A Season of Sculpture
A constellation of far-flung shows made the past months exciting for anyone interested in modern and contemporary sculpture, starting with a trio of concurrent exhibitions of Anthony Caro’s work in Norwich, rural Berkshire, and London. In Norwich, at the East Gallery, a city center exhibition space run by the University of the Arts, “Anthony Caro: Iron in the Soul” presented a small but revealing selection of works on paper and sculptures tracing the artist’s evolution from his student days to 2011. The drawings included early figures with corrections by Henry Moore, from the 1950s, when Caro was the celebrated older sculptor’s assistant. The most significant work on view was probably Sculpture Seven (1961), a gravity-defying horizontal stack of polychrome I-beams, a revolutionary early work that forever transformed conceptions of what sculpture could be—or what could be sculpture—and established Caro’s reputation as a powerful innovator when he was still in his thirties. A short walk away, Erl King (2009), an eight-foot behemoth that toggles between abstractness and the malevolent glare of a monstrous head, loomed outside a University of the Arts building, testimony to Caro’s lifelong ability to challenge both himself and his viewers.
At Cliveden, in Berkshire, once the Astors’ opulent country estate, now a luxury hotel, fourteen large Caro sculptures were installed along the mile-long Green Drive between rows of towering oaks and beech trees, contained by “walls” of shrubbery and undergrowth. The selection ranged from the brooding Second Sculpture (1960) with its confrontational steel plates to the mysterious Up Zero (2008/2009), which seems to turn away, no matter how we approach it. We encountered the sculptures in a widely spaced sequence as we moved along the drive. Some, like the seductive Curtain Road (1974), a gathering of soft-edged strips of dark rust-brown steel, leaning casually against a vertical plane, revealed themselves slowly because of the relationship of their color and the setting, while others, such as the dully luminous, ample, stainless steel Box Tent (1987/1989) beckoned from a distance. Discovering the more intimate and delicate sculptures, when we came close to them against the leafy background, was rewarding, but there was a lot to be said for the authority of the enormous, red, locomotive-like Aurora (2000/2003), which made its considerable presence felt from afar. Near the grand house, the vibrant orange Purling (1996) unfurled itself on a tightly defined lawn, its convex planes curling upward from the manicured grass, framed by the plot’s sharply delineated edges. Most gorgeous? The monumental stainless steel Double Tent (1987/1993), at yet another location on the grounds of the estate, its generous rectangular planes and oversized discs parading along a narrow meadow beside the Thames. The flat planes of the grassy bank and the river, accentuated by a wall of dense trees, approximated the kind of clean, geometric setting that Caro always preferred for his sculptures, intensifying the spatial complexities of Double Tent.
Cumulatively, the installations at Cliveden allowed us to discover the pluses and minuses of forcing uncompromisingly abstract sculptures—whose meaning depends on their unlikeness to anything in the real world—to coexist with nature. Sometimes, it was impossible not to wish for more coherent backgrounds, but at other times the opposition of the man-made and exuberant growth made us consider Caro in new ways. Being able to see the silvery Double Tent beside the Thames, against freshly rain-washed green foliage, almost justified the entire enterprise.
In London, “Anthony Caro: Seven Decades,” at Annely Juda Fine Art, offered an economical but quite complete overview of Caro’s primary obsessions from the 1950s to the 2010s. Smallish works that recalled the presence of the hand and large constructions that compelled us to measure ourselves against them reminded us of his faultless sense of scale and his sensitivity to the relationship of sculpture to the body. We could follow, too, his fascination with horizontality and his ability to make the way things touch into eloquent expression. We could chart his changing attitudes toward weight and the force of gravity, from early grounded figurative works that he described as being “about what it was like to be inside the body,” to defiant, radically original, apparently hovering sculptures of the 1960s and 1970s, to often denser, but no less agile, no less inventive works of the 1980s and 1990s. And we could consider the complex, generous constructions Caro made in this century—sculptures that make us ignore the heft of massive elements by virtue of their willful placement or that play games with our perceptions by pitting transparency against opacity, and edge against plane, challenging our conceptions of interior and exterior, place and object. We could see Caro, at various times, paring sculpture down to minimal lines that step elegantly along the ground plane or watch him investigating ideas about mass, layering transparent planes against forthright volumes and exploring the possibilities of color and different materials. Even with the modest number of works on view, Caro’s refusal to repeat himself was palpable. In the studio, he was never interested in hearing enthusiastic comments about achieved works but always preferred to dissect ones he found problematic, constantly reaching for excellence, hoping to surprise himself and to advance in some way what he called “the onward of art.” “It’s getting clearer,” he would say, when a sculpture was moving in a direction that gratified him.
At the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, in Wakefield, “David Smith: Sculpture 1932–1965” presented an impeccably chosen, beautifully installed group of often essential works by another recent master, Caro’s American predecessor. The two men first met in 1959, on Caro’s first trip to the United States—one of the encounters with American vanguard artists that gave the ambitious young English sculptor the courage to abandon everything he knew and begin working in steel. They later got to know each other better when Caro was artist in residence at Bennington College, between 1963 and 1965. Their sculpture shared a common grounding in Cubist construction, but while Smith’s example was clearly very important to the younger artist, the significant differences in their work were underscored by the overlap of the Yorkshire show and the three Caro exhibitions elsewhere.
As installed in the YSP’s handsome Underground Gallery, the Smith show began with early work, including three of the rarely seen painted constructions in wood, shells, wire, nails, and other miscellaneous materials scavenged on an extended trip to the Virgin Islands in the early 1930s. These improvisational structures, three-dimensional versions of the paintings Smith was making at the time, already reveal characteristics that would persist for the rest of his working life: verticality; openness; an almost subliminal, never literal sense of the human body; and an animating, achingly sensitive sense of touch and placement. This last quality transcends materials; Smith’s largest works in industrial steel are as dependent on his delicate touch as his most fragile early works in wood, wire, and found objects. His initial commitment to construction in steel was announced by two of his first welded sculptures—the first steel constructions made in the U.S.—rowdy, abstracted heads assembled in 1933, after he saw an issue of Cahiers d’art dedicated to Pablo Picasso’s and Julí González’s constructed metal sculptures.
Other sides of the protean Smith were revealed by a selection of his angry antiwar, anti-Fascist Medals for Dishonor reliefs (1939) and two enigmatic “surrealizing” sculptures, robust expansions of the implications of (among other things) Alberto Giacometti’s frail Palace at 4 A.M. (1932), with its schematic enclosure and biomorphic inhabitants. Smith’s Reliquary House (1945) and Home of the Welder (1945) populate geometric structures with elusive, allusive forms and images, in a range of different materials that alerts us to an appetite for varied surfaces and colors that led him to paint his works, hoping, he said, to combine painting and sculpture into a new art form that would “beat either one.”
Smith’s pursuit of this idea, ranging from crisp monochromes to exuberant polychromy to brushy Abstract Expressionist gestures, on structures of many different types, was thoroughly demonstrated by a group of extremely individual painted works. Our understanding of the artist was further enlarged by a wall of works on paper, from early, typical “sculptor’s drawings”—surrogates for three-dimensional forms yet to be executed—to late abstractions in home-brewed ink wholly about the expressive character of brushmarks on a flat surface.
Just about every individual work in the exhibition was a representative of a named series—Zigs, Tanktotems, Cubi, and so on—a “family” of formally related works usually constructed at different times and often concurrently with works later assigned to a different group. Most of Smith’s most important series were represented by major works, installed both in the galleries and along the walkway outside the gallery, against an impressively tall hedge. We could savor complex three-dimensional drawing-like sculptures that marked Smith’s increasing dedication to abstraction, such as the expansive Hudson River Landscape (1951) or Blackburn, Song of an Irish Blacksmith (1949–50), an homage to the metal worker who helped him perfect his welding skills, when he set up his studio in Blackburn’s factory on the Brooklyn docks, Terminal Iron Works. There was a workbench “still life,” Voltri XVI (1961), made when Smith had the run of several abandoned, obsolete Italian steel factories and their contents, before the 1961 Festival of the Two Worlds, in Spoleto. There were sculptures on wheels, including an athletic yellow painted Zig (1964) and the robust Wagon II (1964), with its massive, poised “charioteer,” as well as the elegantly balanced, slender Tanktotem III (1953) and its relatives. And more. Outside, among diverse works, a gleaming stainless steel Cubi and a white painted Primo Piano, both from series made in the last four years of his life, bore witness to Smith’s fascination with surfaces that responded to changing light conditions when placed out of doors. At the top of the hill, above the gallery, the dazzling, monumental Untitled (Candida) (1965) fulfilled this ambition perfectly, with its subtly overlapped rectangular stainless steel planes, arranged as a sort of open, squared-off circle, like the casually arranged planes of a Cubist collage by Georges Braque.
Smith died in 1965, aged fifty-nine, in an automobile accident. Caro was forty-one. Just as the early death of Théodore Géricault left the younger Eugène Delacroix to expand the conception of Romanticism, Smith’s death left Caro to carry “the onward” of abstract constructed sculpture. Wouldn’t it have been thrilling if Smith had lived and the two brilliant masters of steel had worked concurrently, as colleagues and rivals, as Henri Matisse and Picasso did, learning from each other, competing, and spurring each other on?
In Venice, Martin Puryear’s installation “Liberty/Libertá,” in the United States Pavilion, was a high point of the 58th Biennale. Seven works within the galleries and the immense, arresting Swallowed Sun (Monstrance and Volute) (2019) screening the courtyard between the pavilion’s projecting wings together embodied a wealth of conceptions of both the presence and absence of liberty, literally and metaphorically. Puryear’s acute sensitivity to the physical aspects of his work was a unifying thread. As usual, it was impossible to decide whether a motif had dictated the choice of materials and means or vice versa, but each work made the connections among meaning, form, material, and method appear to be seamless and inevitable, while at the same time encouraging multiple readings. The vast Swallowed Sun (Monstrance and Volute), for example, first confronted us with a curving, perspectival grid, like an enormous diagram of the earth, contained by a rectangular frame, with a dark, circular void at the top. We soon discovered the huge padded coil that reared up from the pavilion courtyard, caged by the grid and thrusting into that dark circle. Or did it depend from the circle? The dark, sensuous coil was bound with knotted cords, as if to prevent it from expanding or escaping, a potent visual equivalent for the historic racial iniquities Puryear’s work has long addressed.
On entering the pavilion, we first encountered the red painted Big Phyrigian (2010–14), a blunt wooden volume whose literal hardness seems engagingly at odds with its echo of a soft hat with a plump, drooping top. The Phrygian cap has symbolized freedom, in various forms and in various locations, at least since the eighteenth century, so Big Phrygian can be read as a fairly literal sign of liberty. But its generous size pushes it into abstractness, making us concentrate on such subtleties as the slight asymmetry of the drooping “snout” and the fine, embracing lines that emphasize the snout’s transition from the main body of the sculpture.
A Column for Sally Hemings (2019), the most minimal of the exhibited works, was also one of the most elegant and conceptually complex. A tapered, fluted, white-painted vertical base, like a descendant of the pavilion’s exterior columns, was violated by a cast-iron shackle driven into the top. The shackle, surmounting a slim stake, became an abstracted head on a long neck, changing the fluted base into stylized clothing. Alerted by the title, it was impossible not to view the piece, installed in the rotunda of the neo-Palladian pavilion, as anything other than an assault on Thomas Jefferson, the statesman and admirer of Palladio who owned Hemings and fathered children with her.
Among the most powerful works on view was Cloister-Redoubt or Cloistered Doubt? (2019), an open stack of timbers supporting an ambiguous, soft, contained form. We wondered whether the “swaddling” was protection for the fragile-seeming, woven, interior volume, or whether the tipped, swelling central element was about to burst free. A suavely undulating, impossibly thin wooden canopy sheltered the central configuration, triggering associations with altars and shrines, both expedient and formal. The sculpture not only activated the space it embraced, but seemed to generate a force field around it. The installation ended with the mysterious, mutable Tabernacle (2019). Seen from the exterior, it was at once allusive of a brutal nineteenth-century weapon and a Civil War forage cap, but when you peered in its “windows,” it became a sanctuary, with overtones of a padded cell, albeit one with sumptuous fabric and magical reflections—yet another multivalent improvisation on the theme of liberty and imprisonment. In Venice, Puryear’s sculptures first attracted us with their clarity of form and by their expressive use of such diverse materials as painted and unpainted wood, metal, cloth, and polyester, and such diverse techniques as knotting, joining, stacking, and binding. These formal qualities presented themselves and gave pleasure, but as we spent time with the sculptures, new, richer, political resonances announced themselves. Puryear manages to address highly charged, relevant issues obliquely, wordlessly provoking us to think about them—and keep thinking about them—with his haunting constructions.
Back in New York, “Bruce Gagnier: Stance” assembled two groups of the sculptor’s recent bronze figures in the gallery of the New York Studio School, while “Good Figure: Bruce Gagnier, Plaster Works from 2019 and 1983,” at Thomas Park Gallery brought together a selection of smaller-than-life-size figures, small figures, heads, and a few paintings. Gagnier’s figures, whatever their size or material, seem to be coming into being as we look, their urgently worked surfaces restless, as if under pressure from within. Their stances seem precarious. Knees buckle, shoulders droop or are dramatically raised, hips move in opposition to each other, elbows bend, heads tilt. Gagnier works extensively from life, but the finished sculptures are largely based on memory and, it seems, on what it feels like to inhabit a moving body and, often, an aging body. Martha Graham wrote somewhere that she developed her technique after looking at herself standing still and realizing that she was constantly making small adjustments to remain vertical. Gagnier’s sculptures turn those minute adjustments into potent articulations in space, like dancers moving to unheard herky-jerky rhythms. At the Studio School, each gallery is filled by a group of life-size bronze nudes standing in the space we inhabit. They face each other and turn away from each other, so that the spaces captured by their angled, zigzagging postures become almost as important as the figures themselves. Six figures fill the first room, so lively and vigorous that we’re sure they will assume different positions if we turn our backs. The effect is somewhere between The Burghers of Calais and a lively cocktail party. The second gallery, with only four sculptures, suggests different, more casual relationships.
At Thomas Park, two rows of plaster figures face each other, the earlier ones small, rough, and casual, the larger, recent ones sharing the animation and unpredictability of the recent bronzes. The heads are mysterious, reminiscent of Medardo Rosso’s blurring of form, with the sense of immanence and mutability of the recent large figures. Three full-length figure paintings complete the installation. (I confess that I have trouble with the paintings. The faces seem too specific and cartoony and, for the most part, the body forms seem too generalized, especially in comparison to the complexities of the sculptures; in one painting, however, dramatic modulations in paint handling effectively suggested shifts in space, an evolution that I hope will continue.) In his sculptures, whatever his material, Gagnier at once honors and thumbs his nose at the long tradition of figuration. We think about the classical past, about Michelangelo’s exaggeration of the play of limb against limb, limb against torso, and much more. But Gagnier also denies that legacy, presenting us not with idealized, perfected forms, but with poignantly human, imperfect bodies. Chins droop, bellies protrude, breasts sag, not in literal ways—oddly—but through suggestion, because of Gagnier’s rich, expressive, evocation of mass in space. The plasters, because of their pale color, often seem to subvert the legacy of the classical past slightly more than the bronzes, which seem to go toe to toe with the Renaissance, but his figures, whether in bronze or plaster, seem to hover between intense specificity and abstraction, in strange and fascinating ways. Gagnier reminds us of what it means to be human, doing the best we can. (One caveat: while the initial impact of the installation at Thomas Park Gallery is very striking, the spatial character of the sculptures, especially the smaller figures, was more visible when they were seen from eye level. Crouching helped.)