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November 2015

Vol. 157 / No. 1352

Caro in Yorkshire

Reviewed by Judith Collins

West Bretton and Wakefield


After attending a memorial event for Anthony Caro at Tate in 2013, Peter Murray, Director of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, felt that a comprehensive exhibition of Caro’s work should be organised before too long. He suggested to his staff that they begin to prepare an exhibition, and also contacted the Hepworth Wakefield, who agreed to collaborate. Thus was born the commemorative and celebratory overview of Caro’s prolific sixty-year career, Caro in Yorkshire (to 1st November).1 From its inception in 1977 Caro was a strong supporter of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, lending them his first polychrome sculpture Sculpture Seven (1961), showing his Trojan War sculptures there in 1994, and a wide range of architectural works – Sculpture and Sculpitecture – in 2001. So the title of the current show hints at his long allegiance to an area of the United Kingdom primarily associated with Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.

Spread across two sites, with stunning indoor and outdoor spaces, Caro in Yorkshire allowed both institutions to draw out different themes in his work. Caro acknowledged that his sculpture had strong relationships with painting and architecture, and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park has nominally concentrated on his affinities with painting, while the David Chipperfield award-winning building of the Hepworth Wakefield plays host to Caro’s excursions into the world of architecture. The earliest works appear at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s Longside Gallery, and date from 1951–53, when Caro worked as a part-time assistant to Henry Moore. These include life drawings annotated by Moore, colourful and schematic brush-and-ink figure drawings, small lively plaster and bronze figures, and sober bronze portrait busts, never before seen in public. They do not prepare the viewer for the confrontation with Month of May (1963; Fig.82), which appears around the first corner.

How did Caro make his radical move from being a creator of craggy bronze figures, close relatives of those made by Frink and Paolozzi, to someone who, confidently and with technical assurance, produced daring geometrical juxtapositions of brightly painted steel rods and sheets? The midwife to the birth of Caro’s new style was the influential American art critic Clement Greenberg, whom Caro met in London in 1959, and who urged Caro to go and visit artists in the United States. Taking Greenberg’s advice, Caro met them and admired the recent paintings of Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis and Jules Olitski, and the metal sculptures of David Smith and Alexander Calder.

The freedom he found in these works gave him the courage, on his return to London, to work in a new and improvisatory manner, and to use steel, a material unfamiliar to him. He bought scrap pieces of steel from scrapyards and learnt the rudiments of welding and ­bolting. All his early works were made in the small garage at the side of his house, and their size directly relates to the cramped dimensions of the garage. Caro did not begin with a sketch or a model, but instead handled the metal until it generated its own dynamic. He has often described his work as being like a song, where different elements play their own distinctive tunes which, when intertwined, ‘make up the whole melody’. His description clearly fits works such as Hopscotch (1962), whose shiny aluminium rods and slabs look rather like notes and bar lines in a musical score, and Month of May, in which the orange and green rods support the aerial magenta rods, which soar upwards like a descant line.

One of the delights of the Hepworth Wakefield show is the judicious presentation of a selection of table sculptures, placed on a long structure which traverses one of the ­galleries. In 1966 Caro began to make small sculptures, which he realised would have to be placed on a raised surface rather than directly on the ground. These ‘table sculptures’ were not to be seen either as models for or as reduced versions of larger works; they came with their own autonomy and sense of scale. Several of them incorporate real handles, which lends them the sense that they can be grasped and manipulated, particularly when some of the constituent parts drop below the level of the table-like surface, as in Table Piece LXXV (1969). There is nothing else like them in the world of sculpture; in their making Caro inaugurated a new genre.

Back at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Caro’s large multi-partite sculpture Promenade (1996) has been a feature of the lower park for a while, and was partly inspired by Courbet’s paintings of large and noble trees. It has now been enlivened by the masterly placing of several of Caro’s rusted and varnished steel Double Flats series (Fig.81). These were made using soft edged ends of rolled steel plates, giving them an organic rather than a mechanical feel. Caro believed that for sculpture to be placed in the open air, it should be made in the open air, and his Flats were made outdoors in Canada in 1974. He was not as keen as Moore was in placing his work outdoors, because he thought that in a large open landscape, a sculpture was likely to get ‘blown away’. The mature and handsome park trees offer a sense of refuge to the supple metal forms, as well as fascinating juxtapositions of natural and man-made forms.

As Caro’s work grew in scale in the 1980s, he began to think of ‘sculpture as place’, ­wondering if he could make a sculpture ‘you could go into’. The first attempt in this direction, for which he coined the ugly word ‘sculpitecture’, was Child’s Tower Room (1983–84), on show at the Hepworth Wakefield. Made of Japanese oak for an Arts Council show at Liberty’s department store in Regent Street, London, it gives off resonances of a school playground structure, particularly when the gallery restricts its exploration to those aged under ten, leaving parents to idly chat beside it. This ‘sculpitecture’ phase of Caro’s work was the only time his excellent standards dipped, and it had much to do with having to deal with existing environments and planning regulations.

After a visit to Greece in 1985, Caro became engrossed with trying to make his sculpture function within confined architectural/geometric shapes, as do the friezes and pediments of the ancient Greek temples at Delphi and Olympia. He set himself physical limits, and the noble work called Xanadu (1986–88) at Yorkshire Sculpture Park was one of the results. It has a sense of latent energy with its truncated lateral rhythms, with darker elements aping columns and lintels and lighter patinated forms hinting at body parts. Caro has stated that this work also ‘owes something’ to Matisse’s superb and sombre Bathers by a River of 1917.

Works of his last few years are on show in both venues, and they reveal how his interest in bright colours made a dramatic and unexpected return. Throughout his career, Caro was always prepared to try new methods and materials, and to that end he had worked with Japanese paper, terracotta, lead, bronze and wood. He wanted to make sculptures using glass for its transparency, but found it too weighty and recalcitrant. He used sheets of coloured Perspex instead, and blocks of bright pinks and yellows radiate light onto their more sober supports, particularly so in the case of a rugged work of 2013, poignantly titled Terminus (Fig.83). However, this Perspex phase may not have lasted long, since Caro stated that ‘Colour is more arresting than form but form is retained longer in the memory’.

Caro in Yorkshire is the first opportunity, since his death in October 2013 at the age of eighty-nine, to get a good measure of the range of his career. He vowed to keep going to the studio until he was one hundred, but he managed the same life and work span as Michelangelo. Caro’s best work, and there is much of it on show in Yorkshire, is brave, challenging and seductive. Looking back in June 2013 at his career and achievements, he summed up in simple terms what he had done: ‘Sculpture did have some assumptions and rules almost, and I broke them’.

1     Catalogue: Caro in Yorkshire. With essays by Peter Murray, Tim Marlow, Helen Pheby and Eleanor ­Clayton. 144 pp. incl. numerous col. ills. (Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield, 2015), £19.95. ISBN 978–1–908432–16–2.