PRINT October 1975

Caro’s Art—Tucker’s Choice

“THE CONDITION OF SCULPTURE,” at the Hayward Gallery in London, echoed the Anthony Caro retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, since half of the 22 British artists, including William Tucker (who organized the London show) have been Caro students. Caro is often treated by his admirers in grand isolation, in a timeless and spaceless realm. Clement Greenberg wrote of a couple of pieces of 1964: “They are perhaps more purely, more limpidly, masterpieces than anything he has done before.”1 And Michael Fried considers that “Prairie is a masterpiece, one of the great works of modern art, a touchstone for future sculpture.”2 One must congratulate both writers on their masterpiece-recognition reflex speed: both published their assessments the year following the production of the sculptures in question. According to William Rubin, “It takes only one great artist to keep a tradition alive,” and he proposes an elite sequence of Picasso (born 1881), David Smith (1906), and now Caro (1924) as the masters of “constructed sculpture.”3 The effect of such writing has been to remove Caro from his historical context, but a more explanatory approach is offered by the coincidence of the two exhibitions. By considering the relation of Caro to other British sculptors, and their relationship to international art, a picture emerges that may be less exalted but more factual.

The question is: what are the factors in Caro’s art that have led to his success and to his phenomenal influence? (Obviously such a question is not answered merely by appealing to his greatness as an irresistible force.) His art is perhaps as developable as it is because of a certain permissiveness, and its appeal has to do with its freely stated complexity. Neither formal austerity nor momentous content appears to play a large role. Richard Whelan touched on this openness when he commented on Early One Morning, 1962 pointing out that from certain views it “resembles some of Kandinsky’s paintings of the early ’20s.”4 Rubin cites this particular sculpture as one that cannot be grasped from one point of view and “can be assimilated only by moving around it.”5

The received view of Caro emphasizes him as the heir and sustainer of a thin line of constructed sculpture, with its origins in Cubist collage and relief sculpture as it led to Russian Constructivism. However, the systematic forms of the Constructivists are not, in this reading of history, binding on what I will call free constructed sculpture. By this term I mean sculptures that, although they consist of prefabricated pieces, are ordered by traditional formal concerns. Smith’s retention of the human body in the form of the late Surrealist personnage is an example of the accommodation of old signifiers to new materials. Obviously Caro does not keep the anthropomorphic spine or contour in his sculptures, many of which are in a horizontal-discursive mode. However, his syntax is comfortably diverse: large and small forms are contrasted, upright and tilted forms create piquant sequences, and directional thrusts and textural weight simulate divergent functions.

Caro’s freely stated lateral complexity revives principles of the Picturesque. This esthetic emerged in the later 18th century in response to an interest in forms of landscape painting, garden design, and architecture that exceeded the esthetic categories then available. Some quotations from William Gilpin will indicate the Picturesque in my parallel of landscape theory and metal sculpture: “Picturesque composition consists in uniting in one whole form a variety of parts.” “As we walk along this Terrace, you may observe the great Advantage of Low Walls. By this means the Garden is extended beyond its limits, and takes in everything entertaining that is to be met with in the range of half a County.” “A pile gains from a state of ruin an irregularity in its parts. The cornice, the window, the arch, and battlement, which in their original form are all regular, receive from ruin a variety of little irregularities.”6

The spectacle of visual intricacy (variety) is appreciated, often relished, by all Caro’s writers. The low-lying pieces, like Prairie, obviously participate in a variety of extended views. Caro likes the spectator to walk around but not into his pieces.7 The use of perambulation to discover successive (frequently surprising) views is a prime recourse of Picturesque garden design. Caro’s forms often depend on the interruption and warping of basic or whole geometric parts. In his sculpture there is a constant sense of formal element and its modification by the world. He hesitates engagingly between full-bodied three-dimensionality and schematic indications of space. Whether the agent is time or the artist’s sensibility, the point is the introduction of irregularity and nuance. And, of course, irregularizing refinements, unique departures from the known and the given, are traditional evidence of artistic taste. Minimal and Process art both place a low evaluation on personal touch. In the one mode the artist has executive but not necessarily manual control, and in the other the artist initiates but does not conclude the artistic process. With both, speculation about the definition of art is involved. In contrast, Caro, with his affinity for the Picturesque, represents a conservative, nonspeculative position which is congenial to writers on his work, and, as we shall see, to young British artists as well.

Is Caro knowing or inadvertent in his use of Picturesque principles? Probably it was unintentional, following perhaps from the pursuit of irregularizing refinements. However, there were predisposing factors in England to which he was surely exposed. There was a revival of Picturesque theory in London in the 1940s, propagandized by the magazine Architectural Review, which led both to new studies of the original theory, such as Nikolaus Pevsner’s work on Richard Payne Knight and Uvedale Price, and to applications of the esthetic to modern town planning. The area on the south bank of the Thames, where the Hayward Gallery is located, is a case in point: the complex of gallery, National Film Theater, and concert hall contains applications of the Picturesque theory which characterized the original layout of the Festival of Britain on that site in 1951.

There is also a technical factor: using up-to-date tools, it is a simple matter to cut, move, arrange, and manipulate pieces of steel that Julio Gonzales would have had great difficulty in handling. This technical facility, combined with the ease of the adhesive process of welding, has enabled artists to expand the scale of their work while retaining visual and spatial variety. There is often considerable wit about hefty bits of steel seeming to have been just wafted together, though it often makes huge pieces look as if they were made of paper (Alexander Liberman’s boiler-case pieces, for instance). Sculptors saw the risk and opted for frugality or monumentalization, but the result here is a kind of nonchalant eloquence. This dance of contrasting shapes is Picturesque. Its origins as a theory in England and its continued metamorphosis there have often prevailed in the discursiveness and lightness of British art, especially in the absence of countervailing esthetic influences. Caro not only exemplifies the Picturesque mode in his own work, but he acts as an umbrella for younger sculptors from the rain of less congenial international influences.

Caro is not usually regarded in relation to the Picturesque, and it is not the sole factor in his work. When he is viewed in relation to the original Constructivists, however, the idea is feasible. Both the idealist and revolutionary wings of the Russian movement depended on a systematization of structure that excluded unanticipated views or three-dimensional delays; that is to say, they were anti-Picturesque. The technique of assembling separate, preexisting parts soon became a general resource of sculptors, usable for improvised sequences of form. Caro is part of this moderate, pragmatic expansion of construction as a method.

Caro has a special place in American art criticism. Greenberg, dropping for this purpose his Laocoonesque requirement of the separation of the arts, celebrated him in these terms:

A grand, sublime manner has been a peculiarly English aspiration since the 18th century. Henry Moore and Francis Bacon are possessed by it in their separate ways just as much as Haydon, John Martin and even Turner were in theirs. Without maintaining necessarily that he is a better artist than Turner, I would venture to say that Caro comes closer to a genuine grand manner—genuine because original and unsynthetic—than any English artist before him.8

There are difficulties here which go beyond those of comparing Caro with 18th- and 19th-century Romatic landscape painters, a 20th-century painter, and a contemporary sculptor of the human figure. In what way is Caro “grand, sublime”? The sublime refers to a specific esthetic doctrine, whereas grand does not. On the other hand “grand manner” is a specific stylistic entity. What is being claimed for Caro? Is it sublimity or is it the grand manner, or is he simply being pelted with roses?

“The Condition of Sculpture” shows the elaboration of metal as structure and formal diversity as an organizing principle. It was never assumed that William Tucker’s choice would be a broad one. In his book Early Modern Sculpture he refers to Degas’s 14-Year-Old Dancer, the life-size figure garbed in a real tutu, as “a masterpiece of the cul-de-sac of total naturalism.”9 Obviously a writer who can dismiss this remarkable work with such aplomb is a man of set ideas. Even allowing for his bias, however, the exhibition is eccentric and prejudiced. It is described as “a selection of recent work by younger British and foreign artists.” There were 22 British artists; “foreign” turned out to mean 16 Americans, two Europeans, and a Canadian. It has been ten years since another collective sculpture show, “Primary Structures” at the Jewish Museum in 1964, which included 30 Americans and a dozen British artists. The American show took place at a time when there was a sense of emerging sculpture of importance, but no clear idea as to what it was. Lucy Lippard’s title, if not Kynaston McShine’s actual choice, signaled what soon became generally known as Minimal art. It was an exploratory show taking early bearings on a new emphasis in sculpture. It included Carl Andre’s extraordinary Lever, 1966, a line of firebricks thrust in a straight line out from the wall, one of his first statements of sculpture as a “cut” into the space of the world rather than as material into which the artist cut. Tucker was also in “Primary Structures.” Clement Mead-more has observed of the exhibition: “I did feel there were two conflicting tendencies shown (and that all of the pieces were by no means primary): the New York tendency, which was rectilinear, colorless and cool, and the London tendency—which included some New York artists working along the same lines—which involved geometric curves, free form and a lot of color.”10 And he could have added, to use a term that Nancy Reinish applied to Meadmore, the impulse to “an implied kineticism” in the London tendency. This refers to the effect of sculpture which, though not ostensibly signifying anything, does in fact suggest a diagram of forces and hence a sense of motion. This is as much a significative function as figurative imagery, and British sculpture seems still characterized by linear restlessness of this sort.

“The Condition of Sculpture,” unlike “Primary Structures,” is an attempt to close out certain options for artists and to promote a canon of established style. It is interesting, for it shows closure not as the result of ignorance, as in the past, but as a policy decision. Since the ’50s, various tactics have been developed for coping with the “information overkill” and the “oversupply” of artists. Tucker’s show is the record of an attempt to present a style in isolation from its alternatives. The style he favors is one that rejects Minimal art as monotonous, but retains geometry. It is characterized by tactful restraint and personal touch. It is a moderating style, taken by Tucker to be balanced and full, neither fanatical nor gross. What Tucker likes is work with a fairly high level of complexity (internal contrasts). Thus modules, when they occur, are tilted or frayed, and plane surfaces must not stretch too far without being intersected, either dramatically or ingratiatingly.

Tucker has written an unusually brief text (1200 words or so) to introduce his show of 41 artists. According to him “the sculpture is its own evidence; it needs neither apology nor justification.” However, it is clear that his choice does call for discussion and, in fact, his full argument can be found in the published version of eight seminars, delivered at the St. Martin’s School of Art in 1974, entitled “What Sculpture Is.” He proposes a timeless view, “as though Donatello, say, or Rodin, or David Smith, or Indian, Egyptian or Babylonian sculpture were somehow equidistant. That is to say, nearness in historical time, the notion of succession, confers no privilege. It is only the immediate character of the work as sculpture that renders it present to you now.”11 Tucker was forced to this view by his reaction against what he nicely calls

the evolutionary concept of modern art. I use the word evolutionary—rather than say advanced, avant-garde, progressive—deliberately, because the idea of the survival of the fittest, of one species or movement in art actually displacing its predecessors, then being itself displaced suggests a biological model.12

I can understand Tucker’s resistance to a view of art in which dominance over predecessors and competitors is the point. But which art is assigned by him to this Darwinian mode?

The accelerating pace at which movements have displaced each other in recent years, and the degree to which the more obvious and accessible resources of sculpture and painting have been mined out, depleted, has resulted in the elevation of kinds of art in the last few years so trivial, so insubstantial in relation to its pretensions, as to devalue wholly the total context in which such manifestations are accepted without comment, let alone taken seriously.13

This is rather general, so let us find a place where he is more specific. In his book Tucker records his liking for Duchamp’s Readymades and notes that he “was enormously affected by the image of the Bottle Rack when I first saw it as sculpture.”14 In one of the later seminars, however, he has changed his mind: “Now that the impact of surprise has been eroded by 50 years of art history, the object is revealed for what it is—wholly commonplace, completely lacking in the uniqueness that is the essence of the individual thing.”15 Tucker implies here a rejection of Duchamp and all the art that has picked up on aspects of his work. Conceptual art is, therefore, the latest evolutionary brutality. Tucker, though, still remains deterministic on a selective basis, for Caro’s work is seen as the necessary outcome of a historical process. It is just that a competing determinism, what Greenberg called the “far-out,” is denied its aspirations.

Tucker’s claim of disinterested selection is in serious doubt if we examine his artists. Can we really give credence to the idea that there are only two artists in Europe (Ulrich Rückriem from Germany and David van de Kop from Holland) who qualify for the exhibition? Since Tucker finds room for an ambiguous linear sculpture by Nigel Hall, one that fluctuates between two- and three-dimensionality with changes in viewing distance, why stop there? Why exclude, say, Norbert Kricke, whose recent work depends on a single metal rod, bent this way and that, but almost always with right-angled junctions? His illusive but Euclidean diagrams would seem eligible. Hall, born in 1943, is British, but Kricke, born 20 years earlier in another country, lacks this cachet. Is Tucker to be regarded, quite simply, as an English chauvinist, or is there something else? Europe is squeezed out because Tucker is particularly susceptible to the notion of an American-British sculpture axis. From the proportion of nationalities in the exhibition it seems that he is assuming a special relationship between the two countries, something akin to the diplomatic rapport that used to exist between them. Obviously Caro is the artist who makes this argument possible.

According to Tucker, the exhibition is not “polemic or programmatic in intent. My aim was simply to bring together work done in the last two or three years by artists who appear consciously or intuitively to accept the condition of sculpture as I understand it.” This sentence assumes that Tucker is a right-thinking man and agreement with him is natural to like-thinking sculptors. However, Tucker’s ideas were not formed with a Minervan abruptness, but were built up, like those of the rest of us, in a particular situation which I will mention, since he thinks it not relevant to do so. It all rests on the US/UK relationship. David Smith influenced Caro, and Caro influenced a good part of the next generation via his classes at St. Martin’s School of Art.

Thirteen of the artists in the Hayward show were Caro’s students at St. Martin’s, where he has taught almost continuously for more than 20 years: 1953 to 1966 and 1968 to the present. Among the first generation of students are Michael Bolus, Phillip King, Tim Scott, Isaac Witkin, and Tucker himself. The younger artists are Roger Bates, David Evison, Katherine Gili, Brower Hatcher, Peter Hide, Jeff Lowe, David Seaton, and Anthony Smart. Caro also has a connection with Bennington College, Vermont, where he taught from 1963 to 1965: he was followed by Isaac Witkin (who is still there); and from Bennington come two Americans, Roger Williams and James Wolfe. Four of the younger artists (Garth Evans, Gili, Hide, and Smart) are presently teaching at St. Martin’s and all but Evans were students there. That leaves eight of the British sculptors in Tucker’s choice associated neither as student nor teacher with the school; and one of these, Julian Hawkes, is King’s assistant. Tucker has excluded almost all sculptors older than himself and younger artists without the St. Martin’s connection. Despite his disclaimer, one can only see his exhibition as another of these evolutionary groups in which ancestors are surpassed and peers censored. His parochial taste undermines his claim that the essence of sculpture is his whole care. This is exactly the kind of possessiveness that leads to brutal exclusionist tactics in contemporary art. Caro and Greenberg, Caro and St. Martin’s: I am not proposing the notion that Caro is a “Greenberg puppet,” which Rubin correctly criticized Hilton Kramer for suggesting," but there is a convergence of interests and preferences, a network of self-advancing contacts.

The reminiscences of and carryovers from Caro are abundant. His Riviera, 1971–75, for example, is picked up by Lowe’s goal-post structure and by Seaton’s Ithaca I (a few columns from Caro’s more extensive original). Evison’s Number Five, with its curves like fresh peel cut from a hard apple, is an analogue of several Caros of the late ’60s, including Table Piece LXXXVIII (The Deluge), 1969–70. Gili’s point of departure is the squat, intersecting planar pieces of the early ’70s. Caro’s Survey, 1971–73, a tablelike structure, is echoed by Smart’s stocky, four-square sculpture. These borrowings are all the result of recent contact, but some of the first-generation sculptors still flaunt their debts. Scott’s zany shuffled planes with surprise inflections come out of Pompadour, 1963 (or some such Caro) and King’s Open (Red-Blue) Bound depends on heavy steel mesh, colored, centered, like that which Caro used in Red Splash, 1966. Williams’s sculpture, low to the ground and spindly, has as its point of departure Caro’s ground-hugging pieces of the mid-’60s, and Wolfe’s Five Across implies various Caros, including Month of May, 1963, of which it might be regarded as a rationalized,. monochrome version. Although a list of such derivations makes these works sound bleak, they may well be applauded by Caro supporters. His historical importance would be regarded as confirmed by the usability of his ideas. History, that is to say, was waiting for what he did, and numerous acts of imitation would seem to validate his centrality.

In the text, Tucker appeals to his own experience to justify his taste, which is of course inarguable; a tactic taken from Greenberg’s pseudoempirical but actually unverifiable opinions. Tucker’s list of untenable options for sculpture implies the virtue of a sober but true tradition. He, and those for whom he speaks, are seen as avoiding the trap of restless experiment in favor of the real difficulties of high-principled conservatism. What Tucker rejects is pretty much the same as those manifestations of art that Greenberg dismisses as “Novelty.” This slur word covers everything that is said to charm too easily, entertain only briefly, and date rapidly. Tucker’s argument, like Greenberg’s, is a demand for “difficult” conservatism. (It is a conservatism that is called “modernism” by its supporters. However, the insistence that there is only one true way of being “right” fulfills precisely the definition of conservatism.) Whether or not Greenberg’s interest in British sculpture is an ongoing one, it once was real, and it is the same kind of sculpture that constitutes Tucker’s taste. For example, Michael Steiner, an American liked by Greenberg, is in Tucker’s show and looks completely at home. The nose-up, launching-platform readiness of his sculpture, for instance, is close to Bolus’s piece in its dramatic angle to the ground.

Of the 16 American artists, eight were born between 1928 and 1939 and eight later, but of the Britons, only seven were born before 1939 and 15 after 1940. Carl Andre, Larry Bell, Lucas Samaras, Richard Serra, and Mark di Suvero are better known than the British artists they are shown with, a fact which, taken with the age figures, suggests that American art is being used as a backup for the British. Andre made a piece on the site: two lines of modeling-clay bricks tucked into a dim space between wall and staircase, like a shriveled Lever. It gives the impression that Andre is withdrawing from a show in which his work does not fit. Serra, on the contrary, is as insistent as Andre is unobtrusive, with four hunks of white limestone, calibrated by scored lines, like a sculpture left in the desert after an Israeli sculpture seminar. Samaras’s Stiff Box 12, 1971, in Cor-ten steel, seemed, in the absence of other work by the artist, to be an innocuous stack of formal elements. Di Suvero is the only artist in the show to use the Gonzalez-Smith personnage, in which the form of the work carries a human gesture though not the human image. Only one other piece revealed traces of anthropomorphic form, Christopher Wilmarth’s steel-and-glass sandwich with a kink at the height of the spectator’s knee making an anthropometric allusion. However it otherwise fills Tucker’s canon well: it is geometric, but not strict; pseudo-Minimal. Bell and Sylvia Stone are present as a concession to transparency, but Bell’s shadowy corner of coated glass and Stone’s zippy plexiglass perspective are not at home in this metal furniture showroom. They are present to give the appearance of open-mindedness. Jacqueline Winsor’s hefty wood and hemp piece is also out of place in what is essentially a metal show (her robust Whole Earth Catalogue materials are echoed weakly by David Nash with a sculpture of split wood and rope which looks like a mock-up for a steel piece).

London-trained Witkin is crucial for he, unlike the American sculptors, really belongs with the show’s core artists. Witkin (and the younger Williams and Wolfe) announce that the moderate Caroesque mode is alive and well in the United States. Hatcher, Loren Madsen, Robert Murray, Peter Reginato and Steiner also show varied geometries of considerable intricacy but basic solidity. (Murray was represented by an unusually sinuous and glossy piece, but his basic four-square stance was not dissipated by the twist and the shine.) The American representation does not represent the theme of the exhibition as satisfactorily as the majority of the British pieces, nor are the artists strongly present in their own characteristic styles. The suspicion persists that Tucker’s internationalism is spurious.

When Tucker said that his is “an exhibition of sculpture, not of sculptors” he claims that he will be showing the thing itself. To think that sculpture as essence is available for exhibition purposes is absurd. How can sculpture be seen free of the ideas that sculptors have? And if sculpture is not autonomous, it will be characterized by its place in time and space and by the ideas that Tucker, for one, has about it. Ideology lies behind his claim for sculpture as self-evident object.

“The pressure on sculpture to adopt the painting-directed role of relief has been enormous throughout the modern period, whether the ground of relief has been the wall or the floor or recently the surface of the landscape itself.” Tucker’s idea that Earth- works are a form of painting is the kind of notion that you get from illustrations in art magazines. It leaves out of account the on-site physicality of Earthworks, but it has the advantage, for Tucker and his British readers, of disqualifying another option. He is anxious to override as many competing esthetic possibilities as he can. Technological aids beyond the welder’s torch are dismissed for violating sculpture’s proper state of “boundedness.” “The property of actively giving light must remain that of the world, not of sculpture, just as movement is the prerogative of the spectator. For the work to take possession of light and movement, to assume the active role, is ultimately to sacrifice visibility and so its freedom.” In these terms luminist and kinetic sculptures are invalidated for their disturbance of an absolute threshold between art and the world or, to put it another way, for retarding immediate recognition.

Obviously Process art, involving change in time, is as inadmissible as any other dilation of art’s compactness. What Tucker wants is a form of sculpture that is always and unmistakably art, beyond the reach of corrosive speculation. In practice, of course, the only way to get this is to work according to an existing standard of taste, and Tucker seems happy to do this. The rules are not that sculpture must be compact but that it must be complex.

Imagine a situation in which the lessons of modern art have been learned and a rational esthetic has emerged, a set of opinions available to common sense and high principle. This is what Tucker proposes but I have tried to indicate the ideological foundation of this position. Fully given structure, such as Andre’s or Sol LeWitt’s, is not desirable in Tucker’s program, but concealed structure is essential. By concealed structure I mean all those effects of lifting and intersecting, of balancing and ascend-ing, that a demand for variety requires of the artist. It is also the basis of an implied kineticism. Hence the use by British artists of configurations more varied than complete circles or squares or rectangles or lines of the same length. Their formal patterns are never sequential and rarely symmetrical. The emphasis is on creating diverse displays, on, in short, composition as endless invention. The “knowledgeability” on which this style is based does not encourage extrapolation or independence; on the contrary, it is used to set limits on what sculpture can be. The limitations of Caro’s followers and of Tucker’s opinions seem particularly clear to an observer from outside Britain aware of international developments in art. From such a viewpoint it is hard to see the work and the argument except as a comforting academicism.

Lawrence Alloway



1. Clement Greenberg, “Anthony Caro,” Arts Yearbook 8, 1965, pp. 106–9. Reprinted in Richard Whelan, ed., Anthony Caro, New York, 1975.

2. Michael Fried, “Two Sculptures by Anthony Caro,” Artforum, February 1968, pp. 24–5, Reprinted in Whelan.

3. William Rubin, Anthony Caro, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1975, p. 15.

4. Whelan, p. 128.

5. Rubin, p. 128.

6. Quotations from William Gilpin in William D. Templeman, The Life and Work of William Gilpin, Urbana, 1939, pp. 139, 126, 145.

7. Phyllis Tuchman, “An Interview with Anthony Caro,” Artforum, June 1972, p. 58, Reprinted in Whelan.

8. Greenberg, “Anthony Caro.”

9. William Tucker, Early Modern Sculpture, New York, 1974, p 158.

10. Nancy Refinish, “Clement Meadmore Commentary and Monologue,” independent study protect. State University of New York, Stony Brook, 1973.

11. William Tucker, “What Sculpture Is, Part 1,” Studio International, December 1974, p. 233.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Tucker, Early Modern Sculpture, p. 118.

15. Tucker, “What Sculpture Is, Part 4,” Studio International, January–February 1975, p. 18.

16. William Rubin, Letter, New York Times, May 18, 1975.