Words: Jeremy Miles - Picture: Hattie Miles (Paris 2007)
He’s the king of heavy metal - an apparent magician who can imbue sheets of steel and iron girders with a kind of weightless majesty.
Sir Anthony Caro is a sculptor who can do amazing things with solidity too. Just take a look at the massive and magnificent entrance piece to the huge retrospective of his work currently showing at London’s Tate Britain.
Commissioned specially for the show, Millbank Steps is a gargantuan piece designed to explore the relationship between sculpture and architecture.
Weighing nearly 100 tons, the walk-through work fills more than half of the Tate’s vast Duveen Galleries. The floors had to be reinforced before it was craned in piece by piece.
Completed late last year, it is the most recent work in the exhibition which explores Caro’s extraordinary 50 plus year career. It’s quite a statement from a man, who at 80-years of age, remains at the very peak of his powers.
When he and his wife, the artist Sheila Girling, are not enjoying the dramatic coastscape that surrounds their Dorset cottage near Swanage, Caro still drives daily from their London home in Hampstead to his studio in a converted piano factory in nearby Camden.
Widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest living sculptors, he permanently has a series of major projects on the go. Seeing works like the groundbreaking 1962 construction Early One Morning at the Tate your realise just how important his contribution to 20th and now early 21st century art has been. Those who have watched him in action say it is unimaginable that he could ever have done anything else
Yet Caro, whose father was a city stockbroker, became an artist against his family’s wishes. He embarked on studies at the Royal Academy amid warnings that he would probably starve in a garret.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. Within a year or so he decided to learn at the feet of the master. He went and knocked on Henry Moore’s door and asked if he could be his assistant. Moore, admiring the young Caro’s spirit and also detecting a rare talent in making, took him on. His influence is instantly apparent in the early works in the Tate Britain show.
But by the early 1960s Caro had found a new direction. In many ways these were his glory years, abandoning his figurative past, the modelling in clay and casting in bronze, he began to make purely abstract works: sculpture constructed and welded in steel.
Inspired by a visit to the US where he met the sculptor David Smith and found a vocal and influential champion in the critic Clement Greenberg, Caro was on his way. His work made of beams, girders and other found elements painted in bright colours caused a sensation and heralded a revolution in art. Within a short period, conventional ideas about materials, surface, scale, form and space were overturned by his radical reworking of conventional ideas.
The biggest impact of all was caused by Caro's insistence on giving his works an immediate physical presence by placing them directly on the ground - overturning at a stroke a principle that had existed since the days of ancient Greece and Rome. I suspect he’s quite pleased that he is destined to go down in history as the man who took art of its pedestal and gave it directly to the people
Examples of Caro’s work in Dorset include Sea Music – the sculpture specially commissioned for Poole Quay in 1991 and Bacolet Bay, a work in waxed steel which is currently on show in the foyer of Bournemouth University as part of the 2004/2005 Art Loan exhibition.