NEW HAVEN — Sir Anthony Caro, the British sculptor who was born in 1924, was, in the 1960s and ’70s, by common consent the most important and influential sculptor on either side of the Atlantic. That put him in an enviable position.
But in art, as elsewhere in life, champions and cheerleaders can easily turn into albatrosses. When tastemakers turn into lepers, as invariably they do, the artists who earned their approval can find themselves dispatched to the same distant colony. Caro, once the darling of American formalist critics Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried (both emphasized abstract form over content), escaped this fate when art-world opinion turned against formalism in general, and against Greenberg in particular.
But only just.
He did it — and there’s a lesson for us all here — by never turning on his onetime champions (he has never had a bad word to say about Greenberg), but also by refusing to be boxed in by their critical formulae; by being willing, in other words, to keep on moving, changing, exploring.
The nature of Caro’s achievement, as I see it, is not especially complicated: He made sculpture that looked unbelievably good. You can see for yourself just how good it looks in a show at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven called “Caro: Close Up.”
Caro’s best works, most of them made from found pieces of metal welded together, demonstrate a feeling for three-dimensional space that is in many ways the equivalent of Henri Matisse’s feeling for space in two dimensions: Space, that is to say, that breathes and expands, even as it establishes its own internal rhythms and rhymes.
Like some kind of ideal architecture — stripped of the requirements of utility, closed logic, and standardization — they make you want to enter into them, to get better acquainted with their networks of simple, open, transparent relations. And they spark this same desire whether they are big — as they often are — or small, graspable, and positioned on a table or plinth.
The show at Yale, an intimate affair, comprises work in the second category. There is one large sculpture, “Orangerie,” resting on the floor of the foyer in the museum’s gorgeous Louis Kahn building. Encountering it, you may wonder, if you have any aesthetic sense at all, when you last saw anything so lovely and right. Its rhyming arcs, its slanting verticals, its syncopated, in-and-out pulsing of thick and thin lines, and its paddle-shaped appendages swinging up and down from a horizontal hinge — all these read together as enlarged, three-dimensional calligraphy.
You don’t have to be especially susceptible to appreciate the robust, airy loveliness of “Orangerie.” You don’t have to be a diehard modernist or obsessive lover of abstraction. You just have to look.
The show itself is divided into three galleries, and structured chronologically. The first room contains drawings and sculptures Caro made as a student of Henry Moore. They remind us of Caro’s impressive lineage (Moore loomed over British modernism like no one else in the ’40s and ’50s), but also of the limp humanism and slack, schematic forms against which Caro had to kick in order to find his métier.
What’s interesting about the series of dashing ink drawings of bulls and human figures, and the handful of rough-surfaced bronze sculptures in this first room, is their consciousness of containment. Every drawing has stark lines that run parallel to, and right alongside, the edges of the paper, boxing in their muscular lines. Each of the bronzes, too, reads like a bulky figure crouched in an invisible cube.
Suddenly, in the next room — filled with small-scale sculptures on tables and plinths — everything bursts open. Light is let in. Space is activated and enlarged. Principles of collage and open-sided assemblage take over from integral masses with continuous skins.
Welcome to Caro land.
These works, almost all of them drawn from private collections and rarely seen, were not made as maquettes, or small models, for Caro’s larger works. They are independent works of art. The earliest examples were made after a 1959 trip Caro made to the United States. There, he admired work by the so-called color field painters Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski (who were championed by Greenberg) and the sculptor David Smith.
He resolved thereafter to make freestanding sculptures without plinths, and to work in recycled steel, cut and combined in the fashion of collage.
Freestanding sculpture worked fine if it was big enough. But it looked unprepossessing if it was smaller. A conversation with Fried helped Caro see the potential in thinking of these smaller works as table sculptures. The table itself became not merely a base, as in a conventional plinth, but an element in the composition. Hence the several sculptures here that have overhanging elements, spilling down from one side of the flat supporting surface.
There is a sense both of surprise and acrobatic equipoise in works like “Table Piece VIII” (1966), in which the sculpture’s center of gravity occupies one corner of the plinth, allowing two outlying pieces — a tube and an arcing ribbon of steel — to extend up, out, and down from the surface, or “Table Piece XLII” (1967), in which the largest single piece of steel, a flat rectangle, is suspended in the air below the supporting surface.
“Table Piece LIX” (1968), meanwhile, is a classic example of what was meant by “drawing in space”: two-dimensional motifs (straight lines, squiggly curves, rectilinear shapes, and cross-hatching) existing in harmonious tension with various volumes and projections in space. Again, the principles are rhythm, circulation, openness, expansion.
This was the work that Greenberg, Fried, and their fellow formalists praised, and both the sculpture itself and the terms in which it was praised proved incredibly influential. “Heavy metal” sculptors working in similar ways, forming close-knit, cultlike communities, cropped up all over the world.
Caro, to his credit, kept moving. He became interested in ceramics, combining porcelain with brass and steel in inventive ways. He incorporated cut stone and wood. He collaborated with architects like Frank Gehry and Norman Foster. And, after trips to Japan, he worked with handmade paper.
The Yale show includes a number of examples of the paper work in its third and final room. Most are incredibly fragile, and not likely to last. This gives them a certain poignancy. But only a couple of them felt persuasive to me as sculpture. (More are reproduced in the catalog than are on display, and many of these look more impressive.)
What all these later shifts testify to is an increasing emphasis on texture and tactility. The formalist critics tended to downplay this: Caro’s sculpture, for them, was all about how his forms “hit the eye.” But as Martina Droth, who organized the show with Julius Bryant, points out in an essay in the catalog, Caro was always a maker of objects, and very conscious of his materials. In recent decades he has found tremendous poetic amplitude in these materials and their various resonances — the pathos of abandoned machinery parts, the bodily associations of clay, the warmth of wood, and so on.
Still, Caro does not always give these resonances the kind of distilled force that would make them fundamental to his work. They remain, for the most part, “associations,” and a little wafty. His real gift lies where it always has: in that extraordinary gift for improvising relations between shape, volume, and space.
But that’s no small thing. Caro is so good at it that he makes it feel like almost everything.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.