New York

Anthony Caro

Marlborough | Midtown

Anthony Caro has gone from Modernist purity to mythological narrative in his “Trojan War” sculptures. Most of the abstract figures, named after the larger-than-life yet all-too-human personages of Homer, have clay heads, as though to signal their vulnerability and mortality. Like Yorick’s skull, the heads seem to have been excavated from the grave, still fused with the earth in which they were buried. But unlike Yorick’s, which was tossed back after Hamlet scored philosophical points with it, Caro’s heads are mounted on abstract geometrical constructions that both suggest and function as pedestals, as though ready-made for the museum. In fact, these sculptures have the look of antiquarian curiosities—antiquarian both in the sense of an antiquarian Modernism and in their nostalgia for art that could still make monumental statements about transparently significant, world-historical matters.

Caro’s “Trojan War” pieces have an affinity with the totemic figures associated with Picasso and Surrealism down to Abstract Expressionism and David Smith. The hand-marking of the clay adds an expressive touch, as do the patinaed metal and rough, grainy wood. But these works are neither as materially expressive nor as emotionally involved as their art-historical predecessors; they are unwilling to risk their dignity, and project a sense of stability and orderliness. For all the gestural flash of their unbalanced clay heads, Andromache and King Priam, both 1993–94, are centered both formally and symbolically, as the triangles in their middles suggest. Iphition and The Towers of Ilion, both 1993–94, testify to Caro’s interest in drama and violence. Iphition was slaughtered by Achilles—the work depicts, presumably, the mangled remains of his body after it has been run over by the Achaian chariots (Achilles’ vehicle has rather stagey tracks)—and the towers are obviously supposed to be burning. The violent intent is conveyed on a formal level in the contrast of parts: gesturalized clay, metal planes (in one case with a splash of color), wood blocks, and various nuts and bolts seem to clash. And yet the violence is never entirely convincing: Caro can’t help but balance the variables so that each work has a picture-perfect rightness, the proverbial rightness of classical art. But where in classical art at its best we feel the struggle for balance and wholeness, in “The Trojan War” that balance seems inevitable and forced. The incongruities, misalignments, and irresolutions Caro takes from his Surrealist and Expressionist forebears seem in his hands to be mere stylizations.

As an effort to escape the confines of Modernist abstraction by restoring the “literature” that Clement Greenberg split off and discarded, the sculptures have a certain earnest nobility. The limitations of Caro’s literary imagination, however, dooms them. What is lacking here is any re-creation of Homer’s tale in terms relevant to contemporary art or life (as in some convincing modernizations of Shakespeare, for instance). Rather, the artist contents himself with abstractly illustrating what has become (the fate of all classics?) a story for children. Caro’s brand of abstraction, its oddity and uncanniness made overly familiar by time, has become charming despite all its efforts to be grim, and seems nearly as archaic as the subject it deals with. There may be something tragic in these works, but it’s not because they depict tragedy.

Donald Kuspit