“Anthony Caro: Sculpture” at Artemis Greenberg Van Doren Gallery, through December 27, (730 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, 212 445 0444)
“Michael Steiner: Sculpture” at Salander-O’Reilly Galleries through January 3 (20 East 79 Street, between Fifth and Madison Avenues, 212 879 6606)
“Morris Louis” at Paul Kasmin Gallery, through December 31 (293 Tenth Avenue at 27th Street, 212 563 4474)
Sir Anthony Caro is the most prolific and influential British sculptor since Henry Moore. To mark his eightieth birthday, Artemis Greenberg Van Doren has laid on a handsome show, which closes this weekend, of a dozen smaller pieces mostly from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. These include examples of two of his extended series, the often highly engaging “table pieces” and “writing pieces”.
Mr. Caro has devoted a career to breaking rules: first the received ones that greeted his arrival on the scene in the late 1950s, and subsequently the ones he invented himself, often to be followed dogmatically by acolytes. He insisted, for instance, on distancing sculpture from conventional statuary by placing it directly on the ground, without a pedestal of any kind. But then he re-embraced the plinth with aplomb, making the support vital and integral to the sculptural experience.
In the monumental sculptures for which he is best known, Mr. Caro reveals his twin allegiances to the soft modernism of Moore and the hard modernism of David Smith. His language oscillates disarmingly between the brutal and the whimsical, regardless of scale. In these smaller works, however, there is an uncharacteristic degree of expressivity and involvedness. We see him looking over the shoulders of his “two fathers”, as he has identified his mentors, to the common sculptural grandfather: Picasso.
The appropriately calligraphic “writing pieces”, in particular, recall Picasso’s early forays into direct welding, with Julio Gonzalez as his guide. “Writing Piece ‘This’,” (1979) employs as its found elements a rusty saw and some kind of handle or crank. There is barely any sense of “appropriation” in the Pop or surreal sense, but that doesn’t necessarily make Mr. Caro the pure formalist he has been cracked up to be: There are complex language games at play, as components both shed and regain their powers of signification.
These enigmatic pieces can evoke another kind of writing, which also militates against formalism: a sense of narrative. This is not to suggest that specific stories are being told-he is resolutely abstract; rather, the structure and complexity of the pieces denies the viewer the satisfaction of the single take, forcing an extended, almost sequential reading of the different events going on within. “Table Bronze ‘Chemical Box’, (1987) for instance, is an animated grid in the tradition of early Smith, the pictograms of Torres-Garcia, or even the Surrealist phase of Giacometti.
The variety of materials, including not just different metals but, cohabiting in single pieces, the welding and casting processes, all suggest restless inquiry. And yet despite his protean creativity there is a strange aloofness of touch, a lack of overt sensuality. Perhaps this is because so much of the grunt work is done by assistants. But somehow the restraint seems more intentional, an insistence that the true content is the relationship of parts, not the fashioning or finding of the parts themselves. This suggests that with all his dancing around and breaking of rules, Mr. Caro is, at heart, a formalist after all.
To the circle around Clement Greenberg, the New York critic who was so instrumental in promoting Mr. Caro at the outset of his career, Michael Steiner was the “white hope” for an American link in the constructivist chain. At the tender age of 18, Mr. Steiner staged his first solo exhibition in New York in 1966, just around the time when Mr. Caro’s ascension was being assured. Of the two, Mr. Steiner now seems more faithful to the idiom of open-form construction.
His current show at Salander’s-lie Mr. Caro’s at Artemis-reveals an uncharacteristic intimacy, in terms both of size and touch. Hardly intimate in mood, however, these grids have the unavoidable connotation of cages. The mottled surfaces, though literally sensitive to touch (they are cast from wax and patinated to look as if they were painted in dollops of tar) are alienating in their sheer oddity.
In a formal sense these works achieve their density through a fugal relationship of one grid misregistering with another (one grid will be on the diagonal to another on the vertical/horizontal, for instance). Large luminous gouaches play on a similar motif.
Other pieces court utility: they evoke machines or boats, with slats, pistons, and portholes, without reading literally as functional objects per se. In their ponderous way, these pieces hint at whimsy, but they are in a minority in this show. The lasting impression made by the bronze jails, with their grim surfaces and austere structures, is of tragic grandeur.
With these two Greenberg protégés under your belt, you will want to visit one of the critic’s favorite painters, Morris Louis. Paul Kasmin has a varied selection of large canvases from 1958-60, the years when, quite late in his truncated career, Louis hit his stride.
The artist was a prodigious editor of his own work, often taking his destructive cue from a shake of Greenberg’s head. While this show includes top notch examples of familiar Louis motifs within his stain painting idiom, including “Bronze”, a “veil” from 1958, and “Delta Upsilon,” and “Theta Gamma,” two “stripes” from 1960, the show includes works in which there are dense and, by Louis’s standards, almost brushy expanses of flat color. “Addition VI,” (1959) closely recalls Helen Frankenthaler’s “Mountain and Sea,” (1952), whose seminal influence on Louis is well documented.
The chance to see works in the estate of the artist that the artist himself might never have exhibited is raising eyebrows among the Greenbergian “faithful” (I visited the show with a stalwart) but actually it can only do Louis good. The best case scenario is posthumous reinvention. The second best is confirmation that he had good taste as an editor and knew the worth of his more canonical inventions, despite the relative obscurity in which he worked, painting in a suburban dining room in Washington DC.: “Theta Gamma”, for instance, which really belongs in a museum (although American museums have plenty of Louis’s languishing in their vaults).
His genius was to discover forms distinct enough to avoid geometric reduction yet impersonal enough to convey color as an end in itself.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, December 26, 2003print