Friday, November 9th, 2007

Anthony Caro at Mitchell-Innes & Nash

Mitchell-Innes & Nash until November 21
1018 Madison Avenue, between 78th and 79th streets, and 534 West 26th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues, 212-744-7400

Anthony Caro South Passage 2005 steel, galvanised & painted red, 91 x 136 x 68 inches All images Courtesy Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York
Anthony Caro, South Passage 2005 steel, galvanised & painted red, 91 x 136 x 68 inches All images Courtesy Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York

Sir Anthony Caro’s central place in this history of modern sculpture is assured.  With David Smith, he initiated a revolution in abstract constructed sculpture in the 1960s: He was the most singularly influential sculptor of that decade, both as a formal innovator to emulate and as staunch upholder of modernist values to rebel against.

So you might think it is time for the 83-year-old Englishman to take it easy, to rest on his laurels a bit. Not so on the evidence of his latest show, of a half dozen monumental sculptures in galvanized steel, divided between the Madison Avenue and Chelsea galleries of Mitchell-Innes & Nash. These hefty yet open-form, emphatic yet enigmatic assemblages of prefabricated, found, and adapted components show a youthful, spry, curiosity-filled artist at the top of his game.

The irony with Caro is that while his achievements and convictions have been the focus of dogmatic, almost cultish following among formalist critics and practitioners, he himself has so often been the one to break his own rules. It is not that he is an iconoclast as much as he is a protean maker. He is highly prolific, but seems throughout his career to have been more interested in generating sculptural phenomena than objects per se.

Not that his objects are ever lacking in weight.  His earliest work, made while an assistant of Henry Moore and in thrall of a prevailing existentialist-influenced expressionism, were hefty, gravity-oppressed reclining female figures in bronze.  His breakthrough, after a visit to America in 1959 when he met Smith and the color field abstract painters, was to work in welded steel. Since then, welded metal became his preferred mode.

He became famous in the 1960s for assemblages of industrial components, brightly colored so as to abstract the visual experience from the heavy stuff from which it was made. He dispensed with the pedestal so as to do away with stuffy ideas about statuary, and to enforce a sense of immediacy in the work. Sprawling sculptures would fill a whole room each.

But when he wanted to work on a smaller scale, he needed to find a way to pull the object closer to the eye. The solution, he found in his “table sculptures,” was to bring back the pedestal.

The man who brought bright, synthetic color to his sculpture was seized by rawness and rust. The artist of weightless, floating, purely optical forms was seduced by the effects of sheer mass and weight. The formalist for whom sculpture aspired to the condition of painting, as a pure entity disengaged from its surroundings, became fascinated with architecture, and wanted sculpture you had to walk or climb through to get the full experience, coining the term “sculpitecture” for the results.

The latest group is almost a recap of various poles of possibility within Caro’s oeuvre. They have an architectural feel, but you are not allowed to walk into them. Parts of them are painted in saturated color — red, blue, purple — while other parts are burnished stell. They are incredibly heavy (several tons each) but they generally eschew mass in favor of volume as open lattice structures or found parts that one knows to contain inner chambers.

Anthony Caro Magnolia Passage 2005-06 steel & cast iron, galvanised & painted, 87-1/2 x 158 x 93 inches
Anthony Caro, Magnolia Passage 2005-06 steel & cast iron, galvanised & painted, 87-1/2 x 158 x 93 inches

There are examples from his recent series of “passages.” These give an initial impression of being parts of a ship or engineering works wrested free of their context. (Caro had been an engineering student at Cambridge before turning to sculpture.) They are generally long and thin, like walkways or gangplanks.  “Lock Passage” (2007) is almost literally like the plank leading up to a ship.  “South Passage” (2005), which is 7 ½-feet-high and over 11-feet-long, has two frames parallel to one another made of I-beams filled with interrupted grids of piping; the verticals are in the same steel as the frames, the horizontals are painted bright red, and suggestive of rails. And then there are various flat steel squares: one is attached to a grid, another links the two frames at right angles to them, a third does so at a diagonal, and the last is free-floating.

This arrangement of flat elements within a scaffold-like grid, generating at once planar and volumetric effects, suggests that Caro is aware of one of his own younger followers, the American Willard Boepple, who had a series of open cube structures in the 1990s that followed on from Mr. Caro’s sculpitecture. But it equally relates to some of Caro’s own, early sculptures, such as the flat cube supported by a criss-cross of mesh in “Red Splash” (1966).

“Magnolia Passage” (2005–6) is more a room than a walkway, although it should be stressed that, in a way that is typical of Caro, it would never be literally mistaken for an inhabitable or useable space. It can only be sculpture, even though its initial impact is of something very present, and real. It has a floor — elevated a few inches on props, with trap door openings in places — at around 100 square feet, supporting a steel frame structure at around seven feet high. A bed or table structure at one end is placed at a diagonal, and has a purple slatted top. That color is used, also, for a curved element framing one corner of the room, and for a found, antiquated machine part, a vice of some sort, attached to the other end. Some elements are also painted gray, in slight contrast to the galvanized steel.

Most of the elements in a Caro piece are found or bought, rather than created from scratch, but there is often a tension between parts that are components anyway — tubing, mesh, I-beams — and things that have had a former life, so to speak — like that machine part in “Magnolia Passage.” In “Chalk Line” (2006), a starring role is given to an old horse trough, a gloriously weathered stone object with two basins for oats and a central oval for water. This is trisected by square sheets of steel that in turn support a thick pipe running the length of sculpture.  The new steel abutting old stone unexpectedly put this viewer in mind of Damien Hirst’s animals neatly chopped up by sheets of glass — and these are two artists who are hardly natural for formal comparison. The trough rests on a burgundy painted beam. “Chalk Line” is richly enigmatic in the way it collides past and present, utility and aesthetics, factuality and incongruity.

Anthony Caro South Passage 2005 steel, galvanised & painted red, 91 x 136 x 68 inches
Anthony Caro, South Passage 2005 steel, galvanised & painted red, 91 x 136 x 68 inches

Like the Queen of Hearts, Caro is all for rules, but understands their purpose is to enable one to win. In each body of work, the present included, the rules of engagement seem paramount and compelling. You might have to pinch yourself to remember that a while ago the same artist was working, with equal totally of conviction, by a diametrically opposite set of expectations. The significant thing, however, is that according to anyone’s rules, Sir Anthony’s new show is a winner.

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, October 25, 2007 under the heading “New Spring in a Master’s Steel Step”