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A reflective man of steel

Times Staff Writer

GRACED with a knighthood, accorded a dozen honorary degrees and acclaimed as Britain’s greatest living sculptor, Sir Anthony Caro celebrated his 80th birthday last year. Still steaming along at full throttle, he unveiled a new body of work in an exhibition at Kenwood House, a historic mansion in north London, and prepared for the 53-year retrospective that would usher in his 81st year at the Tate Britain, the national gallery of British art on the north bank of the River Thames.

The retrospective was too unwieldy to travel, except for an abbreviated version at the Institut Valencia d’Art Modern in Spain through Sept. 4. But now Southern California is gearing up for its own Caro fest. “Anthony Caro: A Life in Sculpture: The Kenwood Series,” opening Saturday at Scripps College in Claremont, will present 13 clay, metal and stone sculptures unveiled last year at Kenwood House. In Los Angeles, “Anthony Caro Sculpture 1966-1983,” featuring seven large steel abstractions, will open Sept. 10 at Marc Selwyn Fine Art and the Daniel Weinberg Gallery on mid-Wilshire Boulevard.

The convergence of the shows is a fortunate coincidence that will provide a substantial showcase for a highly influential artist whose work is rarely seen here in depth. Selwyn and Weinberg will offer examples of the work that established Caro as a pillar of high Modernism. At Scripps, a traveling exhibition organized by ceramics dealer and scholar Garth Clark will offer insight into Caro’s depth and breadth. After its California debut, the show will move on to Bentley Projects in Phoenix and the Garth Clark Gallery in New York.

Although he’s known for massive metal constructions that define open spaces rather than fill them with solid volumes, Caro is a master of many materials who has explored expressive figures and politically charged themes as well as pure abstraction. In the last decade he has pondered human conflict and violence in large installations: “The Trojan War,” a tableau in stone, steel and wood; “The Last Judgment,” a walk-through environment of terra cotta, wood and steel shown at the 1999 Venice Biennale; and “The Barbarians,” a battalion of stoneware, wood and steel warriors mounted on horses. At the moment he is working on steel pieces related to architecture, which he hopes to show in the U.S. in the next year or two.

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“This is someone who is using every sound in the orchestra,” said Karen Wilkin, a New York-based Caro scholar who will give a lecture on his work at Scripps on Sept. 17. “He is not leaving out a single instrument. Even though the works in the Kenwood Series at first may seem unrelated to what he is known for, he has never restricted himself. For the last 15 or 20 years he has been exploring more and more materials.”

If a single thread ties his work together, it may be his ability to surprise his audience as he revisits familiar themes and broaches new subjects. Despite the size and weight of his art, he retains a spirit of ingenuity and freshness.

And that’s essential, Caro wrote recently in an e-mail response to questions about his work.

“The art in sculpture depends in a large part on the immediate putting into real physical materials of the artist’s feelings,” he wrote. “All my work has about it a degree of spontaneity; this is something I strive for.”

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In his trademark steel abstractions, he has combined beams, plates, tubes, screens and cutout shapes in three-dimensional constructions. For the Kenwood Series, he worked in ceramist Hans Spinner’s studio near Cannes, France, to make stoneware components that would be wedded to steel pipes and cast iron machine parts in table-like forms. Dark and heavy and given evocative titles such as “Orator,” “Provisions,” “Summit Table” or “Children’s Games,” the tables resemble the charred remains of business meetings, recreation rooms and kitchens. Two other pieces in the series -- a limestone and steel structure called “The Palace” and a long, low “Shelter” -- reflect Caro’s interest in architectural forms.

“In ceramic clay in particular,” he wrote, “any fussing with the material makes the work look tired and dead. It has to be worked on spontaneously and left or else thrown away and one starts afresh. This suits me very well. It means that I can work with the wet clay for a short time, then bring the fired parts to my studio in London and use them in sculpture in a less immediate way.”

Recalling his history of working with clay, Caro wrote that he used “oily modeling clay” in his early days and explored other forms of the material before making his chunky stoneware pieces with Spinner. “Clay is a highly responsive material and very appealing. It offers less resistance than wood, steel or stone, and it has always been tempting to work with.”

Clark sees “a reflective mood” in the Kenwood Series, one that looks back “on the interstices of life. Previously he had done vast sculptural epics, one after the other, ‘The Trojan War,’ ‘Last Judgment’ and ‘The Barbarians.’ These were big mythic narratives. But the Kenwood Series was a group of housebroken sculpture, talking about games, chairs, pantries, tables and telling little stories. They embrace the everyday and, while not utilitarian in an obvious sense, play on that theme, something that I have always loved in ceramics, its ability to explore function and purpose without becoming banal.”

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For Wilkin, Caro’s recent works “sum up a number of concerns that have been quite important to him for the last decade. One is this kind of oblique narrative, which has resurfaced since he began to feel that abstraction no longer needs to be defended so ferociously as it did when he was a young artist,” she said. “He can now allow all sorts of things into his work that he once felt he had to strenuously keep out. The narrative is hinted at by the titles but really more evoked by the images themselves, which are full of all kinds of associations and allusions.”

The table idea, one Caro has used before in steel sculptures, goes back to Cubism, Wilkin said, “the Cubist tabletop, which is kind of a subtext for anyone who has been making Modernist constructive sculpture.” The tables in the Kenwood Series may be “more overt” than earlier works, which “had to do with what it meant to be picked up and placed on a table,” she said. But they are closely related to elements of “The Last Judgment” and “very much a part of what he has been doing his whole life in one way or another.”

Listening to his muse

CARO, a stocky gentleman who favors tweed jackets and works in a former piano factory in north London, has been engaged with art since his youth, but he studied engineering and briefly worked in an architect’s office to please his parents, who advised him to find a more practical career. After a tour of duty in the Royal Navy, he followed his own muse, studying sculpture at the Regent Street Polytechnic and Royal Academy schools in London and working as an assistant to Henry Moore, Britain’s leading sculptor.

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Caro struck out on his own in 1953 with expressionistic figurative work but soon began looking for a new direction. He found it in the early 1960s after spending several months in the U.S. and forging associations with Modernist critic Clement Greenberg and prominent American artists such as painter Kenneth Noland and sculptor David Smith.

Upon his return to England, Caro began welding standard metal components in abstract configurations and painting them solid colors. His show of 15 abstract sculptures at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London in 1963 established him as a major figure with a gift for making large, open pieces, sometimes likened to drawings in space. Placed directly on the floor, his breakthrough work sprawled out at great lengths and marked off big chunks of space with notable economy.

“This is an important exhibition,” wrote Edwin Mullins, reviewing the Whitechapel show in the Sunday Times of London. “Caro has shown most impressively that sculpture need not be dependent on the human figure. And that not all roads lead to Moore.”

As the years have passed, some of Caro’s early champions have found his later work lacking, but he has maintained a strong presence in the art world. Charles Ray, a Los Angeles-based sculptor whose conceptual work might appear to have no relationship to Caro’s, was so impressed with the British veteran in the early 1970s that he made several homages to him. In 1998, when the Museum of Contemporary Art presented a retrospective of Ray’s work, he re-created Caro’s seminal 1962 sculpture “Early One Morning” for the catalog’s cover illustration.

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Both of the Southern California exhibitions were organized in consultation with Caro and his studio. Selwyn and Weinberg said their joint show grew from a desire to collaborate on a project that would recognize an important artist who had been underexposed in Los Angeles.

At Scripps, where the Caro show arrived in 17 wood crates, presenting the Kenwood Series is a logical project for the college -- home of the 62-year-old Ceramics Annual exhibition and a major collection of contemporary ceramics donated by the late Fred Marer.

“This is a wonderful exhibition for us,” said Mary MacNaughton, director of the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripps.

“Caro is a great sculptor who has found a real expressive medium in clay,” she said. “This is a terrific opportunity for our students to see the very best work in this area.”

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‘Anthony Caro: A Life in Sculpture: The Kenwood Series’

Where: Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, 11th Street and Columbia Avenue, Scripps College, Claremont

When: 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, beginning Saturday and continuing through Oct. 23

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Price: Free

Contact: (909) 607-4690, www.scrippscol.edu/dept/gallery

Also

Where: “Anthony Caro Sculpture 1966-1983,” at Marc Selwyn Fine Art, 6222 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 101, and Daniel Weinberg Gallery, 6148 Wilshire Blvd.

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When: Sept. 10 through Oct. 26

Contact: (323) 933-9911, Marc Selwyn Fine Art; (323) 954-8425, Daniel Weinberg Gallery


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