ART / Still reckless after all these years: In 1960, Anthony Caro's 'breakthrough' revolutionised sculpture. Three decades on, his innovations haven't ceased, as two new shows illustrate

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SIR ANTHONY Caro was 70 last week. To mark the occasion the Annely Juda gallery has mounted a special exhibition, 'Sculpture through Five Decades, 1955- 1994', while at Kenwood House there is a display of new work that's not only recently made but also unprecedented. For here are 38 sculptures on a literary theme: the classical story of the Trojan wars. Caro has surprised us many times, but no previous show has overturned the tenets of his art in the way we see at Kenwood. It's almost reckless. Caro accosts rather than illustrates the epic Greek history, and in doing so has thrust aside his formal abstraction and self-contained lyric purity.

Most of the Kenwood sculptures represent mythical heroes or gods - Paris, Achilles, Patroclus, Hypnos and Thanatos - so they are anthropomorphic; that is, the deities have a human form. These are not, however, figure sculptures, for they use a variety of signs and ideograms that denote rather than imitate the body. They still have the feeling of a personal presence. They do not exceed life size, and there is something like intimacy in the way that they confront the spectator. The sculptures are also more tactile than most of Caro's work, for they are made of ceramics, concrete and wood as well as steel. One doesn't want to actually handle them, but still one is aware that these sculptural gods are of our earth as well as their own heavens.

It's intriguing to compare such work with Caro's earliest figure sculptures. We now have the opportunity to do so, for the Juda show begins with a look at Caro's career before his celebrated 'breakthrough' of 1959-60. After Cambridge, Caro studied in the RA schools and then worked as an assistant to Henry Moore from 1951-53. During the next seven years, before he became an abstract sculptor, Caro worked through various possibilities. Some were suggested by the sculpture books in Moore's library. Thus he became interested in Picasso's post- war sculpture, in particular the Man Carrying a Lamb (currently at the Tate) and the 'primitive' sculpture that was a speciality of Moore's book collection.

I wonder whether the Square Nude of 1956, a cast-iron relief that hangs on the wall, is a reaction to the sculptural facades that Moore made for the Time-Life building. A more exalted stimulus would have been Matisse's four Back sculptures (which entered the Tate collection in 1955-57). If so, this would have been the only occasion in Caro's career when he responded to a Matisse sculpture rather than to his painting. The handling, though, is dissimilar. Matisse made his Backs with the touch of a painter: as you look at them you can feel his palette knife and brush. Caro's surface is by contrast rugged, deliberately uncouth. This is often so with the early figurative works. Caro grasped intimacy and force, the thrill of the proximity of another person. Working in clay and plaster, however, his touch is emotional, as though it could never relax.

We know that Caro, in frustration, tried all sorts of experiments in the Fifties. The aim was to make his sculpture more immediate and dramatic. It strikes me now that in his 'breakthrough' Caro found something he had not been seeking. His first mature sculptures do not have the urge to turn the world upside down. Instead they are objects of meditation, more akin to the pictorial Matisse than to Picasso. And yet they were truly revolutionary. Abstraction in three dimensions had never been so free or inventive. Caro liberated sculpture from the figure and the plinth but also, more astonishingly, from the regularities of classic abstract design.

In the post-1960 period, Caro's sculptures look unlike previous art. They also look unlike each other, even though they used a common stock of steel and aluminium. Their variety comes about because they are so open, separate parts joined together by welding; because Caro could use long and short elements set at different angles, if he wished; and because relations between one part of a piece and another are in constant balletic flow as one moves around the sculpture. It's still wonderful to see these Sixties works. The experience has nothing to do with nostalgia for the period in which they were made. They are indeed out of time in a peculiar way. As in Matisse's painting, Caro's best sculptures make time immaterial. Nothing could be more abstract.

Most of Caro's Sixties sculptures have gone to museums or grand private collections, so we don't often see pieces in a commercial gallery. At the Juda, however, is Lock of 1962, by my reckoning the eighth of the abstract sculptures, and Pitch of 1967. The first is a London sculpture, the second American. The blue-painted Lock, massive and slow-moving in its effect, directs our attention to the lowness, the nearness to the ground, of its composition. It is perhaps the most radically anti-plinth sculpture of those early days. By contrast, Pitch is light and soaring, a rod that reaches to the air from one small block on the ground, lightly joined to a panel-shaped piece of steel whose size exceeds that of the block by about a dozen times.

Caro finds such beauty in scale that relative lengths of off- cuts of steel become as eloquent as song. Pitch (I think the title significant) is about three separate pieces of metal, in themselves of little consequence. It is also about a spirit that can raise such mundane things into art. Its economy comes from America, and Caro's contemporaries and comrades, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski. Caro has been more affected by painting than by sculpture. After Matisse, the dominant influence on his early mature art was that of Noland. America in general inspired him. He liked its openness, the feeling that you weren't being held back. That's why he became a bi-national artist.

Plenty of British painters were attracted to America and the New York scene in the late Fifties and early Sixties. No one else made so much of the new transatlantic situation. Caro joined America. Travelling back and forth, working in the US for two or three months a year, living there for most of 1963-65, he was simultaneously a member of two avant-gardes, 'post-painterly abstraction' in America and the St Martin's school in London. These two groups scarcely ever met and had no feeling that they might have shared concerns. Hence the odd way that Caro's influence has been so dispersed and diluted. Everyone knew that he was a leader of the new art. But who followed him? Very little St Martin's sculpture resembles Caro's. The three students who most acknowledged his inspiration were Phillip King, Tim Scott and Barry Flanagan. But their own sculpture was quite different. And then came the waves of conceptual and anti-art art, Richard Long walking, Gilbert and George posing, and all the rest of it. This St Martin's generation had no real contact with Caro. Contrary to most opinion, I regard him as a lonely artist: surrounded by assistants, friends and admirers, pursued by dealers and museums, famous and vivid because he is a party-goer as much as a teacher; but essentially a man whose enormous oeuvre has been built from his own resources.

What I call Caro's loneliness began around 1970. Conceptual art was dominant, Modernism derided and the vendetta against Caro's friend and guide Clement Greenberg had begun. Caro's sculpture became more resolute and introspective in his larger works, wonderfully deft and inventive in the table sculptures and 'writing pieces' produced after 1979. At the Juda, four works stand for these trends, the superb Ordnance and Roman, together with Writing Piece 'Say' and Writing Piece 'Own' - these latter small in size but immense in implication.

Such sculptures are lonely because they are so good as art and so unlike other innovative sculpture of the Seventies and Eighties. Caro's recent attraction to architecture may be the result of a desire to have a more obvious social role. He is of course capable of sculpture of great weight and consequence, but I find that his huge pieces work better if there is some contemporary activity in table sculpture. The smaller work sharpens the larger. Two medium-sized table pieces conclude the Juda show, Table for J S Bach and Table for Johannes Brahms, made in the last couple of years. They are as chamber music compared to opera, as serene as the pagan gods are savage and probably a truer gift to our present-day civilisation.