Somewhat hazily now I remember embarking on my art GCSE, first through the bowler hats and apples of Surrealism, via depictions of the Spanish Civil War to the far less familiar territory of abstract sculpture. The latter was brought to us in the form of the work of Anthony Caro, from dog-eared art book pages and monochrome photographs on bad photocopied printouts. We were tasked with sitting down to create our own Caro-esque moquettes from clay. It seemed a terrifying proposition: compared to the ubiquitous Dalis and comparatively straightforward narrative of Guernica, his shapes and lines felt incomprehensible to a 15-year-old brain. What were they for? Why were they there? I found the misty-eyed Caro-adoration of my art teacher Mrs Silk baffling.
Thanks to the ambitious, sprawling Caro in Yorkshire show, which spans spaces at The Hepworth Wakefield, Leeds Gallery and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (forming the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle), suddenly poor Mrs Silk’s enthusiasm makes sense. The works are awe-inspiring, richly conveying feeling and narrative in the most nonsensical and frequently brutal-looking forms. At the Hepworth, we see the imposing steel works like Double Tent next to some beautiful jewellery pieces, his paper sculptures and also Caro’s curious miniatures. These tiny, dollhouse replicas of his works were crafted by Caro’s assistants after the creation of the actual works so that the artist could arrange his pieces for exhibitions, we’re told. Arranged in cabinets in neat little rows they form strange curiosities, not quite moquettes and not quite toys, but somehow at once both utterly charming and alien.
Wandering the galleries and the enormous pastoral expanses of YSP, much is made of Caro’s obvious connection of architecture and sculpture, and also of his less instant, but equally powerful union of sculpture with painting. But the more you examine his body of work, the more it makes sense. One piece makes it particularly obvious – the lyrical yet harsh marriage of shapes and slabs that is 1989’s Table Piece Y-98 Dejeuner sur l’Herve, based on the painting by Manet. Suddenly seeing the sculpture while simultaneously imagining that famous French image, it all makes more sense: for me, it was like a key that unlocked Caro’s oeuvre. I could now see the narratives and look beyond those jagged edges and raw forms; the people and the stories and the heart were suddenly magnified.
This grounding in narrative and figurative territory is brought home at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, where we see Caro’s very early works, including some distinctly Picasso-esque paintings. There’s a touch of early Pollock about them too. with large, deliberate brushstrokes outlining strange, almost folk-art like faces and hands. These works from the early 50s are rather wonderful, but seem to be something of a rarity – “[I] tried painting once and hated it” – Caro’s quoted as telling writer Tim Marlow.
But while he chose not to paint much in his career, the world of 2D crept into his 3D work through his sensibilities with colour. My personal highlights from this show are so precisely because of this skill: his marriage of bright Perspex slabs with dull, rustic, industrial-looking materials is enormously effective. It was these unfamiliar pieces that make this enormous survey of Caro’s career so exhilarating; but for those who feel they’ve never seen his work, they will have. Walked across the Millennium Bridge? You’ve experienced a Caro. Strolled beneath those reddish arches between the Tate Modern and St Paul’s? That’s Caro. But he’s at his best when he’s less obvious than that, when he’s tricking your eye with a transparent slab that sits delicately between heavy, undulating slices of steel, or when he’s playing with found materials and those bastions of Grand Designs gardens, railways sleepers, such as in his stunning late work Terminus.
Out in the open air of YSP, Caro’s work takes on yet more meaning: his flat works feel confrontational yet deceptive, giving new meaning and sensations to the viewer with each angle you choose to see them from. Standing to the side, they’re a diminutive sliver; at the front, a vicious, heavy barrier. They work to show the artist’s constant explorations of what sculpture meant, and what it could mean for the viewer. Finally, I feel comfortable with Caro; and would relish the chance to have another go at those little moquettes. I won’t be taking another GCSE anytime soon but Mrs Silk, if you’re reading, I get it now. And sorry for writing on the tables.
About the Author
Emily joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in the summer of 2014 after four years at Design Week. She is particularly interested in graphic design, branding and music. After working It's Nice That as both Online Editor and Deputy Editor, Emily left the company in 2016.