Essay by Valerie Fletcher
Son of a stockbroker turned gentleman farmer in England, Anthony Caro attended a boarding school from 1937 to 1942. There he was introduced to the sculptor Charles Wheeler, who invited the boy to help in his studio during school holidays. Thus Caro learned the techniques of making metal armatures to support plaster and clay compositions.
Caro studied engineering at Cambridge University from 1942 to 1944 but was then conscripted into the air service of the British Navy. Like many young men demobilized after World War II, Caro was determined to pursue his own interests. Instead of returning to university, he studied sculptural techniques under various teachers at the Royal Academy in London from 1946 to 1952. He also worked as a studio assistant to Henry Moore, who was then the most important and renowned sculptor in Great Britain.
In the late 1950s, Caro sculpted in a figural mode, but his first extended visit to the U.S. in 1959 prompted a radically new direction. He met the powerful modernist critic Clement Greenberg and several notable abstract artists, particularly the sculptor David Smith. Upon his return to London, Caro created his first welded steel works.
From 1953 to 1979, Caro taught at the St. Martin’s School in London, where he mentored future sculptors Barry Flanagan, Richard Long, Tim Scott, William Tucker, and Bill Woodrow. In the summers 1963–65, he also taught at Bennington College, Vermont, which was a center for formalist art theory and practice; among his studio assistants there were the abstract sculptors Willard Boepple and James Wolfe.
Caro’s best sculptures from the 1960s and 1970s are open-form structures extending in several directions and incorporating a lot of empty space. His abstract constructions had no base and no center, resulting in a sense of airiness rather than massiveness. Often he experimented with the horizontal relationship of sculpture to ground.
Inspired by works he had seen in America, Caro painted his first steel sculptures; he considered color an essential component in his art. He preferred a single color for each sculpture rather than several hues. In the 1970s, Caro decided that he had become “too comfortable” with color and stopped using it in order to focus more strongly on the composition of forms and space. Thereafter he preferred raw steel, which he allowed to weather naturally outdoors for a few months. After the original factory coating (“mill scale”) had deteriorated and flaked off, the surface acquired a warm orange-brown patina. Then the sculpture was lightly sanded and coated with a clear oil to protect against harsh weather (if left unprotected for long, the steel would corrode irreparably).
Veduggio Glimpse, 1972–73
Despite the weight and unwieldiness of industrially produced steel, Caro composed his sculptures spontaneously, without preliminary drawings or models. He was interested in the process of discovery. In this sense, his sculptures are sometimes considered the three-dimensional equivalents of the gestural vitality of Jackson Pollock’s “action painting” and the improvisational pouring of paint onto unprimed canvas by Morris Louis. Caro used sheets of steel as if they were sheets of paper: cutting, tearing, and folding them like three-dimensional collages on a large scale.
In November 1972, and again in May and November 1973, Caro worked at the Rigamonte factory in Veduggio, Italy, with James Wolfe as his assistant. The result was fourteen sculptures assembled from steel remnants in the factory’s scrapyard (as David Smith had famously done at another factory in Volta, Italy, in 1959). Four of the Veduggio series were shown at the André Emmerich Gallery in March 1974. Despite the titular reference to the place where it was made, Veduggio Glimpse is a purely abstract work intended to be appreciated entirely for its visual qualities.
Valerie Fletcher is Senior Curator at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. Her research on groundbreaking aspects of international, globalized, and transnational art have resulted in numerous exhibitions and publications.