‘Human beings dance, they make music, they carve little pebbles, or stick pieces of clay together. Animals don’t do it. It’s just a natural human thing.’
Sir Anthony Caro’s death at the age of 89 this October marked the end of an era of British abstract sculpture. For the master of British contemporary sculpture, art was and always has been an entirely natural phenomenon. The apparent simplicity of those elegant, effortless curves of metal that we have come to associate with Caro reflect an urge to create that is pure and instinctual. What could be more natural than the quiet serenity that surrounds so much of his work?
Yet Caro’s most famous pieces and those which went on to make his name in the early 1960s were in part a reaction against the dominance of the natural form in art. Educated at Cambridge and at the Royal Academy, Caro later became an assistant to the father of modern British sculpture, Henry Moore. It was here that Caro was introduced to modernism on his trips to galleries with the artist and through Moore’s friendly criticism of his sketchbook. But Caro didn’t seek to follow too closely in the footsteps of the older master and became increasingly frustrated by repeated failed attempts to escape figurative art.
A turning point came for him in 1959 when he began meeting American avant-garde artists who urged him to consider sculpture as he would do painting- cubism and abstraction didn’t have to be limited to the paintbrush and canvas.
Caro’s work in the early 60s shows the freedom this revelation gave him. Renouncing clay and bronze casting he went down to the docks to retrieve bits of steel which would become his signature medium. In his landmark 1963 Whitechapel Gallery exhibition his work gave way to calm, ordered assemblies of rods, girders and sheets of metal painted in bright colours. The components don’t jostle for attention; instead there is an overwhelming sense of harmony as in his famous Twenty Four Hours. Caro acknowledged this harmonious connection between abstraction and music, but was keen to stress the importance of experiencing his work ‘as physical sculpture’.
It seems obvious to say that physicality dominates the work of Caro, being as he is a sculptor, but Caro’s pervading belief in the importance of physically experiencing a sculpture is unprecedented. Caro was one of the first artists to eliminate the plinth from his work. By placing his sculptures on the floor he broke a barrier between the viewer and the art; he wanted the viewer to interact with the sculpture, to engage with it. This democratic instinct and desire for engagement between sculpture and audience would go on to characterise his work throughout his career (he famously demanded for the barriers at the Royal Academy to be taken down from around Early One Morning).
The humility that he gave his work did not, however, make him any less ambitious. Before his death Caro was planning an enormous sculpture for Park Avenue. The project would have cost £2 million and spanned 3 New York City blocks. Other large scale projects included his collaboration with Norman Foster and Chris Wise to design the millennium bridge in London which stretches gracefully between the Tate Modern and St Paul’s Cathedral.
Caro’s involvement with the project is unsurprising considering his previous experiments with design and sculpture. Earlier in his career Caro became interested in incorporating architecture into his pieces and teamed up with the architect Frank Gehry to create work that blurred the line between sculpture and architecture. Caro referred to their work as ‘Sculpitecture’, producing structures that featured steps, ramps and other obviously architectural elements. Caro was seeking to liberate sculpture from its definition in ‘high art’. Once again, he wanted to say that sculpture did not have to exist as an impenetrable object to be regarded from a distance. Once again, he wanted to inspire interaction.
His belief in interaction extended too to his attitude towards other artists. The work shows the influence of the constructivists and of Calder among many others, but his engagement with his predecessors was never more explicit than with his ‘Source Sculptures’. These 3-D interpretations of paintings by artists such as Manet, Rubens and Rembrandt reveal Caro’s desire to engage with the artistic past. His views were not always orthodox, however, and he famously proclaimed his dislike for Michelangelo’s David which he said was ‘too shiny’ and instead praised the comparative ‘restraint’ of Donatello. His connection with the contemporary was equally as important; he lectured at Central St Martins College of Art and Design where he taught the likes of Richard Long, Barry Flanagan and Gilbert and George.
Caro’s last exhibition was at the Museo Correr in Venice. The pieces included in the exhibition spanned a period of more than 50 years, testament to his extraordinary productivity and unrelenting work ethic. Critics indeed frequently noted his tireless production, never stopping to rest on his laurels, but always scheming and planning his next project.
Caro’s greatest skill was his ability to render his work so approachable. Only Caro could take cold steel and give it warmth. The serene clarity of his curving planes and straight rods welded together have a beauty that is at once distant and accessible. When asked many years ago if he was optimistic Caro said ‘Of course. All the artists I believe in are some sort of optimist. Optimism of this sort, like serenity, is hard won.’ It would seem that he won both.