Nick Hackworth

Anthony Caro, Tate Britain

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

How exciting can lumps of metal be? As documentation from the period proves, in the early Sixties they could drive people wild.

It was then that British sculptor Anthony Caro, already in his late thirties, turned his back on the lumpen figuration associated with his one-time employer and mentor, Henry Moore, and embraced the new world of American abstract expressionism.

Out went modelling and bronze casts and in came steel girders, sheet metal, random piping, welding equipment and bright monochrome paint jobs.

His works from that time brought together these elements in a relationship governed only by abstract, visual concerns. Early One Morning, his best-known piece, is a dialogue between a flat square and a cross-like form, mediated by a long metal bar and finished with a coat of deep red.

Similarly, Month of May, sitting nearby at Tate Britain's substantial retrospective, comprises orange and green piping intersecting with red steel bars and sections of girders.

The slightly later Prairie, meanwhile, lives up to its name, a clever, mustard yellow, abstract essay in flatness with the angular movements of various elements suppressed by a dominating field of four horizontal tubes.

The work was sensational at the time and led to Caro being heralded, most importantly by the influential American critic Clement Greenberg, as inventing a new language of sculpture.

Even now, three decades on, the work hums with a playful energy and a funky, visual intelligence of the sort that seeks no further intellectual justification.

Now 81, Sir Anthony Caro is fated as one of the world's greatest living sculptors but the visual wit that informed those earlier pieces is long since dissipated.

At its worst, his late work is monumental and empty, like the specially commissioned Bankside Steps, an undulating line of four gigantic step-pyramid-like forms of rusted steel that fills a portion of the Duveen galleries, .

At best it is worthy and ponderous, as in The Last Judgement, an installation of myriad parts, in which his return to figurative work is used to evoke a dark and awful pre-Classical past.

Body parts and symbolic emblems sit alongside in roughhewn wooden cupboards, all of which would be more effective if the four trumpets that flank the door, presumably of heaven, did not appear to be being blown by windy anuses.

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