NEW YORK — Sir Anthony Caro, a preeminent artist of the postwar era who created a new language for abstract sculpture in the 1960s with brightly colored, horizontal assemblages of welded steel that seemed choreographed as much as constructed, died Wednesday in London.
He was 89.
The cause was a heart attack, the Tate Museum said.
“In all of modern art, there have only been a handful of truly great sculptors, and Anthony Caro is one of them,” said Michael Fried, a professor of art history at Johns Hopkins and one of the first critics to write about Mr. Caro in the United States. “Even more than David Smith, his great predecessor, he discovered a path to abstraction in sculpture.”
A onetime assistant to the sculptor Henry Moore, Mr. Caro established himself as a rising sculptor in Britain in the mid-1950s with rough-hewn, expressionistic works that depicted struggling human figures, gravity-bound and laden with the weight of their own flesh.
He experienced an artistic conversion in 1959 on a trip to the United States in which he was exposed to Smith’s sculpture and the work of the color-field painters Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, and Jules Olitski.
“America made me see that there are no barriers and no regulations,” he told the critic Lawrence Alloway in 1961.
Strongly influenced by a continuing dialogue with the critic Clement Greenberg, Mr. Caro embraced Smith’s use of industrial materials that implied a radical break with the traditions of monumental sculpture.
He began working with steel plates, beams, metal tubes, and wire mesh, materials with no art-historical associations. He applied brilliant color to his geometric forms, which emphasized the purely pictorial qualities of his work, rather than the traditional sculptural qualities of weight and volume. Color imparted a sense of lightness that made his works seem to hover, touching the ground lightly at a few points.
“I have been trying to eliminate references and make truly abstract sculpture, composing the parts of the pieces like notes in music,” he told William Rubin, who, as the director of the Museum of Modern Art’s department of painting and sculpture, organized the first US retrospective of Mr. Carol’s work in 1975.
Mr. Caro’s articulated assemblages, derived from constructivism and cubism, seemed to deny the time-honored premises of monumental sculpture. He took them off the traditional plinth and placed them on the floor, in the viewer’s space, where their low horizontality forced the eye downward rather than upward.
Viewers had to circumnavigate a Caro, see it from all angles and let the forms, organized in what Fried once called a syntactic relationship, make a cumulative statement.
Mr. Caro’s work evolved in unexpected ways. He abandoned color in the 1970s and began producing larger, closed forms that were often made from untreated, rolled steel, which he acquired from mills.
At the same time, he embarked on an extended series of tabletop sculptures.
In the 1990s, he rediscovered the human figure, mixing clay, steel, and wood, in works such as “The Trojan War,” an installation of 40 sculptures describing the heroes and gods of the Iliad, and “The Last Judgment,” a somber installation, inspired by the war in the Balkans.