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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



Anthony Caro (British, b. 1924). After Summer, 1968. Painted steel. Collection of Audrey and David Mirvish, Toronto. Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Wilson Santiago
Sorry I couldn’t make it to the Monday night opening on April 25 of Sculptures by Anthony Caro in the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (on view through October 30, weather permitting). However, I did get to a more intimate gathering, the media preview that morning, and was delighted to find the artist, at 87, as genial and unaffected as ever. He was happy to be in Manhattan, he said, and would come more often, except that he hates airports. To the assembled journalists, he also reported that he still gets to his studio regularly, where he confabs with three or four younger studio assistants, “and we chat about a lot of things. I want to see young people. It keeps me in touch,” he said. “I don’t look back. I look forward, and I think the job of all artists is to keep art moving,” though not infrequently inspired by the art of the past.

Here he mentioned specifically the Met’s small show of Cézanne “Card Players,” implying that it might offer jumping-off points for future work of his own. He already has a grand source of inspiration for his latest project, now in preparation: a three-block-long sculpture to be installed on Park Avenue in midtown Manhattan next summer. Last summer, he took his grandchildren to Rome, where they all went to the Sistine Chapel, and it struck him, what a “long” painting Michelangelo’s ceiling fresco is. That is his precedent for that three-block-long stretch on Park Avenue. True, he feels that “the human scale is important,” but added that, for this big new project, one also had to keep in mind the scale of the buildings along Park Avenue. Gary Tinterow, the Met curator hosting the media preview, observed that modernist sculpture often gets “inhuman,” but that “Caro always has the human element in his work.”

The New York Times has all too often had trouble with Caro (Ian Barker’s 2004 monograph on the artist includes copious contradictory quotations from over the decades). But the paper’s present team of commentators is even less prepared to deal with Caro than John Russell or Hilton Kramer ever were: nowadays, critics are much more locked into fun and games than they are to serious modernist work. As a result, this exhibition was previewed in the Times “Arts Beat” column on April 8 with an item by Carol Vogel, who specializes in auction prices and art gossip. Vogel observed that the Caro show would be “far tamer” than last summer’s giant bamboo jungle gym by the Starn Twins, which drew 631,064 visitors to clamber through its upper reaches on the Met’s roof. The change was welcomed at the Times’s website by one of Vogel’s readers, who signed his name “John Doe” (possibly this is an artist who doesn’t want to queer his chances of being favorably reviewed by the Times). Doe found it “wonderful that sculpture for the mind, eyes and soul and not for leg muscles” would be shown at the Met.

However, when the full-dress review appeared on Saturday, April 30, it ran more along Vogel’s track than Doe’s. True, it appeared on the front page of the paper’s Arts section, and was illustrated by a nice big color photograph, but the text reads as if Ken Johnson, Holland Cotter, and Roberta Smith had drawn straws after jointly deciding (or being told) that somebody had to review this show, since a) Caro is a knight of the Queen’s realm, b) he’s Britain’s most famous living sculptor, and c) the Met is the Met. Johnson, it seems, had drawn the short straw, forcing him to go and look at the work. Since even the Met’s wall text cites Clement Greenberg as a great admirer, and Greenberg was known as a formalist, Johnson seems to have decided that he would write about the five sculptures on view in formalist language (when he wasn’t trying to ridicule Greenberg and rambling on about a more acceptable young “perceptual” California sculptor who had studied with a former student of Caro’s) About all this proves is a) that formal analysis can be used negatively as well as positively, b) that Johnson doesn’t seem to have seen very many Caro sculptures, as he chooses to accept the five works on view as summarizing the hundreds and even thousands of sculptures that Caro has made in the past 50 years, and c) hell will freeze over before Johnson admits that Greenberg could be right about anything.

True, he admires the wide-open, slant-leveled, bright yellow “Midday” (1960), one of the artist’s many masterpieces, but that only suggests it’s the only piece in the show that he’s had a chance to become really familiar with. Besides, it enjoys the endorsement not only of Greenberg, but also of the Museum of Modern Art (as Ian Barker shows, many, many critics and curators other than loyal Greenbergians have admired Caro over the years). “Midday” is often to be seen in MoMA’s sculpture garden, and has traveled to many other venues (its provenance, in MoMA’s doubtless computerized records, must be screens long). But what Johnson liked about it was the way it summarized the “groovy” mood of the 60s, the fact that it seems possessed of “a joyful, devil-may-care optimism.” In other words, it’s really good old fun and games, so we don’t have to take it any more seriously than the Starn Twins. God forbid anybody should take art seriously, and perhaps this is the kind of advice that the Met’s summer visitors (so many of whom are tourists) need to have. The truth is probably that they are more likely to find Caro’s kind of art as unfamiliar as Johnson obviously does, and just as difficult to relate to---this being the hurdle that all genuinely muscular modernist abstraction must overcome, the ignorance regarding good abstraction. A jungle gym must have reminded everybody of their childhoods, just as did the huge balloon dog, red-wrapped candy heart and Piglet of Jeff Koons, seen on the Met’s roof in 2008 (when Johnson raved about them, calling them “intellectually and sensuously exciting,” with the dog in particular a “masterpiece”).

All the other, less-familiar works in the Caro show got dumped upon by Johnson, beginning with “After Summer” (1968), which appears in a very unflattering black-and-white photograph on the second page of Johnson’s review. Why couldn’t the Times have gone with the Met’s own photo, which shows this 24-foot-long, low-slung, graceful, delicately pale gray monarch silhouetted against the magnificent paler gray backdrop of the skyscrapers that surround Central Park, and are visible from the Met's roof? Then again, a flattering photo might have contradicted Johnson’s descriptions of “After Summer” as “elephantine,” “a nondescript pale gray,” and having “an oddly militaristic feel, as if it were based on a design for an ancient Roman battle apparatus…” This is the same type of pomonian association that I mentioned recently in connection with the exhibition catalogue for Noland at Mitchell-Innes, grimly determined to limit the relationship of the work of art to a cultural framework, and ignore the natural one. Worse, in this case (and also, to an extent with Noland) is the desire to tie modernism in with militarism, as though all the pomonian scholars who insisted that Greenberg was nothing more than a capitalist imperialist promoting Cold War propaganda were checking in and making their dogma felt.

I would describe “After Summer” differently. As the reader may already have guessed, I find it provocatively beautiful. It is composed of two straight, long, slender beams laid parallel on the ground, to which are bolted – at right angles, and lined up outside the beams – four upright pairs of quarter tank-ends (tank-ends being the elegantly curved circular ends designed to cap the oil tanks on railroad cars, and a favorite form of found steel for the artist during this period). Cutting these tank-ends into quarters frees them from their original context, giving them instead a wing-like feel, and creating an ensemble that suggests fleets of swans, or shoals of sharks, as well as Chinese-y sorts of dragons, all swimming gracefully along. These associations, of course, are secondary to the sculpture’s main impact, which is of a purely esthetic nature and suggests nothing so much as a forward thrust. Still, this kind of motion in Caro’s sculptures almost completely escaped Johnson, here and also in the dancing feel of “Midday,” and the rocket-like upward whoosh of “Blazon” (1987-90), a handsome 11-foot high red-painted vertical that looks almost better from the backside than from the front. I find also a circular motion in “Odalisque” (1984), another piece that relies heavily on found steel, though of the five sculptures on view, it’s the one I have least to say about.

“After Summer” is evidently so called because it was completed in October 1968 at a factory in St. Neots, Hertfordshire, north of London, near the home of Charlie Hendy, Caro’s chief assistant during those years. For most of the previous summer, it had stood (or rather, lain) in the courtyard outside Caro’s house and garage-studio in Hampstead, with Caro looking at it and trying to decide how to finish it. As completed, the second pair of tank ends has two additional tank ends extending out from the “body” of the beams, so that the whole also suggests one huge winged creature as well as a ship some sort, sailing along. What kind of ship? One from the ancient world (I agree with Johnson to that extent), but more to do with peace than war, and powered both by wind and by humans (the tank ends suggest both sails and oars). I was reminded of “Cargoes,” a 1903 poem by British poet-laureate John Masefield, that was put to music, and that we used to sing at my progressive boarding school, in the 1940s. I consider the first verse particularly apt. We sang it slowly and melodiously, as it runs

“Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.”

The most recent work in the show, “End Up” (2010) looks even better here, in company with larger work, than it did in Caro’s solo exhibition last fall at Mitchell-Innes, where most of its company was smaller sculptures. Composed of backward-tilting, flat slabs of rusted steel and cast iron on a wooden base, it reminded both Johnson and myself of Civil War armored ships, but where my notes simply read “Monitor or Merrimac,” Johnson preferred to deep-six the concept, writing that the sculpture looked like “something that was hauled up from the bottom of the sea – part of an ironclad from the Civil War, maybe — varnished for a history museum display.” I doubt very much that a Briton like Caro would be a U.S. Civil War buff, and think that to the extent he may have inspired by Civil War nautical history, it would have come to him through the medium of fine art. Since so many of his works have been inspired by paintings, in this case the source would more likely have been one of the studies of U.S. war ships off the coast of France done by Manet during the Civil War, of which the best-known in this country is “The Battle of the U.S.S. ‘Kearsarge’ and the C.S.S. ‘Alabama’” (1864). That said, I was even more vividly reminded of the third & last verse of Masefield’s “Cargoes,” which we sang to a short, choppy beat:

“Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smokestack
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rail, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware and cheap tin toys.”

This whole poem --- whose second verse concerns a “stately Spanish galleon” heading home from the New World with a cargo of gold and jewels --- has been interpreted various ways. Some observers see it as a commentary on the rise and fall of three successive empires. I think of it as a contrast between the beauty & majesty of ancient times and the ugliness of the early 20th century. And indeed I believe that many who found the 20th century ugly never did learn to appreciate the beauty of its new art: cubism and cubism’s successor, modernist abstraction. It is these people, and their descendants, who still can’t cope with modernism and modernist abstraction – Ken Johnson and all the dreary people he writes for. It is to be hoped that at least some of the many visitors who will come this summer to enjoy the fresh air, great views and tasty snacks served in the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden will pause, either before or after having their photos snapped in front a sculpture, and really look at the works on view. Though probably chosen as much for their ability to withstand the weather as for their excellence, all in all they will reward contemplation.

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