PRINT September 1970

Caro’s Abstractness

ORANGERIE, ONE OF THE MOST ravishing sculptures Caro has ever made, is also one of the most nearly pictorial. Unlike most of his pieces it appears to comprise a number of discrete and rather highly characterized shapes, whose mutual juxtaposition, while not actually establishing a single plane or a succession of planes, seems nevertheless to imply the kind of planarity we associate with painting. (It is right that Matisse has been mentioned in connection with Caro’s recent work. The affinity between Orangerie and the art of Morris Louis, for example the so-called Aleph paintings of 1959, might also be noted.) And yet how un-pictorial Orangerie finally is. The chief rounded shapes delineate themselves above all by twisting in space. Its seeming planarity is in the end decisively subverted by the angling and arcing—the rapid, curved-versus-straight cursiveness in depth—both of individual elements and of the “ground plan” as a whole. Most important Orangerie must be seen in relation to Caro’s table-sculptures, which he has been making more or less steadily since the summer of 1966, and as a step beyond the superb Trefoil (1968), in which he first physically included the plane of the table in a sculpture that stands on the ground.

Briefly, the ambition behind the table-sculptures was to make small work is that could not be seen merely as reduced versions of larger ones—sculptures whose smallness was to be secured abstractly, made part of their essence, instead of remaining simply a literal, quantitative fact about them. That ambition led Caro, first, to incorporate handles of various kinds in most of his early table sculptures, in an attempt to key the scale of each piece to that of graspable and manipulable objects (partial precedents for this include Picasso’s Glass of Absinthe and a few sculptures by Giacometti); and second, to run or set at least one element in every piece below the level of the table-top on which the sculpture was to be placed, thereby precluding its transposition, in fact or in imagination, to the ground. It at once turned out that by tabling, or precluding grounding, the sculptures in this way Caro was able to establish their smallness in terms that proved virtually independent of actual size. That is, the distinction between tabling and grounding, because determined (or acknowledged) by the sculptures themselves instead of merely imposed upon them by their eventual placement, made itself felt as equivalent to what may be thought of as a qualitative rather than quantitative difference in scale. (Not only has the abstract smallness of Caro’s table sculptures proved compatible with surprising largeness of actual size; it soon became apparent that a certain minimum size was required for their tabling to be experienced in these terms.) In these and other respects Caro’s table-sculptures mark the emergence of a sense of scale for which there is no precedent in earlier sculpture and no clear parallel in our experience of the world. The incorporation in Trefoil of a table, or table-top, may be seen as merging largeness and smallness as both had come to be defined in and by Caro’s art. While in Orangerie Caro has extended and refined the implications of such a merging of abstract scales by raising the already thin and narrow tabular plane almost to eye level, and by angling a second plane into it from the front, which together largely attenuate its ostensive normativeness. The result is altogether more delicate and less obviously table-like (more shelf-like?) than in Trefoil. But once again it is to the tabular plane even more than to the ground that the other elements chiefly relate.

The exploitation of different levels, basic to Caro’s abstract sculptures from the first, is also crucial to the other indisputably major work on view at Emmerich’s last May, Deep North. In that sculpture a rectangular piece of heavy grid is suspended parallel to the ground at a height of about eight feet in a way that allows, but does not compel, the beholder to position himself beneath it. This may appear to break with what has been one of the fundamental norms of Caro’s art: the refusal to allow the beholder to enter a given work, to step or stand inside it. That refusal has been striking both because of the general openness of Caro’s sculptures, and more particularly because of the manifest preoccupation of certain pieces (I do not say of Caro himself) with experiences such as entering, going through, being enclosed, looking out from within, etc., which one might have thought would virtually have entailed a kind of environmentalism. Moreover, the obduracy of Caro’s sculptures on this score has been only one aspect, though an important one, of their anti-literal, anti-situational character ; and that has been an index at once of their radical abstractness and of their deep antagonism to the theatrical in all its current forms and manifestations. So that by allowing us actually to stand beneath a portion of itself, Deep North may appear to call into question, perhaps even to renounce, what has been until now the essence of Caro’s art.

But the facts of experience do not bear this out. Even when we place ourselves directly beneath the massive grid we do not feel that we have entered or that we are inside the sculpture. Partly this has to do with the nature of something overhead: if we were compelled to step over or across some sort of boundary, however low or slight, the sensation of entering would, I think, become inescapable—though once again the exact basis of this in our experience of the world remains obscure. Partly too it is a function of the way in which every element in the piece seems to twist, turn, face, point or open away from every other. And partly it stems from the fact that Deep North’s vital center, from which the sculpture as a whole is felt to originate, is located far from the grid and its supports, i.e. at the ground level juncture of the three other principal elements, and that our view from beneath the grid both of that juncture and of the relations between those elements (in particular the inspired rhymes among them), if not actually privileged, is at any rate profoundly satisfying. We are of course aware of not seeing all of the sculpture—specifically, of not seeing the grid itself—when standing beneath the latter. But this is experienced as nothing more than a special instance of the limitations inherent in any point of view. In this respect Deep North belongs with After Summer (1969), which partly because of its great size conspicuously resists being seen in its entirety fro.m any single position. None of this is to deny that an apprehension of the grid as overhead, as a kind of roof or ceiling under which we can stand, dominates our experience of the sculpture as a whole. What must be insisted upon is that this is true whether or not we choose to station ourselves beneath the grid: it is a function, not of any literal or architectural relationship between structure and beholder, but of the internal relations (or syntax) of the sculpture alone, relations which however are deeply grounded in the nature and potentialities of the human body.

The large yellow Sun Feast may be more complex and at bottom more difficult of access than either Orangerie or Deep North. There are, in any case, at least three types of order at work in it. First, that of Caro’s table-sculptures and their subsumption in pieces like Trefoil and Orangerie. The long horizontal plank that runs almost the full length of the sculpture serves as the “table” on top of which various elements are placed and off of which these and other elements depend or spring or otherwise make their way. Second, the play of elements along and against a dominant axis or track, also identified with the long horizontal plank. This organizing principle appeared in Caro’s work as early as the great Midday (1960), a piece that has much in common with Sun Feast. And third, a kind of sensuous, disheveled, almost certainly feminine though not quite figural sprawl, as if the sculpture were displaying itself for its own delectation. The combination of intellectual rigor and intense sensuality again recalls Matisse. But it is also wholly characteristic of Caro’s Blakean imagination. If Sun Feast has a fault, and it may not, it is perhaps too much reliance on the curvilinear, which tips the balance towards an almost rococo elegance and in effect disguises the sculpture’s underlying difficulty—the difficulty, for example, of the coexistence of several modes of order, no one of which is entirely satisfying, or of the contrast between the thickness of most of the piece and the unnerving thinness of the twisting, ploughshare-like elements disposed along the horizontal plank.

Wending Back is the smallest and in obvious respects the least ambitious of the sculptures discussed here. But it could not be better and ought to be recognized for what it is, a small masterpiece. No less inert, more energized, in abstract terms more kinetic sculpture can be imagined. It is as though Caro constructed Wending Back directly out of brief but articulate segments of trajectories, vectors, torques. Everything sweeps, scoops, slices and is sliced. Even the triangular shape of the largest element seems the result of three shearing arcs whose full dimensions we can only guess. And in general Wending Back implies magnitudes of energy and extension that far exceed its physical limits. Perhaps because of this, the stabilizing, grounding normativeness of the narrow rectangular element that stands on edge is vital to its success. The dark grey color, too, resists the dematerialization implicit in Wending Back’s kinetic syntax, and by so doing further collects the sculpture as a whole while making the abstract nature of its energies all the more self-evident.

Michael Fried