Abstract Critical

About Caro

Written by Alan Shipway

When you try to think clearly about Henry Moore you are deafened by the applause… The truth is that, like that of most artists, the quality of his work varies considerably; at his best he has made some of the greatest twentieth century sculptures. [i]

Anthony Caro set down these remarks in The Master Sculptor, a piece about Henry Moore, in The Observer in 1960. This was a very public distancing of himself from and reaction against the older sculptor – all part, at that time, of discarding tradition and of moving into wholly new areas of sculpture. The irony is that as time has gone by, it looks as if Caro has inexorably, perhaps even inevitably, taken on the something of the mantle of Moore himself.

Sun Feast 1969-70. Steel painted yellow 181.5 x 416.5 x 218.5 cm. Courtesy of Barford Sculptures Ltd. Photography: Mark Heathcote

If I say anything at all here, it’s that the artist who could make sculptures during the 1960s such as Sun Feast and Orangerie is almost beyond criticism: whatever else Caro has done since, he’s absolved from by the fact that he made such aesthetically vivid pieces, pieces that have added more to art than anyone has any right to. During the 1960s almost everything Caro does is remarkable, even if there are years he only makes half a dozen sculptures: sculptures which have been composed without looking composed, which look effortless, as if it were inevitable they should come into being, sculptures in which there is nothing superfluous, nothing lacking. These qualities belong only to art on the highest level. Yet I’m forced to admit – because that’s what my eye tells me – that from the early 1970s Caro’s work falters: the best pieces appear with less frequency. He turns from being a faultless artist to one whose increasingly vast output, an academy of his own making, has become necessary simply to come up with, from time to time, the few pieces that approach anything like the level of the painted steel sculptures of the 1960s.

In some ways Caro’s career resembles Matisse’s: a decade of extraordinary aesthetic pressure, which slackens afterwards to allow only sporadic achievement at subsequent intervals. After this decade or so of work on a level which now seems unimaginable, Caro seems to begin distrusting his own facility; seems to begin questioning both the apparent ease of his own lyrical improvisation and his use of colour, as if they were misleading him in some way. From then on, in this more austere mode, his successes, though fewer and further between, are considerable, but outweighed by many disappointments. The Emma Lake sculptures of the late 1970s are disappointments. So are the ‘sculpitecture’ pieces, and the pieces ‘inspired’ by painting from Rubens to Goya. The enormity of pieces such as After Olympia and The Rape of the Sabines (and others) is disappointing. So are the stoneware pieces, the paper pieces, and the figurative pieces. It goes on and on: The Barbarians, The Trojan War pieces, The Last Judgment, and the sculpture-filled church of St.John the Baptist in Bourbourg: these are all inflated disappointments, sculptures to which the artist no longer seems to know when to stop adding. They disappoint because they fail to surprise; but perhaps also because they depart from the Matissean, Apollonian mode of Caro’s work at its highest level – and it’s this Matissean, Apollonian mode which to me constitutes perhaps the most vital stream of high modernism. I can’t prove this judgment – I can only assert it. But my experience is that my eye doesn’t want to go back to these later sculptures the same way it wants to go back and experience the newness and the surprise of Sun Feast, for example, over and over again.

One of the aesthetic surprises given and contained within the experience of Caro’s earlier work was invariably the contrast between on the one hand their largeness and weight and on the other, their visual lightness and exuberance; but this kind of satisfying surprise simply isn’t there in the not-so-good pieces, the pieces which make your heart sink with their academic overblown ponderousness, their portentousness, their sheer enormity, their apparent desire to dominate public space. This pretence to the grand manner was what went wrong with Moore’s work too. And just as with Moore, it’s as if there is this inadvertent conspiracy by commentators to treat Caro’s entire output as the work of genius without really applying any discrimination to it. I’m simply not aware of any substantial critical evaluation of the successes and failures of either artist.

First Light, 1990/1993, Steel, hot zinc sprayed & painted, 104 x 223.5 x 195.5cm. Courtesy of Barford Sculptures Ltd. Photography: John Riddy

At the same time, there are artists who seem to have provided Caro with more fruitful aesthetic pressure, aesthetic competition. Caro competed with David Smith all during the 1960s for instance, even after Smith’s death, when he acquired the older artist’s stock of steel and used some of it in his own work. Caro’s austere, sarcophagus-like sculptures of the 90s and onwards (Legend (2001) or First Light (1993) for example) implicitly compete with Rachel Whiteread – to their success, I would say. The Millbank Steps (2004) and the Goodwood Steps (1996) similarly compete with Richard Serra, also to their success (as does Egyptian, recently shown at Chatsworth House). These pieces couldn’t be described as Apollonian. They’re mute and plain, ineloquent and uningratiating; they come without any sort of justifying narrative, and don’t attempt to make statements. Even on a large scale, they seem to avoid the grandiloquence of some other of Caro’s projects.

Night and Dreams, 1990-1991, Courtesy of Barford Sculptures Ltd. Photography: John Riddy

Elsewhere in the Caro industry, there’s an unhappy parallel between the artist’s inflated output and the predictability of most of the publications that accompany it. (The exception is Ian Barker’s Quest for the New Sculpture (2004), which is exemplary). Looking at one of the most recent books on Caro, Presence, by Paul Moorhouse (2010), makes me think : What we need isn’t to read any more about Caro but to see more. The publications about Caro’s work over the last twenty years have become unimaginative. The texts are sycophantic. There’s the monotony of the same photographs, recycled over and over again: it becomes annoying. Some of them are good, like John Riddy’s photographs. Good as they are, however, they appear over and over again until we don’t really want to look at them any more. Of Second Sculpture, (1960), for instance – a crucial part of Caro’s early oeuvre – there appear to be only two existing images, photos taken by the artist Kim Lim 50 years ago. Why only these? Many of these sculptures are never publicly shown: so it’s as if the reproductions have become surrogates for the sculpture, in a way that doesn’t happen with reproductions of painting. Sculpture has a multiplicity of aspects, of course. We want to walk round it. But there are works by Caro that are never publicly shown, major works, that in practical reality we’re never going to be free to walk around: is it really beyond our enterprise to re-photograph them, to document them in a way that shows this multiplicity, to renew our sense of their vitality and radicality? Sun Runner (1969), Deep Body Blue (1967), Crown (1971), for example – these are inspiring works, ones that demand to be seen from more than one viewpoint, that I want to be surprised by again, even if only in the form of some new, unfamiliar images.

Second Sculpture, 1960, Courtesy of Barford Sculptures Ltd. Photography: Kim Lim

The many commentaries about Caro also perpetuate half-truths with the same uncritical monotony, though that’s not the artist’s fault. For instance the famous abandonment of the plinth. As if Picasso, David Smith, and I’m sure there are others, hadn’t all made plinth-less sculpture without making a point of it. As if in his table sculptures, Caro doesn’t go on to make some of the most plinth-dependent sculptures there have ever been.

I could go on. These are some of my dissatisfactions with the official Caro industry. Others can agree or disagree, and perhaps we might then hear some truthful aesthetic verdicts. For I would say the only truth in art is actually our experience of it.

[i]  ‘The Master Sculptor’, Observer, 27 November 1960

  1. alan shipway said…

    It’s good that there’s been some discussion here. Perhaps it’s now time to wind it up. A number of commments on this piece seems to have misread it in one way or another and take it that I’m saying something I’m not. Maybe I should have been clearer. So just to make it clear: I’m saying Caro’s sculpture has continued on its original high level since the 1960s – but in works that we rarely get to see or simply don’t get to see, because they’re buried among the output of four decades of lesser work. The ideal would be if someone had the discrimination to pick these out and publish them. And the ideal would also be our appreciation of older work being refreshed, if we could see new images of it.
    I hope no-one can argue too much with all of that.

  2. Darryl Hughto said…

    So much verbiage here to respond too.
    Perhaps because it’s the most recent comment that offends, I take exception to R Greenwald- like many abstract painters- I wonder where such a generalization comes from. I for one, am very happy for the differences in nature , motivation and language of sculpture and painting . I am further stimulated by attempting to discern the differences between then, where the one leaves off and the other begins and what one can do the other cannot. I remember Greenberg saying Caro’s inspiration to extend sculpture into the territory he did, was because Carowas looking at painting and its means. Though Caro was not alone in taking sculpture off the plinth, he did make great strides into unknown territory for sculpture. There is no virtue inherent in taking sculpture off the pedestal and is not something therefore we should expect every piece thereafter to adhere to as a condition of worthiness, inspiration or polemic.
    I have kept fairly current with Caro’s work over the years, and I don’t believe I have missed any periods or styles or types of his work. I think there have been less fertile series, such as the Trojan War series,but within these groups are still masterful and inspirational pieces.. For instance his recent series of galvanized pieces I feel are very good generally with several being masterpieces, though I don’t hear this being said in any reviews of them. Tony is a great sculptor and will make something out of anything he turns his attention too. That being said, no master makes masterpieces every time or in every period.
    Is he still leading the way? No. But wouldn’t it be a shame if he were? If our generation had not had any sculptors by now that had advancedbour understanding and challenged our perception of what is sculpture, how is it made, and how does it say it, what a lazy backsliding generation we would be. And by now there should be and is an even younger generation challenging and inspiring us.
    I haven’t had time to read carefully all respondents here, but will return to talk more directly to some of the above assertions and positions.

  3. Robin Greenwood said…

    John,
    ‘uningratiating quality, the sense of a confident, unfussy pleasure in the barely articulated lumpen mass of the thing,’… kinda sounds to me like criticism. Is inarticulation in an artwork ever a plus? you’ll have to explain that one…
    It is indeed like a piece of industrial hardware, because that is essentially, in its interesting bits, what it is – from a scrapyard. If I said I could show you photos of really much more interesting industrial stuff, which were not sculpture, but were aesthetically even more pleasurable, would that question your criteria?
    I think ‘First Light’ is an object-lesson (if you’ll pardon the pun) on where not to go with abstract sculpture – i.e. into the realms of dumb objecthood. In fact, even a superficial analysis of this work brings you up against the clear fact that it is a floor-based relief (a fact which just casts a flicker of doubt across the face of my favourite Caro, ‘Prairie’). As a material object, it is all too present; as a meaningful sculpture, it barely exists.

    I think my main point about Caro is this – that the extraordinary work he did in the sixties, where he established a new freed-up optical syntax for abstract sculpture, did not translate in the seventies into a more physical and robust take on three-dimensionality, but instead went down the same path as almost all other sculpture of the time in exploring objecthood in all its aspects. As I’ve said before, abstract art (painting or sculpture)can’t operate simply on what it is; its success has to be based far more upon what it does. A sculpture like ‘First Light’ does next to nothing.

    • John Holland said…

      Robin-
      You’re right, to a degree. My pleasure in the piece, as I hinted at the end of my reply, is a little ‘guilty’ (or is it ‘low’?), because it’s not a thing of great sculptural intelligence.
      It shares with contemporaneous Minimalist sculptures an overarching objecthood as you put it, a theatricality of engagement (albeit in more nuanced form) that undoubtedly was a dead-end.

      Even so, I don’t agree it does ‘next to nothing’, even if what it does is limited. It’s certainly not simply a floor-based relief- it contains tensions between mass and volume, density and space that I find pleasurable. But yes, it’s a simple pleasure, one that maybe is the enjoyment of not a lot being said, as against too much silly stuff being said too loudly (seeing an image linked here of The Barbarians for the first time was a shock).
      But then again, I like traction engines.

    • Emyr Williams said…

      In the works mentioned from the sixties. it seems that each component part sets up its own autonomous “force” – a statement of fact that challenges the other component parts – thus creating a competing series of forces, which are ultimately resolved into speaking with a singular force – the work works, so to speak. I have not seen enough Caro works to dismiss his output of the last 40 years , so I am not entirely comfortable about that generalisation. But I would say that in many of the works after these late sixties sculptures – right up to the present day, the individual parts are subsumed into a more pictorial-style whole – they seem to want to get along from the off and therefore the forces are less abrasive, less forceful and taste kicks in. The work then naturally follows a more tasteful route and the steel and bronze and wood become more and more tasty and sumptuous – they look great in reproduction (is this worrying for a sculptor?), as does Picasso , and they have a more luxurious patina too. They must cost a lot to make! I wonder if your comment about sculpture being harder to make than painting comes out of that realisation of the difficulty of making forces compete and work which a great sculpture can do? Though I am not convinced that sculpture is harder to make. I would say that if painters took on this “forceful” challenge then a happy parity of endeavour could be agreed upon. Painters need to make it happen at light speed too! On Matisse – much as the early work has a toughness – sculptors love em – that is set into sharp relief by the Nice years, I feel that Matisse achieved his greatest painted works in the 40′s- . A quick aside – does anyone else think that in Caro’s figurative/ narrative work , the one with the lumps of cut clay and placed in “shelf – like spaces ” (on the cover of the book of these works) comes out of Picasso’s “Doves” painting? Also, Robin why didn’t you challenge Caro on this viewpoint of his oeuvre during the film you made earlier this year? It would have made quite an interesting discussion or were you wary of that fork-lift?

  4. Patrick Jones said…

    Thank you Alan,That was exactly what he meant,a piece of advice I treasure.Without wanting to get flattened by the anti Caro steamroller,I will mention how generous Tony has been to younger artists.The day after he told me not to be so stupid ,he rang up and personally organised for me to attend the Triangle workshops in N.Y.Flawed or not,and who amongst us isnt,he showed me how artists dont have to follow Bacon but can be personable ,intelligent and erudite.I once cursed him roundly to his face in the back of a flat bed truck ,with Peter Hide and John Foster at the third Triangle for his support of post -modernism.I will desist and be gone as Sam Beckett would say but not before mentioning how pleased I am to see Abstract Criticals new site linking the articles across the board.Particularly as the Abstract Expressionist generation seem to hold more fascination than Caro,Olitski et all and prove more fertile ground,something Greenberg acknowledged in private.P.S.I still love Sculpture with a capital S.and am really glad Tony had the sense not to take up Abstract Painting!

  5. John Holland said…

    Although I think you’re right about the inability of critics, and more particularly curators, to judge the output of major artists like Caro by a serious assessment of individual works, it seems a bit unfair to single Caro out for an inability to maintain the intensity and inventiveness of his early work.
    How many artists can anyone name who maintain the fire of their creative breakthroughs for their majority of their working life?
    Of course he’s made a lot of dull, rather pompous work in recent years, as highly lauded artists are liable to do, but I think works like First Light are very good indeed.

    The point is not that Caro has declined (of course he has), it’s the inability of the art world to deal with what is in front of it honestly and specifically.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      John,
      Could we press this a little? Would you care to say why you think ‘First Light’ is a good sculpture?

      • John Holland said…

        It’s partly what Alan terms its ‘uningratiating’ quality, the sense of a confident, unfussy pleasure in the barely articulated lumpen mass of the thing, and although there is some tension between the solidity (the ‘castness’) of parts against the hollow assemblage of others, I don’t like his allusion to a sarcophagus- it doesn’t have the feel of a container of anything, and the associations feel too portentious to me.
        It’s like a ‘found’ piece of industrial hardware in its almost stupid factory table lack of compositional display (it looks as though its ready for molten metal to make other objects) but I find its compressed positives and negatives very sexy, for want of a better word.
        Does that make it ‘good’, or just mean I like it? Probably the latter,really.

  6. Patrick Jones said…

    It is the over-arching acheivement of this website that it brings such important issues of making Painting and Sculpture in the new millenium to the fore.Robin Greenwood is a very good sculptor who every day deals with the issue he discusses so forcefully.As a painter,I personally prefer David Smith to Caro, despite his lack of 3 dimensionality.The fact that the sculptures dont operate from all four sides,in volume ,in space doesnt stop me from loving his method of organising the parts on the floor,tack welding and hoisting them vertically.His irreverence,the way he could involve the personal,and above all his poetry make him a heroic champion to emulate.His paintings werent great but his ink drawings and how they became sculpture are really worth study.I think Caro has wanted to emulate Picasso in being an alchemist magician,turning anything into a whirlwind sculpture/painting.I found some of his rounder ,more solid pieces in the Tate show less exciting.I have two memories to share of Tony Caro,to push forward the debate.On the first day I met him at an opening ,he said “what have you been doing today?”Struggling,as always”I replied “Dont be so f****** stupid,Dont you realise sometimes you just get lucky!”and stormed off . The second was walking around the corner of 57th street in New York ,seeing the police lines that closed the road and a huge red crane winching the Veduggio Flats through Andre Emmerichs window on the 5th floor.That was impressive not just from a haulage point of view but as an artistic statement- Im here to conquer New York.I dont wish to get caught up between sculptors discussing Caro as Ive been there before.I think making truly original ,personal work is excrutiatingly difficult,particularly if you hold a set of beleifs that Abstraction is important and that we have to live up to these guys.Another discussion for another day is where are the young sculptors and painters who are swelling the ranks of contenders for the title of World Champion?The other is what happened to the lost generation of artists[of which I am one ]who grew up in the shadow of these greats. We tried there hand only to be completely ignored by the same establishment that had rejected Douglas Coopers Cubist donation to the Tate.Now of course that anything can be Art,the landscape seems so desolate it reminds me of a Jack Yeats.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      You old romantic, Patrick. Like many abstract painters, you would quite happily steamroller all sculpture flat to fit in with your over-refined sensibilities. Ha! ‘Veduggio Flats’ is one that has definitely been under the steamroller. Take a step back or you’ll get flattened too! Thinking you can make sculpture by aesthetically arranging pastry offcuts is in a continuum with thinking you can make sculpture with sharks or sunflower seeds. Which you can, of course, but it ain’t good.

    • alan shipway said…

      Just that one story you contributed about Caro alone made it worth my writing that piece. (“Dont be so f****** stupid, Don’t you realise sometimes you just get lucky!”)

      Whatever he meant, I actually don’t think it was meant unkindly. Perhaps he was trying to push you from one frame of mind into another – maybe trying to push you into taking yourself by surprise in your work. I just wonder if Caro himself started losing the ability to get lucky.

  7. Wiz P Kelly said…

    Like a band who finds a groundbreaking first album tough to follow, Caro will always find there are people ready to be fiercely critical of his later work. I have immense professional respect for a man who has never been afraid to explore new areas at the risk of failure and he is still as passionate about sculpture and the making of art after all these years.

  8. Robin Greenwood said…

    I would agree with Alan Shipway that Caro’s best work was all over by the early seventies (I think few would differ), but I don’t think Caro’s path is analogous to Matisse’s. It seems to me that Matisse, though less intense from the mid-twenties onward, still followed the logic of painting’s imperatives in a way that Caro has not pursued for those belonging essentially to sculpture. Caro has wandered all over the place, trying a bit of everything, from jewellery to installation, in a vain attempt to prove himself an all-round greater artist than Moore, and up there with the all-conquering Picasso. As well as this ‘careerist’ side to Caro, there may be lots of other reasons for Caro’s lack of focus after the sixties; not least that making ambitious abstract sculpture is (I promise you) all round harder than painting; it was also the case that Caro was initially led into areas new and seemingly provocative and progressive for sculpture by the advice and example of American painters such as Noland and Olitski. Though the results were at the outset startling and lucid, this was never going to be a good idea for sculpture in the longer term, whether in consideration of Caro’s own work or that of other sculptors following Caro. Caro’s position in sculpture at the end of the sixties was a prominent and pivotal one, and I don’t think it is too extreme to say that he must bear some responsibility for the dire predicament sculpture finds itself in today.

    But the main reason that Caro’s work, along with that of many of his acolytes, came to some kind of juddering impasse pretty quickly in the seventies, and turned into what Alan rightly calls ‘an academy of his own making’, is the very same reason Alan singles him out for praise in the first place – namely, his ‘effortless’ aesthetics. This links to the previous point about Caro being influenced by the painters of simple clear planar abstract painting; once you have explored this in literal three-dimensions, aka architecture, as Caro did throughout the sixties – walls, floors, windows, doors, table-tops etc. – then one needs to move on to more sculptural and genuinely three-dimensional territory. ‘Early One Morning’, ‘Sculpture Two’ and ‘Prairie’ are exemplary and extraordinary proto-abstract sculptures (I don’t agree that ‘Sun Feast’ and ‘Orangerie’ are much good, and they are certainly not beyond criticism, as both of them are well down the road of out-and-out pictorialism characterising much of Caro’s later work – that’s why painters love ‘em), but at the point when Caro needed to ask very profound questions of his own work and its relationship to sculpture as a discipline, in order to open up further the territory he had so brilliantly and originally established, his critical faculties went missing (along with his champions Greenberg and Fried, neither of whom had much of a developed conception of three-dimensionality). All Caro had was an aesthetic, based upon his own taste and that of his admirers, and as a result the real content of his work began to prove more and more difficult. Hence the turn towards making ‘sculptural’ transcriptions from Rubens, Manet, etc. (ridiculous) to fill the void; so too the turn to outright architectural impulses (‘sculpitecture’); and more recently to overt story-telling and figuration. Caro has made periodic returns in recent years to a more rigorous abstract style, but ‘style’ is what it mostly seems to be. The meaning and content are absent, the three-dimensionality is very limited, and seemingly only the ‘aesthetic’ remains. Caro always had ‘good taste’ or a ‘good eye’, better than Moore’s; but that’s not enough, and it certainly is not as much as Matisse had.

    • alan shipway said…

      I’m not saying Caro’s best work was all over by the seventies: I’m just saying the best pieces get a lot fewer and further between. And very hard to find, in among all the other stuff.

      I do agree that sculpture finds itself in a dire predicament today. But only because there aren’t enough good sculptors – not because it’s Caro’s responsibility.

      • Darryl Hughto said…

        This couplet I can agree with throughout, with one exception, the dire predicament part is perennial. And I don’t see it as so dire today, or at least any more than usual.
        I know I am across the pond and so my experience is limited as most of the best I see comes from the UK or northern Europe. John Gibbons I see quite a bit of and from time to time others I know less about, but enough to see that John is not working in a vacuum.
        Over here we have Isherwood who is definitely making sculpture in 3D. He’s found a way by new means to make wonderful marble sculptures. Clay Ellis is pushing the edges too. And there are others.
        Many, as Alan suggests, are merely part of the Caro academy, and that part of an earlier comment I also agree with. It was all but an academy when Caro adopted it. He didn’t invent it. I think we have to thank Picasso and Gonzales for raising a means, that when they utilazed it was not new. It had belonged to folk art. Picasso & Gonzales brought this means to a higher level. I think much of what Caro is responsible for is nailing the lid on the academy while ostensibly searching for new in the “post moderns’” aesthetic and thus undermining his more inspired followers. The world conspired to simplify, as it is nature to do, terming all assembled steel sculptors Tony-Lites. I think this is some of what Patrick was referencing earlier. Not cool to motivate Caro personally or make him responsible directly, but it has been the effect of his career and what the art market and writers have made of it, an academy.

  9. Patrick Jones said…

    Its always good to read intelligent criticism on Ab Crit,even when Alan wants to pass judgement on an artist still very much with us.I was disappointed by the Tate Modern retro,but knocked out by the series of shows in France around the Chapel three months later.Caros ouvre is vast and without being uncritical[I hated the figurative pieces in La Predrera] I feel any attempt to put him in his place is also doomed to failure.This guy was making sculpture when most of us were still asleep and to me even his paperwork is more interesting than most artists,before you start with the sculpture.