PRINT April 1969

Caro in London

THE STRONGEST IMPRESSION, AFTER SEEING Anthony Caro’s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London, is that of having discovered a sculptor whose work gets to the essence of a certain sculptural mode. I hope to explain what I mean by this in the observations that follow. The sense of discovery is especially true, if, as in my own case, one did not see the large exhibition of Caro’s work at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1963, and had a firsthand knowledge of his work from a relatively small number of sculptures. The knowledge gained from photographs is of a very depleted kind. The reality of the work is something quite else and between this experience, which is exhilarating, and the putting of it into words, I find a disorienting absence of any viable standard for judgment, or even a context for judgment. On the one hand the sculptures fairly radiate an authority and breadth which seems imminently accessible to assessment and to explanation, and on the other, they possess an intimacy which stops one short of the desire to explain. One has the feeling that over the past ten or so years that the show covers, Caro has moved so far and has opened his sculptures to such a world of subtlety and poignancy of expression that he has infinitely outdistanced the terms and distinctions which are habitually applied to open, constructed sculpture.

Perhaps one of the most disorienting aspects to Caro’s work is that the visible, formal vocabulary that he has evolved is particularly susceptible to a kind of characterization which, the nearer one gets with it to specifying the terms of a sculpture, the farther one is from evoking the impact of the sculpture. There exists, as it were, no intermediate state in an encounter with Caro’s work; the elements that he uses to make up a sculpture are extraordinarily explicit and extraordinarily bare and one meets them without any bodily response to the plasticity of emphatic rhythm, or the recognition of something shaped and formed. The expressiveness of the sculptures doesn’t lie in the shaping of continuous surfaces and discrete elements but rather in their placement. This is what Michael Fried meant when he wrote in 1963 that “Everything in Caro’s art that is worth looking at—except the color—is in its syntax.”1 Fried reiterates and amplifies this observation in an introduction to the catalog of the present exhibition which must certainly count as one of the finest essays we have, not only on Caro’s work, but on contemporary sculpture in general.

Seeing a large group of sculptures by Caro therefore—and there are more than forty works included in the exhibition—is to contend with an unalleviated sense of their utter abstractness. It is a quality of abstractness which is in no way described or evoked, in the way, for instance, that a kind of abstractness is sensuously and materially described in certain of David Smith’s cut and shaped steel-sheet sculptures from the early sixties. Fried notes in this context that “Smith’s pieces at their most abstract, striding or attenuated, stand and confront us like traditional statues; they have that kind of uprightness, robustness, monumentality,”2 and this amounts to a fundamental distinction between Caro’s and Smith’s work. Nothing in Caro’s work exists as an expression, however elliptical, of the physically volumetric, or, more fundamentally, of the quality of wholeness inherent in our bodies and in things as they exist in the world. And in this sense we cannot look at the individual elements which make up a sculpture by Caro in the way that we can with Smith’s sculpture. To look at, or focus on, the individual elements in Caro’s sculptures, and to see nothing but them, is in a fundamental way not to see Caro’s sculpture at all. Moreover, in the act of seeing a work by Caro, nothing is imposed, no single viewpoint, nor even the necessity to view a piece from different angles; if we move around a piece it is not because the structuring of the piece implies a whole which we will understand in moving around it, but rather because Caro’s particular use of placement, the way in which he places, relates and connects forms in space, liberates the viewer, exhilaratingly, from any sense of the placedness and containedness implicit in things whole, and the wholeness inherent in ourselves.

It was only by attempting to liberate his sculptures from what Clement Greenberg has described as “the structural logic of ordinary ponderable things” that Caro could open them to a new order of expressiveness, one which reveals visual qualities of an intimacy and poignancy akin to our own most introspective perception of the world about us.3 And one’s awareness of the kind of discipline required to sustain and control the radical openness which Caro has attained in his sculpture is perhaps most acute when one encounters a piece which falls below the level of expressiveness attained in others. In what follows, I have restricted myself to a discussion of only a very small number of the sculptures included in the exhibition. In particular, I want to concentrate on three sculptures whose juxtaposition in one of the rooms which houses the Caro exhibition, displays in a moving way the range and depth of Caro’s achievement. They are: Sculpture 7, from 1961, The Window, from 1966–67, and After Summer, which is the most recent sculpture included in the exhibition, dating from the fall of 1968. These sculptures differ profoundly in what they express, and each in its way represents a summation and also an expansion of certain tendencies in Caro’s work.

The earliest piece, Sculpture 7, consists of three massive, horizontally running girders, the lateral extension of which is broken by the slight tilt of the uppermost of the three girders and by the placement of two small girders perpendicular to the insistent frontality of the sculpture. The effect of these two jutting forms is to pierce the horizontality which is the overall characteristic of the piece, and open it suddenly and startlingly, so that the horizontality which is seen and which is registered in the body, suddenly thickens into a layered and indefinite spaciousness, a deepening sense of lateral extension without, as it were, the implication of either a front or a back. The actual massiveness of the girders is part of the experience of this piece only insofar as Caro has used their ampleness and the continuous span of their surfaces to embody a full, fluid sensation of horizontality. An awareness of the specific weightiness and bulk of the girders is essentially absent, and this is a quality which is fundamental to Caro’s mode of expression, something which Fried has described as the “achieved weightlessness” of Caro’s sculpture.4 There is obviously nothing inherently expressive in the quality of weightlessness itself. What is revelatory in this particular aspect of Caro’s sculpture and what in fact has profoundly influenced the work of a great many younger sculptors, is the fact that the inert materiality of things, steel in this case, could itself be thus mastered, rendered abstract in such a way as to be exactly responsive to the essential abstractness of Caro’s vision, and the mobility and acuteness of his feelings.

Sculpture 7 represents one of the earliest of the constructed steel sculptures that Caro made after his break with figurative sculpture in 1959. The terms that it lays down differed fundamentally from those of any other sculpture being made at that time, and on any count it is a powerfully achieved sculpture. Yet, while there is no uncertainty to the piece, its power is of a very general, simple kind. Its simplicity is its discipline, as it were, and it has the edge of rawness and non-specificity of something which is radically new and in process of formation. The six years which separate Sculpture 7 from The Window are represented in this exhibition by a selection of works which are nothing less than astonishing in their beauty and in the profound differences in what I would describe as their conditions of abstractness. Sculptures like Early One Morning from 1962, Wide from 1964, Slow Movement from 1965, and Red Splash from 1966, have to them the deep resonance and integration which characterizes a masterpiece, and their implications go far beyond the scope of the present essay. I intend here only to touch on these sculptures insofar as they have a direct bearing on The Window.

As with all Caro’s sculptures it is not only the formal relationships which he sets up within a given sculpture that characterize their particular condition of abstractness, it is also integrally the shapes he selects, and the fact that he uses color. A piece like Sculpture 7, for instance, has the kind of rectilinearity and ampleness which inheres to the girders and I-beam elements from which his earliest work was almost exclusively made. The Window differs fundamentally from Sculpture 7 in that the uniform anonymity of the girder-like forms is replaced by shaped elements which are in a different way absolutely unassertive and without salient character as shapes in themselves. The precedents for this are found in a sculpture like the superb Early One Morning from 1962 in which Caro was moving away from the massiveness of the girders and was using a range of neutral but nevertheless invented shapes. In Early One Morning a bare minimum of angular, disparate shapes splay out along a central bar of steel which stretches 20 feet. There is no intrinsic beauty to the shapes themselves, predominantly rectangular sheets and slender curved pipes. They exist only to articulate the angular stretch of the piece and its upward reach. They embody what I can best describe as abstract visibilities: the upright rectangular sheet—by Caro’s placement of it upright and in strict alignment with the central bar—transforms beyond its own recognizable state as a rectangle, into something like a blocking density, which stops the stretch of the piece and deflects one’s awareness across the different nuances of openness and angularity which each shape articulates.

A description of the neutrality of the shapes and the angularity which characterizes this sculpture is only another way of pointing to the kind of rectangularity which in essence characterizes both Caro’s deployment of forms in space and the shapes themselves.5 And in this sense, it gets one no nearer to specifying why it is that the particular openness and angularity which Caro has attained in Early One Morning precipitates within one an exhilarating sense of dispersion and expansiveness. It is only on comparing certain of the less successful pieces included in the exhibition that a number of traits emerge which, within the overall context of Caro’s work, stand out as weaknesses, or in some way expedients, and seeing them helps clarify certain of the characteristics which are intrinsic to Caro’s sculptural mode.

In almost all cases, the weakness of a given sculpture centers on the fact that a particular shape, or shapes, become noticeable in and of themselves, and this has the effect of introducing a degree of explicitness to the overall configuration of forms which at times limits and at times absolutely disrupts the expressiveness of the sculpture. Works like The Window, Carriage, and Source possess certain features which with varying degrees of explicitness reveal or call attention to Caro’s aspirations, and as such they confer an elusive, but nonetheless felt limitation on each piece. (This is very different from the kind of limitations which are felt even in the most successful sculptures Caro made during his stay in America in 1964 and 1965—for example, Titan, Bennington, Sleepwalk. These sculptures have to them, uniformly, a great economy and precision in their expressiveness which suggests an intentional attempt on Caro’s part to address himself quite specifically to certain of the, formal terms and precedents laid down in his earlier works in order to go beyond them.) The Window, and the two works which I mentioned above, Carriage and Source, have in common an abstractness which, with varying degrees of success, locates and distills visual qualities of opacity, transparency, denseness. Source, in particular, reveals these qualities with an intensity and poignancy which, within the overall context of contemporary sculpture, I for one would not have thought possible. Ultimately however, I find these pieces, especially Carriage, to lack the kind of visual consistency and integration which is crucial to Caro’s work. In each of the sculptures Caro has included one or more rectangular sheets of steel mesh. The introduction of an expanse of mesh has the effect of marking off, in the most undeclarative way possible, a limit, a single plane. Two things happen however; first, the very transparency of the mesh, the fact that one can look through it, draws one’s attention to the fact that a plane is being marked off and this kind of recognition has an explicitness to it which is of a very different order from the kind of instinctual recognitions evoked in such consummately achieved sculptures as Early One Morning, or the more recent Prairie.6 Secondly, the actual visual consistency of mesh introduces a different kind of visual continuity within the sculpture; the expanse of mesh does not have to it the sense of a single shape inexorably placed which is fundamental to Caro’s sculpture; instead, it spreads across space, spanning it with its own distinctive, blurring kind of physicality, and this in turn confers a different kind of explicitness to the neighboring shapes, and to the scale of the piece.

In Carriage for instance, the scratchiness and slight warp of the edges of the mesh become inescapably noticeable, and this has the effect of making one aware of the actual materials used and hence of the specific scale of the piece with respect to oneself. The Window and Source, by contrast, in some way escape the strange quality of fixity and material nakedness which ultimately consigns Carriage, despite its simplicity, to a state of muteness, expressing as it does little more than its cumbersome materiality. The degree to which The Window and Source succeed is in large part due to the fact that the actual physical property of mesh is somehow gathered into the overall fragility and delicateness which characterizes the abstractness of each piece. In each case, Caro has contrived to do this by striking a single bar of steel across the surface of the mesh. The sharp, cutting quality of the bar has the effect of coalescing the mesh, so that bar and mesh merge to become a single visual entity whose placement within the sculpture marks off a limit, but does so without drawing attention specifically to its transparency, and hence its function within the piece.

Seeing these three sculptures makes one acutely aware of how fundamentally unnoticeable and unassertive are the specific shapes and the actual scale of Caro’s most powerfully realized sculptures, and this applies as much to the small table sculptures, a number of which are included in the exhibition, as it does to a massive work like After Summer. And one realizes the degree to which Caro’s insistence on the placement and connections of forms as a sole means for expression, makes this kind of unassertiveness an absolute imperative. Sculptures as dissimilar as The Window and After Summer rely crucially for their life and expressiveness on the quality which I earlier described as that of shapes inexorably placed. One is made to savor this quality with an almost perilous explicitness in The Window; the shapes exist so singularly as an expression of qualities of transparency and denseness that their expressiveness constantly hovers at the edge of material explicitness. The Window and also Source, are, as I have already said, almost too nakedly embodiments of Caro’s particular impulse and vision and as such one cannot be completely unaware of the actual physical mechanics of their structuring: that this and this shape are placed and connected in these ways.

The more massive a sculpture the more imperative become the demands on Caro that the physical structuring of a piece be free of its own specific materiality. After Summer is a triumphant expression of this kind of mastery, for with this sculpture Caro has revealed a new and extraordinarily moving kind of physicality. It is by far the largest work included in the exhibition, having a length of 24 feet and a sideways span of 19 feet, yet in one’s experience of the sculpture one is never farther from an awareness of the actual heftiness implicit in the placement and joining of the massive quadrant-shapes which Caro uses. There is nothing, for instance, of the sensuousness of handling which is integrally a part of the Wagon sculptures which David Smith made in 1964, in which the sensuousness comes from the evidence of massive bars of steel having yielded to Smith’s shaping impulses. Caro’s shaping impulses are manifested in After Summer only to the extent that he has used the curved quadrant-shapes in such a way as to articulate an infinitely nuanced and sensuous quality of amplitude. The paired repetition of the quadrant-shapes articulates the huge spread of the sculpture and alternately parts and fills it with their flaring density. The swelling shoulder of each shape has an almost palpable physical sensuousness to it which transforms beyond itself to another, less locatable sensuousness, as one registers the shaded concavity of each shape. In After Summer Caro has realized a sculpture whose very massiveness and abundant physicality reveals to us not its monumentality of scale, but an unimaginably subtle and inward expressiveness. Seeing a sculpture like this makes one understand not only the kind of discipline required to achieve a sculpture of this ambition, but also the kind of freedom which Caro pursues.

Jane Harrison Cone


1. Michael Fried, introduction to exhibition catalog, Whitechapel Gallery, 1963.

2. Michael Fried, introduction to exhibition catalog, Hayward Gallery, 1969.

3. Clement Greenberg, “Anthony Caro” in Contemporary Sculpture, Arts Yearbook No. 8, 1966. Michael Fried makes this observation on Caro’s work in the introduction to the catalog of the present exhibition: “. . . the visual initiative his pieces call for is more like listening to than like looking at,” and this I think is extraordinarily apt.

4. Michael Fried, op. cit., 1963.

5. This is something that Clement Greenberg has discussed with great discernment and lucidity in “Anthony Caro” (op. cit., 1966).

6. For a discussion of this piece see Michael Fried’s “Two Sculptures by Anthony Caro,” Artforum, February, 1968.