PRINT February 1967

Anthony Caro

ANTHONY CARO’S RECENT SHOW at the Andre Emmerich Gallery concentrated on four sculptures (two more were in the back room), each of which was superb and no two of which were alike.

Horizon exploits contrasts of scale, chiefly among the four vertical cylinders, more explicitly than any other piece by Caro that I know. The aptness of the hollow cylinder for this kind of exploration is striking, and constitutes one of the numerous incidental discoveries with which his oeuvre, like Noland’s, is full. There is also a contrast between the cylinders and the (unusually cursive for Caro) linear elements that connect them—a contrast that makes for an extraordinarily intense experience as of abstract detail. (For example, the near-disjunction between the two linear elements just to the left of the middle cylinders.) The hollowness of the cylinders is important as well: one sees their rims as circles—i.e., as linear, cursive—not as discs.

In Red Splash four vertical cylinders support two rectangular pieces of rather coarse steel mesh which cross diagonally. On top of their crossing a flat rectangle of steel lies parallel to the front and back of the sculpture. Everything about Red Splash is elusive, refractory, arbitrary; nothing is perspicuous, nothing makes obvious sense, structural or otherwise. The pieces of mesh do not rest on the tops of the cylinders but barely touch them several inches down; the planes of the mesh are not parallel to each other, to the ground, or to anything else; the view we are offered is from underneath, and perhaps for that reason seems to be from the rear as well; the steel rectangle seems simply, even baldly, put where it is; and so on. Caro’s growing willingness to explore arbitrariness has its roots, I believe, in his experience of the work of David Smith. But whereas arbitrariness in Smith’s work always makes itself felt as something personal, as expressing an essential aspect of his nature, one senses that to Caro it is a basically alien if not actually repugnant resource which, nevertheless, he is determined to explore. This perhaps helps explain the depth or radicalness of arbitrariness in Red Splash: the sculpture does not refuse to answer certain demands of sense and perspicuousness so much as establish a situation in which the demands themselves are rendered nugatory.

In Carriage the use of mesh enables Caro simultaneously to delimit—almost to enclose or box in—a tract of space, and to assert its continuity with the rest of the sculpture’s immediate environment. How one ought to describe the mesh itself is a nice problem: for example, although there is an obvious sense in which one can see through it, there is another, perhaps less obvious (or obviously important) sense in which one cannot. It is not transparent but opaque; one looks both at and past it—as opposed, say, to the way one looks through a pane of glass. By partly superimposing at an angle two meshes of different degrees of openness Caro establishes a plane of variation, not of transparency exactly, but of visual density. It is as though the mesh is seen as cross-hatching—as literal but disembodied shading or value. In this respect Carriage is intimately related to Olitski’s spray paintings, in which fluctuations of value are divorced from their traditional tactile associations. More generally, an adequate discussion of Caro’s use of mesh would relate it to the opticality both of his own work since 1959 and of the most important painting since Pollock, whose Number 29 (1950), a painting on glass, deploys mesh in the interests of accessibility to eyesight alone achieved by his all over paintings as early as the winter of 1946–47.

Span consists of eight seemingly rather disparate, individualized parts—including a heavy grid—connected to one another with what one experiences as disquieting freedom. Here as in Red Splash the parts feel juxtaposed rather than really connected—though the relations among contiguous parts are nowhere near as unperspicuous as in that piece. It is as though nothing in Span is really attached to anything else—as though anything could be moved or disarranged. For all its size and weight the piece as a whole represents the achievement, not of a perilous or delicate balance, but of a rather opposite state of openness, fragility, vulnerability . . . No two parts are parallel, or for that matter at right angles, to one another in the ground plan. This, too, is unusual in Caro’s work, and is at first disorienting; with familiarity, however, Span discloses a coherence based on the acceptance (though not really the stating) of horizontal and vertical axes, the establishment of different levels (the ground being only the lowest of several), and the individual character of each almost disjunct part. Span exemplifies Caro’s occasional tendency to arrive, inadvertently, even reluctantly, at something like an image—I keep seeing the hollow rectangle at the upper left as a painting or mirror; and in general I am struck by the somewhat Surrealist flavor of the work as a whole—without detriment to the abstractness, or strength as abstract idea, of the pieces in question. Whatever images one finds in Caro’s work come last not first; when the piece is done they simply are there. But they do not help organize the piece, even when one is most aware of them. Sculptures like Span and Horizon are held together, not by the images they may be seen to constitute, but, I want to say, by the meanings they make. It is as though Caro’s sculptures essentialize meaningfulness as such—as though the possibility of meaning what we say and do alone makes his sculpture possible.

Michael Fried