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.
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.
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.
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.
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