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An art of surprises

Andrew Lambirth on a triumphal exhibition of work by Anthony Caro at Tate Britain

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Sir Anthony Caro celebrated his 80th birthday last year, and this slightly belated but determinedly triumphal exhibition marks a half-century of remarkable and sustained achievement. Caro is phenomenally successful, an international figure almost as prominent as Henry Moore, and equally if not more important historically. For it was Caro who revolutionised sculpture in the early 1960s, bringing it down off its pedestal and creating a vibrant and brightly coloured language of abstract form which swept the world with its radical values, spawning a host of imitators. But the story doesn’t end there, for Caro has continued to reinvent himself as an artist, opening up his art to the widest possible inspirations, from architecture to Old Masters, still capable of springing surprises in this blasé and image-saturated society.

The Tate’s monographic exhibition (until 17 April) is probably the largest it has ever mounted, though there are only 50 exhibits. Caro has taken recently to making multiple-part sculptures, and has constructed a vast new piece especially for the Duveen Gallery, entitled ‘Millbank Steps’, which comprises four colossal ziggurats of rusted steel. (The gallery floor has had to be reinforced to support the weight of them.) Depending on the way in which the visitor approaches the exhibition, this may be the first thing to be seen, though logically and chronologically it should be the last. The other approach will land the unsuspecting in the midst of the awe-inspiring installation of ‘The Last Judgment’, worthy of the Ancient Egyptians at their most death-obsessed. In point of fact, the exhibition starts in the adjacent white-walled galleries and takes us through from the early figurative sculpture of the 1950s to the imaginative work of the Eighties and Nineties.

The first room has a group of chunky and impressive cast bronzes, modelled in clay and with all sorts of rocks and pebbles applied to their surfaces for texture. From the start, Caro liked to bash the clay about to see how it would react. Look at ‘Man Holding his Foot’, a great bulbous lump, no delicate intellectual he. There’s also a life drawing with corrections by Henry Moore (reminding us that Caro worked as his assistant for some months), and a couple of powerful wash drawings, altogether more abstract and preparing us a little for the sea change to come. The next room contains the first abstract metal pieces: ‘The Horse’ and ‘Twenty-Four Hours’, both in cut and welded or bolted steel, painted dark brown and black. ‘Twenty-Four Hours’ looks like a cross between a buzz saw and a target, betraying its dual genesis in machinery and current American painting. But the shock value of these utterly abstract objects, placed directly on the gallery floor — thus dispensing with the plinth — cannot be underestimated.

Its effect can perhaps be better judged in the next room, which literally explodes with colour. Just three sculptures hold the space of this larger gallery, and are expertly placed for maximum impact. The colour gets more resonant as you progress up the room: ‘Sculpture Seven’ with its mounting blocks of deep green gives way to the vivid red of ‘Early One Morning’, with its lengths of pipe like a Picasso bull’s horns and its mingled connotations of plateau, crucifix and signboard. Then, as a crescendo, comes the finely judged colour of ‘Month of May’ — magenta, orange and green on open ascending forms like an exultation of larks. Here are Caro’s principal early achievements, arrived at so surely and swiftly: the dematerialising of metal, an exploration of space without volume, and a beguiling transparency of form. This apparently weightless sculpture is deftly anchored yet seems to float, summoning up all sorts of new responses, the solid sculptural object of yesteryear as if banished for ever.

More than 20 years ago I remember watching Anthony Caro describe a sculpture in a TV documentary about his work. ‘Down it comes, stretching out, it’s rather like a reclining...thing’. There we have one aspect of the essential Caro — the refusal even then to mention the dread work ‘figure’ (‘reclining figure’ is a phrase that might spring readymade, as it were, to the lips of a sculptor who’d trained with Henry Moore), and the reaffirmation that here is abstract art, and it’s ART, not engineering (though it’s instructive to remember that Caro studied engineering before art). Therefore it has no purpose but to be seen and enjoyed, if not immediately understood — a language of pure form which nevertheless has meaning. As Caro has said elsewhere, ‘I believe that art is about what it is like to be alive.’

The mood grows grimmer as you proceed through the galleries. The colour becomes more muted despite such bursts of glory as ‘Sun Feast’ and the gravely restrained ‘Orangerie’, all liquid drops or fan blades in Venetian red. There are still moments of hope, such as are found in ‘The Window’ (1966–7), with its sheet of olive mesh like the fresh foliage of saplings in a breeze. Yet the dirty mustard of ‘Prairie’ (actually the tradename of the paint used) with its evocation of dusty plains seems to summon a new gracelessness, only somewhat countermanded by the oddly exclamatory ‘Eyelit’, like a joyously angled putter or paint roller. Although abstract, there are always suggestions of the observed world: landscape, tables, shelves, walls, a fountain.

Two side galleries of ‘Table Sculptures’, the smaller pieces Caro made from 1966 onwards, partly in response to his large-scale innovations being copied so extensively, are a respite from the big statements and a pleasure in themselves. In a mixture of media, including wood and stoneware, these very desirable objects take a more intimate line than the grand sculptures, the colour on occasion attaining the ‘jewelescent’. From the familiar Caro makes something original: by the re-deployment of scissors and shears, for instance, implements in new places startle unexpected reactions.

Towards the end of the run of galleries, two extended frieze- or wall-like pieces ‘Tundra’ (1975) and ‘Xanadu’ (1986–8), sound a different, deeper note. Sumptuous textures and rich sombre colours reflect a darker world-view. The strange and beautiful welded brass ‘Elephant Palace’ (1989), reminiscent of a Sixties Paolozzi, and the great blocky ‘Nights and Dreams’ (1990–1), a fantastic prison-like games-table with echoes of Chillida, almost prepare us for the final shock of ‘The Last Judgment’. In these 28 linked but self-contained tableaux, Caro has brought us back down to earth with a clang. He has also returned to an idiosyncratic type of figuration. It’s as if he no longer has to defend a position (as the leading proponent of abstract sculpture) and can call upon anything he needs to fulfil his vision. All is pounded clay, bronze, concrete, heaviness and physicality. It’s a spectacle of catastrophe and devastation — humanity in meltdown — but strangely distanced, distilled, not the slightest bit sensationalised, and all the more effective for it.

Rather amazingly, and against the general trend, this exhibition is free to the public. (Apparently, the artist insisted on it. All praise to him.) This should encourage visitors to purchase the excellent catalogue, lavishly illustrated and with texts by Paul Moorhouse, Michael Fried and Dave Hickey, for £24.99 from Tate Publishing. Also, to revisit the exhibition more than once. ‘The Last Judgment’ alone could fruitfully absorb an hour or two. As Caro has said, ‘Like music, I would like my sculpture to be the expressio n of feeling in terms of the material, and, like music, I don’t want the entirety of the experience to be given all at once.’ My advice is, give it time.