Some wag once said that sculpture is what you trip over when you step back to look at a painting. Whoever made this wisecrack (variously attributed to Ad Reinhardt, Claes Oldenburg or Charles Baudelaire, among others) would have felt at home in London's National Gallery. The collection is devoid of sculpture, indeed of anything except framed paintings hanging on walls.
The monopoly of flat depictive art is finally being challenged by Sir Anthony Caro, with an exhibition of sculpture conceived as interpretations of some of his favorite paintings. Images by Giotto and Mantegna, Goya and Manet, Matisse and van Gogh are translated into Caro's own distinctive abstract language. Giotto's Ognissanti Madonna, for instance, a picture in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, finds herself introduced into Caro's oeuvre via a polished wooden cylinder and a frame of red painted steel.
For its initiation into sculpture, the National Gallery has jumped into the deep end. Tony Caro's international reputation dates back to the 1960s when he gave British sculpture a radical shake-out. His sprawling works in welded steel, painted in loud and daring colors, tested the boundaries of what sculpture could look like. They were, indeed, easy to trip over, and could do one serious mischief.
His pieces were wide-open, formally speaking, and dispensed with plinths. The idea was to get away from the polite conventions of the statue as a self-contained entity, and instead to confront viewers with an all-embracing and decentered sculptural experience. He favored clunky, brutal materials -- I-beams and tank tops straight from the factory or scrap yard -- neutralized and shed of all prior associations thanks to their colored state. For all their physicality, early Caros did not invite touch, or even empathy: they were more optical than tactile, the experience of looking at them therefore closer to painting than sculpture.
Since the 1960s, though, Caro's work has moved on from its purist beginnings. Bright colors and open forms have given way to richer, darker, heavier materials and handling. Works now tend to be more grave and expressive. He started out being so reductive he looked like a Minimalist avant la lettre, but since the real Minimalists stepped forward to play their conceptualist games with light strips and piles of bricks Caro has gone in the opposite direction. In reconstituting the expressive base of his sculptural language, he has even taken to visiting the old masters for inspiration and ideas (although, to keep the National Gallery show in perspective, transcriptions account for a fraction of his gargantuan output.)
Caro himself prefers to stress continuity in accounting for the shift in his work. Initially, he has written, speaking for his entourage of disciples as well as himself, "we were trying to find ways to make art with clarity and economy, to establish our grammar. Now we can write fuller sentences. We can allow for more weight and pressure without throwing overboard the gains that were won then." It is true that the recent work is still unmistakably in the same handwriting as the radical work of the 1960s. There are the same tensions between rough material and effete handling. The same upfrontness and unexpectedness and tight economy of means.
But in recent years a richness and robust awkwardness has entered his sculptural language. The metal is more beaten about, the finish rusty. There are earthy, expressive contrasts of different materials: metal against wood, wood against ceramic. Once Caro wore Modernism with a capital "M" on his sleeve; now his sculptures increasingly have an Old Master feel about them.
The ideal viewing situation for his early colored steel works, he used to insist, is the pure white cube of a modernist art gallery. That way the forms float, relatively unburdened by gravity and their relation to the rest of the world, defining their own internal spatial dynamics with freedom and detachment. Now his work looks comfortable in opulent, history-laden spaces. Caro was the first contemporary artist to be shown in Rome's Trajan Markets back in 1992. His work held its own against the sumptuous, theatrical backdrop of the Forum, individual pieces framed by Roman arches and marble porticos, the metal offset against earthy Roman brickwork.
Caro has always felt as much, if not more, kinship to painting as to sculpture. Paintings are a better source than sculptures because they offer the right balance of freedom and connection. He take the energy from the paintings without being constricted by the formal means. He can be an innovator and part of tradition at the same time. And there's no "anxiety of influence" in relation to painters, whereas he's forever looking round his shoulder to protect his distance from his acknowledged "fathers" in sculpture, Henry Moore, to whom he was an assistant, and David Smith, whose heir he was trumpeted as being at the outset of his career by formalist guru Clement Greenberg. (Greenberg made the outlandish claim that the young Caro was the greatest English artist since Turner, not to mention the leading sculptor of the day).
It is to seminal painters within the formalist canon that Caro turned first: Manet and Matisse. His interpretation of Manet's Dejeuner sur l'Herbe finds meanings that are fairly remote from Manet's original work (and probable intentions). It would take an astute eye to guess the Caro's source without its title, which anyway begs the question: are Caro's beaten metal shapes sprawling across the divide of a right-angled plinth representations of the picnickers or their meal? The sculpture is not unlike the basket and provisions spilling out beneath Manet's nude who fixes her gaze upon the viewer. As the eye adjusts to Caro's sculptural vision, some shapes begin to read as touching, if not convincing, renderings of the voluptuous turn of a thigh or prop of an elbow. But the reading remains highly selective and subjective. It is an account of an energy in the original quite remote from its particulars.
Both Manet and Matisse -- not to mention Mantegna, various panels of whose Triumph of Caesar at Hampton Court have prompted a transcription -- are "cool" painters whose vision and touch suggest corresponding qualities in Caro's sculptural approach: a certain aloofness, in his case ensured by working with assistants, and lack of sentimentality. It's more surprising, however, that he should also have approached Rembrandt, Goya and most recently van Gogh. When this show was proposed it was noticed that none of his reworkings were of pictures in London, so he was asked to knock something out. What emerged were five versions of the Gallery's most popular picture, Van Gogh's Chair, of which three are included in the show.
Whereas the other transpositions take individual components within a picture and treat them as three-dimensional objects within the viewer's own space, in the "Chair" series Caro respects the claustrophobic sense in van Gogh's original of the chair bursting within the psychologically charged space of his room. Van Gogh painted this picture days before Gauguin's dramatic exit from his life, which precipitated the nervous breakdown in which he cut off his ear. Caro makes the chair from stoneware that contrasts with the rusted steel that denotes the surrounding room. The chair is actually made up of "loaves" (a ceramist's term for the received shape of blocks of material) that Caro has squashed and pulverized into expressive shape. They are awkward, heavy, almost gawkish forms, sometimes looking like elephants' feet, sometimes like arches from Stonehenge.
In reworking such old masters as Rembrandt and Goya, Caro keeps company with some unlikely contemporaries. Frank Auerbach, the expressive realist painter who showed his Old Master transcriptions at the National Gallery three years ago, has also tackled a Rembrandt deposition (in Auerbach's case, the Lamentation at the Foot of the Cross in London, whereas Caro's attention is on the Deposition in Munich's Alte Pinakotek). To complement Caro's transcription, Goya's anti-war images have also found contemporary form as shop mannequins, thanks to the brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman, whose tree hanging with mutilated corpses was a centerpiece of "Sensation," the recent show of Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection at the Royal Academy.
But Caro's relationship to the Old Masters is of a different order than either the School of London painters or the YBAs. There is no sense of Caro "taking on" the masters in some heroic, existential struggle to receive their reluctant blessing. Nor is there a whiff of irony or deconstruction in his approach. Tradition is neither a club he is desperate to join nor a pool of images to be raided. Instead its just a place where he can be assured experiences of the kind of "weight and pressure" he is after in his own work.
"Caro at the National Gallery: Sculpture from Painting," Feb. 25-May 4, 1998, at the National Gallery, London.
DAVID COHEN is a London-based art historian and writer.