THE VAST Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo (by Takahiko Yanagisawa and Kisabor Kawakani) is the most ambitious of recent art galleries and I doubt whether its temporary exhibition space could be filled by any living artist other than the protean, varied and often colossal Sir Anthony Caro. The Japanese have opened their museum with the largest of all his retrospectives. More than 100 works are on display. The show occupies three floors of the museum and an outside sculpture court, taking a visitor from Caro's expressionist figuration of the Fifties to his architectural projects of the present day.
Caro retrospectives are hard to organise. The work is distributed worldwide, is expensive to transport and awkward to place in a host gallery. In the first place one devises such shows via photographs. They are misleading whenever the piece is beyond table-top size. So are the models you build of your museum and the tiny replicas that you then shift from room to room. In my experience this doesn't help when you finally crane the sculptures from their containers. Models give you relative sizes, not the aesthetic radiance of each work. I mention these problems because visitors to the Tokyo museum might not know that they exist. The installation is magnificent, as though no problem had ever existed, and we should be grateful to Ian Barker for his work on the show. It has taken four years to prepare and three months to install.
This grand retrospective must alter our view of Caro's career. In Tokyo we see much more of his figurative sculpture. As one would expect, there's a splendid sequence of the coloured abstract works of the Sixties, though the profusion of table sculptures and "writing pieces" made since 1966 is not apparent. They have been held back to emphasise the more elaborate, indeed symphonic, table sculptures of the Eighties. The massive pieces called "Flats", mostly made in Canada in the early Seventies, are given special prominence. A perfectly judged interlude presents the Barcelona sculptures of the late Eighties. The 40 works in the "Trojan Wars" series have a dramatic interior setting. Finally, the Greek-inspired sculptures of the Eighties lead us outside the museum to Caro's new "sculpitecture", art with the presence of architecture.
This progression suggests an increasingly magisterial artist. Caro (born in 1924) is no doubt weightier now than he was in the Sixties, but I prefer to think of him as a sculptor with full and happy sway over physical size. Gigantic works come as easily to him these days (I know I do not speak for his assistants) as the foot-long pieces he makes as a weekend relaxation. We first saw the Tower of Discovery at the Tate in 1991. It reached almost to the roof of the gallery's central hall and, for that reason, was not convincing. The sculpture looks better in its present open-air setting. Outside, its size is more natural. And we observe how it is daft, lyrical, with most of the self-possessed grace of a piece such as Homage to Cubism of 1988-90, which is just 70cm tall.
I'd never seen this little marvel before and was struck by its meaningful power. On the one hand it prepares for such "sculpitecture" as the Tower of Discovery; on the other it takes a delightful comment on a modern movement at the other end of our century. This particular homage has the intimate wit of classic Cubism, a major tendency in art whose natural formats were rather small. It's also a trifle theatrical, which makes me think that a source for the piece may be in Diaghilev's Cubist ballet Parade. That would not be unlikely, given Caro's love of music, sprightly display and the decorative aspects of French painting.
Here is a clue to Caro's open, but still mysterious art. No great sculptor has been more indebted to pictorial rather than three-dimensional influence. I doubt if we will ever fathom Caro's responses to music, but his inspired sculptural flights from other people's paintings are a little easier to follow. The first of his painter-comrades was Kenneth Noland, who helped Caro to his breakthrough to radical abstract art in 1959-62. Twenty Four Hours, Sun Feast, perhaps Prairie and other pieces of the Sixties could not have been invented had not Noland been in the world. I surmise that the gorgeous Pompadour, with its five frontal planes set at different distances from the spectator, belongs to the sphere of Hans Hoffmann's "push-pull" paintings in which such panels were made to rebound within flat painterly space; and everywhere in Caro's most delicate sculpture is the thought of Matisse.
The French artist has been Caro's most potent ally. Matisse is not an overt influence, since his pigment and Caro's steel have no obvious affinity. Yet he is there. It seems (from chance remarks made by Caro) that certain sculptures belong to individual Matisse paintings. Caro's meditation on a particular canvas turns into a sculpture without a formal resemblance to the two-dimensional work. The result is neither a transcription nor a reminiscence, but a vital act of creative intelligence. I know of no parallel in the history of art for this kind of influence. Perhaps it could only have come about at Caro's stage in late modernism. At all events, the two artists have a shared aestheticism. It's a lavish love of beauty combined with a cool and removed attitude towards the viewer. Few sculptors are less tactile than Caro, or more purely visual, and this is a Matissean quality.
In his early days, Caro occasionally tried to match Matisse's colours in his sculpture. This turned out to be a mistake. The sculptures required their own hues and, after 1971, almost demanded that they should be in the natural colour of their material. Some early pieces, particularly Month of May and the clever, arrogant Red Splash, are coloured in a Sixties- ish way. Later in the decade, Caro turned to more subdued tones. Prairie is in a matt yellow, Crangerie a deep maroonish red, while certain crucial table sculptures have a tan coating. Such colours signal that the mood is less exuberant, more the work of a mature artist in his forties. I date Caro's maturity from about 1967, the year of Prairie. This calm and almost unearthly sculpture, much more square than it appears in photographs, with its four floating poles and limpid sub-structure, is like a metaphor for the serene creative life. Note that it is quite unlike anything else in Caro's oeuvre, as well as being unlike any other object in the world. Here is a magnificent example of an ability to make things that are unique.
Caro's early critics, confronted with a phenomenon, tried to explain him by saying that he was heir to a tradition of welded metal that began with Picasso and continued through Gonzalez and David Smith. Certainly Smith was important to Caro, and still is, but I do not believe that he began his career with an interest in such forebears. Homages to previous sculpture come later on. Sometimes there are affectionate salutes to a country or a city. Internationalism is an important aspect of Caro's work. In the Sixties he was the first British artist of any consequence to be simultaneously an American artist. The "Flats" are, among other things, a tribute to Canada and so are the "Emma" sculptures, made at Emma Lake in Saskatchewan. The "Barcelona" sculptures refer not only to Gonzalez, but to the whole spirit of Catalan decoration. The Greek sculptures are, of course, Greek. I would not be surprised to encounter a set of Japanese sculptures by Caro in a year or two.
The Tokyo opening last week included a day-long symposium for Carologists, as we are apparently now called. The exhibition is so magnificent and thought-provoking that speakers were hardly able to do justice to its contents. Alas, contemporary art history limps far behind Caro's inventions. The reason, I think, is that the hegemony of conceptualism in the Seventies did damage not only to art, but to a generation of young art historians and curators. There really ought to be more discussion of Caro. He's so obviously the world's foremost artist. Why, in England, do we merely take him for granted?
! Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, to 3 Sept. Tim Hilton organised the Anthony Caro retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in 1984.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies