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Installation view of ANTHONY CARO’s Lock (1962) at Barford Sculptures, London, 2017. Courtesy Barford Sculptures Ltd. and the artist. Photo by John Hammond. 

Rasheed Araeen on Anthony Caro

Pakistan USA United Kingdom
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

In early 1985, I found myself in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. After visiting the now-famous “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” show—a problematic but somewhat exhilarating experience—I began to wander aimlessly in the back garden of the museum. If memory serves, I recall that the garden grounds were full of small, loose pebbles. As I walked around, I almost tripped over a pair of steel structures lying low on the ground, covered in dust among these pebbles. As I soon discovered, they were not discarded pieces of a steel structure resembling box girders but the work Lock (1962), by the eminent British sculptor Anthony Caro.

A short while later, as I sat in the museum’s restaurant with a cup of coffee, I began to think about not just the piece in the garden but Caro’s oeuvre in general. I was already familiar with his sculptures; in fact, when I first saw his work in the ’60s it inspired me so much that I abandoned painting in favor of sculpture. To see one of his pieces lying around among the dusty pebbles of a garden was not only a different but also a truly unique experience. Previously, I had seen his work only inside the clean spaces of galleries and museums. It was the work itself, as well as the dusty environment it was hidden in, that offered me new understanding of Caro’s achievements.

Upon my return to London, I began to look for a reproduction of this work in books and catalogs, but it was nowhere to be found. Eventually, I saw a black-and-white illustration in Herbert Read’s A Concise History of Modern Sculpture (1964), but there was no discussion or literature about the piece. I wondered why art historians had ignored this important sculpture.

Caro’s work has often been compared to that of David Smith, but is also recognized as a departure from it. Caro also represents a specific picturesque quality of the British landscape. Both of these interpretations are, in my view, somewhat wrong.

There is of course the presence of Smith’s influence, but it is limited to the technical language of welded construction. Nothing more. Caro’s sculptures defy the fundamental aspects of Smith’s sculptures, whose verticality is entangled in the rise of America’s postwar imperial power. Caro’s work is defined not only by what he borrowed from Smith but also what he inherited from Henry Moore and Marcel Duchamp. Caro’s work compositionally echoes the fragmented body in Moore’s work, a body that was subjected to the brutality of the great wars of the 20th century, and which seems to reflect a fragmentation caused by the collapse of the British Empire. This, in my view, makes Caro’s work historically significant in its own right, and cannot and should not be compared to or made secondary to Smith’s achievements.

Caro’s work does possess a picturesque quality, particularly in the bright colorfulness of some sculptures. But even when there is a celebration of color and form— perhaps due to the optimistic atmosphere of the 1960s—postwar anguish, or what some writers have described as the “geometry of fear,” cannot be disguised. However, it would be silly to reduce his work only to this aspect or interpretation. It would not only misrepresent but undermine the desire for change in Great Britain’s postwar reality.

Lock is truly unique in its representation of all this. At MoMA, the work was lying low on the ground but also appeared as if wanting to rise above it. The sculpture was asserting itself in order to find its new identity, producing tension between the existential reality of postwar Britain and the desire to escape from it. Its two metal structures seemed to hint at two reclining figures, seen also in the wartime underground drawings of Henry Moore.

What makes the sculpture different to Caro’s other works is that it is not easily recognizable as a work of art. If it was to be left in the street or at some place unattached to the legitimizing space of a gallery or museum, it would then appear as a leftover fragment of a demolished factory, waiting to be picked up by someone who collects discarded metals for recycling. It is art as well as anti-art, a Duchampian conundrum that fails to achieve its own aims but opens up a space unavailable to art before, and which gives art the potential to move forward as a dynamic part of life.

One of my intentions here is to point out an important aspect of Caro’s work which has often been ignored. Another aim is to focus on my own personal experience of seeing this work in the garden of MoMA, which has remained in my memory. Although one may not agree with my understanding of the sculpture, he or she cannot deny me that analysis, which has been instrumental in my own practice. It has helped me process the question of why I was first fascinated by his work. Was it not Caro’s sculpture that inspired me to create my works in 1965? Should I then not pay homage to that first analysis of his work, which enabled me to find my own place in history as an artist?

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