Issue Number: 109
It is rare to be the initiator of a defining moment in the evolution of an art movement. Sir Anthony Caro RA and William Tucker RA tell Tim Marlow about how they came to change the course of modern British sculpture
Tim Marlow In 1965 Bryan Robertson, in his introduction to the ‘New Generation’ sculpture show at the Whitechapel, wrote that there was no discernible tradition in British sculpture until the start of the twentieth century – even then it came from immigrant sculptors like Epstein and Gaudier-Brzeska. He then cited Moore and Hepworth, the ‘Geometry of Fear’ generation and then you and the New Generation and implied that something significant was taking shape. Do you think, looking back over the twentieth century, that a meaningful British tradition of sculpture has emerged?
Anthony Caro I would say there’s a strength of sculpture in Britain. I do feel a sense of momentum, a feeling of marching forward, particularly so at the moment in England.
TM I’m curious to know whether, when you started producing a radical welded-steel form of sculpture, you felt that was responding to, and emerging from, the art that you had seen in Britain. Was it a reaction to it?
AC Yes, I felt we needed to breathe new life into the sculpture I was accustomed to. Each generation feels it has to rethink the subject, and I believed we had to get rid of some of the things that were taken for granted, not least the idea that sculpture had to relate to the human figure in a visual way, or that it was made out of bronze, stone or wood, and that’s why we sort of started from scratch.
TM So how did you make the transition, from someone who was an assistant to Henry Moore and whose sculpture seemed to have a certain relationship to him, to the production of welded-steel sculpture?
AC I got bothered by the fact that the figures I was making felt like pretence humans, and I tried to make the work less so by placing it on the ground, on a steel seat, but it was still a pretence. Then I tried making an abstract sculpture out of plaster and the fender of a car, even sitting a figure on a steel seat, but it didn’t work. It was then that I went to America, and Clement Greenberg simply said to me: ‘If you want to change your art, change your habits’, so then I came back and started working with steel.
TM Did that feel like a moment of liberation and breakthrough at the time, or was it only later that you realised quite what you had achieved?
AC I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, I had no idea. I had a lot of steel and scrap pieces, and began by sticking them together. When we start things we’re often groping in the dark. Picasso and Braque were not clear what they were doing at the time, the clarification came later. When one starts on a new road, you just do it and it feels right, so you keep going, to see if it’s going to make sense.
TM You spoke at the time of developing a sculptural language. Do you think, broadly speaking, this is still used by young sculptors today?
AC I can’t speak for young people now. You couldn’t ask Monet in 1926 about Surrealism, you couldn’t ask Degas about Cubism, they were part of a different world, an older generation. I belong to a different generation. In the 1960s I was riding a wave and since then I have continued to experiment and push sculpture in new directions.
TM What did Henry Moore make of the work you produced?
AC He didn’t like it.
TM Let’s explore some of that early work in the 1960s, particularly Early One Morning (1962) because it is in the RA show. When you look at a sculpture like Early One Morning now, can you remember where and how it began?
AC Oh yes. I had a rectangular sheet of aluminium and put it up vertically at the end of my studio, which was a one-car garage. That’s how the piece started. Initially I would prop up elements, connecting them by fixing and bolting. It was a process of adding and taking away. I was working in a small garage at home, and I had reached the limits of the space, but the sculpture wanted to go on. So I opened the garage door and continued with it into the open air. I started this kind of confined working after [the American painter] Ken Noland told me that he painted flat so that he only saw the final result when the work was on the wall. It was a new way of working, total immersion. And it meant that, when I got the sculpture out of the garage, I would get a surprise because my aesthetic had changed without my being aware of it.
TM So you remember the surprise of seeing Early One Morning when you took it out?
AC I remember it very well. I worked on Early One Morning with [the sculptor] Mike Bolus and he gave me a hand fixing and bolting it together. We finished work on it at about 11 o’clock one night and we put the parts through the window. The next morning, I saw it erected in the garden, and I got a surprise. But it wasn’t red then, we had painted
TM Is colour very much an afterthought?
AC Almost always. My wife Sheila [Girling, a painter] knew that green was not right. I always ask her about the colour, and in this case she said, ‘Try red’, and we did. They were standard household paints.
TM Why did you paint sculptures, not leave them in metal or aluminium form?
AC I wanted them to be straightforward. I didn’t want them to look as though they were ‘artistic’. Later I was more willing to admit to fact of the metal of it, but not at the beginning. I remember Dorothy Morland, who was then Director
of the ICA, coming to my courtyard and seeing some sculptures and commenting, ‘I see you’ve got the builders in’, and my son, who was about five, saw a JCB on the road and said, ‘Sculpture’. I was happy that it didn’t look like sculpture.
TM Your sculpture never sat on a plinth, it was always placed on the floor in the space of the viewer. Was that about making something more real and immediate?
AC Yes. Michael Fried [the art historian and critic] pointed out that, there’s an imaginary wall around it, it’s not quite in the space of the viewer, as this table is.
TM Why do you think that is the case?
AC Because it’s sculpture and it has to do with feeling. It is a mistake to say everything in our world is sculpture. No, sculpture is special, it doesn’t have to be put on a base – but that’s not to say it’s the same as this cup or this table. It’s seen in quite another way.
TM Looking back, what are the most significant differences between the art world in 1960s Britain and today?
AC In the past 20 to 30 years, art has become something that can be appreciated by everyone. You talk about Monet and Matisse, and taxi drivers know about them. They’ve been to Tate Modern. Sculpture is no longer the poor sister of painting. I wouldn’t have believed any of this would have been possible.
TM If I asked you right now to make a trajectory of British sculpture over the last century in five works, what would they be?
AC Rock Drill (1913-14) is the first, absolutely. Then an early Henry Moore figure, such as Reclining Figure (1929) perhaps, or maybe a more abstract one – his early sculptures were marvellous. I would like to think I was included, in which case I would choose Midday (1960) or Prairie (1967). I would have Philip King’s Rosebud (1962). And, finally, I would take Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993). But it was not a fair question!
TM You generated considerable debate in Britain in 1975 with your exhibition ‘The Condition of Sculpture’ at the Hayward. One of the things you sought was a definition of sculpture as object. Why did this feel necessary?
WT I think what I was trying to do in that exhibition was to show that, in the face of the dominance of conceptual art, sculpture was still being made by younger artists. I wanted to show that what they were making was substantial, made of identifiable material, that the form and working of the material was important in itself, that it was subject to gravity, that it occupied a single location in space – rather than being an articulation of landscape or of an existing architecture. And of course, it was not printed statements, or photography, or video, or performance or any of that. In the context of the time it could be seen, as you say, as defining ‘sculpture as object’. To be physically making sculpture in the early 1970s was considered hopelessly regressive, and the word ‘object’ was almost a term of abuse.
But for me, ten years earlier, the idea that sculpture might be an object (rather than a figure) was really liberating. The first contemporary sculpture I had ever looked hard at was in an open-air exhibition in Holland Park in 1957. As I remember, it featured Henry Moore’s Warrior with Shield (1953-54, below right) and a group of younger sculptors who were getting a lot of attention at the time – Butler, Chadwick, Armitage, Frink, etc – and the first sculptures I made were clay figures based on life drawings, influenced by that kind of work. But probably through looking at Picasso, I realised that sculpture could be made from everyday materials that you could pick up on the street. I remember making an ambitious Picasso-ish figure from elements of a discarded piano – and then I learned to weld at the Central School in London. I was thinking about Duchamp’s Bottle Rack (1914) and certain paintings by de Kooning and Motherwell, and I came to understand that sculpture could be both an object, in the sense of the objects in the world – tables, chairs, teacups and so on – and at the same time an image of an object. Brancusi’s Cups (1917) are a great example. When I first met Phillip King he was travelling a parallel path toward a similar goal.
TM A few years later, you and Philip King were very involved in the ‘New Generation’ show at the Whitechapel in 1965. How close were you all – did it feel like a coherent grouping?
WT I met Phillip King, Isaac Witkin, David Annesley and Mike Bolus through St Martins in 1959-60. I met Tim Scott later, he was studying architecture in Paris at the time. All of us were living in the early 1960s within a mile of the Finchley Road tube station. Early on, I shared a garage studio with Isaac for a while, later for a time with David. It was a very exciting period. We talked, shared ideas and were aware of developments in each other’s work, especially at St Martins, where there were other sculptors – Maurice Agis, and the Israelis Buky Schwartz and Menashe Kadishman – making interesting and progressive things in stone. Tony Caro was the dominant teacher there, but I didn’t get to see his new steel pieces for quite a while. It was presumably the connection with him, and his connection with Bryan Robertson, that brought about the ‘New Generation’ group.
In any case, Phillip King saw this show I put up, probably in the autumn of 1960, of constructed steel ‘object’ pieces, like Tunnel and 37 (1960), which intrigued him and that started us on a series of conversations about the possibilities for sculpture. He came up with the phrase ‘a familiarity which resists recognition’ to describe what he thought was the character of the objects I was making. But it was a few months before I actually saw his new work in his studio, and when I did, I was stunned. Window Piece, Drift, Declaration (all 1961) – one after another, these pieces were so striking, so original, they were far in advance of anything I had seen before, in their scale, their presence, the use of materials, the way they directly addressed the onlooker. I still think these are among the most important sculptures of the twentieth century. He was after something very different from Caro, whose first steel pieces I had seen by this time.
TM Caro was credited with having made a ‘breakthrough’ with his steel sculptures, beginning with Twenty Four Hours in 1960. Subsequently, your work, and that of Philip King, was linked to Caro’s critically and curatorially through the notion of ‘abstract’ sculpture. Is there any validity to this or is it too broad a term to have any serious meaning?
WT The steel sculpture that Caro showed at the Whitechapel and the work of the sculptors associated with St Martins in the ‘New Generation’ exhibition was so different from Caro’s figurative sculpture and that of Paolozzi, Armitage, Frink, etc that the differences between each one of us, and between us and Caro’s new work, were largely unnoticed. Plainly the sculpture was not figurative – it started directly from the ground, there were no pedestals, the material was industrial, often painted in strong colour, it seemed to be assembled rather than modelled. And so on. In terms of sculpture, its newness was shocking, but in relation to our contemporaries in painting, like the Situation painters, it shared much of the formal vocabulary. King was close to Jeremy Moon, I was friends with John Hoyland and Basil Beattie, I knew Kitaj from the Ruskin School and of course Caro felt akin to the American colour field painters.
But there was a real difference in the approach of Caro, and King and myself. Caro’s first steel pieces were laid out along the ground, the elements resting or leaning on each other (rather than constructed in defiance of gravity like David Smith’s work). The character of the separate elements was stressed, and the movement seemed to be expansive, to reach outward. There was a feeling of improvisation, of instability, of becoming, rather than being.
King’s first abstract pieces were whole, rather than fragmented. The idea of each sculpture seemed to have arrived complete out of his imagination, and all he had to do was make it. But in fact his use of materials was amazingly fresh and inventive. He virtually invented fibreglass as a sculpture material.
But the most striking and original thing about his new work was the way in which the sculpture addressed you, the onlooker. It was about the size of someone standing opposite you, and it addressed itself directly to you, it said simply, ‘This is what I am.’ It was completely there in that first encounter – you didn’t learn anything more by walking around it, as you would with a Moore or a Caro. The immediacy and economy of King’s sculpture was more like that of Brancusi. To get back to your question, I don’t think it helps to lump the new sculpture of the early Sixties together as ‘abstraction’. Just as King’s individual pieces had this powerful presence, the articulation and proportion of Caro’s pieces were often suggestive of the figure in movement. Looking back from the viewpoint of 50 years, and of the kind of work that I have been making for the last 30 of them, I have come to recognise that a sense of the figure is central to the experience of sculpture. Which does not necessarily mean an image of the figure. But that’s a conversation for another time.
Anthony Caro: Upright Sculptures Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery, New York, www.miandn.com , until 11 Dec An Essay on Sculpture by William Tucker, is on show in the RA’s ‘Modern British Sculpture’