclining figures around, including their bases, are re-stated as a sequence of decisions of placement. The base is incorporated as part of the sculpture, tilted up to form an inclined plane which is then accentuated by a tripartite sequence of accents. First a broad flanged section of I beam is planted flat-on to the base, like a large foot, the top plane of the I beam open to the sky, reflecting light; second, another section of I beam is tilted precariously at an oblique angle, secured by an angle section so that it appears barely to touch the base; thirdly a composite planar head-piece taller than the other sections with its top plate angled backwards and upwards to invite light from the sky (assuming an out-door setting), a baffle deflecting and reflecting space both away from and towards the sculpture, so that all the planes of the I beams seem open to the surrounding space, whilst channelling it.

A curious feature of Midday (and of Lock) is the decorative play with bolt heads and holes, which emphasise both the composite made quality and the found object quality of some elements contrasted with the clearly devised positioning of others (a vestige of Brutalist aesthetics perhaps). Some of the bolts are structurally necessary, but not all. It would be churlish indeed to claim this sculpture to be pictorial in inspiration. And Early One Morning, 1962 is a more refined attenuated statement of the same “syntax”.

Perhaps Atlantic, 1961, Sculpture Three, 1961, and Sculpture Two, 1962, engage space more dramatically and dangerously than any other of Caro’s works. If sculpture is defined as at best having an active dynamic engagement with space and gravity (as it would come to be later) then these three sculptures augur such a conception, more so than David Smith does – who in these years was in the Spoleto phase and its immediate aftermath, and did not himself produce sculptures as spatially extended, open and affirmative until after Caro’s influence on him (with Wagon II, 1964 and Primo Piano, 1962),  though Zig IV, 1961, both more compact and more dynamic than Caro, is a step in that direction, and Voltri XIII, 1962 and Zig V, 1961 contain many hints which Caro may or not have been aware of. Zig IV, seen front-on, with the diamond-square plate tilted away from the observer, is akin to Midday, though a year later. Voltri VII and Voltri XIII, precursors of the wagons, date from 1962 during Spoleto, but not reproduced until 1964.

In Sculpture Three, 1961, the inclusion of a vertical base is expressed horizontally. The two I beams which punctuate it may be considered either as having fallen into place from space, as it were, or as channelling large spatial axes impinging on the sculptural set-up. The outward projecting bar bracketed to the “base” creates another implied drawing-in of space but on a different axis from the I beam and U section. So the sculpture consists of the momentary collision of widely space vectors of spatial funnelling at seeming ignorance of one another, held together only by the “willed coherence of perception” as Tucker would later put it in a different context.

Anthony Caro, Atlantic, steel and aluminium, 320 x 754 x 599 cm. Photo: Ro Rappaport, courtesy of Barford Sculptures

Anthony Caro, Atlantic, steel and aluminium, 320 x 754 x 599 cm. Photo: Ro Rappaport, courtesy of Barford Sculptures

In Atlantic, the raising of the long I beam at such a steep angle to the ground implies great force, against which two other elements, an I beam and a much lighter aluminium channel are cantilevered, but Caro in all these pieces is at pains to disguise or deny literal engineering forces and the mechanics by which the sculptures are able to stand. The parts do not exert literal force and counterforce on one another; they are anti-structural in that sense. They cohere by utterly different standards, neither pictorial (optical) nor literal. They confound such expectations. That is their strength, their “art”.

Sculpture Two, 1962 (see head of article) occupies more space three-dimensionally, and lays greater claim to three-dimensional articulation than the others. It is a sculpture in which experience “in the round” is a pre-requisite for understanding the full bounty of the work. The spatial axes implied by the disposition of the elements cut across one another in a manner one could almost call casual and unsettling; this sensation is set in motion by the main tilted upright I beam which is cut at an angle as it touches the ground, thus involving the ground plane as a positive factor in Caro’s art for the first time. The I beam cantilevered from this post is at right-angles to it, but this stable junction is disguised and hard to experience as such due to the angle which cuts across the junctions and the “heavy” I beam which weights it at its jutting end, and so on -  in no way can this sculpture be characterised as a container of space – it is far too open in inflection for that.

Anthony Caro, Bennington, 1964, steel. Photo: John Goldblatt, courtesy of Barford Sculptures

Anthony Caro, Bennington, 1964, steel. Photo: John Goldblatt, courtesy of Barford Sculptures

The most controversial (still!) of Caro’s early works are the three ground accenting pieces made at Bennington College, Vermont USA during 1964-65 – Titan, 1964, Bennington, 1964 and Shaftsbury, 1965.

Caro’s holding to his account of the exhilaration and stimulus of his American experience is touching even today, one of the cornerstones of his identity as an artist, an unshakeable faith in the power of optimism and positivism in the American (New England / New York?) spirit. Cynics may detect an opportunistic element in Caro’s embrace of this self-defining positivism so very different from the European suspicion of these very strategies. But witness for example the Europhilia of Susan Sontag over the same historical period 1961-1966 in Against Interpretation with its appraisals of Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Genet and the French Nouvelle Vague cinema and novel – clearly not all American intellectuals lived in the halcyon dreamland of Bennington college.

Anthony Caro, Shaftsbury, 1965, steel, 68 x 323 x 275cm. Photo: John Riddy, courtesy of Barford Sculptures

Anthony Caro, Shaftsbury, 1965, steel, 68 x 323 x 275cm. Photo: John Riddy, courtesy of Barford Sculptures

The “new sensitivity” augured and partially created by Sontag does not extend to the normative strictures which mediated the hedonism of post-painterly abstraction. And Saul Bellow in Herzog published in 1964, but written over the years since 1961 presents a very different perspective on America than that of either Greenberg or Sontag, which may illustrate no more than the widely divergent aims of literature or the material deemed a suitable case for treatment as opposed to those of the visual arts.

A section I beam does not have the minimal plastic potential of steel plate, for instance. It has a found object and a object-functional quality, derived in part from our awareness of its role in architecture and engineering. We sense that it has great strength both in tension and compression. The three very large I beam sections which Caro had imported from England were perhaps originally intended to be raised in some gravity-defying (and gravity asserting) role, but remained grounded, tilted, and no doubt influenced by Noland’s floor-based studio practices or his chevron paintings, laid out aside a long ground plate raking across the floor in Bennington, 1964. Shaftsbury, 1965 employs flat plate in long diagonal juxtaposition in conjunction with a large I beam in which the central web is much deeper than its cross bracing flanges, also on the floor but angled in a complex counterpoint with the Z’s of the plates. These Bennington sculptures thus both strongly reflect pictorial practices and yet in the manner in which they use the floor as a spring-board (however minimally) for sensations of open semi-enclosure punctuated by accents of great weight, they end by being anti-illustionistic (compared say to the minimalist sculptures of Judd and Morris) and among the sculptures of Caro’s to which the term pictorial is least appropriate.

Anthony Caro, The Window, 1966-67, 215 x 320 x 390cm. Photo: John Riddy, courtesy of Barford Sculptures

Anthony Caro, The Window, 1966-67, 215 x 320 x 390cm. Photo: John Riddy, courtesy of Barford Sculptures

It seems to have been under the influence of Bennington aesthetics that the notion of “opticality” began to impinge on Caro’s conscious thought. Although a retrospective commentary in 1990, Caro declared that his intention was “to make sculpture more fully abstract…. With sculpture this is difficult because sculpture’s materiality always tries to suck it back into the world of things”. Ominously, this seems to have entailed “opticality” as described by Greenberg firstly in The New Sculpture and explicitly in Sculpture in Our Time, 1958. So openness, extension, weightlessness and now “opticality” began to be the aim of his conscious intent – hence The Window, 1966-67, which I cannot help seeing as an extrapolation of Matisse’s Piano Lesson, 1916, and the culmination, Prairie, 1967, which gathers together all the features of his past work, especially the disguising of engineering structure.

Prairie, 1967, steel, 96 x 582 x 320cm. Photo: John Goldblatt, courtesy of Barford Sculptures

Prairie, 1967, steel, 96 x 582 x 320cm. Photo: John Goldblatt, courtesy of Barford Sculptures

If we consider how Caro’s early sculptures were actually made, lifting and prizing heavy sections of steel – onto blocks, tressles, using gantries etc., there is very sparing use of welding as a means of junction (and he was not himself a welder). Most junctions are bracketed and bolted, to enable finely balanced tilting, and for dismantling and reassembly. Many junctions require fine craftsmanship only available by sending pieces away to Aeromet for fabrication, especially on sculptures which combine steel and aluminium, which cannot be welded together in any case. (Early One MorningMonth of MayHopscotch and Source.) Aluminium is a hazardous material and very difficult to work with. Caro would not have known exactly how such sculptures would look until all junctions were completely crafted. In Early One Morning for instance – the long box-section which forms the horizontal spine of the work is sleeved together with a hidden inner casing, a complex piece of craftsmanship achieved by Aeromet, as its role as stabilising support for the top heavy plane on stilts which forms the end of the work. In the studio, this work must have consisted of a clutter of boxes, ties, props – and this supports Caro’s contention that what he was after was an intuitive rightness, and not a kind of composing in space, standing back and editing (though there must have been some of that too).


Although Michael Fried is at pains to distinguish the burgeoning aesthetic of Caro’s early sculpture from that of the abstract expressionist painters and by implication from the constructions in wood of Mark di Suvero (see his Ladderpiece, 1961-62), a quasi literalist projection of gestural three-dimensionality (akin to the paintings of Franz Kline) and to relate it to the newer aesthetic of post-painterly abstraction, this characterising of it as a form of “expressive gesture” owes much to the professed ambitions of the earlier aesthetic, especially as announced by Motherwell and Rothko. And Fried is not above appropriating their rhetoric.

Rothko, ‘The Romantics were Prompted,’ 1947-48:
“I think of my pictures as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are the performers. They have been created from the need for a group of actors who are able to move dramatically without embarrassment and execute gestures without shame.”

Fried on Caro, 1962:
“In Caro’s most successful sculptures one discovers the allusive syntax of our own purest and most passionate gestures used to construct gestures even more pure and anonymous and passionate – and armed, besides, with what one hopes it still makes sense to speak of in our time as the durability of art.”

It is often the way of things in art, that no sooner has a new possibility of expression opened up than the full scope of its parameters is limned in height and depth almost immediately by its founding practitioners, and that within the space of a very few years all possibilities are filled up, allowing only for permutation, variation and repetition in disguised form. Such seems to have been the case with Caro and his circle, following a trajectory set in motion by David Smith at his most adventuresome. An attenuated, gravity defying, lightness of being reached its pinnacle with Caro’s Prairie of 1967 and Tim Scott’s Bird in Arras III of 1968.

Anthony Caro, Orangerie, 1969. Copyright Barford Sculptures

Anthony Caro, Orangerie, 1969. Copyright Barford Sculptures

To return to T.S Eliot’s remark that the bad poet is conscious where he should be unconscious, unconscious where he should be conscious  – a sculptor or painter should be conscious of his vision and of the particularities of his means, his material, his metier – unconscious of the creative process, his more or less involuntary vegetative life, “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”, and of course of the emotional or expressive content of his achievements. And here too over-determined intent does not help. Like the golfer or sportsman who chokes as the winning post is in sight, through a sudden panicky self-consciousness, thinking about his actions rather than allowing a higher automatism to prevail. It was not Michael Fried who sowed the seeds of self-consciousness; he was too abstract, too intellectual and too nebulous, or too subtle. It was the hyperbolic claims of William Rubin at the time of Caro’s canonisation at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1975, together with his historical analysis of Caro’s position in the tradition descending, it was claimed, from Cubism (in echo and paraphrase of Greenberg’s opticality sanctioned by Fried also) that did the damage.

Anthony Caro, Tundra, steel, 1975, 272 x 579 x 132 cm. Photo: John Riddy, courtesy of Barford Sculptures

Anthony Caro, Tundra, steel, 1975, 272 x 579 x 132 cm. Photo: John Riddy, courtesy of Barford Sculptures

This together with the tendentious and wrong-headed article Caro wrote on Donatello, stressing his “laid-back” relief-like frontality (Judith and Holofernes being characterised as a three-sided relief) introducing an element of conceptual wilfulness which had been happily absent from the glory years of 1960-67 (where Caro had been visited by a kind of conceptual innocence as he explored the full range of his new material), and which did marked injustice to his own best achievements. And it was this wrong-headed Caro that Tim Scott and the younger sculptors were to react against.

Straight Cut, 1972, steel, 132 x 157  x 130cm. Photo: John Riddy, courtesy of Barford Sculptures

Straight Cut, 1972, steel, 132 x 157 x 130cm. Photo: John Riddy, courtesy of Barford Sculptures

Now he began to have ideas of expansion of sculpture’s domain, competing with the painting of his American friends, Frankenthaler in the Veduggio series of 1972, Olitski in Tundra, 1975, etc. So we have come in the space of some seven years from a time when the stuff of sculpture, material and its material presence, grasped in a moment of consciousness (in the newly coined abstract noun of Michael Fried’s, “presentness”) with an intuitive sense of its weight and gravitational implications uppermost, to a point where these qualities are a hindrance, sucking back sculpture to the world of things. “Opticality” has become the watchword (Fried now regrets his “obeisance to Greenergian opticality”). Caro’s development from the time of Orangerie (1969-70), Sun Feast (1969-70) and Ordnance (1971) onwards can be seen as a gradually pulling back from this position, weightlessness and opticality receding and a re-engagement with the world of things (sometimes with a surprising degree of literalism) and with mixed results. Beginning around the time of the Straight Cut series, 1972, the sculptures increasingly have a passive stance in gravity, like an extended object-tableau, a screen or still-life, laid out for the eye, but with increasing stress on the object-character of its formal elements (even in sculptures which take a painting as their unifying theme.)

Alan Gouk, June 2011

‘Steel Sculpture Part II – From Scott, Tucker and Panting to the Present’ to follow.


[1] It speaks to the particularities of Scott’s – now inexplicably ignored – talent that he could seemingly throw off this dramatic and successful sculpture, without following it up.

  1. Terry Ryall said…

    In response to Robert Linsley on David Smith’s ‘Australia’, if it can be said of any sculpture that at some point or points a particular ‘view’ barely exists then it is hard (at least for me)to conclude that such a work can present a wholly sculptural visual experience. I very much like ‘Australia’ as a work of art but not on the grounds of its complexity of three-dimensionality. I have yet to be persuaded by the concept of suggested three-dimensionality or the (admittedly elegant)argument of Clement Greenberg’s in relation to three-dimensionality that Emyr Williams has posted on this thread (a belated thank-you for that Emyr).

    • Robert Linsley said…

      Does a fully three dimensional sculptural experience mean that every centimeter of movement round the piece gives a different and equally satisfying view? That’s hardly possible. My guess is that the most ambitious work of the type that Robin Greenwoid and perhaps yourself advocate has maybe four or five views. Which means that a given “view” would account for some large slice of the pie, and within that slice you don’t have to be too exacting about where you stand. That’s how I hear Greenberg, that knowledge accompanies perception and we can “see” a volume or a mass without having to pore over every part of it. Likewise there are bound to be blind spots, overlaps, places in-between and so on, but if the work has enough of what makes it fascinating we won’t notice them. A fully three dimensional work is one of the beautiful illusions of art, like the illusion of wholeness, or the illusion of presence, to name two favored on this site (in distinction to the more common illusion of critique or illusion of identity).

      I recently saw a Smith of the same period as Australia, and to me the dead on end view did not seem important; the important end views are anyway not dead on, but a little to the front or back, or even from above, because they reveal the piece as a freestanding relief, not a flat drawing in space, such as the photograph might suggest. I like that – maybe because I’m a painter, but probably because I just like relief. The work seems as successful as any for what it does, and I doubt that any more fully rounded sculpture is going to entirely lack similar dead spots. The trick is to conjure them away through the glamour of art.

      • Terry Ryall said…

        I don’t think that successful three-dimensionality is a question of the number of satisfying ‘views’ that a sculpture might or might not present. It is perhaps more structural and material in nature, something that runs right through a sculpture’s character and purpose as a fashioned entity.
        I have no difficulty in seeing ‘Australia’ as a sculpture as opposed to a drawing in space or a relief (which I don’t believe it to be). It might be flawed in some respects but no matter, art is the work of humans not gods.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        My sense of something very three-dimensional might mean that you get the whole thing from any position. “Views” are to be avoided. Hardly possible? Good, that’s something to go for.

        The pursuit of three-dimensionality has two distinctive advantages. One, already touched upon, is that content is not compromised (which of course it is if the sculpture nearly disappears from an end view). And two, just about any attempt to address the issue lands you in glorious new territory where no-one has been before.

      • Robert Linsley said…

        Responding to Robin – that’s interesting. Because your work has no closed off volumes you can see through it, and so have a 3-d feeling from any direction, a different one from every position though. Obvious, but didn’t occur to me, because don’t see much work of this type. But do see many melancholy rust gardens of seventies steel sculpture, one in my neighborhood.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        I’d change your neighborhood.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      Responding to Terry and Robin – if a sculpture is not something to look at then how is it experienced? The notion that a work can act directly on the body has always been attractive, and every sensitive viewer has had some bodily feelings in front of art, but in the end seeing and knowing prevail. Is it an artist’s perspective, from inside the work, feeling how it’s made? I mean literally and imaginatively a “view” from the interior of the structure?
      Basically I’m sympathetic to the project, but a little allergic to programmatic statements.

  2. Tim Scott said…

    Aren’t we confusing LITERAL three dimensionality (Moore) with SUGGESTED three dimensionality; a three dimensionality which is spoken of , evoked, by the forms and fashioning, of the sculpture (Smith); a three dimensionality of Result ?
    All matter is three dimensional; it is only when three dimensionality is used as a force for conveying feeling and truth (in sculpture) that it matters.
    Compare the original Matisse papers with their printed facsimiles and all is clear.

    • Terry Ryall said…

      A thought on ‘literal’ three-dimensionality. Whether an object is a sculpture or a kettle, football, plate etc. it can be scrutinised to determine the nature of its three-dimensionality by looking at its physical character-material, shape etc. and what purpose has been facilitated by and through its making. The character of course of the three-dimensionality of most objects/matter will be determined by function. Functional objectives determine material, shape, form, size etc. and thus dictate specific three-dimensionality. Although sculpture is not subject to the demands of practical functionality but by those factors (sometimes known sometimes not)that are driving the maker its three dimensionality will still be realised and revealed by and through its material, form, shape, size, texture, colour and so on. The degree of successful three-dimensionality of any sculpture might be measured by how well its sculptural character functions and is manifest from any given view-point. As yet I have no thoughts on ‘suggested’ three dimensionality and am probably suspicious of such a notion!

  3. Terry Ryall said…

    With regard to Smith’s ‘Australia’ the charge that it is compromised by its two-dimensionality is understandable and the case for three-dimensionality is well argued in other discussions on Abcrit. However, the test of three-dimensionality as a sole measure of the integrity of any given work, without considering other factors/characteristics could potentially lead to some very problematic conclusions indeed. For example if Australia were compared and contrasted with a piece by Henry Moore, made at roughly the same time and of a similar size, Reclining Figure commissioned for the Festival of Britain (now in the Scottish National Gallery of modern art)it could be argued that the Moore has a far greater claim to three-dimensionality (admittedly not difficult given the flatness of Australia). Moore said of his piece ‘I was simply concerned with making a sculpture in the round’. Are we to conclude that the Moore is in strict terms the better sculpture?-probably yes. Is it a better (I think by ‘better’ I mean more vital) work of art than Australia? In my view it most certainly is not. Although in general I support the argument for the integrity of the specifics of any medium there are times when things come along that confound in fundamental ways yet are successful. If that isn’t recognized then there is a real danger of slipping into a stifling academic mind-set.

    • Sam said…

      Indeed. Surely more important than the extent of three-dimensionality is the way (success, power, vitality, whatever) in which a sculpture occupies whatever space it does

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        A sculpture is surely dependent upon its three-dimensionality for your rather vague notions of “success, power, vitality”, along with any other positives. I presume you have seen “Australia”? Can you honestly say that its end-views do not compromise it; by which I mean that they contradict things you might have been led to believe about it from other views, thus robbing it of those very qualities it had implied? That is not to say that it is not better than the Moore, which may literally occupy more space as an object, but which may be in other ways compromised, in, for example, the manner in which it fails as a sculptural whole, which is just another kind of lack of sculptural three-dimensionality. In fact, I do prefer the Smith, but I also see no reason not to acknowledge its failings.

      • Robert Linsley said…

        I can say that the end views of Australia, or any other piece by David Smith of that type, do not compromise the work at all, because parts of it tilt slightly to the front of the main plane and others to the back. It’s not flat but a kind of three dimensional low relief – a very odd idea. You can’t see those slight deviations without coming close, but the dead on end view barely exists – one looks at the ends from a slight angle to the front or back, the best way to see how those pieces bend, and one actually tends to slip across the end quickly, without staying there. All that seems to me very interesting, and to have its own value.

    • Emyr Williams said…

      I found this quote and thought I’d share it …as it seems pertinent and polemical to this discussion:
      “Sculpture can confine itself to virtually two dimensions (as some of David Smith’s pieces do ) without being felt to violate the limitations of the medium because the eye recognises that what offers itself in two dimensions is actually fashioned in three”.
      Greenberg from Art and Culture

  4. Sam said…

    This reply from David Evison:

    This is a well researched and argued case for the sculptors who you champion the cause of. I have a very different opinion.
    The best and most radical sculptures of the last 40 years, and which remain unrivalled, were made by Caro and Scott: ie. the group including “Sunfeast” and “Orangerie” by Caro, and the “Bird in Arras” series by Scott.
    Caros Emmerich exhibition of 1970 was exeptionally popular. Hilton Kramer raved it in the NY Times causing Clement Greenberg to doubt his own positive reaction! He was later to say of “Orangerie”…’it makes a good case for contemporary art’. Then came the success of his MOMA retrospective, doubts appeared and he faltered. The loss of his brilliant assistant, Charlie Hendry, who could solve any technical difficulty thrown at him, contributed to his uncertainty.
    Scotts magnificent perspex and steel series were professionally fabricated, and he certainly benefitted from his architectural experience which enabled him to make the transition from concept to realisation.But they were not economically sustainable. His next move were sculptures of transparent perspex and forged steel made in his own studio. He used polystyrene as an interim material before ordering the cut perspex. It was a mistake ; they were better with opaque sheets (but not polystyrene).
    Why high modernist sculpture in England lost its way in the 1970′s can be explained by the example of these two artists.
    Citing Smiths great “Australia” to compare with Scott, Gili and Greenwood is courting ridicule. If the Smith had been reproduced next to the three, even the photos would show how superior it is, and how fussy and polite these quasi figures are. These and other talented sculptors referred to, make good work but are reactionary to no effect. Their art looks tired now and of faded inspiration. But it is the author of this polemic who is wrong headed.

    • Terry Ryall said…

      I don’t think Alan Gouk is directly comparing the merits of Smith’s ‘Australia’ with the work’s illustrated by Scott, Gili and Greenwood. It seems to me that his point is more subtle than direct comparison and attempts to identify a link, or route (via the early 80′s body-based experiments) from ‘the tensile structure, poised in gravity’ of ‘Australia’ to the sculptors mentioned and their commitment to constructed sculpture that is essentially spatial. Whether the sculptors mentioned would accept that lineage is of course another matter.
      I don’t understand exactly why their work is described by David Evison as ‘reactionary’. Is this a reference to work that emerged as a result of returning to the figure as a basis for making sculpture?

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Speaking entirely for myself, I have always thought “Australia”, like many of Smith’s works, is seriously compromised by its two-dimensionality. Looks good in photos, of course.

        I do think that Alan provides a rather good analysis of Caro’s career here. I await part 2 before making further comment, except to say I am distinctly nervous about making any claims as to lineage, and this particular one I have no corroborating feelings for at all.

      • Sam said…

        One problem is perhaps that so much has been invested within this tradition on lineage – the baton passing from Gonzalez, to Smith to Caro (forgetting as Tim Scott points out Chillida); and that this cannot fully describe the complexity of approaches to steel sculpture since the 60s, if it ever did so…

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Indeed. Alan goes along with the “aesthetics” of particular materials by proposed by Gabo, and seems to have some notion about the kind of sculpture that it would be most appropriate to make with steel. I’m dubious because I think steel is a versatile material that will lend itself to all sorts of sculpture we haven’t invented yet.

  5. Tim Scott said…

    A few comments:
    Alan Gouk mentions Adams, Butler, Jacobsen and Wall as precursors ,in the fifties, of abstract sculpture in steel (iron); but neglects mention of Chillida, who was perhaps the leading exponent at this time, with the exception of Smith.
    The major reference work (as I recall) of modern sculpture in this period (one of enormous bibliographical lack) was Gideon-Welcker’s ’20th Century Sculpture’ in which were illustrated both abstract and ‘humanist’ pieces with equal emphasis and appraisal.
    It was Mies(van der Rohe)who first expounded the purity of the I beam as a form, and turned it into architectural poetry; indeed, it was the Germans who practically invented modern design. Hunstanton was an intelligent British take.
    One of the shocks of walking, as I did, into Caro’s courtyard in early 1961, to be faced with ‘Midday’ ‘Lock’,’24 Hours’, ‘Sculpture Seven’ etc., was to be presented with the I beam form as something quite other than the physical expression of structural forces, tension and compression; as Gouk states “an ambiguity between literal object and illusion”. It was a total reversal of the ‘craft’ handling of the material that Gonzalez, Smith, Butler and others had expounded. Undoubtedly, the impact of bland pre-conditioned form performing visually the simple tasks of lifting, bending, heaving, propping, splaying and spreading , all in defiance of gravity, presented an immense panorama, more Stonehenge than Egypt, that had been lacking in the (invariably) smaller works of Caro’s sculptor antecedents.
    Perhaps Caro’s advantage was rather like that of Matisse and Degas in their sculpture, a refined innocence

  6. Pete Hoida said…

    I’m sure Alan knows that “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart” (unattributed) is WB Yeats. Unfortunate phrasing, the way the sentence is constructed, has this following on almost immediately after his reference to TS Eliot. This may lead the unwary to wrongly assume its authorship. We wouldn’t want anyone mixing up their pieces of Yeats with their Eliots would we ? Its from a great very late poem “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”. Go on boys, google it.

  7. Ryan said…

    Halfway through this unreadable mess, I have to give up. This is atrocious writing, screaming out in desperation for a competent editor.