Anthony Caro: Self-portrait of the artist

Forty years ago, Anthony Caro changed the face of British sculpture. Here, we publish extracts from a new book containing previously unseen letters and diaries
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Let us have a good reason for accepting or refusing ways of life - a good reason for living... I thank heaven for the ability to think for myself, and for the education that has brought me in contact with thinking people. I must not drift along for 50 or 60 years - I will swim hard in the right direction; not exist, but live.

Notebook diary, 12 August 1944

Talked about my career. I don't really know what to decide upon - although at present I feel the scales are rather in favour of art - but it means giving up so much, family, wife... so much. God, I don't know. There must be so much confidence: such love of it - yet I shudder to throw away what God has given me, a talent, upon a "hobby": that means not doing it properly.

Notebook diary, 6 September 1944

Worked on the fields today; but it wasn't entirely satisfactory because, especially, in the afternoon, we went slowly so that it wouldn't be finished today and we would be able to keep the land girls tomorrow. Therefore some of the time I sat in the cab of the lorry... and read Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence. It is a good novel based on the story of Gauguin's life. I really enjoyed reading it - perhaps it showed me that the only reason for doing creative work is to express oneself... it made me wonder if I really have enough in me, real guts to be any good as an artist?

Notebook diary, 9 October 1944

I've got a lot of student drawings of mine where [Moore]'s drawn at the side, little drawings showing me how I should have done it. He grasped the pose and showed me how to express it even though he hadn't seen the model... I wanted to learn, I really wanted to learn from him. I learned more in the two years I was there than in the five years I spent at the Royal Academy Schools... Sculpture was beginning to flow through my veins. I listened hard to Henry... Here was somebody who talked about things in sculpture, in art, in a way that struck a chord, rang a bell.

...Henry gave English sculptors who followed him the confidence to feel they could be as good as the best, could take themselves seriously and be taken seriously. When we were students we looked up to local artists, people like Augustus John; we simply weren't aware of what was going on in Paris. We were looking at Epstein's portraits, not his wonderful early carvings, not Gaudier-Brzeska, let alone Picasso, Lipchitz. Then along comes Henry Moore and he is in there talking the same language as Picasso or Miro and he asks to be judged alongside them.

From 'Celebrating Moore', David Mitchinson, 1998

The Human Image, pinned down and intensified, is used in painting and sculpture as a vehicle for expressing the emotions. Personally I have lately become disturbed by this, as I found that this sort of Image is inclined to form a barrier between the intention and the work, and that the vehicle should in fact be the sculpture itself.

This is not to say that a Human Image cannot rely on its own essential qualities. Compare for instance an Easter Island or Picasso Sculpture head with a bad portrait bust which is justified only by its reference to its sitter.

With a human image the danger is that the subject takes over to such a degree that the work becomes a sort of illustration, even if of a very high order.

It seems perhaps rather wasteful to make figurative painting or sculpture - the human element in a work is derived from the authorship and not from the subject matter.

Extract from unpublished talk on image, 1959

I think you are assuming a great deal when you say that, "If one cannot have objects on pedestals or monuments one cannot have sculpture", and it is just this sort of assumption of the nature of sculpture that my statement that you quoted and my pursuit of sculpture intends to question. After all we live in a world full of objects, tables, chairs, crockery, motorcars, etc. What makes sculpture more special, isolates it in fact, from all this?... We put it on its base and stick it on the mantelpiece, [it is as if] the base says, "My world ends here - now yours, the spectator's, starts" - or we put it on a pedestal in a public square - the bronze statue of a man life-size is a feeble imitation of a real flesh and blood man perhaps, so we give it a specialness by putting it on a pedestal, a throne. Now if you bring the sculpture off its base it begins to have only those merits that are intrinsic in its nature - either it is lifeless junk or it carries an intention, it had poetry about it or it's nothing.

Letter from Caro to Ian Barker [the curator and editor of 'Anthony Caro: Quest for the New Sculpture'], 11 March 1965

I wanted my sculpture to look straightforward, no art props, no nostalgia, no feelings of the pre-consciousness associated with something, because it's old or bronze, or it's rusty, encrusted or painted. So I just covered it with a coat of paint. I used brown or black paint and the sculptures looked more as if they were destined for a locomotive factory than an art gallery... I think that the lessons of American painting had proved to me that it didn't need to be [illustrative], that is really the least important thing about good art - what it is of, what the subject is. The feelings and mood are somehow implied and the sensibilities of the artist are reflected in the work.

Interview with Noël Chanan [the photographer and film-maker], September 1974

I by no means dismiss Henry Moore... However, I refuse to muddle my gratitude to him as an influence, a teacher and a friend, with my assessment of his work; and I do not think that his latest sculptures in bronze (with the exception of some very fine megaliths) are as good as his carvings of 1928 to 1947... one tries to apply the highest standards of criticism to one's own work, and therefore perhaps ungenerously these standards spill over into one's valuations of other people's.

Letter from Caro to [the artist] Robin Darwin, 2 September 1959

I am so pleased that you like the work... It is good to hear that things are going well with Ken Noland [the painter]. I had a letter from him since you received the photos. During the last year I have seen occasional reproductions of his paintings in Art International and news of shows in Paris etc. When is your book [Art and Culture: Critical Essays] coming out? We are eagerly awaiting its publication...

We hope to come back to USA in the not too distant future but have no definite plans. We just don't feel we can keep away too long.

Letter from Caro to [the art critic] Clement Greenberg, 16 May 1961

You'd better hold everything, because a few days ago Bryan Robertson [the curator] of the Whitechapel suddenly postponed my show until September. It's very annoying indeed as everything was ready for a spring exhibition.

...What are the chances, Mike, of a reasonable size show in NYC? I'm so fed up with Whitechapel I'd like to send six or eight to New York soon if you could advise me on what moves to make...

Letter from Caro to [the art critic] Michael Fried, 5 February 1963

My return to London has been as upsetting as my first few weeks in Vermont. I expect Ken has told you about it here. My studio and the courtyard were just a mess, full of sculptures dismantled and unused metal just jumbled up. Now at last I have made sense of it all and put down some big metal sheets flat on the ground so that I can get on with more than one piece at a time, and I hope to start some sculpture next week.

Ken's and Jules's pictures [the painter Jules Olitski, with Caro on the teaching staff at Bennington College in 1963] are a real source of joy to me, and to Sheila [the sculptor's wife]. I get a tremendous kick out of Ken's - they really sing - and Jules's picture... has grown and grown upon me. They keep me conscious of the elbowroom I found in America - here the atmosphere in the art world is sharp and bitter; anything that's even faintly accepted is a target, which I suppose would be healthy if only it weren't so much to do with fashion and the desire to be different from USA at all costs. I've a feeling that some young sculptors and painters think of my work as old-hat because it is "construction-kit art"; this idea did worry me a bit, but I still see the need for me to assemble pieces, and it could be too easy to make things look newer than they really are by using new materials.

Letter from Caro to Greenberg, 5 August 1964

I certainly found on getting back here - that there is enormous hostility towards the New Sculpture craze and towards me in particular. There is very little jockeying amongst the sculptors themselves... No; the hostility I encountered... was at a discussion of the "Future of Sculpture" at the ICA. It was jammed full of people. Bill Tucker [who studied at St Martin's while Caro was teaching] and I were on the rostrum; Gene Baro was chairman... each of us talked a bit, [William] Turnbull about the monolith and frontal sculpture not necessarily being exhausted; Tucker about the possibility of sculpture playing as important a role as painting had since the Renaissance. I was first and spoke about the practical directions I'd be interested in seeing people probing... We had hardly stopped before the bitterness of people began to show... Every time it started to get constructive or interesting it deteriorated into this sort of position or status fight...

Letter from Caro to Greenberg, 4 June 1966

Career-wise, the English are stampeding towards me... which makes me feel uncomfortable. See the January issue of Studio International. They have given * * a decoration (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) which will look pretty good on my overalls.

Letter from Caro to Greenberg, 14 January 1969

My show is broken up at last and today the pieces are being parcelled up for dispatch. I had some mixed feeling about the reception and for a while stopped all sorts of work. Suddenly I was at the centre of controversy, in the newspapers and on the television and it made me truly uncomfortable, and I wondered whether to make public replies or what the hell to do. Other artists are seeing my status as changed (and particularly since I accepted a CBE and according to Bill Tucker and some others it was something of a sell-out to the establishment) personally I think they are nuts... But the whole status treadmill, which looks so important in so many English eyes, is extremely trivial. Altogether I felt as if I was in a high wind and I finally decided to keep my head down, and get back in the studio, which makes me a lot happier. In the last two weeks or so I have got really working fast on a series, like the old days at Bennington...

Letter from Caro to Greenberg, 18 March 1969

What was part of the canon of sculpture making in 1960 had now got damn boring, become a cliché - stuff that goes along the floor and is covered with bright colours and so on; maybe it was time to reconsider the whole problem of whether things should be painted...

Chanan interview, September 1974

I have been thinking about clay for a long time - for about six or nine months I have had clay ready for using in the studio - and just as you said "the open road to free form". I have definite ideas of how I want to go about it (to do with bronze and welding, not Margie's terracotta and ceramic [Margie Hughto, director of the clay project at Sycracuse University]).

Letter from Caro to Greenberg, 30 June 1975

Incidentally, I saw the Michelangelo Slaves in Paris [at the Louvre] the weekend before last and I'm afraid I wasn't moved... I have found myself at St Martin's feeling as if I was fighting some sort of rear-guard action for a kind of art that is on the way out. Not that this is a particularly new sensation! But the direction that people are taking now in sculpture does give me pause... the level is never above "middle brow". That's a distinction you make in writing, but it is relevant too in art. That's what's wrong with English taste... there's no discrimination between these areas... that's the distinction which gets blurred here.

Letter from Caro to Greenberg, 4 April 1979

Bronze takes so long to make and needs returning to again and again. I hope to return to steel shortly! Still trying to get somewhere with lead and wood while here in the country... I am devouring Indian sculpture, photos, works, everything. It's like discovering African Art for the Cubists, a whole new set of possibilities for sculpture. Volume and flat played off against one another... Trouble is it's hard to be simple and straightforward when you are looking at it and influenced by it. I am amazed at the variousness of good sculpture... to enjoy an Indian piece, a New Ireland mask and a Degas dancer! What variety, but how to choose between them?

Letter from Caro to Greenberg, 21 November 1981

Sculpture history since 1900: to realise its lost expressiveness turned to painting and now... to architecture... Michelangelo was the last sculptor to work expressively within architecture. Thereafter sculpture became a decorative feature serving the architecture element... When in the 17th century sculpture became decorative, the next big thrust (Rodin, Degas, etc.) was for sculpture to recover its expressiveness. In painting this had happened with Monet and Impressionism: now sculpture looked to painting to recover its feeling. Cubism released sculpture and collage made it easy to make: painting opened the way for it. Now that sculpture is confident within expression it can coordinate with architecture, but not easily because the two have been drawn apart so far.

Barbeton Notebook, 1979-80, pp 28, 31

At present I am very taken up with architecture. I look at the Romanesque, the rich bowls and pillars, the internal domes, the order of the Renaissance buildings, which derive from the Romanesque. Indian architecture - its weight and almost figurative organisation. The Cappadocian cave churches, ordered interiors, natural interiors and the mix of the two. Gothic elegance is so much more mental and less bodily than the Norman. I think what's been done in stone can have an interesting equivalent in steel - it came a long way away from what was natural to it. Louis Kahn, Le Corbusier, Utzon. I'll go miles to see a building by them.

Caro, unpublished answers to a questionnaire from the Polytechnic of North London, 1984

I never "made a decision to change style"... rather it became necessary to alter the way in which I approached sculpture in order to make the art I was trying to make more real, more to do with a response to life. I found, at various times, that the art of the past or the art of my own past... was not sufficient for what I was trying at that moment to express, and this caused me to make a change. I hope that I will continue to be open to such possibility of change as long as I can continue to make sculpture...

I never set out to make "inhuman" or even "non-figurative" art: I was driven to make my sculpture abstract in the search for more truth to my feelings and a rejection of the imitation of appearances. I hope my sculpture is as much to do with humanity, being human, and human values, as it ever was, despite the change of subject matter.

...We are really very down-to-earth people sculptors: and we make day-to-day decisions in the studio. It's hard to see the broad panorama of our lives and I certainly doubt if we decide much in a planned, programmatic way - at any rate I don't. I find myself discontented with what I did yesterday and have to find a way to make it better tomorrow.

Letter from Caro to Professor Vivo [an Italian academic who had questioned the changes of direction in Caro's work], 9 November 1984

'Anthony Caro: Quest for the New Sculpture', by Ian Barker, is published by Lund Humphries, in hardback, priced £30 and is available direct from Bookpoint (01235 827730). The exhibition The Way It Is: New Sculptures by Anthony Caro is at The Orangery, Kenwood House, Hampstead Lane, London NW3 (020-8348 1286) to 25 July