Anthony Caro (1924 – 2013) the man who perfected the art of taking art off its pedestal

Anthony Caro's response to Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe. Photograph by Hattie Miles, Paris 2007
Anthony Caro’s response to Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe. Photograph by Hattie Miles, Paris 2007

Words: Jeremy Miles   –    Picture: Hattie Miles (Paris 2007)

He was the king of heavy metal  – an apparent magician who could imbue sheets of steel and iron girders with a kind of weightless majesty. Sir Anthony Caro, who has died at the aged of 89,  was a sculptor who could  do amazing things with solidity.  A few years ago he produced an astonishing entrance piece to a show at London’s Tate Britain exploring his 50 plus year career.  Millbank Steps was a gargantuan piece designed to explore the relationship between sculpture and architecture. Weighing nearly 100 tons, the walk-through work filled more than half of the Tate’s vast Duveen Galleries. The floors had to be reinforced before it was craned in piece by piece.

Quite a statement from a man who, at the age of 80, remained at the very peak of his powers. Happily Caro continued to remain a creative power-house until he was unexpectedly felled by a heart attack yesterday. I occasionally met Caro, mainly when he and his wife the artist Sheila Girling, were enjoying the dramatic coastscape that surrounded their Dorset cottage holiday home near Swanage.  Mostly he  still drove daily from their London home in Hampstead to his studio in a converted piano factory in nearby Camden.

The original Manet at Musee D'Orsay.
The original Manet at Musee D’Orsay.

Widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest living sculptors, Caro   became an artist against his family’s wishes. He embarked on studies at the Royal Academy amid warnings from his stockbroker father that he would probably starve in a  garret.  Nothing could have been further from the truth. Within a year or so he decided to learn at the feet of the master. He went and knocked on Henry Moore’s door  and asked if he could be his assistant. Moore, admiring  the young Caro’s spirit and also detecting a rare talent in making, took him on.  His influence is instantly apparent in the early works in the Tate Britain show.

But by the early 1960s Caro had found a new direction. In many ways these were his glory years, abandoning  his figurative past, the modelling in clay and casting in bronze, he began to make purely abstract works: sculpture constructed and welded in steel.

Inspired by a visit to the US where he met the sculptor David Smith and found a vocal and influential champion in the critic Clement Greenberg, Caro was on his way.  His work made of  beams, girders and other found elements sometimes painted in bright colours caused a sensation and heralded a revolution in art. Within a short period, conventional ideas about materials, surface, scale, form and space were overturned by his radical reworking of conventional ideas.

The biggest impact of all was caused by Caro’s insistence on giving his works an immediate  physical presence by placing them directly on the ground – overturning at a stroke a principle that had existed since the days of ancient Greece and  Rome. I suspect that he was  quite pleased to be destined to go down in history as the man who took art off its pedestal and gave it directly to the people

*Caro’s public work in Dorset includes Sea Music  a sculpture specially commissioned for  Poole Quay in 1991

Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre critic and occasional art historian.

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