Abstract Critical

Eric Bainbridge: Steel Sculptures

Written by Dan Coombs

In Britain we’re not quite sure what to make of beauty, and for puritans, beauty takes on a noxious quality; beauty is the beast that art is meant to kill. Yet, on rare occasions, beauty will rear its beautiful head, tormenting us with its unattainability. One such example are the sculptures of Anthony Caro made in the early Sixties. His painted and welded steel constructions  were so transcendently effervescent in their springing lightness of touch, so incomprehensibly and meaninglessly beautiful; like three dimensional versions of Matisse’s paper cut-outs, they epitomised the words of Emily Dickinson – ‘beauty is not caused; it is’. They can only be experienced, never talked about, and are the pinnacle that no British sculptor has been able to match since.

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

In the guide to Eric Bainbridge’s new show at Camden Arts Centre, Penelope Curtis writes: ‘Dealing with Caro is not something to be done lightly, because so many have failed’. Riding my way up the hill to Camden Arts Centre on my bike, a man leant out of a car window and shouted ‘I think you’ve dropped something, mate’. The sentiment stayed with me as I made my way round the show. With Bainbridge the pervading sense is that something is missing, that something has been lost, and something has gone astray. Doing Caro now, even without the colour, is an anachronism that is doomed to failure, and Bainbridge knows this. Like all comedians he loves situations where failure is inevitable; such situations can’t help revealing the truth, the bathos that to him is more valuable than the beauty.

The Philosopher’s Garden, 2011, steel, installation at Camden Arts Centre, photo credit Andy Keate

Bainbridge’s previous work has involved materials such as inverted fun-fur, tea-cups, tangerines and dental floss. Limiting himself to the  convention of welded scrapyard steel, with only occasional walk-ons by tea-towels or ghastly rugs, somehow allows the humour to become less wacky and more black. Making the welded steel the dominant element is however a dangerous move, since the medium is so ubiquitous, so cheesy, that there’s a danger of the artist losing his identity all together. Some, like The Philosopher’s Garden (2011), still incorporate an incongruous flourish, and one suspects the decorative spiral has been taken from an object in a garden centre. Others, such as Green Line (2011) seem like straightforward exercise in Caro-isms, yet still somehow retain a sense of restrained ridiculousness, a kind of ludicrousness that comes out of failed aspirations. The sculpture is so close to pastiche yet exudes a dumbness all of its own, its forms leaning in a way that is just slightly more quotidian than anything in Caro.

Greenline, 2011, steel, installation at Camden Arts Centre, photo credit Andy Keate

Bainbridge’s work feels like a painfully funny meditation on the ennui of the ordinary,  yet simultaneously reaches for high art status. He acknowledges the pretensions of trying to make art in Britain, and revels in the inevitable tumbling back down to earth. There is a tension that comes from on the one hand taking on the mantle of modernist aesthetics, the striving for the ideals that Caro briefly achieved, and on the other hand refusing to give up on roots, background and the school of hard knocks. Bainbridge’s sculptures are always teetering on the edge of embarrassment, about to blurt out their dirty secrets. There is something intense and slightly nauseating about them, full of jarring incongruities, cultural faux-pas, and aesthetic betrayals.

The Mind of the Artist (Exposed), 2011, steel and polyester blanket, installation at Camden Arts Centre, photo credit Andy Keate

Welded steel is the material of shipyard and the male sculptor, and the tea-towel and the washing line are incongruously juxtaposed with this material in a kind of bleak marriage of convenience. In Bobble /Bubble (2011) a square sheet of steel, its surface gouged and scraped, like barely repressed masculine anger, has a stained teatowel draped over it, balancing its harshness, soothing it, tolerating its absurdity. In The Mind of the Artist (Exposed) (2011), a delicate network of Caro-like beams sits atop a polyester blanket printed with a garish pink rose, which acts as both ground to the sculpture and as maternal embrace. One room has been given over to a washing line draped with bedlinen – a few tiny drops of blood or rust spot the surface of the linen, like little pin-pricks of pain. The title The Ghost of Jimmy the Nail refers to these slightly malevolent spots that spoil the purity  of marital bed-linen.

The Ghost of Jimmy Nail, 2012, cotton and steel cable, installation at Camden Arts Centre, photo credit Andy Keate

In a way Bainbridge’s subjects are the human problems that are familiar and ordinary yet often repressed in the pursuit of high art. There’s something poignant, tender even, in the way he refuses to turn his back on this subjects, these problems of class and freedom, identity and contingency – the problems of relationships and the problems of trying to express yourself through received language. Aesthetics, beauty, originality are treated with skepticism, with a brass tacks wisdom that could be reductive yet still contains a measure of hope, the possibility of release. Some of the sculptures are put together in a way that has an unmistakable sense of play and jouissance, teetering with a fragile balance that seems about to disintegrate into pieces and make a pile on the carpet.

Untitled, 2012, steel and woolen blanket, installation at Camden Arts Centre, photo credit Andy Keate

Caro’s work casts a long shadow, and many contemporary artists have been influenced and inspired to try and unpick the cultural assumptions that  underpin this unassailable aesthetic. Rebecca Warren for example has recently paired her grotesquely sexy clay sculptures with mysteriously masculine Caro-like assemblages of bronze boxes, plates, buttresses and leaning geometric forms. Their weight, much heavier in feel than Caro, are undermined by the inclusion of an incongruous pom-pom, a feminine touch undermining the intransigence of their masculine inscrutability. Charles Ray has also developed the illusionistic qualities of early Caro, the way the sculptures change as you move around them, into minimalist objects that are never quite what they appear to be. Bainbridge joins them in trying to extend the formalist aesthetic into dealing with areas that are excluded from the classic pantheon of beauty, yet perhaps has more of a feel for formalist sculpture as an arena in which to play. The sense of play, and its frustration by the down ward pull of everyday reality, allows him to work with a relatively unrestrained sense of transforming creativity, though never letting go of the pervasive irony that the particular beauty he achieves comes with a price. His work is imbued with sense of being damaged, and that every move might unravel the whole and bring about its own collapse.

Bainbridge is essentially an artist who resides within the comedic, and its curious that much recent contemporary sculpture, whether it be the high anxiety of Warren, the deadpan incredulity of Ray, the absurd narcissism of Franz West or even the ridiculously over-determined, yet vulnerable, masculinity of Thomas Houseago, share this comic absurdity. Perhaps the comedic is the only way for sculpture to develop in the aftermath of Caro’s high modernism. Bainbridge is an artist who understands his own limitations, his own pratfalls, and his own inability to take modernism at face value. He takes these problems and uses them to make sculptures that beguile, arrest, fascinate and amuse his small but growing audience.

  1. Robert Smith said…

    I have never followed a debate like this before and am much more interested in the psychology of the participants than any of the art theorising that has gone on. Particularly in the case of Robin and the reasons for his palpable anger which seems to me to have little to do with the work. Until he has gone to see the show not one word that he has to say has any value. Such bigotry beggars belief.

    • Sam said…

      Obviously Robin has laid himself open to that sort of comment, but it seems a little strange to extend that to the whole thread. I’d be interested to know what you mean by ‘a debate like this’?

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      It’s true; I have an inbuilt prejudice against ignorance masquerading as ironic detachment. Since I am quite capable of it myself, I find it easy to recognise.

      I have gone so far as to watch the film of Bainbridge talking about his work on the CAC website. He appears to me to have nothing to say of any value or insight about abstract sculpture. You are free to disagree (why not make a comment yourself?), or indeed, to stick to a study of psychology.

  2. Almuth said…

    don’t agree with Robert. it’s much more gentle and touching than the assertive Caros. Not hung up on pitching itself against a heavyweight but dancing instead with mundane everyday stuff without despising the ordinariness.

  3. Dan Coombs said…

    Yes , and in some ways I have to thank you John for demanding an explanation about Kelley’s sculpture ,because you’ve forced me to think about them, and now we’re on another level. The toys are anthropomorphic, and represent a simple, abject humanity , but the act of transformation that occurs is that they’re arranged in a field. That is , the blankets define and contain them within a field space, a space of extreme horizonatality, which suggests communication or relationship between them, and animates them in an uncanny way. The toys are brought alive by their placement within the field, or even seem to be engaged in acts of thought or psychic communication across the horizontal plane.The sculptures in any case have a sense of thought or inwardness or containment, a subject or purpose- which prevents the sculptures from becoming arbitrary and sprawling across the floor. Does this not count as formal sculpture Sam?

  4. Dan Coombs said…

    Now you’ve got me John. I don’t actually know why I respond to Mike Kelley’s work. I remember a piece called “Lumpenprole” in which the toys were placed underneath a huge afghan blanket, and the pattern on the blanket rose and fell like a wave diagram according to the mysterious lumps beneath. I was impressed that something so comforting and benign could be transformed into an image of the unconscious. Similarly his blanket sculptures tweak the ordinary to such a fine degree, they make these domestic toys seem alien and strange, antagonistic to each other , conflicted. I guess Im interested in a psychological component. I understand that you think they’re rubbish-I half agree with you – but they speak to me in a mysterious way. Other than that Im clueless as to why I like them.

    • Sam Cornish said…

      Hi Dan, I like your description of Kelley and (in some senses) I respect your openness, but I think it has very little to do with their formal qualities, and nothing at all to do with abstract sculpture… This is not just a shameless plug for my review, but if you make it to the Wyatt Kahn show I would be interested to read what you think, as it seems to me to contain the weird, unedifying, contradictory feelings you mention, but with a greater formal element… Sam

  5. John Holland said…

    Actually Dan, for me the most useful thing might be for you to explain something of the transformative elements, as you describe them, of Kelly’s use of the found parts, the toys and the blanket.
    Tom Friedman made an amusingly ridiculous work about this issue by getting a witch to curse the space above a plinth. I had to install it once- the most difficult job I ever did.

  6. JOHN HOLLAND said…

    As Robin said, this frequent hoisting of the concept of ‘purity’ is a McGuffin- I’m certainly not interested in it.
    The scarecrow I mentioned is not pure, it’s not even abstract- I brought it up because its an object made using found objects that is remarkably inventive and far more complex visually than Kelly’s work. What it does not have are his concommitant theoretical justifications, or an institutional context.
    Neither are Titian, or Van Gough ‘pure’; they are full of the religious, the mythical or the social. What’s pure about a dirty pair of labourers boots?

    There continues to be a false dichotomy at play here, something about the naive and closed verses the engaged and open. More to the point, I think, is the intense, the inventive and the complex verses the banal and commonplace-ie putting everyday found things in a ‘sacred’ space and hoping Magik will happen.
    Teddy bears can certainly be seen as sad things, or happy things, or whatever- but why someone should be considered one of the world’s leading artists for sticking a few in the sacred space to point this out to anyone who had, unbelievably, never been able to think this for themselves on the many occasions when they’ve come across them in their life, I really don’t know.

    I guess its partly about how ambitious you think art should be. Art now is largely reduced to the position of making little contextual shifts and rearrangements of the real visual culture that is made elsewhere. Visual invention is something that other people do- artists just point at things knowingly.

  7. Ryan Riddington said…

    I have yet to see the Bainbridge show, something I am curious to do if only to confirm how disappointed I will be and, seemingly, how much that disappointment is somehow part of the work and therefore something to appreciate in the current (rather than grand) scheme of things.

    This thread is a revelation compared to the discourse encountered on my BA (Hons) Fine Art (Sculpture) in 1997 at Loughborough College of Art and Design, or should I say Loughborough University School of Art and Design given that is what it unhappily morphed into in 1998.

    There are numerous fascinating issues at stake here that I rarely heard talk of at MFA level in sculpture, or anywhere else, at the Slade. One I am particularly interested in is the photographic representation of sculpture and the developments in my own work as a result, both dependent on objects or environments that I may have made or found. The legacy of sculptors and their dependance on pretty pictures of the ‘best view’ of their work is something else, something I only recently discovered was an issue raised in 1982 by Nobert Lynton and quoted by Robin Greenwood in relation to Anthony Smart. What strikes me most is that this debate and exhibitions such as as the Bainbridge, Panting’s return from the cold and the Royal Academy’s ‘Modern British Sculpture’, especially Caro’s assertion, unsurprisingly, that sculpture ‘now found itself rightfully back at the centre of things’, coincide with the institutional destruction of ‘traditional’ formal sculptural education and the economic and practical/physical/intellectual possibilities of investigating the sculptural concerns being discussed here.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      If you are interested in following up Ryan’s reference, the essay on Anthony Smart, who is in my opinion at the very forefront of new abstract sculpture, can be found here: http://www.poussin-gallery.com/site.php?exhibition=66

      • Ryan Riddington said…

        That’s me told. I’ll go and sit back in the corner while the adults talk about teddies. I’m sure there’s something about class and social mobility underlying much of this but I’m obviously not the person to be examining it. Robin?

    • Sam Cornish said…

      Ryan, I suspect that wasn’t Robin’s intention. Isn’t it likely that to a large extent the foregrounding of parody and art historical quotation in Bainbridge’s work & well as the weirdness of much of the RA show (I’m thinking particularly of the moment when the HMI staff disappeared in a loop of self-referentiality at the end by making an ‘art-work’ of press-reviews) fit with the an education that has more to with discourse than making? The revival of Panting was initiated by people (including Robin) who had had an education in formal sculpture that stemmed from Caro. It would be difficult to call that traditional, but it was focused exclusively on sculpture as a physical thing.

      • Ryan Riddington said…

        Sam, I wasn’t aiming at Robin or anyone really, Robin is the only one to have mentioned today’s politics directly. It was more an acknowledgement of my inability to engage in the discussion in the way that everyone else is, for better or worse, and looking for reasons/excuses for this lack. I can’t remember if I saw the HMI press review ‘art-work’ or if I’m confusing it with a piece where someone built up of pages from Page 3…? One would surely hope that discourse and making might go hand in hand, without wanting to put the cart before the horse or vice-versa. I guess ‘traditional’ was the term, taken with offensive at Loughborough, that was lazily used to describe any activity using welding, stone carving, clay modelling, bronze casting and carpentery that denied that many material and conceptual ‘developments’ in art over much of the last century had actually taken place.

  8. Dan Coombs said…

    I dont understand what Bainbridge’s work has to do with Duchamp’s – forgive me if Im missing something- or is this more sophistry?
    My intention in bringing Kelley into the debate was to draw attention to a sculptor who has used colour as a formal element in his work. The surface of his soft toys are imbued with colour, like Judd’s coloured perspex, ( the colour is inherent to the material rather than painted on )- this gives them a peculiar intensity, and as soft toys come in infinite variety , there are an infinite number of colour relationships.
    Whats interesting is that you seem to be wanting to avoid any associations as these get in the way of the formal reading of work.But there are many routes up the mountain, and often the greatest formal intensity is found in the most unexpected places- chance, randomness, on the street, even John’s scarecrow I wouldn’t necessarily exclude as a possible source of inspiration.
    There’s a large element of chance randomness and play in Caro- he’s picking his elements from a giant stockpile and the collage element in formal sculpture is not often talked about.
    As a flawed human being Im drawn to the idea that the purity of pure form is a bit of a myth, and that formal intensity is transformative and transcendent of the (often abject) materials that are used in making a work of art. So it doesn’t surprise me that soft toys or dog blankets could take on a strange beauty in the work of Kelley or Bainbridge.To rule them out because their forms aren’t pure- isn’t that just puritanical?

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Except that neither John nor myself have mentioned ‘purity’. I have no interest in it, nor in formalism.

      • Dan Coombs said…

        Do you mean you are only interested in quality?

      • Ashley West said…

        But you are advocating the purely visual in abstract art aren’t you Robin? What Dan and I are suggesting I think is that it is impossible to exclude associations with the non-visual. What would you be left with? A mere sensation or phenomenon. Meaning only comes into it when there is a connection with what and who we are, so the work becomes a trigger or metaphor of sorts. Without this all you have is a thing – rather like the rug or the urinal or the scarecrow in fact. The recognition of this is what brought the materialism of painting into question, and led artists to question where meaning actually lies; does it have to involve a certain technical virtuosity? does it have to have taken a long time to produce? does it have to have been produced by the hand of the artist? does it have to be visual? can it be made from found objects, words, and so on. These are good questions to ask, and it’s what the last century has been about. Seems interesting stuff to me. Would I wish that we could stuff the genie back in the bottle? No. I choose to work within constraints that interest me – those of abstract painting primarily, but although I filter the influences of what is going on around me I don’t close myself off from it. Artists are pragmatists, scavangers and opportunists – taking from wherever they can, as Caro seems to have done, which is a healthy state of affairs it seems to me. I’m not sure a lot of this is doing much of a service to abstract painting. Other kinds of practitioners must be in stitches.

    • Sam said…

      Hi Dan, I think Duchamp was brought in (fairly reasonably) on the back of Kelley’s teddies. With the suggestion, by John, I think, that all Kelley was doing was a Duchampian trick of placing a non-art object in a gallery. I think that some of ridicule of your arguments have been unfair and dogmatic, but – and this is a big but – I think the suggestion that we can react to Kelley’s formal intensity deserves at least some ridicule. They may have the passing pleasure of kitsch and a certain incongruity but beyond that, really, can they sustain vision for any length of time? Kelley is surely not ruled out because of a desire for purity, but because they have no form to speak of, or rather to look at. He may have other qualities but it seems to me that seeing them as sculpture or as engaging visual art is the sophistry here, as is linking them to Judd’s work because both were made out of prefabrciated materials or Caro’s because both are collaged. Bainbridge may be a more marginal case, I have some doubts, but I will wait until I’ve seen the show.

      I agree that there are many paths up the mountain, and I certainly don’t have Robin’s problem with reference (though I see this less of an idealism and more of a pragmatism that helps to produce very visually engaging sculpture) but I wouldn’t say that means that all paths are equally valid.

      I would like to get back to discussing Bainbridge, but that – for me at least – is going to have to wait until the weekend.

    • Robert Persey said…

      The collage element in Caro’s sculpture was subjected to a very thorough critique throughout the seventies, as can be seen by much sculpture made at that time.The ensuing debate focused on the potential of construction not collage as an organising sculptural principle and pointed the way to new exploration. Some verbal aspects of that debate found their way into publications such as Artscribe(excellent magazine run by artists,long defunct)but generally the art world chose to ignore it because first and foremost they did not understand it but also they did not want to.Prevailing opinion appears to be incapable of grasping the plastic and spatial potency of sculpture, prefering instead to demand work that apparently speaks to them and flatters them with recognisible symbols and allusions to a limited intellectual view.Is that all that art can do? There has been a long period of this hegemony, forty years at least it is about time it was subjected to rigorous examination.

      Plastic and spatial, by the way are words, effortless to use damned difficult to comprehend or explain but that is what sculpture, uniquely can do!

  9. John Holland said…

    But then again, I did see a particularly inventive home-made scarecrow down the allotment, and I got the gooseberry bushes in.

  10. Terry Ryall said…

    I used to have a fully functioning art deco kidney-shaped bidet that came originally from the Savoy hotel. It was a very beautiful object but like Duchamp’s urinal it wasn’t a work of art. The really Dada thing to do with Duchamp’s urinal would be to put it back on the wall and fire away into it.
    Have you considered Ashley that maybe you were never meant to see the Urinal either as a beautiful object or meaningful piece of art? It was just a gesture but one that has seduced many artists into finding satisfaction in superficiality.

  11. Ashley West said…

    Not surprised you lot are tired – I’m just waking up! In truth a day off work gives me a chance to take a closer look at this discussion. I have to say, your article is beautifully written Dan – I mean that, in terms of its lyricism, though I do agree to some extent with Robin; maybe ‘transcendentally effervescent’ applies more to your writing than to Caro’s early sculptures! Though that isn’t unusual – I think all too often the language we use often becomes self serving rather than serving constructive comment. Robin, I would have thought that the lack of a rose-tinted perspective in relation to Caro would have made you more disposed to the sorts of references and associations that Dan refers to – the ‘manliness’ (even heroic) of Caro on the one hand, but also the fragility (of the man)on the other. Aren’t the comedic and the deeply serious often two sides of the same condition? The more I look at Bainbridge’s sculptures, or images of them, the more I feel inclined to want to visit them, and the more I respond to the pathos in them. Surely different approaches to painting and sculpture can reveal very different ‘takes’ on the world and what much recent sculpture delves into is hitherto unexplored areas of our psyche, identity, and so on. This takes into account what we now know or question about the nature of perception, language, context, histories etc. The idea that painting and sculpture can simply be about what we see in front of us seems naïve now. I hestitate there because personally, in my own work, I focus primarily on what is in front of me, on the ‘abstract’ for want of a better term, and it does seem to me that this seems side-lined to a great extent today in favour of ‘clever’ art that is more about a commentary on ‘issues’. But there is a wonderful plurality of stuff going on now, even within abstraction, and I think that is healthy. If anything, it can surely help to highlight, by contrast, the distinct nature, the difference, of the kind of pursuit you talk about Robin. There seems to be a seriously playful tenderness in Bainbridge’s work – this maybe relates to the ‘feeling’ you talk about Dan, which initially I thought was perhaps akin to ‘a feeling/grasp for the whole’, but maybe you are refering to what this sculpture ‘touches’ in us – the kind of futility of our constructs; some of them are like abstract doggies on rugs, kind of pathetic domesticated things, but they arouse in me an empathy. It almost causes me to look at this discussion or our efforts in the studio in a similar way – to question it: What is really going on? I just watched the film on Caro; you see the sculpture, then you see the man, hear what he says, notice the idiosyncracies, and you get the sense that there’s more to it all than meets the eye. In a way he acknowledges that in his story about how those clay pieces emerged – which was really quite fortuitous, playful, exploratory. It seems as if his openness to that gives him a future beyond the earlier work (our developing humanity is more important than these objects we create). There was the comic in that, which is perhaps a useful antedote to ‘the purity’ of the purely visual – reassuringly human. Eric Satie’s ridiculous piano pieces convey at the same time a deep seriousness. Don Quixote is in all of us. I think the point is that you can’t deny the stuff that goes on between you and the purely visual. Robin and John seem to be wishing it away. It has to be dealt with. If I look at a piece of mine on the wall opposite from where I sit, I am aware of its visual qualities, its composition, its relationships, and those are the things I focus on when making, but I have to acknowledge the way everything also acts as a sign, because it is perhaps impossible to remove associations. In Buddhist practice, ‘pure mind’ is searched for, to see things as they are, but the world of associations, identity and so on come between. If these are acknowledged then perhaps one can see what is behind them – things as they are, but if you deny them they will deny you. It may be the world of illusion, but it is the world we are all a part of, and perhaps the validity of a lot of art going on at present is that it acknowledges this, explores it and tries to unravel it. Modernism to a great extent denies it, so, strangely a Mondrian or a Newman can be seen as a sign for what they believed in rather than the thing itself. I am reminded of your comment Robin (or was it someone else) about the oven hob syndrome. To say you simply stop painting circles, or horizontals (because they suggest landscape) is ridiculous. The challenge is for you to see past your associations, otherwise you’re giving them the upper hand in dictating what forms can be used and what can’t – after all, what is in front of you is a circle not an oven hob!. Though do I give Bainbridge too much credence? Is this where he is coming from or is he just playing games (ie. not being seriously playful)? I’m not sure, maybe I need to look further, and of course I won’t do that if I dismiss it out of hand – that would make me something of a modernist fuddy duddy retracting into a smaller and smaller world wouldn’t it?.

    • Dan Coombs said…

      Thanks Ashley and yes

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      OMG!
      No, Ashley, the challenge is not for me to see past associations, the challenge is for you as an artist to be more inventive. Leave me out of it; the responsibility is entirely yours. If you choose to make banal art, don’t criticize me for not seeing more in it. You and Dan are the ones restricting the possibilities of abstract art, satisfied as you appear to be with a diminished, constrained world we already know – of horizons, cooker-hobs, light-bulbs, carpets and soft toys.

      • John Holland said…

        It is indeed an odd thing that it’s now considered closed-or-at-least-narrow-minded to ask for new things to see in art, rather than the stuff we live with all the time put in a different place with a label stuck on it.
        I feel a bit depressed- if putting a teddy bear in a gallery enables the viewer to see the ‘beauty’ in it that they were never able to see when it was outside the gallery, and if that is the highest ambition that a leading artist of the time can aim for, then I feel genuinely at a loss. It’s a methodology that gladly assumes that we spend our normal lives in a state of blind idiocy, waiting for an artist to open our witless eyes to the bloody obvious by merely pointing at it.

        A lot of it comes down to an acceptance of the hegemony of the consumerist paradigm, I think- accepting what we are given, not making ‘naive’ or unrealistic demands- which is ironic really, given the supposedly ‘political’ concerns of a lot of fashionable art. Time, I think, to go and did my allotment and hide. I’m not even that old- I referenced popular ‘beat’ group Take That.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Cheer up old boy…

      • Ashley West said…

        There is an opportunity to try to understand each other here, if we exercise a little restraint – we are all searching for quality after all and I don’t think, behind the misunderstandings we can be that far apart. But let me get this right. You think that artists are mistaken to use a ‘primary form’ such as the circle because of its potential to remind us of an oven hob? If that’s the case we are allowing everyday objects, or rather our associations to limit our vocabulary, and diminish something as basic/universal as a circle or a straight line, and maybe white. That’s preposterous. There will always be associations. Artists like Heron moved towards the non-figurative (only towards, because it can never be excluded)as a way of focusing attention on the reality of things and their relationships. We can then see the abstract in the figurative too. Those paintings of his with the interesting interplay of positive and negative shapes are not diminished because we see a connection with his experience of the Cornish landscape, surely; if anything they are enriched by it. It helps us to then appreciate the landscape as a play of forces too, just as John Cage’s compositions help us to hear familiar sounds (created by the everyday things we think we know)in an unfamiliar way – as abstract. I do remember seeing one of Duchamp’s urinals and thinking what a beautiful form it was, and it had all sorts of connotations. The whole of the collage and assemblage tradition is about liberation of the object from its everyday function to become an abstract form or metaphor. What about poetry, where common words are used in unusual phrasings and juxtapositions to suggest something else? Surely your not for a world of solely concrete poetry! It isn’t so difficult surely to see the rug in a Bainbridge sculpture as an object we recognise in a generic way, but then to pass beyond that to discern its particular qualities of shape, colour etc. and further to see how it is changed by its context. One of the great pleasures of one of those small landscape studies of Constable’s is that you see the interplay of the material/abstract qualities on the one hand and the appearance of a tree on the other. Many artists are simple exploring a wider vocabulary – testing things out – seeing what happens if you shift the slider between the two extremes of the very abstract and the very figurative, asking ‘what if?’ and ‘why not?’. I deplore the gratuitous as much as you do, and I don’t play around with light bulbs all day as you know – that sort of thing is an excursion, just as Caro made an excursion into his ceramic pieces – it may lead to something, it may not. But I do think a lot of it comes down to where one is coming from. If Caro put a shark in formaldehyde I would probably be more inclined to think about it. You have to allow for blue sky thinking; do you really think so many artists can be that barking mad?; don’t you even suspect that you may actually be throwing out the baby (or the teddy!) with the bath water? As I’ve said before, my sensibilities lay firmly with the abstract, and I’m a bit of a purist too, and I’m sure we agree about a lot when you get down to what happens in the studio, but you have to give a little, even a lot, or you become very fixed.

  12. Dan Coombs said…

    Half-past two,
    The street-lamp said,
    “Remark the cat which flattens itself in the gutter, 35
    Slips out its tongue
    And devours a morsel of rancid butter.”
    So the hand of the child, automatic,
    Slipped out and pocketed a toy that was running along the quay.
    I could see nothing behind that child’s eye. 40
    I have seen eyes in the street
    Trying to peer through lighted shutters,
    And a crab one afternoon in a pool,
    An old crab with barnacles on his back,
    Gripped the end of a stick which I held him.

  13. John Holland said…

    That’s like saying- ‘words are found things, so T S Eliot and a Hallmark birthday card ditty are basically doing the same thing. Well, yes, and in a very real sense, no.
    To quote from the eye-gauging idiocy of the press release-

    “one can imagine them holding a meeting, or even having a picnic..”
    You certainly can. Would they have sandwiches or cake?
    Night night everybody.

  14. Dan Coombs said…

    Yes, obviously feeling and meaning, “look “and “feel” have to coincide. I think that Kelley’s sculptures being made up of found objects contributes to their feel . I think collage is as valid as creating something from scratch- it all depends on the feeling !. The elements in Caro’s sculptures, as I understand it, are found as well, found on the scrapyard- so collage, juxtaposition, is as much a part of his work as Bainbridges or Kelley’s.

    • Terry Ryall said…

      Dan, in my experience there comes a point in most discussions of this nature when it becomes obvious to those involved that there is little possibility of a meeting of minds. At this point, rather than going round in circles, respective parties usually take the opportunity sum up their best case as clearly as possible and honourably agree to differ. John Holland has very precisely and, in my view utterly compellingly, stated the case for “art being based on what things look like”. It would be helpful if you could provide something equally clear, coherent and focused in support of your views and then perhaps we could all move on. I have, incidentally, enjoyed this discussion very much so thanks for instigating it.

  15. Dan Coombs said…

    John , its not just about what it looks like, its also about what it feels like. Kelley’s sculptures are low to the ground , like Bainbridge’s blankets, and this makes them feel a certain way. I could make an inventory of the visual properties of a Titian, but this would not be the same as describing its “feel”. In this sense , works of art are always partially invisible.

    • John Holland said…

      Describing a Titian is not the same as “making an inventory of its visual properties”. That is what you can do with any object, whether a cuddly toy, a molehill or a nipple. The way a Titian ‘looks’ is a complex intellectual and emotional creation, a result of an enormous number of decisions about structure, colour, composition and internal relationships (and that includes ‘feeling’- you’re still invoking this false dichotomy between the visual and the emotional/intellectual).
      These are more than ‘visual properties’, because they are the are the manifestations of artistic thought, i.e. the application of visual intelligence and sensibility in the service of the communication of meaning. To reduce that to ‘an inventory of visual properties’, as if it were a random natural object with no guiding intelligence behind it, is to illustrate why you’re not getting my point.

      So far, your formal description of the Kelly, apart from the fact that he has found some teddies that display an ‘exquisite colour’, for which we should thank Hasbro, is that they are ‘low to the ground’. This is true. It’s also completely banal and uninteresting as a fact in itself. The point, surely, is why is this ‘low on the ground’ artwork is worth millions, and the same ‘low on the ground’ blanket is worth £1.50, and is unworthy of our attention, when still in the charity shop? Its ‘visual properties’ are essentially the same- they, as opposed to the ideas attached to it, are no more complex. That is the interesting question, surely.
      The answer, to repeat myself again, lies not in the look of the thing, or indeed in the ‘feel’ (which is a consequence of its appearance and therefore essentially the same thing), but in the cultural value given to the artist’s justification of it.

      Please, stop making this odd assumption that the way a work of art looks is somehow a small, compartmentalised thing, separate from intelligence or feeling. Do you really listen to music and declare that the way it sounds is just formalism, but the feeling of it is another thing entirely and that most of its meaning lies in the inaudible part? I really doubt it.

  16. John Holland said…

    Yes Dan, but Robin wasn’t saying the ‘subject’ was beneath contempt, he was saying the work itself was. Van Gough’s crappy worker’s boots were considered beneath contempt as a subject, but the painting itself is not, because it’s a wholly different thing.
    Kelley’s fluffy bunnies are…..fluffy bunnies. You say they make brilliant use of colour- what you mean, surely, is that he arranges them in groups of pastel shades. If that compares with Titian’s, or Matisse’s or even Hoyland’s use of colour, then I’m Mitt Romney. Kelley’s toys cannot hold ‘dualities in suspension’ as you say, at least no more than they could when they were still in the charity shop, because they remain exactly the same toys (just arranged roughly by colour now). The transformation happens in your head, because their placement in a gallery (as opposed to their placement in space), along with Kelly’s and others’ writings, have changed your attitude to them. They are wholly conceptual works- to try to talk about them formally (and by formally, I simply mean their specific visual qualities), is ridiculous. We’re back to the aesthetics of the snow shovel.

    You give the impression of thinking that discussion of the visual, formal properties of an artwork is somehow a discussion of purity, like the Zen of Art. Caro’s sculptures from the period you like are made up of a series of visual choices like any other, and they can be discussed in visual terms, for their successes and failures, like any other- just like a comparable Smith or Moore or whatever. A Van Gough likewise- the fact that it’s not abstract doesn’t mean it’s not, essentially, a visual thing.
    Here’s an experiment; write down everything there is to say about what a Titian actually looks like, all the relationships of form, colour, all that old-school malarky. Then do the same with a Kelly. Not what he and others say what it means in relation to the social, cultural and political world it exists in, but what you actually see, what stands in front of you. You would, I think, be making a fool of yourself. That’s because it’s not MEANT to work like that, and to pretend it can makes no sense. It is, to repeat myself, a sign, the starting point of a verbal discourse. Otherwise, you would be having $1000,000 aesthetic experiences every time you went into Oxfam.

    It seems that the art-world has got stuck down the same dead-end it went down before Modernism turned it round; Victorian academicism said; ‘never mind how banal it LOOKS, attend to the moral message’. Art Monthly says; ‘never mind how banal it LOOKS, attend to the socio-cultural critique’. Imagine if this logic held in music- ‘never mind the fact that this piece of music SOUNDS the same as Take That’s last single, read about why the composer did it’. It’s not an issue about some notion of ‘purity’- it’s about the simple fact that literature is based on language, music is based on sound, and art is based on what things look like. Everything else starts from that fact.

  17. Dan Coombs said…

    John, “beneath contempt” is referring to the pathos of the subject matter, whereas “exquisite colour” is referring to the form. Its the ability of art to hold these dualities in suspension, as dichotomies; a bit like the way the films of Fassbinder are both dirty / expressionist and noble / Classical at the same time.
    I respect the ideals of Formalism , but often the ideal that subject /content must be excluded in order to deal with what, as Robin says , is intrinsic, is only that , an ideal- because in reality it is very difficult to separate something from the world it inhabits in order to see it as a ‘pure ‘form’.Content is often a given that has to be dealt with- even the way two shapes are balanced in Malevich say, has a sense of humour.Some people have achieved this state though- early Caro is one, Mondrian another- so its not that Im disagreeing with you.I think “beauty” is a good description of this state of serenity.
    Bainbridge wishes to come at the question from a different, less pure angle- like Mike Kelley , he discovers beauty in unexpected places.

  18. Robin Greenwood said…

    Hang on in there Dan.

  19. John Holland said…

    Dan- I don’t understand how something ‘beneath contempt’ can display an ‘exquisite use of colour’. Something’s not being taken seriously here; it’s like those attempts to sell Duchamp to traditionalists by invoking the sculptural qualities of a snow shovel. It’s trying to have your muffin and eating it.
    I’m still interested to know what you think of Keith Coventry in relation to these works.

  20. Dan Coombs said…

    John, I’d like an explanation from Robin about the terms he’s using? But unless youse guys actually get up to Camden, it’s all just meaningless waffle isn’t it ?

  21. Robin Greenwood said…

    Dan,
    You’re shocked? Not as shocked as me when I clicked on your link to Mike Kelly’s work. You really like this stuff, teddy-bears sitting round rugs? Are these transcendently effervescent too, or should we set about them?

    • Dan Coombs said…

      Robin go see the show and get back to me.As for Mike Kelley, his work is beneath contempt, that’s the whole point. But who else has made such exquisite use of colour in sculpture recently?and he doesn’t have to use paint- what could be more intrinsic than that ?

      • Terry Ryall said…

        Dan, if you really think that Mike Kelly’s stuff can in any way be thought of, or looked at, as sculpture at all (good, bad or indifferent) and proceed to credit it in a sculptural context with “exquisite use of colour” then I’m not surprised that you would like/need an explanation sbout Robin Greenwood’s ‘terms’. You and Robin are on different planets I’m afraid.

  22. John Holland said…

    Robin – by ‘formal’ in this context I only mean the use of form (as opposed to concept). But then, I’ve never quite understood what Formalism means.

  23. John Holland said…

    Dan- I’m not sure why the attractiveness of the carpet affects it’s status as a sign- I think you’re using this term beauty in an undiscursive way again.
    By the way, it’s interesting that The Ghost of Jimmy Nail (a title that’s a hostage to it’s time if ever there was one) is ‘referencing’ Robert Smithson rather than Caro- would you say that Bainbridge’s relationship to art history resembles Keith Coventry’s appropriation of the look of Constructivist painting to reproduce council estate maps? I hope not, because I’ve seen enough of those in the flesh to know how trite they are- and a perfect example of using an artistic style as a sign.

    This has all been a bit of a mass attack on your piece- sho ’nuff respect, as I believe they say, for taking the time to stick up for it. One thing about this site is that people tend to demand explanations, which I think is rare in art discussion, and is refreshing.

  24. Dan Coombs said…

    Robin, Im shocked you assert sculpture’s claim to dealing with unique spatial relationships, yet you refuse to go and see this show, which is completely different in the flesh, as all the sculptures are installed together, and believe me, the spatial relationships they set up are quite unexpected. How can I argue with you when, despite your positivism , you refuse to attend to the work in an empirical manner , and instead trowel on garbled theory in order to ratify your own position? What does it mean for example to “properly succeed”? What is the “intrinsic content” , and what is the distinction between “meaningfulness”(which you like) and “meaning”(which you don’t like?). I recommend you go and see this show before imposing your assumptions on us poor folk with open minds.

  25. Robin Greenwood said…

    Dan,
    No, I’m not talking metaphors; that being my point, the one I labour incessantly and boringly.

    I will repeat my mantra that meaning in visual art is an inherent property of what can be seen to be happening in the work itself and not an extrinsic sub-plot, add-on or backstory. This might be thought to be especially true of abstract art, but I suspect that is largely true of all good visual art, figurative or abstract. Some art might well be metaphorical in intention, but that is not really, for me, ever the equivalent of its meaningful content.

    I might take issue with John H. a little in his inference that success in (abstract) art is an achievement of formalism; but this is a nuanced difference, since I am sure that we both insist on the ‘meaningfulness’ rather than the ‘formalism’ being the desired outcome. But if, Dan, your resolve is that the meaning of Bainbridge’s work derives from those, so-to-speak, ‘metaphors for issues’ that contemporary art seems so casually to abound in, and that you seem at ease with, then we are very much at odds indeed.

    I know very little about Bainbridge, have not seen the show, have no intention of doing so, would urge John not to bother either, because I can see absolutely and unequivocally from the photographs (unlike with the Caro photo) that his sculpture is very poor and, by those terms I set out above, meaningless.

    You have read my critique of early Caro, but the Bainbridge work is by comparison, to quote myself, ‘incalculably worse that the object of his own parody’. There exists nothing of interest or engagement in the substance of this work, or in the decisions Mr. Bainbridge has taken in the making of it (as opposed to its conception, and there exists no merit in that); nor does it possess any structured insight into how a sculpture exists in and of itself in a three-dimensional world. There is no sense of sculpture’s ‘unique capacity to attend to the nature of spatial relationships’ (to quote John Panting from 1973, and with whom any direct comparison made would result in the trashing of Bainbridge). As objects, these works by Bainbridge are mired in their own literalness, vaguely surreal and silly things, generic and uncommunicative. Because they are so smart-arsedly uncommitted, you can read all sorts of stuff into them that isn’t there; because they are so thoughtless and unfelt, you can see them but they are not visual.

    I really can deduce all that just by looking at the photos. Indeed, I can see that Bainbridge ducks out of all sculptural decision-making, choosing the path of least resistance – an ironic approach to failure. We all fail – you, me, Caro, and there is no sin in it; but without embracing the ability to fail, and recognising it for what it is, you cannot have the ability to properly succeed. Is it too much to ask, to properly succeed? With Bainbridge there is no attempt to make some kind of structure that lives and works and breathes (OK, that’s a bit of a metaphor, but not of ‘meaning’, only for a ‘modus operandi’) in the real world; and thence has something – either profound or slight, it matters not – to speak to us in a direct, lucid visual manner. I see this as the very basic job of the visual artist, to be able through talent and application and effort to build in to the very fabric of the work this intrinsic content. Radical, eh!

    You choose to load Bainbridge’s artistic posturing with all sorts ideas, what one might deem to be ‘subject-matter’, your so-called ‘metaphors’, whilst the work itself languishes almost on the sidelines of your thoughts, almost unspoken of, never analysed, seemingly only a by-product of the artist’s intellectual mannerisms. The statement you quote from him is far more eloquent than the work, even though it is yet more art bollocks-speak. It appears to me most unlikely that he is an artist who ‘understands his own limitations’, else why would he not try to address them. Ah, of course, I miss the point, I hear you say. I hope I continue to do so.

  26. Dan Coombs said…

    John , I respect your position , in wanting to see, or make ,”successful formal sculpture “now. But if you actually went and saw the Bainbridge show you could explain more specifically what is , in your view, deficient in the work, rather than simply plastering on generalised theoretical positivism in lieu of actually seeing or feeling.

    • John Holland said…

      I will see the show, Dan.
      But in the context of your review, my point about the lack of ambition or seriousness of art that embraces failure, not as a dreadful likelyhood, but as a working method and conceptual assumption, still stands. And the act of putting a carpet under a sculpture in itself reduces it to a sign, just as the Mona Lisa was used by Duchamp as a sign when he stuck a moustache on her.

      It seems to me that if the sculptures were genuinely, seriously striving for complexity and rigour, they would fail, as it were, to fail. Then that joke wouldn’t be funny anymore.

      • Dan Coombs said…

        John, the carpets don’t turn the sculptures into signs. If you look at the above “Untitled” , the blanket is actually quite beautiful.
        Its lineage probably goes back to Mike Kelley. He’s a good example of an artist who succeeds by courting failure, by going against received expectations.

        2dcc1336.jpg&w=622&h=500&ei=ol15UJfqGIb80QWv_oBo&zoom=1&iact=hc&vpx=102&vpy=155&dur=3212&hovh=201&hovw=250&tx=139&ty=115&sig=104380742153451343476&page=1&tbnh=152&tbnw=173&start=0&ndsp=13&ved=1t:429,r:0,s:0,i:69

    • Terry Ryall said…

      Like John Holland, I haven’t seen this exhibition and of course agree with Dan Coombs that it would be better to have done so before passing comment. Nevertheless I too feel that there is sufficient visual and written description to be able to share views even if they are formed on the balance of probabilities and the application of a bit of imagination. I can’t for example imagine that being in the presence of the actual work would lead me to find them ‘beguiling, arresting, fascinating and amusing’. Those qualities are just not visually evident and no ammount of ‘plastering on’ of verbal explanations or declarations of intent could ever persuade me that my eyes are lying to me. What I see are essentially mimetic objects with props added for effect. It is art that is heavily ‘about’ something or other rather than art that is attempting to be discrete and non-mimetic in it’s visual and formal qualities. Now, that could be truly arresting could it not?

  27. Dan Coombs said…

    John – its a bit rich accusing me of being glib when in you are presumably writing about a show you haven’t actually seen . If you had you would realise that , contradicting your comfortable theory, Bainbridge’s sculpture’s are not in fact “signs” for a postmodern ” idea” of Caro’s sculpture, but share many of Caro’s positive qualities, and it is this quality that makes them painfully funny, as well as being successful sculptures.
    As for Robin, – aren’t you being just a tad literal? I wasn’t suggesting that Bainbridge’s sculptures had a Dave Spart instrumentality leading to the overthrow of the class system. We are talking , surely, about metaphors , are we not ?
    Perhaps this earlier quote from Bainbridge might enlighten you both:” I see my sculptures as being positive in their failure. All of these objects can only be described as unacceptable according to educated middle ground taste…Its failure is somehow subversive , in that it can’t be seen as complying with the persuasive positive order, such as Modernism which has clearly failed to provide all the answers , particularly in architecture. My works may be referred to our more complex situation; they offer a duality that doesn’t allow for a simple positive reading “.

    • John Holland said…

      Well, for what it’s worth I said your phrase illustrated Bainbridge’s glibness, but anyway; you’re right, I haven’t seen this show, but I’ve got the photos and your descriptions. “Almost a straightforward exercise in Caro-isms” isn’t my idea of a formally engaged work.

      The whole thing seems predicated on the idea that the contemporary trope of ‘willed failure’ is an interesting project-but if failure is endemic to the intention of the work, if formal success is regarded as a pointless aspiration, the work can only work as a sign- a sign for the

      • John Holland said…

        ….inability to take seriously the intentions and methods of Modernism. Hence the use of a medium that’s ‘cheesey’, as opposed to, say, low or difficult or new or even beneath contempt. Making work ‘about’ failure means avoiding the risk of failure by denying the possibility (or even desirability) of successfully making formal abstract sculpture now- so the work must essentially operate as a sign. It is, to use the language of Art Monthly, referencing Caro as a trope. Your own disinclination to engage with the notion of ‘beauty’, or aesthetics, in Modernism except as a mystical gift of the Muses only emphasises the gulf.

  28. John Holland said…

    IBainbridge’s work is conceptual inasmuch as he is simply making signs for a Post-Modern idea of Caro’s kind of Modernist sculpture, without any serious engagement with their actual formal attributes; Dan’s phrase “Caro-like beams” illustrates this glibness. They could be assembled in any number of ways and still function in exactly the same way-as a reference to various cliches about ‘High’ Modernism, elitism, exclusivity, cultural hegemony, masculinity, whatever. Dan just adds some incongruously Romantic puff about ‘Beauty’.
    Each piece is a simple sign with a rug stuck under it to show how much more sophisticated we are now.They can’t fail because they’re not trying to do anything.

    If you really find these “painfully funny” Dan, I suggest you don’t watch Mr Bean, you’ll die laughing. It would be interesting if you could respond to Robin’s request that you explain how these pieces deal meaningfully with issues of ‘class and freedom’. Or this just more sub-Romantic puff?

  29. Robin Greenwood said…

    Dan,
    Glad you enjoyed my response. I can’t say that I’ve noticed any carnal desire on my part for Caro-as-mother, or jealously and anger towards Caro-as-father; but I’m bound to go away and search my subconscious any time now. I’ll let you know if I find anything.
    Meantime, please, I implore you, direct me to the really important bits of Bainbridge’s work, those bits that deal with the big issues of ‘class and freedom’; point them out directly so I don’t miss them; give us a clue at least – is it the carpet? Do please elucidate how they have contributed to the great social debate… Dave Cameron or Ed Milliband might be interested…
    Perhaps you think they deal with these issues by virtue of being intentionally BAD? Ha ha, yes, I must remember not to go repressing these things in my mindless pursuit of high art.

  30. John Holland said…

    Bainbridge’s work is conceptual inasmuch as he is simply making

  31. Dan Coombs said…

    Well I think it’s because Caros achievement is in much clearer focus now- and because of its unassailability, Bainbridge has deliberately chosen an untouchable artist, a bit like when Polke took on the mysticism surrounding Malevich in his painting “Higher Beings Command; Paint The Upper Right Corner Black”. Yet Polke was actually parodying his own sense of mysticism,likewise I suspect EB has a deep feeling for Caro.

  32. Dan Coombs said…

    Dear Robin,
    I really enjoyed your response, its an insider’s view of Caro, embodying the usual Oedipal conflicts and anxiety -of -influence that we all know and love. I wouldn’t be so dismissive of Eric Bainbridge’s work though. Your assumption that there’s a group of authentics dealing with issues of class and freedom in the “real world”, your pitching of an assumed authenticity against Bainbridge’s fictions, these are precisely the kind of pretensions that comedy likes to unravel.
    You can try and reduce Caro to “cheap -shot pictorialism ” if you wish- but I rest my case; their beauty is unassailable.
    Regards,
    Dan Coombs

    • Sam said…

      Hi Dan, Why do you think Bainbridge has chosen to approach Caro / post-Caro abstraction now? In the seventies, when they were a loud presence in the artworld and showed regularly his work might have had some bite (if you’re in to that kind of thing), but now when most of the artists involved have very little opportunity to exhibit it seems superfluous, does it not? The other 2 – admittedly very superficial – reviews I have read on-line seemed to miss the art-historical in-joke the show is based upon…
      Sam

      • John Holland said…

        That’s what I don’t get either, Sam.
        Why are a lot of artists now making work ‘critiqueing’ Modernism as if it were some sort of stifling hegemony? I can’t think of a more pointless exercise.

      • Sam said…

        This is why I was interested in Wyatt Kahn’s show.Though it has some flaws (I think the lack of colour might tell against them when not in solo installations) they seem to approach modernism whilst avoiding ‘willed failure’& a sense of critique…

  33. Robin Greenwood said…

    This article, along with the exhibition it reviews, really annoys me, of course. I guess I’ve fallen for it, eh?

    The comments on Caro’s early work which underpin the viewpoint expressed here seems to me to be hugely romanticised. Maybe my relative closeness to him (being an abstract steel sculptor and ex-student) doesn’t allow for such a rose-tinted perspective. I am something of a fan myself (perhaps an erstwhile fan would be more accurate), but to suggest that the early sculptures are ‘so transcendently effervescent’ and ‘meaninglessly beautiful’ that they can ‘only be experienced, never talked about’ makes me really rather uncomfortable. I imagine even Caro would dislike it – or he would have, back in the day.

    Of course you can talk about this work! I and many others have done so in the past, (on this website even) and I occasionally continue to do so, though its value for me is rapidly dwindling. I would say it is immensely important to be able to analyse this work in a dispassionate manner, and be able to get beyond its gloss; otherwise, as a sculptor (or painter, even), you really are very stuck indeed, like the dead-end Mr. Bainbridge, who is almost incalculably worse that the object of his own parody. I appreciate irony and sarcasm as much as the next person, but I always thought the intention of such was to disarm cant and hypocrisy, not to make a prat of oneself by a display of lame ignorance. How I pity Mr. Bainbridge and his petty little folly. Well…, no I don’t, really.

    ‘Dealing with Caro is not something to be done lightly, because so many have failed’, Penelope Curtis is quoted as saying. After the shock of learning that Curtis was compelled by an instinct far beyond my comprehension to attempt to add credence to this exhibition by writing the catalogue introduction, I’m minded, in contradiction of Mr. Coombs’ assertion, to start talking about it all over again. ‘Sun Feast’ is trooped out as an example of this transcendent, meaningless beautiful-ness, of which we cannot speak. A three-dimensional version of a Matisse cut-out? You wish. On the contrary, coming as it does at the end of the sixties, it flags up confirmation of Caro’s increasing inability or lack of desire to get beyond frontality and cheap-shot pictorialism, or to address the many problems of abstract sculpture that his own work, in its best moments, has itself partly engendered (and for which he deserves an appropriate and moderated amount of praise). OK, ‘Sun Feast’ looks good in photo, but in the flesh it never gets going three-dimensionally – try the end view, the one that’s never seen in photos. Well, you can’t, because it never seen in photos. Job done! Those lovely ploughshare shapes and that lovely colour are all for nought in an instant when the severely restricted set-up – a long thin table-top – is disclosed end-on and the trick is undermined. This is not sculptural three-dimensionality; it’s an easy and rather literal collaging of pleasing ‘found’ shapes in a rather conventional two-dimensional still-life ‘composition’. It transcends nothing. You could apply a similar critique, I fear, to rather a lot of Caro’s early work, even to his best pieces like ‘Early One Morning’, ‘Sculpture Two’ and ‘Prairie’. I think it is a disservice to Caro’s contribution to sculpture to suggest that he is somehow beyond criticism.

    ‘In a way Bainbridge’s subjects are the human problems that are familiar and ordinary yet often repressed in the pursuit of high art. There’s something poignant, tender even, in the way he refuses to turn his back on this subjects (sic), these problems of class and freedom, identity and contingency…’ You’re kidding me, right? Just how does this work deal with ‘problems of class and freedom, identity…’? Please point me to the bit which deals with the issue of ‘class and freedom’, for example. Is it not rather insulting to anyone who is trying to deal with the actual issues of class and freedom in the real world? You know, like social workers, reformers and policy-makers, that sort of thing. It’s rather endemic in contemporary art at the moment, is it not, this unthinking loading of ‘issue-based’ extrinsic subject matter onto art of no real intrinsic content.

    There is a nascent and rather difficult effort in train at the moment by a small group of sculptors (of which I hopefully count myself amongst) who are trying (and succeeding, it seems to me, by slow degrees) to deal with issues in abstract sculpture far in advance of anything Caro has ever even thought of – and I mean ever. We leave ourselves open to the accusation that we have not, and perhaps never will, make anything so transcendentally beautiful as early Caro – so be it, but we are looking for meaning in abstract art, not aesthetics. To have our noses rubbed in the dirt by sculpture expert Penelope Curtis and the Camden Arts Centre, by their encouragement of these pathetic lampoonings, in one of the best galleries in London, written about by the director of Tate Britain; sculptures which demonstrate precisely nothing about anything, which have nigh on zero content; are of no use to anyone other than those of a smirking and snivelling disposition, for whom all art now is just a clever stunt; and who haven’t the brains to get beyond the most trivial of shallow aesthetic responses and demand meaning of the art they so mindlessly scan; and who, because they can’t register any meaningfulness in visual art for themselves, sneer at anyone who is trying something serious, whether good or bad; well, thank you, one and all.
    And they’re not even funny.

  34. Robert Persey said…

    Comedic eh? More like lazy,lazy,lazy! In reality non-art feeding off art, masquerading as commentary and esoteric commentary at that. Sprinkling visually unsubstantiated, secondhand, ephemeral, received social opinions all over it will do nothing to disguise the artistic poverty of this approach.