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Man of mettle

Published 3 March 2014

Academician Anthony Caro was the most influential British sculptor of the post-war era, famously taking sculpture off the plinth. Norman Foster RA pays a personal tribute to the man who collaborated with him on several projects.

  • From the Spring 2014 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    My first meeting with Anthony Caro RA and his wife Sheila Girling was in the 1970s when we became neighbours in Hampstead. I recall him knocking on the door to talk about a new project and to ask my advice. He had been approached by I.M. Pei Hon RA, the architect for the new East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, with a commission for a site-specific sculpture in a prominent location within the project.

    I had just created a model shop within my studio and suggested that he develop his sculpture using a big scale model of the space, which I offered to provide. He loved the concept and, in due course working with the architect’s drawings, I made a large cardboard model of the gallery’s interior with Tony’s assigned space marked out. It was the first time he had worked in that way and he was clearly delighted with the process – and the end result. When I visit the museum it always brings back good memories to look up at his sculpture National Gallery Ledge Piece (1978) and admire the way in which it complements the architecture.

    Most days, if my travels do not take me away from home, I meet Anthony Caro. That is to say that when I walk around outside our house in Switzerland I stop to admire two of his magnificent works – one rises monumentally from a grassy slope, the other hovers serenely next to a footpath. These are part of a series called ‘Toronto Flats’ and they date back to 1974 when one of Tony’s collectors gave him the use of a steel mill in Canada. The two pieces have been in place for some six years now and my wife Elena and I never tire of living with them – they are also part of the view from our windows. Their presence has been a constant reminder of Tony and often on our walks they have evoked a ritual exchange between us along the lines of: “We really must persuade Tony and Sheila to come and stay with us because they would love to see these works in the landscape.” On one occasion they made arrangements to come and stay but, because of ill health, they had to cancel at the last moment.

    Now that Tony is sadly no longer with us there is a certain poignancy when we pause to admire his works. On the one hand we are sad that there will no longer be the pleasure of his company with his infectious and youthful enthusiasm for life and work. But the aesthetic charge from his sculpture is undiminished and that is a legacy that will endure far beyond his lifespan.

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    Archive video: Anthony Caro RA discusses his 2012 exhibition at Chatsworth and reminisces about his time as a student at the RA Schools.

  • The process of acquiring these two works brought our two families closer together. I was seeing Tony during his visits to Elena’s publishing house, Ivorypress, where they were working together on an artist’s book, Open Secret (2004), which took the form of tabletop sculptures in either bronze, brass, paper or stainless-steel. Each of the books opens up to reveal Shakespearian scripts lovingly transcribed onto thin card sheets, as well as a portfolio of poems handwritten especially for this project by the German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger. It was during one of their working sessions that Tony mentioned a forthcoming exhibition in the West Country of his outdoor works and paintings by Sheila.

    Elena and I arrived for the opening on a bright late summer’s morning in the setting of the rolling landscape of Roche Court in Wiltshire. I was asked to say a few words in praise of the artists’ works – Sheila’s in the estate buildings and Tony’s set in the meadows. It was a beautiful event and after the ceremonies we took a walk to view the sculptures, noting our favourites as we went along.

    It was only afterwards that we were to understand the significance of this body of work by Caro, produced in 1974. Partly the realisation came through conversations with Tony but it was also the result of reading interviews and looking at these sculptures in the context of what came before and then followed. Here, for the first time, the artist was working directly with heavy industry and out of doors in the making of his work.

    The York Steel Company, based in Toronto, had provided cranes and moving equipment that enabled Tony to manipulate large raw metal plates in space, turning heavy elements with comparative ease and tack welding them together for later reappraisal. This was a quantum leap from the facilities that his Camden workshop/ studio had offered and it shows in the scale and materiality of these works. They emerged over a period of separate visits, in between which a small team of younger collaborators would be following through the artist’s directives. This process also gave Caro a second opportunity to make changes – perhaps another reason why this group of sculptures appears so resolved. It seems to me that they also paved the way for a new body of monumental works that emerged in later decades.

    I remember the experience of seeing my first Caro – on returning from graduate studies in the United States in 1963 – at his solo show in London’s Whitechapel Gallery (above). The work was a brightly painted assemblage of structural steel sections welded together that sat directly on the floor with a conspicuous absence of any podium. At the time it was a shockingly radical departure from anything that I had experienced before as sculpture.

    Tony’s breadth of scale has architectural parallels in its range, from pieces small enough to sit on a tabletop to those that create spaces the size of a dwelling. I can recall his monumental works that were equally at home in the cavernous entrance space of the Tate Gallery, as they were sitting in the green landscape of Goodwood. I recall the magnificent ziggurat of a work that started life indoors as Halifax Steps – Ziggurats and Spirals (1994) and which was later transformed outdoors to become Goodwood Steps (1996). In a conversation with the noted Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida Hon RA, Caro talked about this transition. ‘I’m interested in how to make my sculpture for outside. When the Goodwood Steps were installed outside at Goodwood – they were originally made for inside at Dean Clough in Halifax – I realised that they became not only something you look at but also something you look through. You see the countryside through them. The piece acts as a frame for the countryside rather than the environment framing it. It is speaking a different language from the landscape, just as buildings in a landscape do.’

    In 1996 I asked Tony to join a small team of architects and engineers to compete for a new footbridge that would span the Thames from St Paul’s Cathedral to Tate Modern at London’s Bankside. We won the competition with a design that almost literally stretched the boundaries of a suspension structure. It was a great experience that also stretched our minds. The artist in any collaborative venture is usually introduced late in the process. So it was unusual for us to work together from the beginning. One consequence was the insights into different creative worlds.

    I think Tony was surprised and shocked by some of the processes that architects and engineers take for granted, such as the constraints of regulations and the many separate authorities whose needs must be accommodated. Likewise, as architects, we gained an enormous respect for the sculptor’s total freedom of expression and the self-imposed discipline that was a consequence of such liberty. As Caro wrote later, “…since sculpture is essentially physical, sculptors tend to think directly, using actual material, actual size. The problem a sculptor has to solve is a problem he has set himself – far from having a competition, a brief, a site, even a given size. The sculptor may start from a rule he makes for himself or from the parts in his piece-bin, from a reproduction of a Cézanne or from the joint between two units.”

    The last time I saw Tony, he was with Sheila having breakfast on the terrace of the Hotel Monaco in Venice last summer. Elena and I joined them before going off to see his retrospective show in Museo Correr, off St Mark’s Square.

    It was the most recent show that I have seen of his work and, without doubt, the most unforgettable and moving. In roughly chronological order, it started with the same brightly coloured works that had excited me 50 years earlier. The gallery consisted of rooms strung out along a corridor with an almost infinite perspective. Going from room to room was like seeing chapters of Tony Caro’s career unfolding, with variations in scale interposing the transition from vivid Pop colours to the more sombre metal surfaces that eventually were to be his hallmark. It was a perfect marriage of a confident antiquarian architecture with the lifetime’s progression of a supremely confident and great contemporary artist. What a testimony and what a legacy.

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