2012 is proving something of an annus mirabilis for Anthony Caro OM CBE RA, now 88, with no fewer than three exhibitions of his work on view around the country. And he continues to beaver away daily in his studio in Camden Town, London, with the strength of a man much younger than himself, one who has been manhandling heavy, often intractable materials throughout the course of his creative life.
We know him best for his great steel constructions — 15 of which are currently arranged around Chatsworth’s Canal Pond in its first show dedicated to a single artist — but a few years ago I was delighted by the discovery of his intricate, poetic constructions in paper, and by the boldness of his great narrative cycle on the subject of the Creation for the Gothic church of St-Jean-Baptiste at Bourbourg in northern France.
To complement the sheer bravura of the current Chatsworth show, Caro is showing a series of almost surreal smaller works made recently in painted fibreglass at the New Art Centre, Roche Court, and — as if that were not enough — nine fascinating small bronzes from his ‘House’ series at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, pieces that effortlessly dissolve the line between engineering and architecture in their multiple allusions to both.
For some years Chatsworth’s grounds have played host to temporary exhibitions of monumental sculpture from Sotheby’s, and this summer the Duke of Devonshire’s intention to make Chatsworth a year-round gallery for modern and contemporary art, inside and out, has come closer to fruition with this solo show of works by Caro, acknowledging his status as grand old man of British sculpture. The works, chosen from the past five decades of Caro’s career, hold their ground — literally — amidst the grandeur of their surroundings, forceful emanations of energy in painted or weathered steel, hugging the grassy banks against the imposing presence of the Peaks beyond.
His monumental ‘Goodwood Steps’ stands starkly at the head of the Canal Pond, providing both portal and partial screen through which to engage with the sculptures beyond — a flowing architectonic arrangement of stepped planes and curves that reflects and yet challenges the formal classical symmetry of house and gardens behind it.
Then we are amidst Caro’s almost playful disposition of pieces in the landscape, each one posing a new sculptural conundrum, presenting a different solution, interrogating the viewer and setting anew. From the early and brightly painted planar works of the 1960s that draw the eye down the pond to ‘Double Tent’ as its apex — its reflective steel discs distantly evoking a pair of grazing beasts — we trace Caro’s preoccupations with the very nature of abstraction, and of ‘presence’ in sculpture, to his experiments with more architectural forms, works that begin to move beyond the modest human scale that makes his work so accessible. This despite his work’s uncompromising, even harsh aesthetic, its lack of anthropomorphic resonance, its occasional crudity of construction: there is no attempt to disguise the utilitarian nature of his materials, often offcuts of raw industrial steel, bolted or welded loosely together. Nor to conceal their origins, or render them picturesque — yet it is their ungainliness that draws us closer, that demands our attention and repays it with a beauty of surface detail in the patina of rusted metal, and a quizzical, almost intimate connection with the piece itself.
The Chatsworth exhibition was mounted in co-operation with the New Art Centre and Sculpture Park at Roche Court in Wiltshire, which has long worked with Anthony Caro and which now hosts a very different selection of his work. The airy, light-filled gallery there could hardly be a more ideal place to see a selection of painted reliefs and small sculptures fashioned in resin and fibreglass — a fiendishly difficult material to work with.
These curious and haunting works, made in 2010, are cast from domestic and everyday items — a kitchen sink, a cutlery tray, a motley selection of drain fittings, tools or bowls — and painted in a subtle, understated palette far from the bold primary tones of his abstract steel works. The results are suggestive, almost surreal constructions that have something of Joseph Cornell’s boxed cabinets about them. Caro told me it was the ingenious shapes of bathroom plumbing in a hotel in Rome that first inspired these pieces, and he painted them not just with brushes but with his fingers, too — but that he was not going to repeat the experiment: ‘I don’t like fibreglass; working with it is slow, and smelly — and it’s always at one remove, like glass. And colour’s not my thing, really.’ Nevertheless, they are a wholly original departure for him, and replete with a presence and identity of their own.
Caro has always been a magpie, collecting up raw ends and cast-offs to refashion into new work. The brass that he combines with bronze in the densely metaphorical series called ‘House’ on show at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park has its own story: ‘I was working on “The Last Judgment” and wanted some trumpets, and it turned out that a chap who sold welding equipment played in a brass band, so he gathered a whole batch of defunct instruments which have been lying about my studio ever since.’ These, and old shell cases from the first world war, have taken on dynamic new forms in the current series — ‘swords into ploughshares’, as Caro puts it. ‘House’ ingeniously juggles with spatial boundaries, turning outside in, and inside out, and leading us through miniature labyrinths of architectural space.
It is another magpie and magician, Joan Miró, however, who currently dominates the Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s gardens and main galleries. ‘That magical spark is the only thing that matters in art,’ he said, and he cannibalised the whole of life around him to create the gallimaufry of creatures and monsters that greet the visitor with a raised flipper, a grimace, a crooked grin. Nothing was beyond being pressed into service: his children’s toys, squashed cans, broken furniture, eggboxes, a cabbage…the list is endless, and from these unlikely ingredients he cooked up a phantasmagoria, undermining all the classical hierarchies of value by casting pure rubbish in bronze. ‘You expect us to cast a paper bag?’ queried one of his foundries, and the answer was yes.
A quiet and diffident man, he had a subversive and protean imagination, and drawing on this and the deep well of his Catalan origins he fashioned debris into objects of delight. Against the exuberant, scabrous humour of Miró’s creations, Caro’s work appears restrained, almost classical by comparison, but the two sculptors share much, an inexhaustible curiosity about the world and a determination to render its mysteries in material form being paramount. ‘I believe art is about what it is to be alive.’ These are Caro’s words but they could just as well have been spoken by Miró, who seemed to capture the force of life itself.
Ariane Bankes co-runs the Dovedale Arts Festival, at which the Duke of Devonshire will talk about art and Chatsworth on 10 June
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 2, 2012