Anthony Caro

A year late for the artist’s eightieth birthday and chronologically spanning a more-than-fifty-year career, Anthony Caro’s retrospective at Tate Britain was arranged, surprisingly enough, so that one was able to arrive at the show’s first room only by passing through a hall containing his most recent works. As a result, viewers comfortable in their familiarity with Caro’s accomplishments as an abstract sculptor might have been dismayed to encounter, before anything else, his vast, semi-figurative sculptural ensemble The Last Judgement, 1995–99. Could this really be the work of the same Caro responsible for those brilliant painted constructions of the ’60s?

Had the first exhibition gallery offered up the inexhaustible pleasures of admired works like Early One Morning, 1962, or Prairie, 1967, some of this discomfiture might have been allayed, but instead, the show opened with figurative drawings and sculpture from the ’50s. As their implicit connection with Caro’s subsequent forays into figuration might suggest, this is more than simply juvenilia to be eyed quickly on the way toward the concise, buoyant abstract works just ahead. Caro made most of this work when well into his thirties, and already it conveys a distinct sensibility. In contrast with the rather affected nobility of his teacher Henry Moore or the angst-ridden pathos of contemporaries such as Eduardo Paolozzi and Kenneth Armitage, Caro displays a funky, almost cartoonish humor in rough-hewn works like Man Taking Off His Shirt, 1955–56, or Pulling on a Girdle, 1958–59. The figures’ monumental forms are at odds with their quotidian, insignificant gestures. In a surprising way, these works anticipate Michael Fried’s observation (in a 1963 essay reprinted for the exhibition catalogue) that in his abstract sculpture “Caro has more in common with certain representational artists of the past”—Rodin, for example—than with those abstractionists the critic also championed, such as Kenneth Noland or Frank Stella, “whose paintings are more concerned with the solution of formal problems than with the making of expressive gestures.”

Caro’s early production also shows him to be a connoisseur of gestures, especially those expressions without rhetoric that, when we happen to notice them in others, seem ingenuous precisely because of their lack of self-consciousness. It is this freedom from overt eloquence that remains so refreshing in Caro’s work of 1962—and, given the work’s formal sophistication and inventiveness, astonishing. Caro’s virtues here are the ones Italo Calvino would so memorably hymn in his Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1998): lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity. Without ever pretending to describe, evoke, or be anything but what it is, metal seems to lose the burden of its weight, and through the precise relationship of parts, every element in the sculptures conveys a sense of being active.

Yet perhaps Caro’s gestural candor in these works gives a clue to the difficulties ahead. Canny unselfconsciousness is a paradox that can be sustained for only so long. Curator Paul Moorhouse, like many before him, emphasizes Caro’s radical gesture in removing sculpture from its pedestal. The move was not entirely unprecedented; Marcel Duchamp nailed a coatrack to the floor in 1917. That Duchamp titled this work Trébuchet (Trap) signaled his understanding of the consequences of that relocation—but did Caro also comprehend its radicality? There is reason to doubt it. Sculpture encountered in the space of the everyday is an obstacle, a stumbling block, something (as in the memorable quip attributed variously to Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt) you bump into. And though it would be easy enough to treat a ’60s Caro sculpture as just so much stuff, at least if the guards aren’t looking, the artist would have rejected this interpretation. The pedestal had been divested of its literal presence to take on an equally formidable one inside the viewer’s head, becoming what Caro himself once called “an invisible wall between the spectator and the work.” This was presumably the same self-conscious barrier that had spared the man taking off his shirt or the woman pulling on her girdle, from an awareness of being watched. But an artist grown famous is always aware of his audience, and Caro’s sculpture gradually became more rhetorical, more willfully expressive.

As a way of coming to terms with the inevitable growth of self-consciousness in the deployment of gesture, Caro’s diversion into quasi-architectural concerns in the late ’80s and early ’90s, because of the structural discipline it necessitated, was probably a wise move, sparing him the direst consequences of strained eloquence. His work lost its vivacious immediacy but gained in force and in range. But the portentous ensemble of The Last Judgement—following an earlier series on “The Trojan War,” 1993–94—plumps for eloquence as wholeheartedly as Caro had once converted from mundane observation to abstraction. His reckless enthusiasm is, in a way, admirable: Entering his seventies, Caro was willing to risk using an unfamiliar idiom on a grand scale, but the results are dubious. With The Last Judgement, virtuosic though its execution, one feels suddenly back in the ’50s with its “New Images of Man” sensibility that Caro’s abstraction of the ’60s had helped sweep away. Caro’s passionate concerns—“human catastrophe, unbelievable and indefensible suffering, a tragedy written in blood,” as Moorhouse notes—are all the more compelling today, in the wake of the Iraq invasion and Abu Ghraib, yet the combination of hazy generalization and demonstrative overbearing leaves one queasy. It’s probably just as well that the newest work here, Millbank Steps, 2004, beats a tactical retreat to earlier architectural concerns.

Barry Schwabsky is a London-based critic.