The title of this show, Seven Decades, is something of a giveaway I guess, indicating an artistic career of both extraordinary duration and prodigious output. In the 60’s and 70’s Caro was probably one of the chief exports of the UK art market. Caro gained initial recognition from an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1963. The works he presented here diverged from the conventions of classical casts and reductionist carving, showing painted, abstract steel sculptures, displayed without plinths - at the time a near-heretical act. Presented directly onto the floor surface not only shared the audience/reality plane, but arguably changed the conceptual power relationship between viewer and artwork irrevocably. How wonderful and important you might say.
But, at this point we also need to acknowledge that the work of the artist is not posthumously perceived as being at the mythical cutting edge, but perhaps more curiously, until very recently, he also seemed in danger of becoming the neglected figure of 20th Century British sculpture.
I was struck recently on talking to a group of twenty-something art students that in fact none of them had really even heard of Caro. I was shocked in equal measure at both the lack of recognition and by my own, age-related assumption that they would/should have. It dawned on me that Caro might in fact be the recessive gene of British sculpture, skipping a complete generation in terms of audience awareness of the artist and his metaphorical and material gravitas.
Annely Juda’s display of Caro’s career covers a period from the 1950’s through to his last works shortly before his passing in 2013, but far from showing its age, the work is triumphantly colourful, physically daring and uplifting as a selection. There is a ‘wow’ factor in this show I really didn’t expect; sculptures cascade from shelves, pirouette on their axes, and reach and sprawl like so many skyscrapers and landscrapers1.
Typical one might say, and bathed in verdant green, Larry’s Land from 1970 looks as fresh as the day it was made, and to be clear, it is not just the lick of fresh paint, but the aesthetic and visual acuity that refreshes the eye.
It wasn’t until I saw Seven Decades2 that I came to the realisation of just how conditioned I had become of late to investing in the drudge of conceptual labour now required to decode the work of the latest Turner Prize nominee or Venice Biennale revelation. The truth is that our (my) artistic customer choices are now mediated so heavily in advance by sexy retina displays, equality panels and curatorial taste, that I forget to look sometimes. What I am flagging here is a real and present danger that the primacy of perception gets left behind and that the gulf between representations of our world and reality grows ever wider – in extremis, a peril to us as a species.
Caro’s work reminds us that we need to look, see and wonder rather than continuously narrate and project our (art) stories as though they are some necessary part of a droning, internalised and unrelenting intellectual soundtrack to art, and by implication, life.
Apologies if this is all getting a bit deep, after all its only sculpture, but Caro’s work, with all its weight and colour - and latent threats and promises - is a visually scintillating and timely reminder that we should continue to question the notion of the contemporary. As the common disclaimer might clearly state: other ‘models’ of artistic reality and alternative versions of consciousness are also available.
I’m sure not going to describe Caro’s work in the show, or his history, all too well described elsewhere, but to emphasize in summary, there is absolutely no substitute for seeing this work up-close and personal.
1 1988 — Errol Black, The Fight Against Transit Cutbacks, City Magazine, Volume 10, Number 2, Fall 1988: “Another aspect of the towns we build today is the use of three types of building: the bungalow, the skyscraper and the landscraper (factory) spread out all over the landscape in loose functions of suburb, downtown and industrial zone”.
2 Anthony Caro: ‘Seven Decades’. Retrospective exhibition at Annely Juda Fine Art, Dering Street, London. 1 May – 6 July 2019.