PRINT March 1992


A RECENT REVIEW of Sir Anthony Caro’s monumental sculptures exhibited at the Tate Gallery in London is titled “Piecing it together,” a reference not only to Caro’s signature technique of assemblage but also to what we might call the continuity of his “oeuvre.” The question addressed by that reviewer is bluntly put in the article’s teaser as “a new uncertainty in the sculpture of Sir Anthony Caro”; further on we read of an artist whose “recent additions to [his] oeuvre are, to put it politely, rather eccentric,” an artist “discontent with the consequences of his own devotion to abstract literalism,” and finally, an artist “at odds both with his time and with his language.” The inescapable conclusion is that “Caro has become yet another late twentieth-century malcontent, bemoaning the exhaustedness of the modernist tradition.”’

While the occasion of a major exhibition of new work by Caro might be the ideal opportunity to launch a renewed attack on certain critical readings of Modernism, we wonder seriously why anyone would bother. Certainly, there is ground to be cleared here: an entire generation of younger English sculptors is waiting expectantly in the wings for the critical winds of a manageable post-Modernism to sweep away the enormous deadweight of “Britain’s most distinguished living sculptor.” But surely it can equally be argued that the presence and influence of Caro on the current generation of newly exhibiting artists is negligible. This is not to say that Caro is an unimportant artist, merely to point out that the issues taken up by him around 1960 have become part of the common store of art knowledge. If that is the case, why is the issue of Caro’s discontinuity so troubling to the author of “Piecing it together”? Is it simply that he prefers the relatively familiar, high-Modernist Caro to the semiabstract, playful, and possibly doubtful Caro? Is Caro’s oeuvre really at issue here, or is this judgment of his sculpture intended to reach far beyond that body of work, farther, even, than the issue of “Sir Anthony Caro” himself?

In general, critical appraisal of Caro within England is divided between those who see continuity as a virtue and those who prefer the mythology of the Promethean creative self. Both positions, in fact, are affirmations, in the sense that they rely upon the postulation of an unimpeachable “selfhood” that resides at the center of the process of artmaking. The positing of this sort of subjectivity as a motive force in art serves, for some, as an explanation for great art of high quality. That sort of authenticity, however, has its cost. The sheer tautological nature of the proposition ought to be evident; but what is particularly startling is how Caro’s assumption of the mantle of Greenbergian Modernism has been taken as an opportunity to celebrate a triumph of the self over the material bases of art. This conceptualization seems to invert what has actually happened. As if to hold at bay the awful realization that one of the possible outcomes of Greenbergian Modernism might be the creation of a cultural space of extreme depersonalization, Caro’s project of the 1960s has been consistently, and repeatedly, characterized as one “profoundly based in experience,” the artist’s works as “wordless carriers of emotion . . . as pure disembodied feeling.” The continuity thus posited does not simply flow from a perceived formal unity among the various tokens of the artist’s lifework, but more insistently, more deeply, “these constants are the hallmarks of Caro’s personality.”2

The discomfort felt by English critics with the notion of abstraction as a legitimate framework for the production of an authentic art is real; it certainly forms an important component of the cultural legacy of the English art scene, and of its claims to esthetic common sense. But the problem contemporary critics have in dealing with Caro seems to have its origin in the ambiguous nature of Caro’s celebrated “conversion” to abstraction. To put it bluntly, for an English sculptor of the late ’50s and early ’60s to jettison the figurative while steering clear of neo-Constructivist clichés was tantamount to taking a step into the void. It may be difficult today to retrieve the sense of risk associated with that act—an act, moreover, that in England carried with it disturbing and explicitly political overtones smacking of Greenbergian advocacy—but the prospect of becoming the sculptural equivalent of the North American formalist painters must have been a daunting prospect for an artist who had once worked as an assistant to Henry Moore.

Even in 1960, though, the sheer banality of placing one bit of steel plate next to another had long since lost its radical edge—or, at least, it should have, since that particular rehearsal of the disintegration of composition in sculpture had already been attended to by Pablo Picasso and Julio González in the 1920s and by David Smith since the 1940s. But there are important differences here, and Caro was well aware of them. The scale, complexity, and color of Caro’s early work seem to have exemplified the highest expression of that mode of improvisational construction. Where Picasso and González can feel precious, Caro is determined; where Smith might be said to have failed to integrate chroma into his sculptures, Caro immediately succeeded. Perhaps the perceived “radicality” of Caro’s work in the 1960s had only partially to do with his vigorous modernization of already available modes of artistic production; perhaps the reason why his work has always languished subconsciously as an affront to the decorous, overpsychologized esthetics of English self-expression is that it threatened to remove a readily articulable link between experience and art.3 The positing by English critics of a magisterial ego strong enough to wrest the esthetic victory away from base materialism in art took the form of a doubt about the possibility of quality sculpture being about “nothing.” For his part, Caro was prudent enough to recognize the importance of the distinctly modernizing trend in artmaking that he encountered in New York during 1959 in the work of Kenneth Noland, Adolph Gottlieb, Helen Frankenthaler, and David Smith. (He had already had a studio visit by Clement Greenberg in London that same year.) But he was never sufficiently able to purge a belief in the centrality of the figure in order to sustain a three-dimensional equivalent of the paintings of Morris Louis or Noland.

It is ludicrous, then, to accuse Caro of having betrayed his “earlier” abstract self, sacrificing, as it seems to some, the hard-won gains of abstraction in English art for an art of semiabstractedness and mediocrity. Caro’s battle for abstraction, in truth, had been fought, but the outcome was not as decisive as first thought: had it been, there would have been no need to consider the halfway house of critical justification that relied heavily on experience and inner necessity, not to mention the ghost of figuration, to carry the day. It is difficult to know how “continuity” can take hold in such a situation, since Caro’s creating “self” was already divided between the poles of a native culture and a newly encroaching transatlantic cultural wave. The process of critical compensation that comes to Caro only to confirm the most deeply cherished beliefs about English culture is admirably summed up by Terry Atkinson, who writes: “In Liberalism reading is seen as a unifying ‘experience.’ It is a piety of Liberal reading aesthetics that within art the conventional aspiration is the unity of self and work; it is the kind of standard definition of worthwhile art and worthy work in progress. Without a sense of irony directed towards the ideas of the self the necessary skeptical readings of self do not take place.”4 The author of “Piecing it together” would rather that Caro conform to his version of liberal reading; Caro does not, indeed cannot, because Caro’s reading is conflicted and illiberal.

It should be noted that the linking of art to a theory of self-expression has had disastrous results for the criticism of Caro’s work. It is through the reading of abstraction as just another species of self-expression, though, that the crisis of late Modernism suffered by Caro, and altogether misrepresented by the author of “Piecing it together,” is transformed into a crisis of subjectivity, a case of excessive metaphoricity. Of course, this only makes sense if one sees abstraction as basically an esoteric literalism, rather than as pure formalism, as the antinomy of figuration. So any urge toward figuration or the pictorial—a move into that murky territory known as the “semiabstract”—will only confirm the essential “continuity” of all types of esthetic experience. At the same time, such semiabstract developments as have been widely noted in Caro’s late works would seem to be a betrayal of abstraction’s credo, a breach of esthetic faith, a token of weakness and doubt, if you misread the nature of Caro’s abstractness from the outset. Yet, if Michael Fried was correct in stressing that Caro’s most “abstract” sculptures—the series begun around 1960, and prior to the challenge launched by Minimalism in the mid ’60s—“have always been intimately related to the human body,”5 then the “crisis” in Caro’s art ought to be seen for what it is: a struggle to reinvent figuration “from the other side of appearance,” as T. J. Clark so aptly puts it. To understand Caro at all demands foregrounding that “crisis” of a particular moment in Modernist representation and facing up to the question of success or failure.

After Olympia, 1986–87, is justly read, one could argue, as an expression of Caro’s continuing dialogue with Richard Serra, rather than as a public display of the artist’s self-doubts.6 Minimalism is the antithesis of Caro’s art because it is a mode of production equivalent in impact to his, yet capable of forcing his right back into the realm of figuration. Caro next to Serra (or to Carl Andre or to Donald Judd) seems precious, fussy, semiabstract. But Caro has given up attacking Serra (or Minimalism) head on; instead, he conceals the attack in the guise of an enormous “meditation” on classical statuary. The author of “Piecing it together” writes that “Caro has . . . become obsessed with precisely the kinds of meaning embedded in the figurative art of the past.”7 If by “the past” that author means to say “Caro’s past,” he might be right. But, as it stands, the author of “Piecing it together” is literally referring to the putative “source” of After Olympia in the pediments of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.8 Unfortunately, the biographical narrative accompanying this and other works at the Tate encourage such a reading of Caro’s intentionality.

The author of Piecing it together“ claims that monumentality and abstraction are incompatible; this line of thought is elaborated in the context of critical remarks concerning Caro’s Octagon Tower/Tower of Discovery, 1991, a work of quasi-architecture, or ”sculpitecture“ in the artist’s jargon. That work is set up as a foil to Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International: it ”resembles“ it more than any other picturesque metaphorization, except, perhaps, the well-known English ”folly.“ That Tatlin’s monument alone might be considered a credible metalanguage for Caro reveals how Caro may be forced into the mold of disenchanted Modernist; if the English ”folly“ is cited, Caro’s ”Englishness" is further enhanced.

Caro’s “abstractness” is in itself a myth. Coming to grips with the sad truth seems to have been quite a shock for the author of “Piecing it together,” enough of a shock to induce the questioning of Caro’s authenticity, to label him a “late” post-Modernist in spite of himself. This may seem mildly quaint to North American readers; but after all, the paradigmatic case of the inauthentic, as far as conservative English art and art criticism is concerned, is the utterly ironic: the practice that reviles experience, facture, self, and, yes, the decorum of the human body. But here is Caro, who deserves to have the last word: “You sacrifice the figure and you get things that you never had before—rather, you had them but as part of the figure, not independently—like interval or issues of scale or architecture.”9

Michael Corris is a writer who lives in Oxford, England.



1. Andrew Graham-Dixon. “Piecing it together,” The Independent, London, 29 October 1991, p. 18. While this review focused only on the exhibition of four sculptures by Caro installed in the cavernous Duveen Galleries of the Tate Gallery, Annely Juda Fine Art and Knoedler Gallery simultaneously exhibited a series of Caro’s smaller-scaled works, mainly drawn from the late 1980s and 1990, including his so-called “table” works, presented in a grouping entitled “The Cascades.”

2. Karen Wilkin, Caro, London: Prestel, 1991, np.

3. The link is not, strictly speaking, specific to English culture. Rather, it should be seen as a specific and important feature of Modernism. In his essay “The New Sculpture,” 1948, Clement Greenberg argues for an esthetic of immediate experience: “To meet this taste . . . a modernist work of art must try, in principle, to avoid dependence upon any order of experience not given in the most essentially construed nature of its medium.” Greenberg, Art and Culture: Critical Essays, Boston: Beacon Press. 1965, p. 139. This was to be achieved through a militant process of reduction and individuation of painting and sculpture: each medium had to be pure, concrete, and true to its irreducible self.

4. Terry Atkinson, Re-Writing and Re-Reading, Vancouver: Contemporary Art Gallery, 1990, p. 1.

5. Michael Fried, Anthony Cain, exhibition catalogue, London: Hayward Gallery, 1969, p. 5. The locus classicus of Fried’s interpretation of Caro is his “Cam’s Abstractness,” Artforum IX no. I, September 1970, pp. 32–34.

6. The dialogue with Richard Serra commenced in 1974 with the production by Caro of large-scale unpainted steel pieces known as the “York sculptures,” which have been described by Wilkin as “slabs leaning on each other in seemingly spontaneous, unstable configurations.”

7. Graham-Dixon, p. 18.

8. No one, it seems, explored the other, equally obvious interpretive option: that Caro was in fact making a joke about representation. The Olympia that informs After Olympia may as well be that of Manet: that, at least, would give the title of the work a dimension of irony, where “after” would have a punning meaning: “derived from” and temporal succession would then jostle together semantically in Caro’s title, relieving it from the tedium of a supplicatory exercise. But the world of art “after” (Manet’s) Olympia is suffused with pathos and irony, in contrast to the world of art projected by Graham-Dixon, whose essay is only suffused with a kind of Romantic nostalgia for “the Greek.” The issue of which intentional state is true for Caro cannot, however, be settled by an appeal to Caro’s selfhood or personality.

9. Caro, quoted in Wilkin, n.p.