PRINT April 1972

A Note on Caro Influence: Five Sculptors from Bennington

EVERY ARTIST WHO CONSCIOUSLY INVOLVES himself with another artist’s style must believe that he correctly comprehends it. Yet one of the engaging features of art history is the extent to which the stylistic character of influenced work can differ from the master’s style as his style might be scrupulously defined. Perhaps the commonest such discrepancy occurs where artists derive the entire grounds of their own procedure from but a part of their master’s esthetic which they either prefer to the whole or mistake for it. The relation of second-string Cubists to Picasso and Braque is a handy example, although many artists of the past—take Caravaggio—have been used by followers in a similar fashion; even the relation of Jordaens to Rubens has something of this character.

For several years the work of Anthony Caro has been generating a kind of school. If artists find certain qualities in his work to be transferable, or at least to be food for their own thought, they must have some clear idea what such isolable qualities might be. But even Caro didn’t emerge fully armed, like Minerva from the head of Jupiter. Even he has surely been influenced.

Because of our preoccupation with the history of modern American sculpture, and because Caro himself has been closely involved with the American scene, we tend to think along a narrow channel. It is a fact that Caro’s best work follows upon his first travels to the United States. It is also a fact that, besides general compositional principles, there are also certain precise parallels between the work of Anthony Caro and that of David Smith. For instance, Caro’s domical steel drumheads seem to derive from a motif which occurs in such sculptures by Smith as Tank Totem V (1955–56) and History of LeRoy Borton (1956; Museum of Modern Art, New York. )

But from this side of the Atlantic it would be easy to overlook aspects of Caro’s work which relate to intramural developments within the tradition of modern British sculpture. I do not have in mind figures as formidable as Moore or Hepworth whose work, especially in the case of Moore, has been dated for too long to have been much use to younger artists. Eduardo Paolozzi seems perhaps more relevant in this regard than any other single British sculptor.

Interestingly, those of Paolozzi’s sculptures which are at all suggestive of Caro occur earlier than the machinelike totemic pieces that parallel his involvement with the esthetics of British Pop. They occur in the midst of a period of Surrealist-influenced activity and an acquaintance with Giacometti in Paris in the late ’40s. It is as though, to the extent that Caro does relate to Paolozzi, he were deliberately rejecting that artist’s Pop-involved “high” phase and going back to common source material which he might prefer to expand and refine. Significant in this connection are Paolozzi’s sculptures using a raised horizontal plane in a tablelike way, with forms projecting up and hanging down from the “table”: cast brass and bronze pieces like Table Sculpture: Growth (1948–49) and Icarus (1949).1 Certainly the Surrealism of Paolozzi is balanced by the earlier work of Smith, and although the Paolozzis in question are centrally concerned with the “table” idea, as small tabletop pieces in themselves they lack the ingenious sense of scale that ranks some of Caro’s tabletop sculptures among his major works. I would consider the table motif influence of a catalytic rather than a directly causal kind because what Caro does with the idea exceeds in sophistication the stimulus supplied by Paolozzi. Often art history violates the scholastic dictum that Greater From Lesser Cannot Come.

If my supposition that Paolozzi’s work did have at least some occasional importance for Caro is correct, this would also reveal one of Caro’s rare weak pieces as Paolozzian. Paolozzi’s fountain for the Festival of Britain exhibition in London in 1951 is composed of tall slender steel rods or pipes arranged in an open, irregular structure into which are set concrete tubs at various heights. The irregular structural network of Paolozzi’s fountain is quite like the irregular network of tubes in Caro’s Hopscotch (1962). But Caro increases the sculptural sovereignty of the whole by rotating the structural system from the vertical axis (where it looks like a “room divider”) to a nongravitational, floating horizontal position.

From the critical point of view, Paolozzi had made, his entire contribution by the time Caro was making his first significant moves. The scope and profundity of Caro’s output, which increases all the time, outstripped Paolozzi’s roughly a decade ago. An index of the integral stylistic identity of Caro’s mature work is that (a) quite different pieces all seem determined by the same sensibility, and (b) his works are not confusable with his sources—not with David Smith’s work and certainly not with Eduardo Paolozzi’s.

That Caro’s art does have a demonstrable stylistic identity is proven by the many young sculptors in England and America who, influenced by his work, inevitably seem to try to “capture” the “look” of it. The general result is just what we mean when we say that something is derivative, but because of the fecundity of the master’s style such work can be competent and pleasing in its own right. Originality is not a very firm esthetic standard, although derivative work can never reach the peaks of art because we know that at least a part of our satisfaction with it comes from looking, as it were, at the master through a glass darkly.

Right now at the downtown Emmerich Gallery we have the chance to see works by five sculptors from the very neck of the woods where Anthony Caro taught in 1963–64 and 1965, and which he still visits when in this country: Bennington, Vermont. Willard Boepple (b. 1945), Joel Perlman (b. 1943), David Stoltz (b. 1943), Roger Williams (b. 1943), and James Wolfe (b.1944), all Americans, work in different modes, but they all touch at one point or another on the work of Anthony Caro.

Boepple’s big steel disc suspended by a center axle from a triangular mount, Bullshot (1971; not in exhibition), relates to the (thinner) steel disc of Caro’s Twenty-Four Hours (1960), but its visual distraction from support by means of a loose, springy surrounding coil is more like a Caro technical allusion than like some particular Caro motif. The smaller two pieces by Boepple are less interesting than Bullshot. Come Along (1971) uses thin, curved metal to effect something like Caro’s graceful, Smith-related tumbledown look, but it is weighed down by a shadowy structural density where a Caro would understatedly glide. Similarly, Boepple’s Bugler (1971) is overly constructed, despite the fact that it takes a cue from Caro’s lovely Wending Back (1969–70), where a form curves down from an abrupt attachment to a vertical, touches a horizontal below, and then follows through.

David Stoltz’s Slant (1971) would seem to take off from such Caro I beam pieces as Midday (1960). But Caro’s piece uses hunks of I beam whose proportions subtly de-pre-fabricate the given form of the beams. Moreover, Slant’s ostentatiously Constructivist composition, ultra-dynamically heightened by being set at an acute angle on a formally superfluous base, has an almost ironic quality that is not unlike the tone of Lichtenstein’s neo-Art Deco sculptures. This effect is increased by a snappy two-tone paint job in blue and gray, like the paint-sloshed I beams in the subway.

Joel Perlman’s works seem concerned with composition in plan, counting the direct downward view as a favored angle of approach. His Maya (1971) is highly “crafted,” fusing pieces of metal of different thicknesses in linear sequence, giving something of the feel of modeling. Aurora (1971) is pretty much a pastiche. The use of an X-form supported by four legs can be compared with one of Caro’s few dull works, Red Splash (1966), while its insistent attachment of a superfluous slat to each leg takes a Caro idea and manneristically rubs it in.

James Wolfe’s Omega (1970) is the most thoroughly Caro-derived piece in the show. It has a certain caricatural quality. It comes so close to grasping Caro’s style yet still seems not to evidence a command of Caro’s principles. This also invests the work with a certain superficiality despite the uncanny closeness of its general flavor to Caro’s. Omega’s most serious misunderstanding is that it takes ideas which Caro carefully develops for his inherently groundless tabletop works and plunks them onto the floor, where they lose their lean solidity in a sort of flop. There are mannerisms here too, such as the scaled-down “platform” at the very top of a sweeping curve that starts on the floor (cf. Caro’s Deep North, 1969–70) and the rectangle with one edge fused to a long straight rail (cf. Caro’s Source, 1967), as well as an unevenly bent linear “trill” of the kind Caro often uses. Even the small inverted triangle with its corners pruned comes out of Caro’s Twenty-Four Hours. Like all mannerisms, these features testify to a certain observational accuracy; the letdown is induced by the failure to assimilate all the factors in the master’s manner of handling them.

Roger Williams’ Ankle (1971) is made of rusted angle iron and calls to mind another Caro-related American artist, the Michael Steiner of Eight Flanges (1969). The use of angle iron, like the use of I beams, carries with it the difficulty of insistent initial shape. A piece of inert material is to the artist something like a cluster of synonyms available for the expression of a verbal idea; but a piece of angle iron or I beam is like a precast phrase. Even if that “phrase” is just what the piece calls for, we often suspect that the end has been compromised to accommodate the means. This doesn’t happen in Caro’s works because he keeps the internal proportions of fabricated materials in step with the relations of the whole.

Despite the fact that it might seem to suffer from just this kind of limitation, I find Williams’ Quicken (1971) an appealing piece of work. Quicken is a boxlike structure of angle iron, standing on legs and roughly person-scaled. It looks like it would have four legs but it manages quite well with three. I am particularly drawn to its joins. Wherever elements are welded onto one another they touch thoughtfully and with a gentle firmness. This quality, of course, is one of Caro’s great virtues, and the fact that Quicken thus seems to relate to a Caro principle, rather than merely to Caro forms, may account for its unusual self-sufficiency.

I have said next to nothing about color because the painting of metal sculpture in an allover tone is one of the most widespread characteristics of Caro’s influence. Certain motifs which recur in an artist’s work are difficult for followers to relate to because they are salient but idiosyncratic. Caro’s fascinating use of real, concrete handles (drawer pulls, scissor grips) in some of his tabletop sculptures is a case in point. To quote such a motif would inevitably strike the observer as bald copying.2

But the use of a single color to tint a piece, as if by industrially dipping it, is a different matter. It has the benefit of being halfway between a motif and an abstract principle. Caro seems to use this technique partly to underscore the unity of his often delicately and informally constructed works, to strengthen our confidence in his elegantly understated joins. He never seems to rely upon it to whitewash structural disarray, which is something that the procedure is indeed open to.

The sculptors here seem uncertain about how to respond to Caro’s monochrome. There may be theoretical problems, such as the relation of monochromatism to the concept of the monolithic, but even in terms of material there is some indecision. Some works do have monochrome pigmentation, while others try to make use of the “natural” patina of metal, for instance, by toning down the artiness of the brutalistic Cor-ten rusting effect by covering the bare metal with a coat of lacquer. Both alternatives occur, sometimes in different works by the same artist. In fact, this concern with the paint job is one of the common traits these artists share: it sort of “covers” them as a group, the way the paint itself is used over disparate elements in the sculptures. But the apt lyricism with which it cures form in Anthony Caro’s sculptures still pretty much separates the master from the tyros.

Joseph Masheck


1. The works by Paolozzi discussed here are illustrated by Michael Middleton, Eduardo Paolozzi, Art in Progress Series, London, 1963.

2. It would perhaps be fruitful to relate Caro’s real handles to Georg Simmel’s clever essay “The Handle,” 1911. Simmel considers the handle of a pot both as an extension of the human body and as the outgrowth of a formal necessity within the pot. In any case, Caro’s handles have a similar dual valence—tension in the face of compression, the concrete in the face of the abstract. Georg Simmel, “The Handle,” trans. Rudolph Weingartner, in Kurt H. Wolff, ed., Essays in Sociology, Philosophy, and Aesthetics, New York, 1956, pp. 267–75; this collection first appeared in English in 1959 as Georg Simmel, 1858–1918.