PRINT September 1993

Anthony Caro’s Midday

I FIRST SAW Midday in Anthony Caro’s courtyard in the fall of 1961. Between the fall of 1959 and the late spring of 1961 I had been at Merton College, Oxford, on a Rhodes Scholarship; I couldn’t deal with Oxford and left without a degree. But I wasn’t ready to return to the U.S., and decided to spend one more year in England, living in London, supporting myself by odd teaching jobs, and studying philosophy at University College. While still an undergraduate at Princeton in the late ’50s I had written several trial art reviews for Hilton Kramer, then editor of Arts; and as luck would have it, in September 1959 Kramer was looking for a London correspondent. He offered me the job.

A month or so later I found myself sitting at a long table in a Soho restaurant across from a somewhat aggressive character in his mid 30s who identified himself as a sculptor and then asked me bluntly when I would come to see his work. (The occasion was a dinner after Robyn Denny’s opening at the old Molton Gallery.) We arranged that I would visit him the next weekend, and I vividly remember climbing certain streets in Hampstead in search of his improbable address. Finally I arrived; there was a gate, and as I stepped through it into the courtyard beyond I found myself in the presence of two of Caro’s earliest abstract sculptures—Midday, 1960, and Sculpture Seven, 1961. I was alone with these for several minutes before Caro came out of the house to join me. But that was long enough to experience the unshakable conviction that they were two of the most powerful and moving pieces of sculpture I had ever seen; that Midday in particular was nothing less than a masterpiece; and that the aggressive character in the Italian restaurant—whom I had never heard of—was a great sculptor. I told Caro all this as soon as he appeared, and he seemed genuinely pleased.

Subsequently, of course, I wrote a fair amount about Caro’s work—first in an introduction to his one-man exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1963 and later in a series of articles in Artforum as well as in the introduction to his retrospective (organized by me) at the Hayward Gallery in 1969. In fact no one who is familiar with my writings of the ’60s will need to be told that Caro was one of a number of artists—along with Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler, Frank Stella (one year ahead of me at Princeton), Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, and Larry Poons—whose work came to lie at the center of my own reflections about the nature and significance of high-Modernist painting and sculpture during the period of my most intense activity as an art critic. It’s above all in this spirit that I’ve singled out Midday for these remarks: I mean it to be representative of a particular moment in high Modernism, an optimistic and expansive moment that in one sense is still with us—all the artists just mentioned, except of course Louis, continue to be productive—but in another sense seems almost inconceivably remote. The taste for high Modernism has gone underground, and the number of people one meets who are capable of seeing abstract art, or who would even claim to have experienced conviction in the face of new work of any sort, feels vanishingly small.

There are countless reasons for the shift, but at perhaps the most serious level its origins go back to the conflict between abstraction and Minimalism that surfaced around 1966–67 and that I analyzed in “Art and Objecthood” (Artforum, Summer 1967). Be that as it may, Caro remains for me an exemplary master, the foremost sculptor of his generation and one of the major creative imaginations in any art of the past 30 years. Who else could have turned from steel to bronze as he did and have wrested from that (temporary) change of medium virtually an entire oeuvre of the highest distinction? His recent work, too, sustains that standard: I am thinking not only of pieces like Night and Dreams, 1990–91, which so far has been seen only in Rome, but also of works still in the studio that await their final touches. At almost 70, Caro gives the impression of being in mid career.

I have never ceased meditating on Midday, and it retains for me all the power and poetry of that first encounter. In my introduction to the Whitechapel show I remarked on the “achieved weightlessness” of Caro’s early pieces, and I was thinking largely of Midday when I also wrote there that the heart of Caro’s work lay in its “syntax,” which Clement Greenberg subsequently glossed as an emphasis on abstractness and hence on “radical unlikeness to nature.”1 It was largely Midday too that I had in mind when I spoke in the Whitechapel introduction of the gestural and bodily aspects of Caro’s art (I had been reading Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a fine preparation for Caro), and just this past week, teaching Merleau-Ponty’s “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence,” it occurred to me, not for the first time, that the tension in that essay between a Saussurean conception of language as difference (i.e., as “pure” relation) and a thematics of gesture and embodiment perfectly captures the difficulty of adequately theorizing Caro’s breakthrough achievement.

Michael Fried



1. Clement Greenberg, “Contemporary Sculpture,” The Collected Essays and Criticism: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969, ed. John O’Brian, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1993, pp. 205–6.