The Guardian 1989
Anthony Caro is a sculptor with a complex. Sacha Craddock looks at his new shows
Anthony Caro’s recent sculpture is certainly not lacking in variety. There are, at least five diverse strands in the work showing at the Annely Juda and Knoedler galleries. Most is literal in that it looks like what it is supposed to be about. There is the continuation of his small raised table pieces, first started in the early Seventies, upstairs at Annely Juda. These have a Catalan theme. As the most familiar Caro's in the show they are formally exquisite playful indulgences in rusted steel. Catalan Tap Dance has an awkward rhythm to it, the tick tock of regional dancing combines with a reminder of pre-Renaissance and 19th century hard but basic line.
Breeze is a subtle formal pleasure with a seesaw cause and effect implication of movement that turns back on itself. Because these works are not greatly different from earlier small table sculptures you get the feeling this is where Caro can still enjoy himself and indulge in the ease with which he balances and manipulates his metal. As a continuation of an abstract but decorative past they fulfil the function of drawing, allowing him to do what he enjoys.
But The Moroccans, made over three years, is a more difficult and complex sculpture. Elements have been taken from a Matisse painting of the same name are arranged around a table that sits squat just off the floor. Almost disparate pieces are placed to remind of a sun-baked domestic interior.
Earthenware and stoneware, baked and fired, is placed with spaces in an attempt to make perfect what could be awkward. As an abstract artist Caro has gone from almost minimal to complex in a career in which he has made little that could ever be thought wrong. He just can’t help balancing and arranging what he deals with until it looks good. With The Moroccans he has stretched that ease in order to encounter problems. As a teacher Caro sets projects, and it appears he applies that rule and method to himself still.
Caro has always followed paintings with as much pleasure as sculpture. Apart from Matisse, a favourite, he has looked back furthers to earlier, famous two-dimensional images.
At Knoedler he has made a large sculpture based on Rembrandt’s Descent From the Cross. In the painting Christ is very heavy, a dead weight as he is brought down. Gravity is pulling the weight faster almost than the bearers can hold.
Caro has erected a cross and surrounding detailed from rusted steel. But this modern expert a tricking gravity for real fails when it is most important. The very point of the Rembrandt is the falling down rather than the staying up. Sculpture is more real than painting, by making the cross and constructions of detail that surrounds it and reducing the figures to nothing much you are left with a piece that points up and stays still.
There is therefore heaviness to the sculpture. But that is only because of association of subject and grand intention. So this again looks like another project but one quite different from Picasso repeatedly painting Las Meninas, sculpture is heavy and painting is not; it is about illusion. Remove the subject of directional force of the illusion and there are bound to be problems.
The gigantic piece Elephant Palace stands out as totally different from the rest. Instead of working in the American abstract style, making piece go with piece, welding and balancing as he goes along with a mixture of chance and choice, Caro has here made a structure that looks like a construction.
Based on Caro's particular interest in Indian architecture it has very un-Western proportions. Made from uniformly polished brass it is raised, bier-like, one foot only above the floor by decorous short legs. Its base and width is much wider than its height.
The piece is exciting because it is rather ugly. Instead of the white elephant, it is the brass elephant, a useless piece of a different kind of grandeur. Caro must follow what goes on in the work of younger sculptors and this piece is similar in construction to sculpture by Richard Deacon. Caro will have had to plan this bolting of metal next to metal with a premeditated precision that involves more than the use of eye.
As one of our most important sculptors, Caro is still better known in America than here. He has his own language of form worked out, on the tip of his tongue, Working from sheet metal he enjoys changing its nature from hard edge of line to soft, melted blur. He has never, accepts at the very beginning, enjoyed modelling from a mass. Elephant Palace marks a real change in his work because it presents a skin. We see the outside only. Often Caro fights against what he is good at and used to by complicating, detailing and making more elaborate.
At times his self set projects can look too grandly overstretched for instead of changing method he attempts to put more in. His smaller table pieces continue a joyous, classical, formal line, but being food at something can be a problem. It can get in the way of the total lift off, where material and idea soar up together to never come down again.
© Sacha Craddock 1989