The British sculptor Sir Anthony Caro, whose Painted Sculpture exhibition is on view at Mitchell-Innes and Nash, has long enjoyed a highly successful career on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s a career that began in England in 1951 when Mr. Caro (as he then was) worked as a part-time studio assistant to Henry Moore, the most admired British artist of his day, and it went on to bring him international celebrity when MoMA devoted a major retrospective to his sculpture in 1975.
In the course of his remarkable ascent to stardom, Sir Anthony’s work came to occupy a position of critical esteem that in some quarters (especially in America) eclipsed that of Moore himself. Indeed, it could be argued that on this side of the Atlantic, Moore’s reputation declined as a direct consequence of the growth of Sir Anthony’s renown. These two British artists came to represent for the art public not only different artistic generations, but radically different conceptions of what legitimately constituted sculptural art.
Moore was essentially a carver, working in stone and wood, who took great pride in belonging to a sculptural tradition that had its origins in classical antiquity and the Renaissance masters. At the same time, however, he enlarged his vision by incorporating certain elements of primitive art as well as modernist art, especially Surrealism; and in the monumental work of his later years-which was a great favorite with the museums and other institutions-he embraced bronze as his principal medium.
Sir Anthony had likewise commenced his production by concentrating on figurative sculpture-but modeling in clay, rather than carving, was initially his preferred medium, and he has never entirely abandoned the figurative mode. As recently as the early 1990’s, for example, Sir Anthony created a series of sculptures inspired by the Trojan War-the quintessential subject of the classical tradition. Yet he owes his current pre-eminence to a very different conception of sculptural art.
An encounter with the American critic Clement Greenberg resulted in Sir Anthony’s adoption of abstract, open-form, welded-metal constructions as his principal medium-a medium, it’s worth pointing out, that Henry Moore vehemently opposed. Greenberg was nothing if not outspoken in his advice to working artists whose talents he admired, and he suggested to Sir Anthony that he would find an ampler and more advanced model for his future work in the welded-metal sculpture of the American artist David Smith-the pre-eminent American creator of welded-metal abstraction.
Sir Anthony promptly acted on Greenberg’s advice-and not by making imitations of Smith’s work, but by adapting Smith’s welded-metal technique to open-form, abstract constructions on a scale that sometimes exceeded even Moore’s monumental bronzes. And while Smith favored a certain verticality in his abstract constructions (he often referred to his sculpture as “totems”), Sir Anthony audaciously concentrated on constructions that emphatically favored an unprecedented horizontality. The result has been a mode of abstraction that occupies an unbounded, landscape-like space and thus eradicates any suggestion of resting upon a traditional pedestal support.
To provide an experience of visual unity for the resulting sculptural sprawl, Sir Anthony made painted color an integral component of his art. Smith had experimented with color in his later constructions, but it never really served as anything more than a decorative accessory. Sir Anthony elevated color to the status of a defining attribute of open-form construction.
In this endeavor, he appears to have been greatly influenced by the vogue of American color-field oil painting in the work of Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski-another of Clement Greenberg’s enthusiasms. Not surprisingly, then, Greenberg responded to this development with lavish praise. Writing about the painted sculpture that Sir Anthony completed in America in 1964, Greenberg observed: “These are perhaps more purely, more limpidly, masterpieces than anything he has done before. In them that search for a low center of gravity which is one of the most constant features of his originality finds a perfect fulfillment.”
Greenberg went on to compare Sir Anthony’s achievement with that of the great English painter J.M.W. Turner: “Without maintaining necessarily that he is a better artist than Turner,” Greenberg wrote, “I would venture to say that Caro comes closer to a genuine grand manner-genuine because original and unsynthetic-than any English artist before him.”
Opinions will certainly differ about such an extravagant claim, but I’m obliged to say that I don’t find anything in the current exhibition to support it. And I would caution viewers not to expect miracles if they venture forth to see Painted Sculpture, which remains on view at Mitchell-Innes and Nash, 1018 Madison Avenue at 78th Street, through Feb. 26.