This display of sculpture focuses on the years 1966-69, and considers the developments in Anthony Caro’s work following the radical breakthrough he made six years earlier, in 1960.
During the 1950s, Caro focused on depicting the human body. Fulfilling his conviction that art is about the experience of being alive and inhabiting a body, the massive clay figures that he created evoked familiar sensations connected with sitting, standing, lying down and even putting on a shirt. Cast in plaster and bronze, these works were described by the critic Andrew Forge as a ‘tour de force’ when first exhibited in London in 1957. By 1959, however, Caro had come to feel the need to make his sculpture ‘more real, more felt’. It seemed to him that, in attempting to convey feeling and emotion, creating an image of a ‘pretend person’ was getting in the way. He added, ‘Sculpture…must not be pretence. Sculpture must be itself.’
Caro was unsure how to proceed. However, during a visit to America in late 1959, he made contact with the abstract painters Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler and Kenneth Noland. Their ideas about the expressive power of abstract form influenced him greatly and suggested a possible way forward. On his return to London, he dispensed with sculpting clay figures and adopted a completely new language comprising abstract shapes in steel, which he assembled into welded and painted constructions. No longer presented on plinths and depicting other recognisable things, these works were abstract but real in themselves, placed directly on the ground and confronting the viewer directly. Created from imagination, they were in the world but not of the world. First exhibited in 1963, these works pioneered a revolution in ideas concerning the nature of sculpture, and they confirmed Caro’s reputation as the most important sculptor of his generation.
The works in the present exhibition include two important large, ground-based sculptures and also several smaller works known as ‘table pieces’. In 1966, Caro addressed the question of how to present small abstract sculptures on plinths (or tables) without making them look like maquettes for larger works. His solution was entirely original. Each table piece projects beyond its plinth. As a result, these works are experienced as abstract objects that, like their larger counterparts, inhabit the real world.
Whether created on a large or small scale, Caro’s sculptures have a literal presence. They stand upright, incline, lie down and trace angular or curving movements through the air. Exploring the surrounding space, although abstract their linear shapes recall expressive gestures that remind us of the human body. In the film that accompanies this display, the soundtrack is formed by Satie’s Gymnopedie No.3. In common with Caro’s sculptures, Satie’s music has an improvised quality. The composition suggests a succession of gestures, shapes and movements that are not only physical. They convey a direct - if intangible - emotional message.
Paul Moorhouse (2023)