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Man of steel

Now an octogenarian, Sir Anthony Caro shows no signs of stopping. The literature on his life and work keeps coming, too

Sir Anthony Caro at work in his Camden Town studio, London, in the 1990s and right, his "Threshold from the Chapel of Light", 2006-08, Church of St John the Baptist, Bourbourg

Sir Anthony Caro (b1924) appreciates the power of the book. Not only is there a 14-volume catalogue raisonné of his work, compiled by Dieter Blume, and a number of useful exhibition catalogues, there is now a five-volume set of monographs on different aspects of his achievements. Caro has done so much and so variously that it is about time we set about considering the extent of his originality and inventiveness. A key figure in British modernism, there are nevertheless those who dismiss his work as “sculpture-by-committee” (owing much of its formal content to his team of assistants and its colour to his wife, the painter Sheila Girling), and who resent the long shadow he casts. Yet the artist John Hoyland has no hesitation about Caro’s status: “He’s the greatest artist in the world today. For variety and invention he’s like a kind of Picasso: he’s taken so many risks and done so much quality work.” And, as Hoyland points out, Caro’s influence as a teacher and figurehead has been incalculable: “He made my generation feel it was possible to do great art in Britain.”

The series editor of these lavishly illustrated monographs is Karen Wilkin. She has written one of the two most enjoyable books of the group, on the theme of Interior and Exterior. This examines Caro’s involvement with “sculpitecture”, or sculpture-as-place, where sculpture approaches architecture and in which the original drive of his work towards open structures has been replaced by an increasing fascination for the internal or hidden. For Caro, the intersection of sculpture, the body and architecture has been a constant preoccupation, and it is their changing relationships he has chosen to articulate.

The other book which was a real pleasure to read was Small Sculptures by H.R. Westley Smith, the writing name of Hester R. Westley and J. Fitzpatrick Smith. They write about Caro’s celebrated “Table Pieces” as being “not grand gestures, but suggestions and terse statements, sculptural epigrams that tease us into thought”. It is a useful way of regarding the smaller works, particularly for those who consider that the table pieces were principally a way of bringing back the plinth which Caro had so famously rejected.

Paul Moorhouse believes that an encounter with a Caro sculpture is like meeting a living presence and reads his career in those terms, while Mary Reid interprets that aspect of Caro’s work which is like drawing in space. Julius Bryant’s book on the figurative and narrative elements in Caro’s work traces the sculptor’s early training with Charles Wheeler, then at the Royal Academy Schools and finally with Henry Moore—a formative experience if ever there was one. (Caro, like Moore, has been careful to nurture the documentation of his career, realising how important this will be for future generations.) Speaking of his return in later life to narrative, Caro has said: “My earlier sculptures were more like adverbs than nouns. Now we’re in a more matter-of-fact time. We need some meat.” Apart from Caro’s pithy sayings, the chief pleasure of these five volumes is the chance to pore over more than 350 colour plates of his work, subdivided into categories and with useful notes. A must for the library of any sculpture-enthusiast or student of modern and contemporary British art.

A sixth publication to appear is the hardback catalogue of Caro’s current exhibition at Annely Juda Fine Art in London, which runs until 2 July. (Versions of this show travel then to Paris, to Galerie Daniel Templon, 4 September-30 October, and New York, to Mitchell-Innes & Nash, 28 October-4 December.) After so many words, it is something of a relief to get back to the sculpture itself. The catalogue is entitled Upright Sculptures and features 43 works made over the last 18 months. Even though Caro is in his mid-80s, he shows no sign of slowing up, though this book lists eight studio assistants and a studio director to help him realise his ideas. The catalogue contains an interview by Tim Marlow in which Caro admits that his work procedures have even recently been speeded up by the use of a forklift truck. Perhaps the most extraordinary remark Caro makes is: “I’m not really interested in materials per se.”

A sculptor who is not interested in materials? I find it hard to believe. And elsewhere Caro admits he still prefers steel to all other materials, such as cast iron or bronze, so perhaps it was an unguarded comment. So much of the appeal of Caro’s sculpture derives from the cunning or sympathetic juxtaposition of different materials and textures, that a lack of interest in their individual properties seems more than just unlikely.

The work in this exhibition brings together various combinations such as rusted steel, jarrah wood (a type of eucalyptus) and brass, and the first and overriding impression is one of density. Caro has recently been looking at Mexican sculpture and a new sense of mass is evident in his forms. This makes his hefty new sculptures difficult to look at in groups, and I felt that there were too many works in this show. Four large pieces in the main room at Annely Juda are simply overwhelming.

There is a slightly wayward, anything-goes spirit to Caro’s work these days. While this brings great range and freedom to the work, it also means that the sheer volume of production makes it difficult to assess his achievements. We will need a greater temporal perspective on Anthony Caro before his true place may be discovered. In the meantime he continues restless, generous, self-renewing—a force to be reckoned with in the world of art.

Mary Reid, Anthony Caro: Drawing in Space, 152 pp, (hb) ISBN 9781848220300; Karen Wilkin, Anthony Caro: Interior and Exterior, 152 pp, (hb) ISBN 9781848220317; Julius Bryant, Anthony Caro: Figurative and Narrative Sculpture, 128 pp, (hb) ISBN 9781848220324; H.R. Westley Smith, Anthony Caro: Small Sculptures, 152 pp, (hb) ISBN 9781848220515; Paul Moorhouse, Anthony Caro: Presence, 152 pp, (hb) ISBN 9781848220539 (Lund Humphries), £30 (hb) each; boxed set, £120 (hb) ISBN 9781848220577; Anthony Caro, with an interview with Tim Marlow, Upright Sculptures (Annely Juda Fine Art), 128 pp, £20 (hb) ISBN 1904621384

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