The ten sculptures by Anthony Caro at Gagosian, all made in 2012, are presented as a series. That doesn’t mean they exist only in relation to one another, because each is reliably self-sufficient, but they have a lot in common. Their constituent parts are selected from the same stockpile, perhaps two or three large deliveries of pre-owned steel in various shapes and sections. They also share a colour, if the grey/brown of oxidised metal can be called a colour. There are also enough of them to create their own critical micro-climate where the viewer, through a process of compare and contrast, becomes aware of, and attaches value to, variations and difference within the parameters set by the group.
Torrents emerges from this process as the best work in the show. It also in itself seems to be a critique of some of the other pieces. Its economy of means almost reproaches the overcrowding of Clouds with which it shares a room. In Torrents, the curves in its tubing add a swoop and swerve to answer the stiffer flat plates and beams they connect with, making each of the complementary geometric experiences offered by the work more ‘felt’ and legible. The train buffers are oddly clownish, like something from Miro or Gaudi, and the stop ends in which the rods and pipes terminate are like hand made punctuation marks, contrasting with the industrial look of the flanged joints nearby. Its confined footprint minimises the need for functional supporting devices which many other pieces in the exhibition feature, so the neutral ‘armature’ structure of uprights and lintels, to which the more inventive forms are attached, can be relatively flimsy and unobtrusive.
Laughter and Crying can also be construed as a critique of Clouds, but also shows up the limits of both Wandering and particularly Morning Shadows. Like the others, it features an emphatic horizontal, set high up in the sculpture. This is inflected by a fluttering run of scoop shapes, which lighten and ruffle the upper contours. But because its extension across the ground is less, Laughter and Crying can make do with two supports. With the longer pieces Caro had to ensure the clusters of parallel pipes and beams can be held in the right position either with three groups of heavily engineered vertical struts or, as in Morning Shadows, thick gauge steel plates arranged so as to allow the horizontals to pass through uninterrupted. These plates, and similar devices in Wandering, are like caryatids, holding up an entablature. They have a shape and a position in the work’s ‘syntax’, but this is determined by their architectural role rather than formal necessity. In Laughter and Crying you know the practicalities of supporting solid steel have been dealt with, but all its elements are in play formally; the challenge of gravity is met by concentrating or gathering components at key points, rather than including a civil engineering element disguised as a sculptural entity.
In the Forest also stresses a horizontal dynamic, but it is compressed and foreshortened, each cylindrical element, hollow or not, tending to come to a full stop, as in Torrents. The capped ends seem to exaggerate the perspective of the bars when seen head on, rather than from the side. From that position the convex and concave surfaces of the large curved plates open and close onto the turbulence routed through the work’s centre, tilting towards or away from the flow.
The variations between individual works are critically important, but so are their similarities. As a group, these ten sculptures offer a coherent artistic statement, held together by repeated motifs that contribute their associative power to the total experience. This iteration also makes their abstraction intelligible but it does so by invoking a very different analogy to that relevant to Caro’s work of the sixties. Back then, as I have said elsewhere, the works’ syntax was intuitively accessible via the viewer’s sense of themselves at the centre of their personal phenomenal field. One makes sense of these current sculptures by accepting their ‘radical unlikeness to nature’, recognising them as coming from an inorganic environment that we occasionally glimpse but from which we are normally excluded.
Unlike the relatively neutral plates and beams of early Caro, the industrial associations of elements in the Park Avenue series impose a certain reading. The conduits, tubes, vessels, tanks, half-cylinders, capped ends and so on strongly suggest that they once belonged to a working pressurised system, an assumption especially hard to resist when looking at the visually striking parallel formations of pipes and rods of the horizontals. Such systems have a structural logic of their own of course, a purpose which cannot be entirely erased but has to be sublimated to the demands of the work. In choosing these particular constituents, Caro orientates the ‘language’ of the sculpture to a world outside nature, aligned with the city rather than pastoral landscape, but also appropriates a force, flowing or circulating within the pieces, which adds to their formal power. That these works are made and remade from salvaged components that once stood in an inartistic relationship with each other dramatises the new syntactical position they take up when appearing in the sculpture.
This radical unlikeness to nature, which Greenberg identified perhaps prematurely, confirms the impression that Caro is not interested in palpability or tactility. He does not make sculpture that invites viewers to empathise with a surface produced by touch, by carving, modelling, hammering, which was so much part of the appeal of Henry Moore. Yet, though explicitly material, Caro’s work is riddled with immateriality. The non-negotiable physical weight of thick steel should keep it close to or on the ground. What levitates it six feet in the air is an iron will, an idea, a decision, a mental event, an impulse, an instruction to an assistant: the triumph of Cartesian dualism.
Arguably, Caro is not a sculptor. He is not into blacksmithery, nor an exponent of ‘hammer and hand’. He might be a species of concrete conceptualist, productively comparable to figures from cinema like Hitchcock or Bergman, auteurs, who managed to make highly personal artistic statements, seemingly without compromise, in the context of an industrial setting.
What the Park Avenue series is not, is nostalgic, despite the rust, the supposed obsolescence or mood of ‘lateness’. It is partly a celebration of the twentieth century before the trivialities of the digital revolution, but it also seems to be neo-Futurist in outlook. The material, with its suggestions of mills and furnaces, invokes Marinetti’s ‘nocturnal vibration of arsenals and workshops’, or of ‘bridges leaping like gymnasts’ over ‘diabolical cutlery’. But here, as with all of Caro’s work, and his philosophy, the movement or flow in these sculptures is in the same direction as that taken by Boccioni’s famous striding figure of 1913… forward.
Anthony Caro: Park Avenue Series is on at Gagosian, Britannia Street until the 27th of July