It is interesting how reputations are set once an artist dies. Anthony Caro, who died last Wednesday, was described in various obituaries as ‘Britain’s greatest sculptor’ and ‘one of the finest artists of his generation’. Sometimes the loss of a great figure creates hyperbole, but in the case of Caro, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that he changed the course of sculpture in this country.
From the moment Caro decided not to become an accountant, as his father wanted, and to go to art school, he was single-minded in his pursuit of what came before, as a way of working out what to do next. He learned much from painters, specifically from Picasso and Matisse, who challenged the two-dimensional space of the canvas. It was only after he became an assistance to Henry Moore, perhaps Britain’s greatest sculptor of his day, that he really received the education he desired. Moore threw books at him, showed him classical sculpture, African tribal work, anything that would be useful for the younger artist. But the main thing Moore gave him was the ability to see sculpture removed from the plinth, removed from the gallery altogether. And that’s where Caro took off:
What we wanted to do at that time was to make sculpture work as something in its own right, not as something that depended on its likeness to nature. We wanted to make it more fully abstract, just as music is abstract. But sculpture’s materiality always tries to suck the sculpture back into the world of things. It was for this reason we had to open sculpture up. Our intent was to repudiate the object – and naturally our starting point was painting, Cubism and Matisse. Abstract sculpture began to take charge of the space it occupied, first by standing on the same literal ground as we do, then by bringing the floor itself to bear on the work, and later by taking into its realm table height and the wall.
Caro wasn’t interested in casting. He was interested in taking already-existing materials (as all artists seem to do now) and working them into a particular form. He was interested in colour – his love of Matisse showed him that colour can pitch nature into an entirely new perspective, and there he met abstract expressionism and later pop art head on. He made sculptures that were entirely themselves, which occupied a particular space, and resonated. He was interested in scale, how we measure up to things. He said:
Public sculpture identifies place. It gives the city-dweller a sense of ‘being somewhere’. And so it has to call to its surroundings and to the public. It can – and I believe nowadays it often should - invite participation. How a sculpture is seen by the viewer is always of extreme importance …
I thought of this just a few weeks ago when I was at the Museo Correr, for the Biennale’s Caro retrospective – what was the be his final show. There was a room of early drawings, which I had never seen before, and which gave a sense of the sculpture playing with ideas of weight and depth on paper.
Caro’s work, which was always playing with the new, but with a nod to the old, looked right at home in the hard and shining marble and terrazzo of the Correr. I watched a couple walk around and around one of the larger free-standing pieces that filled an entire gallery, trying to find the welding marks. They finally concluded, as one must, that the sculpture does not come apart, it is not a flat-pack assemblage. And then they turned to the guard and asked how they managed to get it into the building (the Correr’s temporary galleries are on the 4th floor of the palazzo), and the guard pointed to the large double window. And we all had an image of this great flying bird, something fantastic, scaling the heights of the edifice, with all of San Marco watching in amazement. We know the works weigh tons, but they also feel weightless, light, effortless, flowing.
Leaving the Correr and coming into the pristine square of San Marco, I was left with a celebration of form and shape – abstract, yes – but always placing us in the frame somehow, that idea that we should not simply be spectators, but participants. And that is immensely uplifting in an age where so many things are presented to us virtually, on screen. I’ll finish with these words from Caro himself:
All the artists I believe in are some sort of optimist. Optimism of this sort, like serenity, is hard won. Art is a religious activity – it’s about living. Decay and dying are something else. I can’t allow myself self-pity or a morbid attitude. There’s too much left to do in the studio. That’s the source as well as the place for my optimism.