Peter Murray interviewing Anthony Caro (June 2000)


In the early 60’s your welded painted sculpture had a great impact on the art world. In fact Bryan Robertson said that after Picasso, painting could never be the same and after Caro, sculpture could never be the same. Today it is difficult to appreciate what a shock your painted sculpture was to the public.

It was never my aim simply to shock, rather I was convinced that we had to re-examine where sculpture was. If the result was shocking, that was because the audience was not ready to stomach what I had done. At St Martins we felt forced to throw out the old assumptions: the figure, bronze or stone. Instead we wanted to make something expressive, no matter if it did not look the way sculpture was expected to look.

When you say we, it suggests the involvement of others.

Almost invariably big changes in art happen because there is more than one person addressing a problem. They show each other their work and get something back from one another. In the early Sixties we had to be our own critics, we were the only people who really responded to the new work.

In the early 1950s you worked with Henry Moore for two years. The figurative work you were producing at that time is very different from your subsequent sculpture. Was there a point when you said ‘I really want to get out of this. I want to go in a different direction’?

I got to the stage where, try as I might, I was making a ‘pretend person’ out of clay or plaster or bronze. I did not want that. Sculpture, I felt, must not be pretence. Sculpture must be itself. Anything less was not going to work for me anymore. It was at that moment that I went to America. The art I saw there and the discussions I had caused me to change my work completely when I came back.

It was interesting reading your lecture on sculpture and architecture, in which you suggest that it was painters that changed the direction of sculpture and not sculptors.

It was the painters. The object, more often than not the figure, had become an essential for the sculptors. Even first-rate sculptors like Lipchitz could not get away from the figure. Sculptors were trapped within rules they had made for themselves.

Your early brightly coloured sculpture, such as Sculpture Three (1962) and Early One Morning (1963) relied on a sense of looking - sight rather than touch. The viewer was encouraged to perceive the volume and space, not to touch or expect tactile qualities. It was very much a visual experience. Nowadays it seems that physical interaction you’re your sculpture is very important, for instance Promenade (1966) and Child’s Tower Room (1983/84).

You have the sculptor’s rules – you break them; you have your own rules – you break them. Rules are made first of all because you think that these are the edges, the limits, and then you question whether that is truly as far as you can go. For instance I have come round to thinking, not that play sculptures are a true direction for sculpture, but that for public sculpture there is something to be learned from this kind of structure with its associations with architecture. It is different from true architecture: not only is it without a practical purpose, you have to squeeze through doors, you are forced actively to experience your body’s size. Grasping the bodily relationship is very important indeed to the appreciation of sculpture.

Was that not the case in the early work, particularly when you were painting sculpture – did you not intend people to experience it with their bodies?

I never want people to handle my sculpture, to run their hands over surfaces. But I do want them to grasp it in a physical way, to relate to it with their bodies; that is one reason why the early works were so big. It is as if the eyes become a surrogate for the body. In one way or another physicality has to be a part of sculpture. Looking is physical, not conceptual: you never get the full sense of a sculpture from a photograph. The artwork is a real thing; even if you do not lift it, you have to be aware of real size, real weight. There are things, like for instance using a looking glass in a work, which are undoubtedly great notions, but you have to beware of taking too much physicality out of a sculpture.

You stopped using colour a long time ago. Was that deliberate or did it just happen?

I stopped using colour because at the time it felt too comfortable. Colour is so emotive and you respond to it faster and more readily. Also I wanted to make sculptures with looser steel parts and if you colour those you get too decorative. Sometimes I use colour now: certain sculptures need it.

Obviously, there has always been a sort of relationship with architecture, right from the early metal sculptures, but when did you start to develop a much stronger interest in architecture?

Looking back, I realize that I have always been attracted by the order in architecture, the way parts speak to one another - plan and elevation, the way space gets enclosed. Even as a student, I was making sculpture which explored this. It was at a Triangle Workshop in 1987, where there were architects as well as painters and sculptors, that I worked with the architect Frank Gehry. We made a kind of village with loose elements and open rooms and I found that I could develop this using thin stainless steel. I began to realise the importance of skin. I had a postcard of a Roman bronze head which had been broken open; it was a real discovery for me that there was an inside as well as an outside surface.

Was it successful working with Frank Gehry during the workshop?

It was quite successful and I enjoyed working with him: I like him. But in my opinion the work we made did not gel sufficiently. It was more a sketch, an exciting sketch. Perhaps it would have been better to have worked with an architect who was less of a sculptor.

You seem to be saying that you should learn from other people’s disciplines, but not actually do what other people do. Your respect for architects is evident – is that to do with their discipline and the way they actually deal with volume and space, or the final product?

I am interested in the way they come at it.

I’m not sure what you mean when you refer to your interest in the relationship between sculptor and architect. Is it a spatial influence, is it that you can make the buildings look better by putting a piece of sculpture in front of it?

It is not that at all! It is an attitude of mind. Sculptors can learn from architects because architects have a feeling for scale and the open air. On the other hand sculptors are very free. We can do crazy things. I am working on a sculptural tower with the engineer Chris Wise. He said: ‘Let us try to make something as if a lot of steel has been thrown up into the air and stays there.’ That is a challenge. I had to try to think from the wrong end, the sky, not the ground, a kind of lateral thinking.

When I first met you in 1978 you were supportive of Yorkshire Sculpture Park, but in those days you had strong reservations about showing sculpture in the open air, particularly in the landscape. I remember you said grass is a great defeater. Do you have fewer reservations now about showing work in the landscape or is it simply that you think that at YSP we have developed the curatorial skills to deal with sculpture in the open air?

You have developed very good curatorial skills: I have never seen the Henry Moores look better and Promenade looks great beside the lake. Yorkshire Sculpture Park is a difficult space because it is big and demanding. But all landscape is difficult, hills and trees and grass are so powerful, and romantic too. Anyway, more often than not, the sculpture is spoiling the view! Unrelenting cityscape is often a better foil for sculpture, it provides the frame. Sculpture without containment, without anything to hold it, gets blown away. I feel I am learning all the time. Halifax Steps was made because Robert Hopper at the Henry Moore Sculpture Trust offered me the opportunity to make a sculpture for the old mill space at Dean Clough. There are columns running the length of the building and I incorporated them, so Halifax Steps was really an installation. Later Wilfred Cass at Goodwood suggested it be made into an outdoor sculpture. When the new version was finished, it became something completely different. Erected outdoors, it framed the view; you saw landscape through it. Like a Georgian mansion in the countryside it worked against landscape, rather than reflecting it. It is never a solution to take a small sculpture and ‘blow it up’, it will not work in the open air simply because it is large; often the worst sculptures are the big ones. Yorkshire Sculpture Park is a difficult space because it is big and demanding.

 

YSP is big, but we have learned from landscape designers, by understanding the history and design of the place. We try to delineate areas, using trees, shrubs and vistas. It took a long time to locate the site for Promenade, but now the horizontality of the piece works well. To me it takes in the whole of that space. I don’t necessarily think there has to be great harmony between a sculpture and the landscape. The most important thing is context and often curators get that wrong. You have had a number of exhibitions in the open air or semi-open air. One of the most impressive was in Rome in the Trajan Markets (1992), where you had works both indoors and outdoors.

Rome – what a context! The sculptures were shown within the old market building and along the ancient road outside, the Via Biberatica, where outlines of houses still remain. These formed boxes with walls no more than a metre high, which acted as frames; in each one we put a sculpture. If there was a doorway to look through, that was even better: each was a defined place. That laying down of the limits was one of the things plinths used to do to old sculptures.

When I was in Rome I felt the market was very much like one of your sculptures, you had the indoors and the outdoors, the spaces were very sculptural, and the siting was superb.

The siting was largely due to the inspiration of Giovanni Carandente. A Roman himself, he perfectly understands the light and the space. On the day I arrived a sculpture of mine looked to me quite disappointing there. The strong Mediterranean light had changed it. The sun was so bright, the shadows black, everything crisp and hard, altogether different from the shadowy greys of England. After lunch Giovanni moved the sculpture a little and suddenly it was perfect. I needed to get accustomed to the ambience and the light. It would not be possible to recreate the Trajan Markets in England.

In Rome I began to see your works, especially the more recent ones, in a very dramatic way. The other thing that came out was the sense of history, your understanding of the history of art, in the references to Greece, to the classical world, to Renaissance art.

I have always felt that we must have a new approach for new times, but I have never been scared of history. In the last decades, I learned a great deal from looking at the art of the past. Certainly my visit to Greece influenced me a lot. I was bowled over by the archaic sculpture and the classical architecture. Then on the next visit I became intrigued by Byzantine architecture. Where the classical is open and reflects nature, the Byzantine is dark, in-turned; one is about outside, the other about interiority.

You deliberately didn’t visit Greece for a long time?

I was saving the experience. I did not go as a student. The plaster casts of classical sculpture covered by brown shellac which stood in the corridor of the Royal Academy Schools was enough to turn one off. But when I finally did go, it knocked me out. Seeing Greek sculpture in the British Museum or in the Met is not the same as seeing it in the light of Greece. I waited until 1985; until then I had not been ready. It is important to control the way you live and work. If you do that, the art should take care of itself. If you know you are not ready for something, then stay away.

At the Trajan Market show I was impressed by the apparent unity of it all. Although superficially there is no relationship between the coloured girders and the table sculptures, I felt it worked together. How did you achieve that?

 

We arranged the works in the show in Rome by making a 1/20 model of the site, just as we have done with Longside, trying out models of the sculptures to see how they fit. This was the first time we did it that way. As a result it becomes less necessary to make big, labour-intensive changes on site.

I do not know whether it came out of the experience in Greece but there was a stage where you seemed concerned with horizontal works of linked parts such as After Olympia, then in The Trojan War those parts were separated altogether. As you move elements further apart the spatial tension between those elements becomes greater and I wonder if that has anything to do with the architectural aspect of your work?

Do you see a connection - units gradually becoming separated? I made sculpture back in the Sixties with separated parts connected by a wall. In the exhibition of Halifax Steps in Dean Clough I wanted to draw attention to the way the space and the sculpture worked together. The Trojan War was shown at Yorkshire Sculpture Park at the same time and I wanted people to experience The Trojan War also as a special sort of space, a battlefield, so even though one work is figurative and the other abstract, they have this in common.

One of the things I find fascinating about organising sculpture in the open air is searching for the optimum viewpoint. It is very difficult – you might get the right view for a sculpture and then find it is ruined when you site the next one. You also have to take into consideration how the landscape changes.

The curator does have a very important job placing the sculptures in such a way that they are not disruptive either to each other or to the viewer. The work needs to be positioned so that the placement not only stimulates the viewers to take on board the newness and originality of the piece, but also gives them a chance to come to terms with it.

It often seems that people are most used to looking at two-dimensional work, so they tend to walk past sculpture in the round. This is something you have to think of when siting sculpture in the open air, you have to encourage people go around and through.

Walking through a sculpture is an exciting new way of experiencing sculpture. Every new kind of work demands a different frame of response. A Barnet Newman or a Morris Louis asks for a different way of looking from the way you look at a Monet or for that matter a van Eyck.

At Longside you have the option of walking through, round or past the works and I think that physical involvement is very important. When you were planning the Longside exhibition, what did you as an artist want to achieve in that space?

The moment I saw that enormous room, I was impressed. And I felt Goodwood Steps could be seen there in a way it had not been seen before: indoors, where it will work differently from when it was in landscape. Here it is not only a sculpture, but also a divider, avoiding the need for false walls, which would reduce and cut up the room. The other sculptures in the show are fairly massive, architectural, rather than linear, even when like Elephant Palace they are about skin. And they all say something about interior-exterior.

You have decided to include the Child’s Tower Room – was that originally commissioned by the Arts Council?

None of the works in the show was commissioned – in every case I have been absolutely free to make whatever I wanted. However, in 1983 four artists were each asked by the Arts Council to do a room to be shown in Liberty’s department store on Regent Street and I made the Child’s Tower Room. I thought why not do a room that children can experience in a physical way.

Was that the first time you had attempted something like that?

Yes, except for a tree-house for my own children in our garden at home. In some ways the Child’s Tower Room is like a tree-house; it has portholes, entrances small enough to squeeze through, steps you can squat under. It is a way of learning about the space you inhabit. I have a great photo of kids having their tea in the Tower.

It really pleases me that you are going to show some of your models in this exhibition – I think they will show a terrific sense of development and context.

Clare [Lilley] wanted somehow to show the development of my work and these little models indicate the context for the sculptures in the show. However, it is important to remember that the models are not maquettes for sculptures; they were all made for the purpose of planning exhibitions and made after the sculptures themselves were finished.

Do you ever make maquettes?

Not if I can help it. I am bad at thinking other than actual size. For the fifty feet tower I am currently making with Chris I had to make a model first because it is so big. But what I like best is to work real: I am not comfortable pretending.

Otherwise a degree of spontaneity does get lost?

Absolutely. When I did the Ledge Piece in the National Gallery in Washington in 1977 I had a lot of trouble because I found it difficult to maintain the spontaneity. Safety concerns and hauling steel parts up to a ledge 14 feet above ground made the work laborious and slow. Then I went away for a weekend and an assistant tidied up the unused pieces of steel. On the Monday morning when I saw the pile, I decided to weld it all up and hoist it onto the ledge. That proved to be the starting point I could work from. Only then did I finally get in touch with the sculpture. It was direct, like the way I work back in my studio.

We are all looking forward to seeing the Yorkshire show as it is bringing a number of elements together.

I am excited by the exhibition. Next year (2002) I am going to have a show in La Pedrera, the Casa Mila building in Barcelona by Gaudi, and because of the weak load-bearing capacity of the floor the works will have to be light, linear. These at Longside, on the other hand, are massive, so two entirely different aspects of my sculpture will be highlighted.

Do you have several developments on the go at the same time.

Yes. That keeps me on my toes. Each sculpture suggests where you could go next time, so you follow your nose.

June 2001