Mitchell-Innes & Nash: October 18 - November 21, 2007
Few sculptors have the range of Brit maestro Sir Anthony Caro, and fewer artists can consistently create three-dimensional forms that feel original yet rooted firmly in the ideals of modern sculpture. In his latest show, Caro continues to probe his unique brand of spatial composition that blends architectural vocabularies with the more intimate experience of sculpture. This time the artist revisits the industrial machine as his inspiration. Sure, this may sound like a familiar tune in the history of modernism, and the machine has appeared before in the British sculptor's repertoire, but Caro’s latest collection makes it all new again.
Divided between two gallery shows in London and New York, Caro's latest body of work could easily come from a much younger artist if the sculptures weren't so honed and polished (skill-wise, not surface-wise). Having had the benefit of seeing only his New York show, I will reserve judgment on the British installment, though the catalogue suggests some of the best pieces are there (including "Jupiter" (2005)--which reminds me of Reuben Nakian's high modernist sculpture from the late 1950s-- and "Cretan Passage" (2005-7)--an intriguing marriage of a dolmen and mineshaft).
Regardless, these New York sculptures—exhibited at both Mitchell-Innes & Nash’s Chelsea and Upper East Side branches--are crisp and clean without surrendering to simplicity.
They are in fact more representational than most of his work, featuring the symbolism and components of industrial tools and contraptions. Caro abstracts manufactured objects much like the analytic cubists fragmented the figure or still-life, yet individual elements are still discernible even if the source of each part may be hard to pinpoint.
"Magnolia Passage" (2005-6) is a composite of common objects, like sawhorses or picnic tables, but each element effortlessly melds into a final, seamless work. To enliven the fusion, planes of rich, solid colors (in this case purple and gray) overlay elements of the large-scale works, asserting their role as non-utilitarian objects and highlighting the fact that they are nothing if not wholly new.
"South Passage" (2005), another large work, is dominated by horizontal red tubes and galvanized steel squares. Its steel armature provides a frame for forms that appear to shift ever so slightly from different vantage points. From one perspective the sculpture seems to collapse into a deceptive shallowness, while after a few steps it seems to expand into a much larger space. The base of the work demonstrates the same sense of formal variation, at some points defying gravity (classic Caro) while at others firmly touching the floor.
Caro's mastery is most evident in "Chalk Line" (2006), where he "collages" an old stone trough onto a long, narrow, steel floor piece. Caro has found a way to integrate the artifact into a new context while commenting on its texture (though contrast), which like the other found objects in his sculptures, he's rendered non-functional. Never precious in his approach to history, Caro has taken a barnyard "machine" and proves an aesthetic point, namely, the democratic nature of art and its sources.
Uptown in Mitchell-Innes & Nash's smaller Madison Avenue space, two large pieces, "Kettle Drum" (2006) and "Lock Passage" (2007), easily fill the much smaller gallery. "Kettle Drum," dominated by painted green bars and sphere forms, is a simultaneous nod to LeWitt's lattice cubes and El Lizitsky's floating geometry.
If the large-scale sculptures are challenging, the smaller works can appear gentle. Resembling the spirit of late Rodin or Donatello (a favorite of his according to a recent interview on Artnet) because of their relaxed ease and deeply emotional impact, the industrial fragments on this scale can appear to allude to the figurative.
"Table Piece North" (2004) resembles a figure leaning against a wall, while "Table Piece Root" (2004) suggests a seated couple embracing. These smaller works lend themselves to narrative qualities that the larger works resist. Gone are the blissful explosions of geometric forms characteristic of the large pieces and in their place are lyrical forms with a penchance for storytelling.
Caro's recent work unleashes a new burst of creativity for an artist long heralded as one of the premiere practitioners of modern sculpture. His recent work is diverse and demonstrates his refusal to fall into formula, preferring to wrestle with each work as a springboard for new spatial possibilities. Caro's new sculptures are refreshing not only for their aesthetic accomplishments (of which there are many), but also as evidence that contemporary sculpture doesn't need the crutch of irony or nostalgia to communicate something new.
Hrag Vartanian is a writer, critic, and designer. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.