By Karen Wilkin.
In 2010, in Anthony Caro’s London studio, I fell in love with a massive table sculpture, a chunky, four-square cast iron and steel construction, with a recessed rectangular center and an emphatic horizontal bar, that cascaded over the edge of its support in shallow steps. At once architectural, confrontational, and like nothing else but itself, I kept returning to the piece, even as Tony insisted, as he always did, that I look at all the works in the studio, especially those still in progress. As usual, he was not interested in discussing the sculptures I found most achieved. He wanted to work on the ones he found problematic and get a response as he did. His young sculptor assistants and Patrick Cunningham – Tony’s long time assistant and studio manager – moved pieces of steel (and sometimes generous pieces of wood) into position as he directed or cut away sections that he indicated, adding or subtracting, lengthening or shortening. Tony welcomed suggestions. “Let’s try it,” he would say, although the ultimate decisions were always his and additions were often met with “No. I don’t like that at all. Take it away.” Removing elements, a process Tony called “taking away everything that isn’t necessary to the sculpture” could elicit “It’s getting clearer,” the most positive thing he ever said. Spending time in the studio with Tony was exhilarating, eye-testing, and fascinating. I always learned an immense amount whenever I was in the Camden Town space. It was also exhausting. Tony, even in his 80s, was indefatigable in the studio.
Even after hours of scrutinizing the sculptures in progress and watching them evolve, I remained fixated on the imposing table piece, so much so that I later called a collector friend, someone with a wonderful eye and an impressive collection of Caros from different periods, to tell him I’d seen a masterpiece among the newest works, hoping the sculpture would find the home it deserved. Soon after, my friend bought a much larger, equally good new work from the studio. The chunky table piece was included in Caro’s next London exhibition, at Annely Juda, that spring and summer, then went to Paris for showing at Galerie Daniel Templon, and finally to New York, to be seen, late fall, at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, in Chelsea. To my surprise, the sculpture remained unsold. “You’d better have it, then,” Tony said. I was overwhelmed, weak in the knees with gratitude and excitement at the prospect of living with this extraordinary work, but also worried. We live on the seventh floor. How much did this astonishing sculpture weigh? About 900 pounds, I was told, which – miraculously – both the floor plate of our concrete loft building and the freight elevator could accommodate. Three men, a portable hoist, several sheets of plywood, and the sculpture, along with its sturdy base, arrived a few days after my December birthday, making it the most extraordinary birthday gift I’d ever received. Installed above a supporting beam, to be safe, the sculpture, Case Study, has been a powerful presence in our lives ever since.
Forthright and confrontational, Case Study is about 3 ½ feet wide, almost 3 feet high, and more than 2 feet deep. Seen head on, it’s unignorable, as solid as an Egyptian temple. For anyone who thinks of Caro only in terms of the seemingly gravity-defying, expansive, polychrome constructions that established his reputation in the 1960s, this robust, opaque block of rusted metal would seem completely anomalous. But beginning in the late 1980s and continuing through his last, extraordinarily inventive, productive years – Caro died, at 89 and a half, in 2013 – he was increasingly engaged by volume and mass. His early sculptures claimed space yet could be penetrated visually, but he described many of his later works, such as Case Study, as being “all about the inside, where the interior was hidden.” In these works, interior space is implied, but we cannot see into it, while in contrast, some architectural size works from the same period, equally impenetrable visually, must be physically entered, if they are to be fully comprehended.
Case Study, in many ways, is like one of Caro’s most implacable architectural works, domestic size. At first acquaintance the sculpture seems perfectly symmetrical, with a deeply recessed center flanked by flat wings, and a horizontal bar projecting slightly from the back plane. But we soon realize that there are shifts away from symmetry. There’s a projection, framing part of the central recess, with no opposite equivalent and the horizontal bar, above, tapers and slants. That central recess steps inward in increments, implying limitless depths, yet if we move around the piece we are struck by the space between apparently dense elements and by the abrupt stopping of the back planes. Spend more time and we realize that the central element of Case Study was some sort of mysterious industrial object whose original identity has been completely transformed. The force of Caro’s will in placing the object and in surrounding it with a few key pieces of steel wholly subsumed the character of the generating object and created a new, compelling whole.
Caro often spoke of his lifelong quest to make sculpture “real” – to make things that looked like nothing pre-existing but had the presence of another person. In the 1950s, his robust, simplified bronze figures won him early acclaim, but, he later said, “I didn’t want to make imitation human beings. The figure got in my way.” Case Study remains, in many ways, enigmatic and unnamable, but without seeming miniaturized – Caro’s faultless sense of scale is evident – the sculpture has the insistent presence not of another person, but of an awe-inspiring monument. I keep discovering new relationships among its apparently simple, geometric forms, new variations in the depth and thickness of its elements. Speaking of great mathematics, a celebrated mathematician wrote that “There is a very high degree of unexpectedness, combined with inevitability and economy.” That’s also true of great art.
Coda: It turns out that the central recess of Case Study is just the right size for even a large Maine Coon cat, with the “steps” providing an excellent rest for a paw. Caro, whose elder son, the world’s ranking authority on cheetah, who did research on domestic cats before going to Africa, was pleased, he said, that my cat “had found a happy home in my sculpture.”
New York, May 2020
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