It may be difficult to pigeonhole Anthony Caro's work but a bit of context wouldn't go amiss, says Henry Meyric Hughes
Anthony Caro's slightly overdue 80th birthday exhibition at Tate Britain has been greeted with a muted critical response. This is a pity, because his work is no longer familiar to younger generations and yet the highlights are unmissable. They start with the monumental Millbank Steps , specially commissioned for the Duveen Galleries, and continue through a notable group of figurative sculptures from the 1950s, to reach an early climax with the extended space containing three major painted-steel constructions from the 1960s, ending with a magnificent series of table sculptures from all periods.
No one can deny Caro his fame, but it seems there is considerable difficulty in measuring it or placing it in context - a difficulty that is compounded, rather than alleviated, by the accompanying catalogue, Anthony Caro , edited by the curator of the exhibition, Paul Moorhouse.
This in-house publication comes parlously close, in its choice of images and references in the text, to becoming an instrument of institutional self-promotion.
Given the disparity in aims between this exhibition and the carefully measured reassessment of Caro's near contemporary Joseph Beuys (born 1921) at Tate Modern, we begin to wonder for whom it and the accompanying publication were intended.A different, and more testing, approach might have led to a fruitful re-appraisal of Caro's work from the 1960s, in its national context, and of the limitations of a supposed indigenous sculptural tradition, into which it is otherwise all too easy to banish Caro whole, in a kind of internal exile.
The unrevised historical verdict on Caro's contribution to developing The Language of Sculpture (the title of his colleague William Tucker's influential history, from 1974), is delivered by the best contemporary critic of his work, Michael Fried, in his essay for Caro's Whitechapel Gallery exhibition of 1963, reprinted by the Tate. This is strongly reinforced by the 1960s sculpture on view, of which eight out of ten examples from 1960 to 1968 had already been included in Caro's important retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in 1969.
Anyone looking for a reassessment or amplification of this verdict will be disappointed to read the essays by Moorhouse and Hickey, who manage to avoid any serious discussion of the 1950s - when Caro developed into a foremost exponent of a new kind of brutalist figurative sculpture, with counterparts in the work of Germaine Richier and the " informel " - or of parallel developments in "heavy metal" after the turning point in 1970, when he more or less abandoned colour. Still more serious, there is little indication of the kind of work being made by any of Caro's contemporaries on the teaching staff of St Martin's in the 1960s - not even of Phillip King, who was at the height of his inventive powers - and no examination of American Pop, the eruption of Fluxus on the Continent, or the wider revolution in attitudes towards the social and political significance of culture, exemplified by the international Destruction in Art Symposium in London in 1966, and John Latham's patricidal Art and Culture (for which he, Barry Flanagan and a number of students at St Martin's chewed up and distilled the library copy of Greenberg's iconic 1961 collection of essays now bottled and preserved in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York).
Most damagingly absent from the discussion is any serious consideration of the polemics that divided critical opinion at the time of the exhibition, Primary Structures , at the Jewish Museum in New York, in 1966, in which a split developed between Greenberg and the partisans of a largely empirical, aesthetic approach to the fabrication of sculpture (represented by Caro and his British "New Generation" colleagues) and the more radical and dogmatic Minimalists, who professed to reject their European ancestry in favour of a stark simplicity and a "theatrical" relation to the viewer.
Arguably, Caro and his friends on this side of the Atlantic had lost contact with the experimental avant-garde by the mid-to-late 1960s, and went their separate ways. What Caro never lost, however, was his own sense of mission and the vaulting ambition he had learnt from his North American peers - most of them painters.
At this point, we see the pattern developing that he would continue to the present day, of working in series and testing ideas and materials almost to destruction, before exhibiting the results and immediately setting off in a different direction.
Moorhouse is good at following the twists and turns in Caro's development - which are manifest in a prodigious, though uneven, output, as Caro turned first to lacquered or polished steel, then to variations in weight, scale and density, in an increasing diversity of materials, from bronze and iron to lead, ceramic, silver, wood and paper - as he increasingly felt "more freedom to experiment, freedom to try anything", and to stretch all boundaries in his exploration of external, internal and ambient space.
Caro's growing engagement with architecture was given a fillip by his visit to Greece in 1985, leading to the playful invention of his own brand of "sculpitecture" and his variously productive collaborations with big-name architects - including Frank Gehry, Tadao Ando and Norman Foster - not to mention his exploration of unusual architectural spaces for the display of his own work, as in his use of the open-air terraces of the Trajan Markets in Rome, which, in 1992, provided a spectacular riposte to Henry Moore's triumphal display at the Forte di Belvedere in Florence 20 years earlier.
Rachel Tant provides a useful chronology at the back of the Tate's catalogue, but for a rich documentation of Caro's life and achievement, the reader is advised to turn to Ian Barker's down-to-earth compilation, which provides an incomparable fund of material - including many black-and-white images and unpublished correspondences with Greenberg, Kenneth Noland and others - along with a mass of press cuttings from the artist's archive.
Here, too, there is little attempt at critical reassessment, and it would have been good to test more thoroughly the critical response to Caro's work outside the English-speaking world, but this publication will long remain a primary source of reference to anyone wishing to engage in research. An interesting aspect, which it brings into focus, is the extent to which Caro's career seems to have been shaped by similar considerations to those of his initial mentor, Moore, and to which both men became persuaded of their role in establishing, or perpetuating, a "British" sculptural tradition.
Finally, for those with less time or money to spend, Julius Bryant provides a readable introduction to Caro's work, largely through the extensive interview he conducted with the artist and the accompanying images - many of them unfamiliar. The occasion for this 80th-birthday publication was provided by Caro's display of some of his most recent terracottas ( The Way It Is , 2003-04) at his local museum, The Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood, North London. Bryant's enthusiasm for the figurative productions of these past two decades, including the 40-part narrative The Trojan War (1994) and the 25-part The Last Judgment (begun 1995), will not be universally shared, but we may salute this great artist's courage in seeking to renew his contact with the world and to reinvigorate the now-remote language of his apprentice years.
Henry Meyric Hughes is a curator of international art exhibitions and is president of the International Association of Art Critics. The exhibition Anthony Caro will be at Tate Britain until April 17.
Editor - Paul Moorhouse, with Michael Fried and Dave Hickey
Publisher - Tate
Pages - 175
Price - £24.99
ISBN - 1 85437 509 1