This display forms a concise overview of the developments in Caro’s sculpture from the early 1960s to the 1990s. It begins with Capital 1960, one of the first three sculptures that mark the artist’s breakthrough to an entirely abstract mode of expression.
From the outset, Caro’s underlying conviction was that ‘art is about what it is like to be alive’. Accordingly, he wished to make sculpture that conveyed a sense of vitality, feeling and, as he put it, ‘was as important in a room as a person.’ By 1959, however, he had become dissatisfied with the figurative sculptures he had been making. ‘Try as I might’, he recalled, ‘I was making a pretend person out of clay or plaster or bronze’. It seemed to him that such image-based work involved a kind of deception, and he rejected this. Seeking to make his work more immediately expressive, he was convinced of the need ‘to make sculpture more real, more felt’, but was unsure how to proceed.
He discovered a possible way forward during the visit he made to America that year, when he met the painters Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler and Kenneth Noland. Their ideas about the expressive power of abstract form impressed him, suggesting that shapes and colours that existed on their own terms had a direct emotional message. Concluding that he had ‘no alternative but to make my sculpture abstract if it was to be expressive’, on his return to London he broke with his previous practice and adopted new materials and methods. Responding to the paintings he had seen, he began assembling pieces of steel found in scrapyards into abstract arrangements welded into position and then painted. These assemblages were real things, but the challenge was to invest them with a sense of life and presence. Through exploration, he found that this could be achieved by inflecting different shapes so that each sculpture acquired an expressive character of its own. The result was a body of work that took sculpture into new territory.
Caro described his intentions in the following way:
I have been trying to eliminate references and make truly abstract sculpture, composing the parts of the pieces like notes in music. Just as a succession of these make up a melody or sonata, so I take autonomous units and try to make them cohere in an open way into a sculptural whole. Like music, I would like my sculpture to be the expression of feeling in terms of the material, and like music, I don’t want the entirety of the experience to be give all at once.
Capital is an early manifestation of these ideas. It comprises various parts assembled into a whole. Like a piece of music, the sculpture unfolds sequentially, in this case as the viewer moves around it; and the way its parts relate is expressive, echoing attitudes and gestures that we associate with the human body. However, the sculpture conveys that vitality in abstract form. Larry’s Land, which Caro created in 1970, reveals his refinement of this sculptural language. This later work extends along the ground in a series of curving gestures that seem to reach into - as if probing - the space it occupies. In common with all his work, the sculptures have a physical presence that transmits a sense of life.
These developments drew critical acclaim. ‘One has the impression’, the critic of the New York Times wrote, ‘of an artist how having totally mastered a new and difficult area of sculptural syntax is now permitting himself a freer margin of lyric improvisation’. However, perhaps wary of the dangers of over-refinement, Caro resolved ‘to do something completely different’. In 1970, he adopted a new approach, replacing sensuality with a non-lyrical angularity. Ordnance exemplifies this change in direction, employing stacked horizontal beams and engineered parts that contain space; unlike its predecessors, Ordnance was left unpainted, the rusted steel being an essential part of its character. Caro went on to make compositions that are more severe or raw in character than their painted predecessors. These later sculptures are no less expressive, but sensuous appeal was replaced by blunt matter-of-factness. ‘The fact’ of the sculpture should, as Caro put it, ‘be more emphatic than their form’. As a result, he produced sculptures that have an entirely different abstract presence.
One of Caro’s principal sources of inspiration was the character of the materials he used. During the 1960s and 1970s, for example, particular pieces of found steel would suggest the way each sculpture would develop. From the 1980s, Caro’s work diversified as he drew on an expanded range of materials. ‘I felt much more freedom to experiment,’ he explained, ‘freedom to try anything.’ Barcelona Window was created during the artists’ workshop that Caro held in Barcelona in 1987. It is part of a series of ground-based sculptures which incorporate scrap steel found locally, notably remnants of balconies, balustrades, grilles and other pieces of ornate wrought iron. These elements influenced the linear nature of the resulting sculptures, and Caro relished the opportunity to explore the notion of sculpture as a form of drawing. After bringing the unused scrap material to his London studio, he continued to develop his fascination with linear sculpture in the Catalan series. As such pieces as Catalan Scrawl 1987-1988 reveal, these works can be seen as three-dimensional drawings.
Caro’s experimentation with materials continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s. It extended to paper, which he treated as sculpture, with tearing, folding, squashing and different textures all forming part of his means. The Obama series was created during a visit to Japan in 1990, where he worked in a paper workshop in the small rural village of Obama. Caro was also fascinated by the character of found pre-fabricated wooden artefacts, which he also included in his sculptures. In the Arena series, for example, wooden patterns used in the sand casting of decorative finials feature prominently. These objects were found in local foundries and, after being painted and combined with other shapes, their capacity to take on an allusive significance is evident. In Procession 1995-1996, for example, they recall figures depicted by the early Renaissance master Giotto in his Arena chapel paintings. As this suggests, in his later sculptures Caro increasingly exploited the evocative nature of certain forms. In Table Piece S-17 ‘Mountain’ 1994-5, for example, pieces of found scrap steel are invested with recognisable associations.
Caro’s breakthrough to pure abstraction extended insights contained in the work of earlier artists making constructed sculpture, notably Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Julio Gonzalez (1876-1942) and David Smith (1906-1965). By extending their work in wholly original ways, however, he disclosed a realm of new possibilities for sculpture. The effects of the revolution he initiated continue to resonate.
© Paul Moorhouse 2023