PRINT February 1968

Two Sculptures by Anthony Caro

DEEP BODY BLUE, THE SMALLER of the two pieces Anthony Caro’s recent show at the Kasmin Galy, is open as wide-spread arms and then as a door is open. The two contrasting elements that In along the ground, a length of tubing and a flat sheet standing on its long edge, gather the be older into a far more compelling embrace than could be achieved by literally embracing him—the way, for example, one is embraced by Bernini’s colonnades in front of St. Peter’s—while the two uprights are experienced as a kind of abstract door on the other side of which two similarly contrasting elements converge, touch, and go their ways. Like several recent sculptures by Caro, Deep Body Blue explores possibilities for sculpture in various concepts and experiences which one would think belonged today only to architecture: e.g., those of being led up to something, of entering it, perhaps by going through something else, of being inside something, of looking out from within . . . Not that Caro’s work is architectural in look or essence. But it shares with architecture preoccupation with the fact, or with the implications of the fact, that men have bodies and live in a physical world. This preoccupation finds a natural, and inescapably literal, home in architecture. The same preoccupation no longer finds a natural home in painting and sculpture; it is the nearly impossible task of artists like Caro to put it there; and this can only be done by rendering it anti-literal or (what I mean by) abstract. The heart of Caro’s genius is that he is able to make radically abstract sculpture out of concepts and experiences which seem—which but for his making are and would remain—inescapably literal and therefore irremediably theatrical; and by so doing he redeems the time if anyone does. Not only is the radical abstractness of Caro’s art not a denial of our bodies and the world: it is the only way in which they can be saved for high art in our time, in which they can be made present to us other than as theater.

In the course of his enterprise Caro makes discoveries as sudden and imperative as any in modern philosophy. For example, it is essential to our experiencing the two uprights in Deep Body Blue as a kind of door that they stand in the same plane. It doesn’t matter that they are no more than four feet high, that they lack any sort of lintel, that we are not tempted or even able to pass between them: the fact that they stand several feet apart in the same plane is enough to make us experience them as an abstract door (and a large, or wide, one at that). By the same token, if they are moved even very slightly out of alignment their “doorness” disintegrates and the sculpture as a whole begins to fall apart, to become arbitrary and therefore meaningless as art. This aspect of Caro’s achievement may be described in several ways. One can say that he discovered what constitutes an abstract door; or that he discovered the essence of a door; or that he discovered the conventions—corresponding to deep needs—which make something a door. Caro did not consciously set out to discover anything of the kind. On the contrary, it is because Deep Body Blue began in a preoccupation with particular modes of being in the world that its very success as sculpture came to depend on the making of the above discovery in, or by, the piece itself. It is as though with Caro sculpture itself has become committed to a new kind of cognitive enterprise: not because its generating impulse has become philosophical, but because the newly explicit need to defeat theater in all its manifestations has meant that the ambition to make sculpture out of a primordial involvement with modes of being in the world can now be realized only if anti-literal—that is, radically abstract—terms for that involvement can be found. (At the risk of seeming to overload a point, I will add that the cognitive enterprise in question is related, in different ways, both to European phenomenology and to the later philosophy of Wittgenstein. It isn’t only modernist art that has found it necessary to defeat theater.)

The larger sculpture, Prairie, consists of four long poles of aluminum tubing suspended parallel to one another about eleven inches above a sheet of corrugated metal—more exactly, a flat sheet with four channel like depressions in it—which runs north south to the poles’s east-west and is itself suspended about twenty-one inches above the ground. If we approach Prairie from either end of that sheet, the physical means by which these suspensions are accomplished are not apparent; but as we move around the sculpture it becomes clear that the sheet is held up by two sharply-bent pieces of metal plate, one on each side, which spring out and down from the underside of the sheet until they touch the ground, whereupon they angle upward and outward until they reach the height of the poles, which they support also. Two of the poles are supported at only one point, about twenty inches from the end; a third is supported about twenty inches from both ends, that is, by both of the bent, upward-springing metal plates; while a fourth is not supported by these at all but is held up by a large, upright rectangle of metal which stands somewhat apart from the rest of the sculpture and in fact is not physically connected to it in any way. But grasping exactly how Prairie works as a feat of engineering does not in the least undermine or even compete with one’s initial impression that the metal poles and corrugated sheet are suspended, as if in the absence of gravity, at different levels above the ground. Indeed, the ground itself is seen, not as that upon which everything else stands and from which everything else rises, but rather as the last, or lowest, of the three levels which, as abstract conception, Prairie comprises. (In this sense Prairie defines the ground, not as that which ultimately supports everything else, but as that which does not itself require support. It makes this fact about the ground both phenomenologically surprising and sculpturally significant.)

The result is an extraordinary marriage of illusion and structural obviousness. Once we have walked even partly around Prairie there is nothing we do not know about how it supports itself, and yet that knowledge is somehow eclipsed by our actual experience of the piece as sculpture. It is as though in Prairie, as often in Caro’s work, illusion is not achieved at the expense of physicality so much as it exists simultaneously with it in such a way that, in the grip of the piece, we do not see past the first to the second. This is mostly due to the nature of the relationships among the various elements that compose Prairie, relationships which make a different kind of sense to the mind and to the eye. For example, that three of the long metal poles are held up at only one end is understood to mean that the full weight of each pole is borne by a single support far from its center; but the poles are seen as being in a state of balance as they are, as if they weighed nothing and could be placed anywhere without support. This impression is reinforced by the fact that the two poles supported at one end by a bent, upward-springing metal plate are held up by different plates and at opposite ends. Similarly, the one pole supported at both ends is held up by the far corner of the nearer plate and by the near corner of the farther one; and this deliberate staggering, while perfectly understood by the mind, disconcerts the eye enough to make it see that pole as if it were not truly supported at all. That all four poles are parallel to and equidistant from one another, and that three of them are the same length, are other factors which obstruct the eye from giving weight to the specific means by which each is supported. (It should also be said that the fact that the four poles are an almost imperceptibly lighter shade of sandy yellow than the rest of the sculpture gives them an added suggestion of lift.) In these and other ways Caro on the one hand has frankly avowed the physicality of his sculpture and on the other has rendered that physicality unperspicuous to a degree that even after repeated viewings is barely credible. This is not in itself a new development in his work; it has been a steady feature of his art since his conversion to radical abstraction around 1959. But it reaches in Prairie an extreme that may also be a kind of culmination. More explicitly than any previous sculpture, Prairie compels us to believe what we see rather than what we know, to accept the witness of the senses against the constructions of the mind.

Finally, Caro has never before sought openness in abstract extension as explicitly as here. For the first time the openness which Caro achieves is above all a lateral openness—with the result that we are made to feel that lateralness as such is open in a way that verticality or obliqueness or head-on recession are not. This is a point of deep affinity between Prairie and the superb paintings in Kenneth No-land’s last show at the Emmerich Gallery, in which the lateral extension of the canvas and its colors accomplished, among other things, an unexpected liberation from the constrictions of the picture-shape. In both Prairie and Noland’s paintings the decisive experience is one of instantaneous extension, roughly from somewhere in the middle of the poles or canvas out towards both ends. In each the exact dimensions of what is extended laterally is of crucial importance: if either the poles or the canvas were too long or short, the result would be a flaccid or blocky objecthood. (Objecthood of one kind or another is in effect the aim of literalist work, which does not begin or end so much as it merely stops, and in which an indefinite—by implication, infinite—progression takes place as if in time.) Caro seems to have faced the further risk that Prairie might be too open, at any rate that the eye might be compelled away from the piece itself into the space around it, in which case it would strike one less as open than as merely . . . insufficient. That this does not occur is partly due to Caro’s use of the solid rectangle of metal which supports the fourth pole: placed largely beyond the previous limits of the sculpture, it actually extends the sculpture at the same time as it helps contain its energies by giving the eye something flat, vertical and opaque to come up against. The lack of physical connection between the rectangle-and-pole ensemble and the rest of the piece has been made as unperspicuous as the precise character of the connections among the other elements; this is largely why Prairie is by far the most successful sculpture in two or more parts that I have ever seen.

I believe that Prairie is a masterpiece, one of the great works of modern art, a touchstone for future sculpture, and that Deep Body Blue, while less ambitious, is nevertheless beyond the reach of any other sculptor alive. In the radicalness of their abstraction both have more in common with certain poetry and music, and certain recent painting, than with the work of any previous sculptor. And yet this very radicalness enables them to achieve a body and a world of meaning and expression that belong essentially to sculpture.

Michael Fried