Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Anthony Caro, the Met's Roof, and the Clement Greenberg Problem

Anthony Caro, After Summer, 1968, in "Anthony Caro on the Roof," at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, through October 30, 2011. Photos: 16 Miles [more]

"They wanted us out at 5 o’clock," artist Mike Starn told the New York Times last year, referring to administrators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that he said bristled at the rather free-spirited approach that he and his brother, Doug Starn, brought to Big Bambú, the sprawling installation that the pair built on the museum's roof last year. "But we’re not just here working," he continued. "We’re a part of it. They didn’t like that — the beers. We finally got them to understand that this piece wouldn’t exist if it were too controlled. The vibe is important.”

This year's summer rooftop installation is comparably modest, even quiet, compared to the Starns' project. Five sleek metal sculptures by British artist Anthony Caro have been installed for the summer, and there have been no reports of Caro staging unauthorized parties or swilling beer atop his sculptures late at night. Though it is not as overtly subversive as its 2010 pick, the Met's choice shows an admirable level of nerve, choosing to reconsider largely historical work instead of commissioning a grand, crowd-pleasing installation. And, happily, there is a discernible vibe to the affair, after all.

The Starns installation offered an organic, provisional form of visual pleasure — their installation was constantly changing, growing and contracting in various sections — while Caro's works present a sharp, compact, and carefully ordered playfulness. His sculptures are sexy in the same sense that prized vintage cars are sexy: they are paragons of a specific time's collective aesthetic desires, and while we don't want to ride in them every day — they look strangely fragile despite their confident curves and strong welds — it's a pleasure to walk by one on the street.

It's even more thrilling to see one cruise by at full throttle, which could be said of Caro's rich-yellow Midday (1960), consisting of three thick steel sheets that are temporarily frozen as they dance down a smooth, gently sloping slide that is propped on two legs. The all-grey After Summer (1968) is even better. What appear to be huge, sturdy flower petals are lined up in two rows, each balanced on two long, thin slabs of metal. It's simultaneously monumental and sensual, ambitious and intimate: rare feats. Despite its materials, it looks eerily delicate. As you circle around it, you may feel that the whole piece is fluttering in the wind.

Blazon, 1987–90

All that praise aside, the past half century of Caro's career has long been haunted by the looming presence of, as Ken Johnson puts it in his review of the show in the Times, the "authoritarian, arch-formalist critic Clement Greenberg," who was an "admirer, friend and studio consultant." (The emphasis is mine.) Goodness. Even in a 1975 Village Voice review that called Caro's 32-sculpture show at the Museum of Modern Art "timely, dazzling, and important," critic David Bourdon felt it necessary to note that "Greenberg paid an apparently apocalyptic visit to Caro's London studio" in 1959. The artist was making figurative work at the time. "After their discussion," Bourdon writes, "Caro decided to 'rethink' his attitudes toward sculpture."

Bourdon continues the story:
"Later that year Caro visited the United States, met most of the Greenberg–approved artists, including David Smith, and upon his return to London purchased oxyacetylene welding gear. From then on, Caro's sculpture would be constructed of scrap metal, girders, and sheet metal. ... After Smith's death in 1965, Caro purchased from his estate various pieces of metal and some tank ends that he incorporated, somewhat cannibalistically, into his own work."
That artistic cannibalism renders this comment, which Caro makes in an awesome interview (to which Johnson links), considerably more intense: "The two father figures for me were [Henry Moore] and David Smith, and David Smith was a competitor," he says. "Henry was a father. ... You always had to come up against David." So he decided to consume his leftovers. (As an aside, Smith's death in a car crash is quickly becoming one of modern art's major birth moments, giving Caro raw material for his sculptures, and giving art historian Rosalind Krauss a dissertation topic at Harvard, which did not encourage students to write on living artists.)

Caro is entirely open about the productive relationship he shared with Greenberg. "Clement could somehow get you to develop it," he says later in the interview. "Get you to go that one stage further. That, I think, was his thing. He was in the studio, it was in the studio he was good. But you had to do it. He didn't do it." I cannot think of any other interview in which an artist emphasizes that a sympathetic critic is not actually making his work. Caro also suggests that Rachel Whiteread would be a better sculptor if she had a working relationship with a critic like Greenberg. (What does Bruce Nauman think? "She's a good artist," he once said. "There was more to that idea that I used.")

Midday, 1960

Odalisque, 1984

It may be that what fascinates us about the Caro-Greenberg relationship is that it was the last of its kind: a major artist and a major critic at work together, forging art and theory in unison. It looks strange and unsettling today, in large part because of the subsequent defenestration of Greenberg and his writing. (Deserved or not, your legacy is not doing well when one of your intellectual descendants — Krauss — uses this line that you said as the lone blurb on the jacket for her latest book: "Spare me smart Jewish girls with their typewriters.") Writers and artists don't cozy up together quite so comfortably today. When Benjamin Buchloh and Gerhard Richter chat, or when Nicolas Bourriaud writes about his European posse, we are looking at far different models.

Perhaps as time passes, and Greenberg becomes a less spooky figure in the public imagination (the polemicist who drank himself to death as art passed him by), we'll find new reasons to swoon over Caro's work, and be able to marvel at his influence on scores of younger artists, who are taking his vintage cars for long, leisurely rides. Already I think Caro is present in the work of Patrick Hill, especially when Hill stretches his work across the floor and lets it breathe a bit, and I think it's also possible to see it in the nimble just-right balance that Sarah Brahman fights for and nails in some of her best work.

End Up, 2010

Another unlikely fan, mentioned by Johnson, is Los Angeles–based sculptor Charles Ray, who tells critic Michael Fried (in another interview that Johnson highlights) that he once proposed photographing a nude woman riding Caro's stunning and fragile 1962 Early One Morning. Sadly, the plan never came to fruition. "Caro agreed in principle," Ray tells Fried, though he notes that Caro, understandably, "did not want a public image of it that would suggest it might be strong enough to be sat on." But Ray is still enamored of Caro's work. "His work was, and is, so alive," he says. "It bridges a gap between the inside and outside of my mind."

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