Anthony Caro’s death last year prompted a flurry of tributes and a personal sadness among those, myself included, who had encountered this generous giant of British sculpture. Now, an exhibition at Annely Juda gives us a posthumous look at the artist’s final works.
The pieces included in ‘The Last Sculptures’ have a monumentality in keeping with the finality of the exhibition’s title. It is not so much a monumentality of scale – they would be dwarfed by some of Caro’s earlier works and certainly by the kinds of large-scale sculptural installations we have become accustomed to seeing in Tate’s Duveen Galleries, for example – but a quality that comes from their self-containment and solidity of structure, the way they simultaneously occupy, enclose and articulate space.
Works such as Autumn Rhapsody (2011–12), Sundown (2013) and End of Time (2013) feel as architectural in their way as anything the artist has previously produced. It comes as no surprise to read that the last time the artist experimented with Perspex (a key feature of many of these new works) was in his Duccio Variations series (1999–2000) created in response to the National Gallery’s Duccio Annunciation. In these earlier sculptures it was the articulation of the shallow architectural space, rather than the human narrative, that Caro chose to explore.
In these new works, Caro uses Perspex in conjunction with other materials, to which it provides a counterpoint in weight, solidity, surface, colour, form. Combined with the corroded metal surfaces and weathered jarrah wood of the industrial detritus that makes up Terminus (2013), the sharp angles of the frosted raspberry Perspex add an energy, something new and purposeful searing through the agglomeration of old and abandoned. Something similar is at work in Highway (2013), the reflective sheen of the Perspex plane making the crumpled folds of steel feel almost organic by comparison.
The long, low format of River Run (2013) takes me all the way back to Caro’s 1960s works such as Early One Morning (1962) and Prairie (1967). There seems a shared concern with demarcating space with colour without entirely enclosing it, although the effect is ultimately different. The ’60s works have that sense of drawing in space, dependent above all on line, resulting in an open-endedness and an expansiveness. River Run, like the other pieces in the exhibition, feels more weighty, more sure of its own limits.
Card Game (2011/12) sees Caro looking back to Cézanne’s Card Players (1893–96). Whenever I look at Caro’s sculptures after paintings, I ask myself what it was about the source work that made him stop, investigate, rework. Caro’s involvement with modernist critic Clement Greenberg is well documented, as is his eloquent defence of the expressive power of abstraction. When I see the artist grappling with a predecessor’s painting (something he began to do in the 1980s), it feels to me like a kind of modernist self-testing, exploring the limits and potentials of his own medium by testing it out against the other, not in a spirit of competition, but of enquiry.
What has Caro taken from Cézanne’s painting? Although its source is in a figurative work, it is not in the dramatic gestures or flowing forms of Rubens or Goya, which provided earlier starting points. I think there is something about the surface, space and depth in Cézanne’s work which must have interested Caro, the way Cézanne’s brush marks always seem to come up to the surface, so that although the card players occupy a plane in front of background, the consistency of treatment simultaneously pulls these areas up to the picture plane. The way in which, in Caro’s sculpture, the two figures become one continuum wrapping around the back of the table, enclosing the space, seems to have something of the same quality.
Card Game shares this sense of containment observed in many of the other pieces in the exhibition; almost cuboid, curving in on itself. I like to think of Caro, in his last years, looking back to the art of the past to grapple with his preoccupations in the present, and then putting those lessons to work as he made his final pieces. It is this ongoing enquiry, rooted in his own previous work but also that of a wide range of predecessors, that has ensured the works of Caro’s final decades continue to offer new insights and reward our attention. Thanks, Sir Anthony.
‘Anthony Caro: The Last Sculptures’ is at Annely Juda Fine Art, London, until 25 October.
A Tribute to Anthony Caro (Benjamin Eastham)