It is by now axiomatic that, since Henry Moore became the first British sculptor to become an international star, Caro’s position as his successor is unassailable. He established, in the early sixties, a radical change in the way we perceived sculpture, through his adventure into abstract steel construction; his “Pisgah view of the Promised Land” as Clement Greenberg called it.
The expectations from Caro are that he will continue the (I quote him) “onward of sculpture”; and indeed, at the age of 89 there is seemingly no let up in his energy and capacity for renewal.
Caro has in the past been criticised (by sculptors not by unseeing critics) for his dependence on the major devices in his work: on the one hand the continuous use of forms fashioned by industrial need and usage rather than individual personal shaping, ‘given’ form; and secondly, equally, dependence on a mode of composition which is essentially ‘graphic’ or ‘pictorial’, i.e. too fundamentally two dimensional in essence to be the basis for the physicality of sculptural conception. Dare I say it also, the reliance on fabrication rather than making; sculpture needs the hand as well as the eye.
The new show does not in any way change that. Here again are the found forms of the steelyard, and here again the component parts of the sculpture cross an imaginary plane in space to connect, rather than being plastically conditioned by either the crossing or the connection.
Having said that, it doesn’t matter. Caro is not going to abandon the very soul of his vision now. When he has tried to do just that with alternative modes, he has usually misjudged. What impresses most about these grand and ambitious sculptures is his use of linear counterpoint to the masses and volumes of the main component parts by the use of heavy steel tubes, which, in the most successful pieces, serve to convey a sense of lift and elevation against gravity. What happens in the air is generally much more exciting than what happens on the ground.
Caro’s famous ‘elimination of the pedestal’ has always been rather belied by the heavy use of ‘bases’ as component parts of his compositions. In the best pieces in the show the directional, spatial opening out that the linear tube parts create, helps to counter the grounding effect of the sometimes arbitrary looking base elements. One of the key factors of Caro’s breakthrough sixties work was the gravitational resistance built into his vision; an element he has seized upon anew.
Likewise, he has conjured up in a sculpture such as Laughter and Crying, something of the sheer dynamic lyricism of the best of his ‘table pieces’ from earlier periods. Which brings up the hoary old topic of sculpture scale. Undoubtedly grand in scale as a whole, the parts of Tempest relate essentially through joining, not through movement or change, and I would suggest that this is a key factor dictating scale. It could well have been half the size, or a quarter, without loss. Only a dedication to movement and change in the components through the plasticity of its forms could have fixed it as being ‘right’ in its dimensions.
This ‘rightness’ is undoubtedly the case in what to my eyes is by far the best example of the contrasting uses of linear lightness and massive volumetric weight, Wandering. Here, in this sculpture, the promise of Early One Morning is taken a step further, fifty years on, into the 21st century and claiming succession. Here, indeed, is a sculpture that speaks not only for the resilience of Caro, both as a sculptor and man, but one which continues to convey the emotional charge that abstract sculpture, since its advent at the turn of the last century, has shown itself uniquely capable of giving.
That Caro can renew himself again with such a magnificent work as Wandering can only serve, despite the chronic lack of an insightful audience, to enrich the ‘onward of sculpture’.
Anthony Caro: Park Avenue Series is on at Gagosian, Britannia Street until the 27th of July