Anthony Caro

Sometimes the sense of harmony between works of art and the space they occupy is simply perfect. This was the case with the extensive Anthony Caro retrospective installed in the Mercati di Traiano, a large architectural complex built for public use during the early second century A.D. A severe rhythm reigns in this building, the large halls alternating with smaller ones, laid out on various levels and culminating in a grand outdoor semicircle. It was in this semicircle—which has an evocative view of the ancient Roman Forum—that Caro installed his most abstract, linear pieces.

These works, which date from the ’60s, are executed in painted steel, with intense blues, scarlet reds, and vivid purples. They show the influence of David Smith. The steel sheets are cut into regular geometric shapes and arranged in a constructivist syntax that tends toward the architectonic. They tend to be developed horizontally—as in Midday, 1960, for example, or The Horse, 1961. Caro’s abstraction, though elementary and stark, is never minimalist, and only became more monumental, even majestic, during the ’70s, when he completed this series of painted sculptures: He began to allow materials and processes to speak for themselves: mild steel (as in Toronto Flats, 1974), for example, seems just to have emerged from the rolling mill, and still shows the rough traces of the workshop.

In the interior spaces of the Mercati, Caro’s sculptures set up an architectural, perceptual, and intellectual dialogue with the Roman construction and its severe brick face. The series of “Table Pieces,” begun in 1966—a group of smaller-scaled works set on tables, which themselves become integral to each piece—extends Caro’s formal vocabulary and his art’s morphology. There are clear Surrealist influences in these rings, disks, studs, chains, funnels, and half-moons; it is as if Caro were moving toward figuration, without, however, reaching the point of making clear iconic images. Related to these works are the numerous “d’après” pieces: After Picasso, 1985, is a geometricizing transcription of Pablo Picasso’s Pain et Compotier sur Table (Table with bread and fruit bowl, 1909); The Triumph of Caesar, 1987, is related to a Mantegna cartoon; The Moroccans, 1984–87, in stoneware and terra-cotta (new materials for Caro), reformulates in three dimensions the picture planes of the Matisse painting of the same title. Caro also playfully rethinks the lessons of Constructivism: Child’s Tower Room, 1983–84, is based on Vladimir Evgrafovich Tatlin’s famous tower, but its Japanese oak medium makes this large, poetic post-Modern skyscraper into something warm, sensuous, and habitable.

Caro has reclaimed the possibility of an architectonic functionality for sculpture, particularly in the recent Tower of Discovery, 1991, installed in the central octagon of the new Tate Gallery in London. He remains influential for British sculptors: the bulging volumes of his more geometrical and lyrical pieces have left clear traces in Julian Opie’s early work, and Tony Cragg has taken more than one cue from the object-oriented narratives of the “Table Pieces.” Thus his work fits perfectly into the present. Yet it is worth considering how the fecund, stupendous dialogue between these works and the spaces that contain them was based on a common measure, namely Classicism. A modern oeuvre and an ancient one were both inspired by a culture’s way of building.

Massimo Carboni

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.