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From mind to matter: throughout his career the sculptor Anthony Caro has been intrigued by the question of what sculpture is and its inherent possibilities. Apollo caught up with him at his studio.

'I didn't think 30 years ago that people would be this interested in sculpture,' says Sir Anthony Caro, 'but they are. They've started looking at it, instead of thinking of it as something you might bump into or trip over. It's very odd, I don't know if it's good or bad but I'm delighted.'

Caro himself is a pivotal figure in the extraordinary history of sculpture in Britain over the last century or so. Exactly half way through 'Modern British Sculpture', an exhibition held at the Royal Academy (RA) earlier this year, Caro's Early One Morning (1962) commanded a room all to itself (Fig. 2).

Whatever one thought of that controversial and eccentric exhibition, it is hard to deny that Caro's sculpture still looked fresh, strong and even audacious after almost half a century. It is somehow filled with the mood of the 1960s. Constructed of steel girders and aluminium, its stark angularity nonetheless seems to defy gravity; its colour of bright orange-red is both brash and hopeful.

'People say that the colours we used were Carnaby Street colours', says Caro, recalling the work that he and his contemporaries and pupils at St Martin's School of Art made at that time, 'I don't think so. It was a very forward-looking time, there was an optimistic attitude around. Carnaby Street partook of it and we did too.'

The central positioning of Caro's work in the Royal Academy exhibition is obviously correct. In lots of ways, he belongs there. Several of the sculptors who became prominent in the '70s and '80s--Gilbert & George, Richard Long, Barry Flanagan--were Caro's students (if not necessarily his followers stylistically). From their work it is a short step to Antony Gormley, Rachel Whiteread, Damien Hirst and Anish Kapoor. But Caro's own teachers and beginnings belong to a distant world, one that would be more recognisable to Donatello or Phidias than Damien Hirst.

His first mentor was Charles Wheeler (1892-1974), president of the Royal Academy from 1956 to '66. Wheeler's bronze Adam of 1934-35 (Fig. 4) stood a few rooms earlier than Early One Morning in the RA exhibition. As a metal representation of a young male body it is artistically closer to 5th-century BC Athenian sculpture than to the sculpture that Caro was producing in the 1960s. Yet this was Caro's starting-point.

'My housemaster at Charterhouse School was a friend of Charles Wheeler's, and I got to know him and went to his studio. He was a nice man, very kind. He said, if you seriously want to be a sculptor you should go to the Regent Street Polytechnic and study under Geoffrey Deeley [a member, like Wheeler, of the Wolverhampton school of sculpture], then when you are ready try for the Royal Academy Schools.'


This Caro eventually did, but after some delay. Born in 1924, he is of the same generation as Lucian Freud and Richard Hamilton (both born in 1922), but Caro's career as an artist was slow to begin. As we sit in his North London studio--an ex-piano factory with plenty of space for creating massive works of art--I ask him why he had wanted to become a sculptor in the first place? 'I couldn't do anything else', he replies. 'I liked art and also stuff--clay for example--and putting things together. Colour was not really my bag. I've always had difficulty with the illusionistic aspect of painting, but I like the reality of sculpture: the "thingness" of sculpture.'

His parents insisted that he study something sensible, so he read engineering at Cambridge (he says he was a bad engineer and that the subject was no preparation for his later constructions in heavy metal), then served in the Fleet Air Arm towards the end of the World War II. He was approaching his mid-20s by the time he arrived at the Royal Academy Schools in 1947, and his discovery of what was then cutting-edge art took some time: 'I went to Sweden especially to see the work of Carl Milles [a sculptor, much admired by Wheeler, best known for fountains in an Art Deco/classical idiom], but I'm pretty ashamed of that. Now I think he's awful, but I didn't at the time.'

Caro mentions another work which, while still in a prominent public place, is scarcely looked at by anyone today: Alfred Hardiman's equestrian monument to Earl Haig in London's Whitehall. 'The Haig statue by Hardiman was very good indeed. At one time I would have been happy to have made something like that, but later I was discontented with people like Charles Wheeler and Hardiman. I felt I wanted to go beyond that kind of traditional style, that there was something more', Caro explains.



In 1951 Caro found his way to Henry Moore's studio in Much Hadham, Hertfordshire. 'I didn't know much about this chap Moore, he was just beginning to get well known and he was already in his 50s. But I asked him to take me on because he was the most advanced sculptor in Britain then. I went up to see him in my little car and knocked on his door. I said, "I'd like to work for you". He replied, "You might have telephoned, but you'd better come in and have a cup of tea". I showed him what I was doing, and he said "I haven't got anything at the moment but why don't you ring in six months time". So I counted the days. Six months later to the day I phoned and said "Do you remember me?" He said, "Yes I do, start on Monday".'

Caro moved his family to Much Hadham--by that stage he was married with a baby son--and worked part-time as Moore's assistant for the next two years. It was an intensive course, not only in sculpture but in Modernism. 'Henry was very, very good to me', recalls Caro. 'He knew I was keen, so he was very giving. He liked to talk to me about sculpture and art. Henry would look at my drawings, he'd do little drawings on the side of my things, getting it right. Every night I would take a book out of his library, about Surrealism, Cubism or African art. I'd never seen a work of African art until I went to Henry's. I got an enormous amount of knowledge from his open attitude to me.'




By the mid '50s, Caro was clearly an artist to watch. 'Of the new sculptors', David Sylvester wrote perceptively in 1955, 'the most impressive seems to me to be Anthony Caro'. But if his work of that time had, as Sylvester put it, 'sheer sculptural power indicative of rare promise', he was still an artist in search of an idiom. His work took the form of a 'pretend person'--as Caro put it recently--made of clay or bronze.

That didn't change until 1959, when he invited the American critic Clement Greenberg to his studio. They spent all day talking, and later in the year Caro went to America and encountered, among other artists, Robert Rauschenberg, Kenneth Noland, John Chamberlain and David Smith. Famously, Greenberg advised him, 'If you want to change your art, change your habits.'

'When I came back to England I went to the scrapyard in Canning Town and bought steel and an oxyacetylene torch--although I didn't know anything about steel', says Caro. 'I remember asking somebody, "How do you join two bits together?" My colleague at St Martin's [where Caro was already teaching] Frank Martin, who was a lot more practical than me, said you either weld them or bolt them. I was that unsophisticated. But in the end steel was the way in for me.'

Part of the importance of Caro's work is that it marks the point at which British sculpture met the full force of post-war American art. If the words of Greenberg were crucial, even more so was the example of the sculptor in welded steel, David Smith. 'I was very lucky in knowing both him and Henry Moore, one after the other. When I met David I was open to looking at art in a new way, and I found that in America the rules of history didn't apply. They approached it in a fresher spirit than we did. The attitude was: Let's see if we can do it a new way, both in living and in art. David's sculpture had that about it. His approach was: this steel is stuff we haven't played with before, let's see where it can take us. That was tremendous eye-opener for me.'


While Moore had been a father figure, Smith was a different sort of mentor. 'He was 18 years older. Nevertheless, because I was a sculptor I was a competitor. And I was a bit competitive, I wanted to beat him.' Looking back Caro feels that the two principle artistic heirs of David Smith are John Chamberlain and himself: 'Richard Serra is a grandson maybe', he says.

Caro found not only his own art transformed but also his way of teaching: 'After I I came back from America for the first time in 1960 I said I've had a big change in my life and work, but I'm not going to teach that, I'll carry on in the old way. That lasted about an hour. Then I started saying, you'll make your sculpture and then we'll look at it when it's finished.'

The group that formed around Caro at that time is sometimes called the New Generation, after the title of a series of exhibitions at the Whitechapel Gallery in the early '60s. It included Phillip King, David Annesley, Michael Bolus, Tim Scott, William Tucker and Isaac Witkin. 'I had some very good students', recalls Caro, 'and we used to talk about sculpture. What was sculpture? Why did it have to be this? Why did it have to be that? We would try anything, using different materials and colour--anything-and we'd talk about it a lot. We'd call each other and say, I've got something I'd like you to come and see. There was no difference between teachers and students. Exciting things started to happen.'

Through the decades that followed, Caro has continued to ponder what sculpture can be. 'When you say something, then you start to question whether that was an assumption that you should examine. Once someone asked "What is sculpture?" and I said it's something that you are outside of. Then I thought, wait a minute, why shouldn't you be inside it?'




From this thought developed the Tower of Discovery (1991), dubbed by Caro a work of 'sculpitecture'--part architectural structure, part sculpture--and much disliked by some (Fig. 8). Unabashed, Caro is still finding ways to tweak the definition of his art. A current project is a sculpture designed to be three blocks long for the centre of Park Avenue, New York, and intended to be seen from a car moving at 30 miles per hour. This is still at model stage when I visit Caro's studio, due to be unveiled in February 2012 (Fig. 10).

Although Caro is prepared to consider many radical departures from the tradition in which he was educated all those years ago, there is a clear point beyond which he is unwilling to go. 'You could start to think that breathing is sculpture. I'm sure somebody has. But living is not sculpture, ordinary everyday things are not sculpture.' This is in clear contradiction to the famous claim of his old students Gilbert & George to be 'living sculptures', and to the Duchampian tradition of transforming objects into art with a flourish of the artist's wand. 'For it to be art', he says, 'there has to be some sort of a condensation. Something has to be resolved. It cannot just be everyday life, I don't think. I was willing to bring sculpture closer to real life, take it off the pedestal. But there still is, for me, a little bit of a transparent screen around it, to say 'Tm special, I'm not like your table and chairs, don't sit on me!'" In that respect, if not in many others, he remains in agreement with the teachers of his youth.


Martin Gayford's book, Man with a Blue Scarf, was published by Thames and Hudson in 2010.
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Author:Gayford, Martin
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Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 1, 2011
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