In 1978 my father had his first interview with Anthony Caro, first published in Art Monthly and later in his book Beyond The Crisis In Art. The two knowingly faced off against each other with strong opposing convictions on the nature of art, specifically British sculpture and its cultural legacy. It really does hold up as a fascinating look at both Caro as an artist and Fuller as a critic, the successes and failings of both within their respective mediums and of the limitations of those mediums. The differences between words and images or objects are revealed with all their vulnerabilities and triumphs. Caro's Modernism is put to the test and my father's Romanticism laid bare. The question is asked; should an artist be answerable for the larger questions about the society which he may well be affecting in one way or another, or are they separate because of the signification being a different response for each individual?
FULLER & CARO: THE INTERVIEW
FULLER: You went to Charterhouse, a public school, and then to Cambridge where you read engineering. Why did you choose this subject? Did you want to makefunctional objects?
CARO: My father was a stockbroker. He wanted me to be a stockbroker and join his firm. I did not want to do that. I liked drawing; I was better at mathematics than other subjects. Once, in desperation, my father got me to work for a few weeks in an architect’s office. I was bored stiff. I spent most of the time in the lavatory reading. Later my father suggested engineering since it involved drawing and maths.
Did you think about becoming a professional artist?
I wanted to be an artist, yes. When you are young you dream about all sorts of things; such dreams are the basis on which you later structure your life. The room I made art in was the one place that I felt free and able to do exactly what I wanted.
Did your father resist this ambition?
Very much so, although later on when I did become a sculpture student he was supportive. I was very bad indeed at engineering. I had vague thoughts of bridge-building but what I had to study had nothing to do with that. I learned things like heat theory and what went on inside a boiler. I just scraped through my exams.
Your early, ‘post-student’ works werefigurative and expressionistic. In a 1972 interview you said, ‘My figurative sculptures were to do with what it is like to he inside the body. ’ What do you feel about them now?
I don’t look at them much. They were honest; I was searching to find a way to say what I had to.
They were theatrical and humanist, weren’t they?
Humanist, yes. All my work is humanist. The figurative ones were expressionistic, not theatrical.
Michael Fried thinks that your later, abstract works, too, are almost metaphors for bodily experience. He refers to their ‘rootedness in certain basic facts about being in the world, in particular about possessing a body’, and argues ‘the changes that took place in (Caro’s) art in late 1959 and early 1960. . . were not the result ofany shift of fundamental aspirations.’ Another major commentator on your work, William Rubin, dismisses this as ‘purely speculative’. Who is right?
The critics who have influenced me the most by coming to the studio and talking about my work are Greenberg and Fried, not Rubin and Fried. I am not responsible for what any critics write. However, in this case, Fried is right: the changes took place because I had reached a sculptural impasse. My aspirations and beliefs about being in the world or the value of human life have not undergone fundamental changes since I was an undergraduate and spent time sorting these things out for myself.
Fried is sometimes self-contradictory but at one point he insists that the value of all your sculptures resides in their relationship to the body. ‘Not only is the radical abstractness of Caro’s art not a denial of our bodies and the world,’ he writes, ‘it is the only way in which they can be saved for high art today, in which they can be made present to us other than as theatre.' Thus Fried argues your sculptures stand for the body, though not by reproducing its external appearance. Is that true?
Let’s leave the critics out of it. In my beliefs about sculpture I am very conscious that it has to do with physicality. I don’t think it is possible to divorce sculpture from the making of objects. Back in the 1960s I found certain materials, like plaster and plastics, difficult and unpleasant to cope with simply because they do not have enough physical reality. It is not clear enough where the skin of them — not the skin, the surface of them — resides. They are flat-white in that kind of unreal way that you can’t tell exactly where they are; the appearance of them also gives no indication of their mass or weight. I needed to use a material that you could identify that it was there. I do not believe that the ‘otherness’ of a sculpture — and by that I mean what differentiates a sculpture from an object — should reside just within the material itself. I find that insufficiently significant: there’s a tremendous ‘otherness’ in a looking-glass for example. ‘Otherness’ should be born in relationships.
But do you think that in so far as your work has relations beyond sculpture itself then those refer to not just physicality but also, as Fried put it, to what it means to possess a body?
Certain things about the physical world and certain things about what it is like to be in a body are tied up together. Verticality, horizontality, gravity, all of these pertain both to the outside physical world and to the fact that we have bodies, as evidently does the size of a sculpture. These things are of importance in both my early figurative and the later abstract sculpture. In the abstract sculptures they are crucial.
You recently said that the artists you sympathized with least were those ‘who use painting or sculpture as a means to something else’. You said art of ‘the very highest class’ was ‘first and foremost about art’. You were even derogatory about Kline and Rothko whom you called ‘high class illustrators’ . . .
I stand by that. After seeing the Rothko retrospective at the Guggenheim I’d say his best paintings are very high-class illustration, in much the same way as Berenson might have used that word in comparing Uccello with Giotto.
Your complaint was that their work was not just about art but illustrated 'states of mind’. Fried argues that your work too is about something other than art - about ‘states of body’, if you like. Do you really think that the ‘highest art’ is ‘about art’?
I value Rothko for the way in which his forms express experience. Art, music and poetry are about what it is like to be alive. That almost goes without saying; depth of human content is what raises art to its most profound level. But that human content resides and finds expression within the language of the medium. The language artists use has to be the language of the subject: that is not the language of everyday life. The language we use in sculpture is the language of sculpture: that has to do with materials, shapes, intervals and so on.
Your use of an analogy with language is very doubtful. Sculpture lacks anything like an agreed grammar. Language always points beyond itself to signify something other than itself. Now you have said that art of 'the very highest class’ is first and foremost about art’ . . .
You are jumping feet foremost into philosophy. I think what I said was clear enough. Concentrating on the niceties of verbal expression is not my subject; I am a sculptor: I try to form meaning out of bits of steel.
Exactly, and I am trying to discover what sort of meaning you attempt to form.
The meaning of ‘me’. The question you ask is literary and philosophical. Your next question could well be ‘what is art?’ I can’t tell you what art, or music, or poetry is. If I could answer that I would be much cleverer than I am. I probably wouldn’t even have to make it.
My next question is in fact not ‘What is art?’ but ‘What is sculpture?’ You talk as if your only concern was with an object in the world, a physical thing. Evidently, a sculpture must exist as an object in the world but the sculpture as sculpture can only come into full existence when it is completed as an image in the consciousness of a human observer. This is not just empty philosophizing. My quarrel with formalists is about the nature of sculpture itself. You focus on sculpture’s physical existence to the degree that its meaning as an image seems barely to concern you. This sort of emphasis accounts for the vacuousness of much sculpture. So my questions about the nature of your images and meanings strike me as being very practical. Surely you are concerned with the signified as well as the signifier?
Absolutely. To the spectator a sculpture or a painting for that matter is essentially a surrogate for another person. Therefore it has to be expressive. Abstract art which is not expressive becomes arbitrary or decorative. Sculptures or paintings which are figurative and not expressive are at least about figures, but abstract sculpture which is not expressive is just itself, the metal or stone or wood it is made of and it is for this reason that so much bad, inexpressive abstract sculpture is more vacuous than its realistic counterpart which at least portrays something. I most certainly do not deny meaning or intent in a sculpture but I doubt if I go along with your interpretations of the words. As I said, the value of an art work lies in its depth of introspective and emotional content expressed through and enmeshed with the fullest understanding of the medium.
You often seem to me to beproducing works which are not ‘first and foremost about art’ but about experience beyond art. These are the works I respond to most strongly and those which differentiate you from your many imitators. For me, your weakest sculptures are those most manifestly ‘about art’.
Give me an example of one which is about art and one which is to do with experience.
Often it is moments within the same work, but Twenty-Four Hours, with its references to Noland’s targets and Greenberg’s theories, seems first and foremost about art’. Orangerie, a light hearted enough piece, nonetheless immediately transcends such concerns: its energy and vitality seem to come from the lived experience of movement. I value Rothko more highly than Hoffman because Rothko’s work was first and foremost’ about experience whereas Hoffman’s mature painting was painting about painting. But that is not to say that Rothko was not also formally accomplished or that there is no residue of experience, beyond painterly experience, in Hoffman.
I do not think you have really come to terms with abstraction. In abstract art its subject matter, not its content, is art. But if you want to talk about content, don’t miss the affirmation, the joy, even ecstasy of life lived, in Hoffman’s late abstractions. Art comes from art: I remember going to the Matissee show and seeing how Matisse had taken one of his own paintings, worked from it and transformed it, and that had led on to the next one and the next.
In your early period did you ever think your engineering knowledge would be o f use to you as a sculptor?
Between 1951 and 1953 you worked as Henry Moore’s assistant. In 1960 you praised him: ‘doors of a whole world of art which I had not known as a student, he opened for me.' Then you were sculpturally rejecting much of what he stood for. You have already said your father opposed your wish to become a sculptor. Do you think that - in terms of sculpture - Moore was a father figure for you?
That’s right: Henry Moore and David Smith, ten years later, were, in different ways, my fathers in sculpture. I suppose I felt something of a love-hate relationship for both of them, particularly Henry who taught me a great deal at a very important time of my development. David Smith was killed in ’65. I was never really close to him personally: he was 18 years older than me. They were both father figures. One’s feelings are so mixed in these situations: you’re immensely grateful for what you learned from them, at the same time ...
People both love their fathers and seek to destroy them completely.
Something like that; something like that.
Have you maintained personal relations with Moore since 1960?
Yes, but I don’t see much of him. He’s out of London and he’s busy. I saw him at his eightieth birthday and felt a surge of affection and respect for him. I took my younger son to see him at his place two or three years ago. It was a very good visit. But Henry and I belong to very different generations. I don’t think there is a great deal in common in terms of sculpture. Since I worked for him I have not had close contact sculpturally. But then David Smith and I never got down to talking about sculpture.
What were these ‘doors of a whole world of art' he opened then?
I had been at the Royal Academy schools. My first knowledge of negro art, surrealism, Cubism, of the whole modern movement, came from Moore. You can scarcely conceive what a closed world it was then for a student in the Academy schools. We were expected to look either at casts of Greek sculpture in the school corridors or else go upstairs to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Our education was very bad, very incomplete. But all the time I worked at Moore’s I would take two books at a time out of his library, he would show them to me and talk about art. He was a most generous teacher. All sorts of possibilities began to open up then that changed my perspectives a great deal. It was as if I had been in a monastery before that.
The essence of Moore’s sculpture is his experience of nature and natural forms - shells, bones, pebbles, and especially the human body, isn’t it?
Yes, there is a big difference between his art and that of people of my generation. It is misleading to call our art ‘urban’ but if his art is to do with the countryside and nature then ours could certainly be said to be more urban than his.
Did you see Sheep Piece?
I thought Sheep Piece was terrific.
What did you admire about it?
It is undeclaratory. It is not too big for itself, and that has not been true of all Moore’s sculptures in recent years. Sheep Piece is the right size for its feeling. It is a grand sculpture. I first saw it at his farm when I went there with my son and I thought, ‘That is a really felt piece.’ I would be happy to have made it.
Do you know what Moore’s view of your achievement is?
I doubt if he would have any comment to make publicly. I think he realizes that I am a very serious sculptor and that I have the welfare of sculpture at heart. But I would guess that certain things about my work he would regard as inadmissible. Probably I may find the next person who comes along and makes new, good sculpture of a very different sort from mine hard to take. The area of sculpture that is legitimate keeps moving a bit. Certain things in Moore’s credo, such as his internal structure, are denied in the sort of work I do: perhaps that would bother him.
In 1959 you went to America for the first time. What were your impressions then?
No doubt one could give a pat answer about what happened twenty years ago — naturally there’s some distortion by the lapse of time. I was certainly impressed by the hope then, the freedom from rules, the determination to achieve the best. And, of course, I was very excited by a lot of the art I saw.
Were you aware of the great influence which America had on many aspects of British cultural life at that time?
You bet! But a lot of what I thought America was like before I went was blasted by my trip. I had been fed on Lawrence Alloway’s concept of America: that was a very Madison Avenue, advertising kind of version. I remember talking to a photographer who wanted to go to the States to be ‘planed smooth as a board’. That was the expression he used! When I got there I found it wasn’t a bit like that: it wasn’t a slick, whizz-kid culture at all.
Had you met Clement Greenberg before you went over?
Yes, but it was after I had applied for my Ford Scholarship.
The changes in your work after your American trip are well- known. But what was influencing you? How far was Greenberg involved in your sculptural conversion?
Greenberg was totally involved. He more or less told me my art wasn’t up to the mark. He came to see me in my London studio. He spent all day with me talking about art and at the end of the day he had said a lot of things that I had not heard before. I had wanted him to see my work because I had never had a really good criticism of it, a really clear eye looking at it. A lot of what he said hit home, but he also left me with a great deal of hope. I had come to the end of a certain way of working; I didn’t know where to go. He offered some sort of pointer.
It could be said that by stripping youof your expressionism he ‘planed you smooth as a board’!
No, he clarified things for me. And thanks to him I began to learn to trust my feelings in art.
Apart from Greenberg who had the most influence on this change?
Noland, he was my age. I saw one of his first target shows in New York and I thought very highly of it. I liked him as a human being. I talked to him about art and about life one night till six in the morning when his train left for Washington. Noland was an ordinary guy: his clothes, the way he talked, were not extravagant in any way, and yet I had evidence he was also a very good artist. For me this was something unexpected; I had learnt to expect artists of my age to express themselves well verbally or be poetic or look the right sort of character. This sort of charisma was and doubtless in some circles still is the sign by which one recognized the artist! Noland re-affirmed for me that you put your poetry or your feeling into your work, not into your life style.
Wasn’t Smith involved in your conversion?
I had detected Smith was a pretty good artist from the few photographs of his work I had seen. When I got to America in 1959 I did not go to his place: but I did see one or two works by him and I met him twice. But the influence of Smith did not really hit me until ’63 to ’65 when I went to Bolton Landing and saw perhaps 80 of his sculptures in his field and made many visits to his studio.
What did you value in Smith’s sculpture?
Character, personal expressiveness, delicacy of touch, sculptural intelligence, immense sculptural intelligence!
I admire Smith but I suspect I see him differently. He once said, I know workmen, their vision, because. . . I have worked on Studebaker’s production line. ’ He identified himself with the proletariat and their struggles. He believed, perhaps wrongly but passionately, that ‘art is always an expression of revolt and struggle’ and that since freedom and equality are yet to be born’ art should relate itself to that future birth...
Is that what you admire in him?
He wanted his sculpture to relate to historical becoming not through naive 'social comment’ but through the creation of radically new expressive forms. Did none of that side of him matter to you at all?
Of course his ‘creation of radically new expressive forms' mattered to me. The rest of your question I find rhetorical hocus-pocus. Anyhow the socialist bit was David’s spiel. He intentionally took up a simplistic position in his conversation. ‘I’m just a welder,’ he used to say. He consistently made the most intelligent decisions in his sculpture and yet he hated art-talk: he stressed his role as a maker perhaps because he was embarrassed by his own artistry; saying he was just a welder was his defence. He liked to go into Bolton Landing for relaxation and there was even talk about him running for mayor. His place was very isolated and it must have been very lonely there. He used to go down to Lake George and drink with loggers and local people. Since David died I have talked to some old friends in whom he confided, and they have confirmed what I suspected; although David never showed what went on in his mind, he was paying attention to every sculptural or artistic thing that was happening. But publicly he never let on . . . He talked instead about ‘being a welder’. What a smokescreen! He was a highly sophisticated man.
What I quoted from Smith was not simplistic. His socialism and his aesthetics in the first part of his life at least were inseparable. This profoundly affected the sculptural forms he produced.
This is basically where we differ. I think one should pay attention to the work as that is the only real evidence one has. Artists are just as likely to be hiding their real feelings as other people when they talk, especially when they talk big. That is why you look at the work — that’s where nothing is hidden.
Because a sculpture is not just an object. Attending to the work includes attending to its meaning as an image, to its relationship to history - and not just art history. Moore transformed natural forms; Smith confronted and transformed the forms of men and women engaged in productive labour.
Does Smith have more to do with the production of labour, or whatever you are talking about, than someone grinding or welding a piece of bronze?
Smith’s factory techniques, his use of industrial materials and components, certainly refer to a specific form of labour to which Moore makes no reference. Smith was quite conscious of this.
I don’t think that is the difference between Moore and Smith.
Why did you decide to make Smith rather than Moore your ‘father figure’ in sculpture in the 1960s?
It was not so much a decision as a question of growth. When I was at Moore’s studio I was still a student, and in the figurative sculptures I made in the years after I worked for Moore, I strove to find a voice of my own. When I turned to making abstract welded steel sculptures it is true that I used many of the same materials as Smith but I was not so much directly influenced by him in the early 1960s as trying to do something very different from him.
It seems strange that you seek to minimize the influence of two great sculptors, Moore and Smith, on your work while stressing that of Noland, a painter, and Greenberg, a critic and apostle of ‘flatness’.
Moore was enormously influential to me as a very young sculptor; and I am in no way seeking to limit my debt to Smith. But it is true that in 1959 when I first went to America, Greenberg and Noland had more influence on me: one gets more from talking to and thrashing out ideas from one’s contemporaries. I lived near to Olitski and Noland: they were my neighbours. We saw each other almost every day. We talked a lot of art-talk, ideas, possibilities, that sort of thing. Greenberg came in with a clear eye and a clear mind: he is terrific in the studio. He is very direct and he cuts right through to the meaning.
The ‘meaning'’? I didn’t think that interested him at all.
Certainly it does — in so far as whether the art is true and felt, or whether the artist is performing or using his art dishonestly. Whether the artist is discovering something and can go on developing it, even if at the time he is not fully aware of what he has done.
You introduced a new set of sculptural conventions, including emphasis on horizontality rather than verticality; apparent 'dematerialization’ of the stuff you used; and absence of an illusionary interior; paint; welding; an absence of a pedestal, and so on. Why do you think those things were significant?
Look at history. Sculpture was bogged down by its adherence to the monumental and monolith, by its own self-importance. To release sculpture from the totem, to try to cut away some of its rhetoric and bring it into a more direct relation to the spectator has helped free it a bit. Its physicality is less underlined than it used to be. All that is what I would like to think I have been a part of.
You said earlier that you were always conscious that sculpture had to do with physicality: now you seem to be claiming that your most significant contribution was that you freed it from just that.
Provided that a sculpture is made with a true understanding of the nature of the medium it can take to itself a great deal of pictoriality and vice versa. For example, see how sculptural is Piero’s painting The Flagellation of Christ, and how pictorial Donatello’s Banquet of Herod in Siena.
When John Berger went to New York for the first time he wrote that what impressed him was the absence of a sense of interiority in the city. Buildings, faces, everything seems to lack an intimate inside. Your later sculptures similarly are divested of an interior. Was your experience of America a determinant of this particular convention?
No, that’s your theory. You are entitled to it.
You talked about the alleged burden of physicality which sculpture had been suffering under. If you go to Times Square in Manhattan, or drive along almost any American highway, you see a constant stream of advertising images which, as Sontag has suggested, appear almost more real than reality itself. You have the impression of a physical world where things have been dematerialized or reduced to surfaces, don’t you?
I haven’t the faintest idea.
If you look up at a building and see a 50-foot truck floating as an image as many feet above the ground you are experiencing something peculiar to those cultures in which there is a proliferation of advertising. Don ’t you think that your intention to ‘dematerialize’, to render less physical, had anything to do with such experiences?
No, I don’t think so at all. But I will agree that the experience of going to America changed me. I doubt it was in this way. However you are entitled to speculate if that amuses you. I find all this is high-falutin’ theory.
I have just finished working with Berger on a hook about the peasant sculptor, Ferdinand Cheval. His Forms emphasize physicality, growth, and interiority: they are pervaded by a sense of the mystery of the inner. The peasant is necessarily conscious of the physical: he always has to imagine the inner, whether of a grain of wheat, the soil, a rabbit, or a cow. He is preoccupied with what goes in and what comes out of those unseen regions. In the city, however, one tends to live in a world of surfaces, flat illusions, and constructed rather than growing forms. Don’t you think your emphasis on lack of an interior, dematerialization and constructed forms is expressive of a mode of being within the modern city?
If you want to talk about lack of interiority why not talk about minimal sculpture which is made of hollow boxes? I always felt that they were not sufficiently physical, that their thickness was not apparent, and I have wished I could cut a hole in them to make them more real.
You have abolished interiority even more thoroughly; beyond the thickness of the steel your works have no insides. They could only have been made in a culture where concepts of dematerialization and lack of interiority meant something.
Your questions contain so much speculating and theorizing about the sort of society we have that it seems we are getting really far away from the point of either my sculpture or my attitude. Like Berger, you are trying to use art as a handle for something else. And your interview with me becomes a vehicle for propagating your views of society.
Nonsense! Your sculptures aren't just things but also potentially meaningful images realized in a particular time and place. Greenberg himself said, ‘It ought to be unnecessary to say that Caro’s originality is more than a question of stylistic or formal ingenuity. ’ But he does not say why it is unnecessary to say that. I think this is a necessary question.
It is unnecessary because worthwhile art includes human passions, intense feelings and imagination and the highest human aspiration. I would have thought, as Greenberg obviously did, that it was unnecessary to add that.
In contrast to, say, the early Smith, you appear neither aware nor critical of the historical phenomena reflected in your work. You accept them with passivity.
My job is making sculpture; and by that I mean using visual means to say what I, a man living now, in 1978, feel like. And that can incorporate, as well as my emotional life, my living in London, and visiting the USA and any other experiences that have gone to enrich or delete from the sum total of being a human person. Add to that the practical logic of my trade. My tools, the steel I work with sometimes too heavy to manhandle, the need for triangulation to make things stand up; also my knowledge of the history of and my experience of sculpture. In the same way Matisse’s art was to do with his women, flowers, colour, paint: all of these things, and to do with when and where he lived. People have asked me, ‘What does your sculpture mean?’ It is an expression of my feeling. The meaning in art is implicit, not explicit; and to require explanations suggests a real discomfort with the visual. I wish people would trust their feelings more when making or looking at art. Then the programmed and literary approach and response would begin to disappear from painting and sculpture and their interpretation. Of course I realize there are more important things than my feelings and by the same token more important things than art: whether people have enough to eat, war and death, love, the life of a single human being. I am not denying the importance of the quality of life for everyone. But in my art my job is not the discussion of social problems.
What is your job?
My job is to make the best sculpture I can. By doing this, rather than by being a member of committees, or trying to exert influence in art-politics or even taking part in the never-ending debate about what is wrong with the art scene in England, I believe I can help to keep sculpture alive and kicking and keep art moving. My job is to do with art, with pure delight, with the communication of feeling, with the enrichment for a short time of those who look at it, just as I myself am enriched for a while when I read a sonnet of Shakespeare’s. I cannot hope for more. I cannot hope to change the injustice in the world, and in my art I am not overtly concerned with that or with anything like it.
You say people ask you what your sculpture means. You were once quoted as replying, ‘What does your breakfast mean?’ But people ask because they believe that, unlike their breakfast, a sculpture is among other things a signifying object, and so do I...
Food feeds and sustains one part of you, art another.
But I have never suggested that the artists can directly change or should explicitly refer to ‘injustice in the world’. What I am saying is that because of your indifference to history you are peculiarly vulnerable to the prevalent ideology.
Your questions are to do with 1978. Do you realize how in line with current fashion your questions are? They are to do with the social questioning which is the prevalent ideology.
I am not interested in whether a view is fashionable but in whether it is true.
I am sincerely delighted to hear you say that.
American influences aside, the Englishness of your work is often stressed. Greenberg related it to ‘Perpendicular Gothic’; Russell wrote, rather absurdly, of ‘the element of English discretion in the work, English tolerance’. I perceive an emphasis on linearity and flattened forms characteristic of the British Fine Art tradition. Do you recognize this?
You are so consistently referring back to criticism that it strikes me that you are more at home with a book than with a sculpture. That is bad in a critic. I can’t say whether my work is English or not. One doesn’t notice one’s own accent. People don’t talk about my Jewishness, but I am a Jew, or the fact that I was born in New Malden, although I was, or even the shape of the studio I work in.
My point is not literary. When I look at your sculptures they manifest visually the flattened, planar forms which I see also in, say, medieval manuscript illumination, or a Burne Jones window. The prevalence of such forms may relate to the persistence of feudal components in so many aspects of British society. When, with my eyes, I see such forms in your work it affects what I think of it, how I evaluate it.
I do find the point you’ve made is really very literary. I will say that I have worked in different countries at various times and the work I have done in different places often does look different. I don’t know why. When I exhibited some work I had made in America in England some English sculptors whose opinions I respect did not like it very much. They found it rather stark. When I worked in Italy people said, ‘Your work looks Italian’. I have no idea why but that does seem to happen. Maybe it’s something to do with the air we breathe.
Perhaps you are influenced by cultural forces to a greater extent than you realize.
And visual forces too. Perhaps.
You got back from America in 1959. You had a one-man show at the Whitechapel in 1963.
That was a moment of cultural, political and social change in Britain. A vision of a new world emerged in many areas other than sculpture.
In the period ’60 to ’63, in fact right up until about ’67, the real effect of my work was nil. Don’t be misled by the fact that John Russell wrote a good review. People who were in the art world in the years between 1959 and the Whitechapel show, and even after that, came to the courtyard by my house where my finished work was and thought what I was making was junk, scrap. It had no impact except with a small group of people, some sculptors at St. Martin’s, and some painters in the ‘Situation’ group. And these people were working outside the given, accepted norm of what artists were making. My dealers, Gimpels, did not want to handle my work any more. In the Battersea show in 1963 where my sculpture, Midday, was shown it was placed among some bushes: it looked completely out of key with all the other works. Believe me, the effect was a small one.
That surely was not the case after the Whitechapel show. Some people may have ignored or resisted your innovations but, from 1963, others acclaimed them as something new, original, radical and important. Look at the headlines to the Whitechapel reviews! One Times article was headed, ‘Mr Caro’s new and original sculpture’, another ‘Out-and-out originality in our contemporary sculpture’. Russell wrote of 'new areas o f awareness. ’ Even The Telegraph headed their review, ‘The time of the modern’. No British sculpture exhibition since then has attracted similar attention: the critics were attracted by a sense of newness, dynamism, and radicalism.
Yes, but it didn’t have much to do with people’s consciousness of art, rather with their sense that something new and ‘swinging’ was happening. I was working in quite a solitary way — or rather in a small arena I shared with half a dozen other young artists. At that time our only real audience was ourselves.
1963 was a key year: with the Profumo affair, the old men of politics were toppled from their pedestals. Wilson, on the threshold of his victorious election, spoke of the ‘white heat o lf the technological revolution’. With talk of nationalization, steel was in the news. The Beatles emerged with their new sound. You effected a parallel change within sculpture, didn’t you?
I am not like the Beatles. They were much more important. Also they were much more fun! Newness is what the reviewers hit on; but as far as I was concerned, I wasn’t so much trying to be new as to say something more clearly and more exactly.
1963 was the year of the Honest to God controversy. The Bishop of Woolwich provoked a national debate by claiming God was not an anthropomorphic ‘Daddy in the sky’ but rather ‘the ground of our being’. In this new theological space God was radically abstracted, rendered horizontal rather than vertical, private rather than public. This theology was locked into that moment of history: unwittingly, it was permeated by the ideology of its time. You say social trends do not affect you much but your sculptural space, the imagery of your work, is very close to, say, this theology. Your sculpture, too, was bound up with this moment.
What I remember about 1963 was learning to ski and breaking my leg! Come on! you are like the man who says ‘Cubism was the result of the discovery of Quantum Physics’. I think Cubism came out of Cezanne.
The two are not exclusive: I'm not saying Honest to God theology determined your sculpture, but that it shared the same determinants.
They are not exclusive; but if I were a Cubist I’d certainly be thinking and talking more about Cezanne than about Quantum Physics. What you are saying is really nothing whatever to do with my pursuit. We are all necessarily involved with our time — the clothes we wear, the way we travel, the tone of our thought, are all part and parcel of living nowadays. Only the naive, primitive artist is unaware of these things — and oddly enough the work of all of them has a sort of similarity.
Those who are fully conscious of history can prevent themselves from being history’s victims. Smith’s work shows that with all his contradictions he was conscious of it: yours does not.
Stuff and nonsense! Was Picasso after the Spanish Civil War less of history’s victim or a better artist because he was more conscious of history, or Matisse or Cezanne worse because they were less? Cezanne’s greatness lies in his consciousness of the art problems, not the social problems of his time, and in the dedication with which he set about solving those.
Why did you revert to raw metal and more jagged forms in the 1970s?
That was in 1972. I found soft ends of steel rollings in a scrap yard near Milan. I worked in Italy in a factory using these pieces. In England I had to go to the steel mills in Durham and Consett to get similar pieces. For the last couple of years I have not been working in that way but that is not to say that I may not go back to it.
Your high abstraction coincided with the economic boom. You turned to a brute, raw look during the recent recession. Now, as the economy picks up, you are abandoning that too. Sculptors I really admire, like Ernst Neizvestny who recently left the USSR, struggle for a vision which does not belong to the immediate ideology of the culture in which they live. This is my point about Smith in America too.
What is admirable about Ernst Neizvestny is his struggle for the freedom to work how and where he chooses; and I believe that you like decent people everywhere are responding to that. It’s not his art that commands respect. That’s an important distinction.
I detect a film of socialist prejudice over your eyes which in other critics of the Left has developed into total blindness. However you do not jettison the disciplines of sculpture or the quest for quality. We also agree that there are a great many factors involved in the making of art. Your interest is with the social, psychological, and cultural influences on an artist and his response to them; whereas while I believe that although the artist should monitor and control his life and his art, it is his art only that is a pertinent subject for discussion and criticism. Your focus is on art in a more socialist society, mine is on making better sculpture and the ‘onward of art’. And this I believe will endure whatever the society one lives in.
Neizvestny’s sculpture commands my respect. But the difference between us, in the first instance, concerns what a work of art is. I cannot accept it is anything like a thing-in-itself. I believe that the social, psychological and cultural relations of the work, its relationship to experience, are not optional extras by but the most literal sense part of the work. If you do not attend to them you are not attending to the art. You have said that all your work is 'humanist’. You apparently reject socialism. For me, the struggle for true socialism is inseparable from the strugglefor the full realization of human potentialities. Although I recognize the relative autonomy of the sculptural tradition, I cannot erect sculptural values, or any other kind of values, nor can I searchfor ‘quality’ without taking this struggle into account.
Your position differs from mine in some respects but you certainly differ from some of the formalists who have written about you. Rubin, for example, describes your sculpture ‘objectively’, perhaps cautiously relating it to other works o f art, but he never hints at why your forms are to be valued. Why do you think there has been so much formalist writing about you in America and so little in Britain?
In this country in the last 30 years the social climate has undergone big changes. The status quo is more steady in America and people have become accustomed to looking at art and testing it solely by their visual responses; talking about art in art rather than social terms, sculpture in terms of sculpture, painting in terms of painting. Throughout my working life at any rate there has been a tendency towards literary and theatrical interpretations of art in England.
We discussed how Fried once suggested your work should be seen as being about the body. But he, like almost all your other commentators, elsewhere says that it is only the syntax, or internal relations of pieces, which matter. Surprisingly given his bodily interpretation Fried wrote, ‘all the relationships that count are to be found in the sculptures themselves and nowhere else’. Which view is correct?
Michael Fried has made some very penetrating and useful comments about my work. I don’t think ‘the rootedness of my sculpture in bodily experience’ contradicts an emphasis on the internal syntax. However it is not up to me to influence the readings of my work. I want people to feel moved when they look at my art; I want to touch their deepest feelings, but I cannot twist their arms. When I am in my studio working, I go on until I can say, ‘That’s it. Yes, it’s right. That works.’ To tell the truth, I don’t read articles about myself that closely; I tend to zip through them. Look what I brought along to read on the way here, The First Deadly Sin.
Writing about you has affected the way your work has been seen by others. You talk as if you had no authority about your own work.
You bet I have authority about my work! I make the stuff. It is certainly sad that so many people would rather read about art than look at it. I have the sort of authority that a football player has about his game. But I don’t have the sort of authority that the commentator on TV has about the football game.
Although your cultural reputation has been predominantly in America you have had a strong influence on a generation of sculptors as a teacher here. Have you used your position as a teacher to perpetuate your style?
Of course not. I have treated the people I have taught as adults and equals and helped them question the assumptions on which they make their sculptures. I wanted them to feel it wasn’t just a career that they could go ahead with and end up by just doing like a nine to five job or like becoming, say, an accountant or a carpenter. A lot of former St Martin’s students who have been quite successful artists in a conceptual way have ended up with a completely different view of art from mine: yet they all take themselves seriously as artists and have questioned the justifications for what they make. They haven’t ended up making an Adam and Eve for the local church. The best artists have queried my style: the fact that several of them work in steel is not at all to the point. The use of steel or rather of collage is a way of working that wasn’t possible before this century just as with the discovery of oil paint and canvas painters found they had the freedom not to use fresco and walls any more. People just don’t look closely enough: they say, ‘They’re all working in the same style’; in fact sculptors happen to be doing things in steel which are actually very different. One might as well say, ‘All Greek sculpture is made of stone: what a bore, it’s all the same style.’
Bryan Robertson once wrote, ‘partisans of St Martin’s claimed the road to or from St Martin’s was the one and only true path... a prevailing orthodoxy had turned into a new gospel narrowly interpreted... For everyone outside St Martin’s the school had turned into a tediously exclusive club for those inside, the world of other sculptors did not exist.’ He described a closed, dogmatic institution rather like the old Royal Academy but with different conventions.
Yes, it is rather a closed system, despite encouragement that’s given to students to work naturalistically if that’s their bent. But take a look at other closed systems and how strong they have been. Look at Cubism, Fauvism, Impressionism: they have all been closed systems. When one attempts to get at the core of a subject one sometimes has to narrow one’s vision in order to see clearly. If you get a nice, open, tolerant system like you have in many art colleges, you get a very weak, watered-down form. St. Martin’s sculpture school has never been invulnerable; indeed the piece you have quoted is precisely the point of view that has been held and acted on by successive administrative officers who controlled the destinies of the department. St Martin’s sculpture has been well enough known inside and outside this country to attract mature and serious students from all over the world and yet it has never been recognized as a postgraduate centre. It is exceptional in that it’s a department with a point of view. It demands a great deal from its students, not least that they push themselves and ask fundamental questions. Yet despite everything that Frank Martin has done to build up and strengthen the department its future is shaky. I find that very difficult to understand or to accept.
Recently I received a letter from an American student who had come to St Martin’s because ‘in the past’ the school ‘enjoyed quite a considerable progressive reputation’. But he had abandoned his course because he felt the sculpture department had ‘degenerated’ into ‘a closed shop which silences healthy dialogue on all general issues in art not catered for in the strict Caro-Greenberg house-style. ’ He called this ‘the antithesis of the satisfactory learning situation’. It certainly seems a long way from the ‘whole world of art’ to which Moore introduced you. I have seen your teachers in action myself: I was appalled at how they coerced students towards your stylistic tendencies.
One of the distinguishing marks of St Martin’s teachers is their total dedication to sculpture and the future of sculpture. But don’t say ‘my teachers’: the school is not mine. Something of the tone of the place has been set by attitudes which Frank Martin and I fostered about taking responsibility for one’s art, taking sculpture seriously, being prepared to subject one’s work to tough, rigorous criticism. Certain people cracked under that and it sounds as if the letter you quote was from one of them. But the hard criticism is not ever levelled at cracking or breaking people. A school can never necessarily produce radical ideas that instigate change and growth. But students get the message: ‘It’s up to you. If sculpture is going to go on being good and going to get better it is you who are going to do it.’ I think this is a very responsible attitude. It gives people the feeling they are in the driver’s seat; and by and large they respond.
Nobody has challenged you radically as you challenged Moore and got away with it have they?
The time has not been right for that.
You have become the authoritarian father you rebelled against, haven’t you?
No; and I would certainly welcome a challenge. But that doesn’t mean I am going to say jolly good to anybody or everybody who is doing things I think are not good. After all some conceptual sculptors did challenge me frontally, but I never found their work was up to scratch.
Let me talk formally: the new conventions you introduced and taught were fundamentally unsculptural. They were derived from painting and criticism, not sculpture. Your work in the 1960s consisted largely of painted, often flat, surfaces. You got rid of volume or mass and introduced an illusion of dematerialization. Although you protested, 'I never wanted to take sculpture right out of reality into the realm of illusion, out of thingness, weight or physicality,’ you have also claimed that your contributionwas freeing sculpture somewhat from physicality. You thus not only impoverished the image but also eroded sculpture’s formal conventions. You object to the efflorescence of non-sculptural and conceptual activities. Broadly, I agree with your estimate of them. But these artists were simply reducing your conventions as you had done Moore’s. They had less to ‘dematerialize’. You allowed your students no choice but to imitate you or go beyond sculpture altogether.
In 1960 I said, ‘Let’s look afresh. Sculpture can be anything. It doesn’t have to be bronze and stone.’ Well, it is not my fault if people have been so literal as to go and call walking or breathing sculpture. I don’t feel I can be held responsible for that idiocy. It is possible to challenge sculpture’s present conventions and stay within the realm of sculpture, just as Cezanne challenged the lack of physicality in Impressionism. Some of the younger sculptors are doing just that. Some of them are quite validly pushing well away from what up to now has interested me. I think it is not unlikely that a new sort of sculptural volume may turn up and that’s a healthy resurgence.
How many of your students have you encouraged to look at Moore’s work which might help towards a new conception of mass and volume?
Even though he is the major living sculptor in this country?
I have not encouraged them to look at Brancusi either.
One sees this narrow, restrictive approach elsewhere too. Andrew Brighton has pointed out that because of the Tate’s predilection for a certain type of modernist work it tends to acquire paintings and sculptures which are of interest only to a small number of art world people. Do you think the Tate should acquire a David Wynne?
Certainly not. Purchasing should always be done by people whose minds are open to new things, but who have complete conviction about their taste. The fashion now is that there should be a little bit for everyone, and the Tate like modern art museums throughout the world has become too influenced by fashion. This gets it a bad name. I think they should acquire works on the grounds of quality alone. And by this I don’t necessarily mean only abstract art. Incidentally the fear of being out of step with the latest thing permeates most public bodies in art.
How do you see your own work developing in the future?
At this stage in my life I am interested in trying a lot of new things and going into areas I have not attempted before. I have been thinking about making some sculptures in paper; I have been trying to weld cast and sheet bronze. I have also been working on some pieces in wax for casting; I have had problems with this but I am hoping to find a way through. I still want to make sculpture in steel because that’s where I feel most at home. In some new way I foresee it becoming more rather than less abstract. That at any rate is my intention and that is what I see as my struggle.