Sculpture's New Spaces


Sir Anthony Caro



In the latter half of this century sculpture has not been far away from architecture: since the 60's sculpture extended itself so that it explored almost the same space as the architect's. We were absorbed with getting away from old-fashioned methods and modes of sculpture, with making a new vocabulary; the consciousness that what we were making was close to architecture would at that time have horrified us. Nevertheless, we were using rods that felt like handrails even though they were not for grasping.

The reason for opening sculpture out was to gain a greater expressiveness and this entailed making it more abstract. The starting point was painting; Cubism and Matisse—the need to get rid of the tyranny of the object. Abstract sculpture began to take off by taking charge of the space it occupied, first by standing on the same literal ground as we as spectators do, later, the table height, and the wall as well. A few architects like Michael Graves had been influenced by New Generation sculpture in terms of appearance and detail. But because the architect's enterprise and method is quite different from the sculptor's it needed a more thorough understanding. For all the cross references, there has been no community of thinking.

The concerns, at any rate the aesthetic concerns of sculptors and architects, match one another’s, although the enterprise is different. The materials are the same or similar, form and space are the subject of both disciplines.  Scale, and how the viewer relates to the work, is of vital importance in both. The architect's approach is more conceptual; he works from the general, the whole, directly down to detail. The sculptor on the other hand tends to be looser, perceptual, additive.

I think that the edges of subjects are interesting. Where sculpture meets drawing, where sculpture meets architecture, how we are thinking when we work. The architect plans on paper, then with the smallest of models; but most sculptors prefer to think directly: actual material, actual size. So far from having a brief, a site, a competition, even a set size, the sculptor may start from an idea, from a rule he makes for himself, from the parts he has on the floor, in his piece-bin, from a reproduction of a Cezanne, or from a joint between two parts. Sometimes it takes charge and alters one's intent, but at the start I can tell myself that I need, say, more richness, more volume, to float the work or to anchor it more strongly. I often go about this by taking a piece, whether it's a steel beam 10 feet long or a fragment measuring as little as 6 inches and place it so that it hovers or springs. And I add, bend or roll steel or whatever material I'm using or I cut it away until I feel right about what I've done.

It's only his/her own vision and aesthetic that the sculptor needs to satisfy—that's his only brief. So if the sculpture is inert, doesn't work, he/she can cut off whole areas and re-focus, completely alter the centrality or the size by adding or cropping, even turn it upside down and start again. The sculptor goes on making changes according to the needs of that particular sculpture until the art says 'yes' to him; and that's when it's finished.

The sculptor came to collage, putting and cutting, in order not to have a gap, no waste, between feeling and stroke. In painting Manet and the Impressionists had long taken care of that. Working directly without the overwhelming constraints of craft, in self-­supporting metal or other direct materials, the sculptor of my generation endeavours to make every addition, every subtraction, every alteration, count. Each and every move has to be expressive, has to be art.

The stance of the creative person, scientist, inventor, architect, artist or writer has to allow him/her to be taken by surprise. Now what would happen if an architect were to try using the sculptor’s method?

Imagine designing a building starting from, say, a joint or a staircase and working outwards; or turning a building’s design upside down, making a site fit the work instead of the work the site. Is this what deconstructionists were trying to do, re-invent from scratch?

Why not question the assumptions of the architectural method, perhaps assume the sculptor’s down-to-earth approach? I wish architects felt free to be more racy, to take a deeper breath.

I once collaborated in a workshop situation with Frank Gehry, one of the most uninhibited of contemporary architects. We enlarged from corners or parts of my sculptures in plywood and made them eight to ten feet high. Then with a light crane we moved them around. This is precisely the way a sculptor works on his smaller pieces, placing and moving his parts. For an architect to work like this was innovative—Gehry’s assistants needed to draw and re-draw what we were doing, they had real problems working direct in three dimensions. When the parts were in place Gehry threw up a high walkway to unify them. I remember that before we began we talked in front of the photo of a bronze sculpture. Gehry suggested that I made that on my own. And so a year later working in New York State with carpenters I made an enlargement half the intended full-size, but large enough for a child to enter.

My own limitation that sculpture was ‘something outside of which you were’ I felt should not go unchallenged. Why not a sculpture (or an installation) inside of which you were? I wanted to think in terms of a sculpture one could enter. In this spirit I also enlarged an 8-inch sculpture I had made, and this in its turn became a pool-house and changing room made in plywood also half life-size (with diving platform). Finally, I decided it worked better as sculpture not a building structure, so I made a version in stainless steel. This shows what I mean when I say how close the disciplines have become: at Dean Clough in Yorkshire I was asked to activate a long empty space with columns down the centre. I decided to wind steel spirals around the columns. I learnt a lot from this experience. I found myself concerned not only with my sculpture and with my sculpture’s skin and how it could enclose space, but also how to integrate and relate the work to the space the work inhabited. This manifested itself when a suggestion was made to me to make a recreation area for students based on the Halifax Spirals. Students would use the steps as sitting areas for reading, listening to jazz or eating snacks and the sculpture would serve as the spine of a one-storey building designed around it. This is exactly what I mean when I speak of the architect and sculptor working together and complementing one another.

Indeed such a duet took place in Tokyo when I asked Tadao Ando to design the interior and exterior settings for my sculptures in a large one-man show I held this summer. In one area I felt he was particularly successful. Within an ordinary rectangular room he slanted one wall, inclined inwards at an angle of 7½°. It entirely altered the space of the room, and by covering the wood floor with plywood painted with an off-white cement paint and with walls the same colour, the heavy steel sculpture, up until then shown against my intention outdoors, now appeared to float, and their presentation was for the first and only time exactly as I envisaged them.

I find myself getting more and more concerned with the space that used to be occupied by sculpture rather than with what traditionally stood within that space. Now is the time for pressing the edges to see just where they are weak—where they will give. As in the last two or three decades intimate sculpture has begun to speak in a way that carries feeling, sculpture's new-found vitality forced it to extend its area, so we got sculpture embracing environmental issues, sculpture as part of our environment. Sculpture in the city is welcomed now in a way that's new since the war memorials after World War I. Public sculpture is as different from intimate sculpture as mural painting is from easel painting. Because of its size, public sculpture cannot be made with the same looseness and directness as studio sculpture, you cannot make big changes high-up on a massive piece with the immediacy or directness of working on a piece small enough to handle; yet, for the sculptor there's not been devised a language, a good working shorthand for working on this scale.

Since the days in India and Greece when markings were made on the stone as it lay in the ground, the shorthand of the working drawing on a sheet became a wonderful aid to the architect. It must have been as revolutionary as using a computer to see designs before building. The architects’ drawings are a kind of writing, a manual of instructions which he can work on with imagination or alter as freely as a novelist can conjure up a scene.

The present day sculptor has little training in imagining size differences; maquettes still get mindlessly ‘blown up’ into monuments by foundries or fabricating firms. So public sculpture is unadventurous or decorative. And public expectation is low. The city gets, in Robert Hughes’ words, ‘abstract ironmongery’, ‘sculpture that means nothing, most of it larger than it needs to be.....It manages to look both arrogant and depleted’. What is needed is public sculpture to embellish and enrich the environment and to raise the spirit. It should be expressive of human feeling, eye, brain and ear. The only discipline with similar preoccupations is architecture. Much of the best recent intimate architecture relates to a single person’s size and space, it’s not grandiose, not too big to be grasped whole.

The understanding of scale is at the root of both sculpture and of architecture. Picasso’s large head in Chicago made 25 years ago stands as one of the few modern city sculptures of the size and dquality that meets today’s needs. This is in fact an enlargement made by architects, but its size and thicknesses are felt, the joints in my view more natural than Calder’s gussets—the work relates to the piazza and the people in it. The skyscrapers of Chicago often form hollow squares like the walls of giant rooms. These are the perfect settings for present-day sculptures, containers in the heart of the city, modern versions of the Italian piazza.

The problems facing the sculptor in London or New York or Paris are different from this but most urban settings don’t really invite ‘seeing’ the art at all; in London we surround our sculptures with heavy traffic. Sculpture should be a kind of urban punctuation, but there is no excuse for sculpture simply to break the monotony of an avenue, passed by unnoticed because of its unconsidered placement, its lack of scale, its lack of presence. A sculpture viewed from a car at 30 miles per hour has to be conceived differently, it’s a different problem and one that needs to be thought about afresh.

Public sculpture at present means sculpture for pedestrians. Contemporary environments call for bigger size, so without compromising our art we need to get used to making sculptures of that size, sculpture more akin to piers, bridges, arches, colonnades or towers. And they demand reference to give them scale. Reference from without to hold off the vastness of sky, to give them a setting, and reference to connect them to human scale in the way that the architect takes oblique references to human size with detail, doors, windows and staircases.

Public sculpture identifies place. It gives the city-dweller a sense of ‘being somewhere’; ‘Meet me under the clock’. And so it has to call to its surroundings, its spectators. And if this demands less purity, so be it. It can be simple, it can invite participation sculpture with walkways, sculpture-part engineering, sculpture with openings that let in light or colour, with sloping floors, with stairs that turn inside out, sculptures free to exploit illusion.

Painters and sculptors learn together. The development of painting and sculpture has for centuries been so closely intertwined that it sometimes seems as if they change places. Schools of Art should also be Schools of Architecture. When I taught sculpture to architects I used to invite them to ‘behave stupidly with reason’—to visualise what they were doing in a more physical way. For instance I used to get them to make hollow shapes in plaster and fibreglass and put their heads inside these; the internal space naturally related to the external configuration. As the work proceeded, walls changed character, soon there is interpretation of inside and outside; if that’s not cubism, I don’t know what is.

The sculptor and the architect should work together in a far more integrated way. They need to approach a project together from the start. A Canadian architect, Barton Myers once proposed that I activated with sculpture a strip beside a museum of photography that he was to build. It was to stand along the 200-yard site of an old railway line, ending with the remains of a steel bridge across a river; the project did not materialise but I would have loved to cope with that challenge. The sculptor needs to be integral to the thinking of a project; joining in right at the start. Suppose the sculptor were given major areas to cope with, make into an art work a void to span, or a stairway. It’s not the old idea of the sculptor adding icing to the cake. Because he comes from a different place, the sculptor’s thinking, the sculptor’s contribution would be stimulating. Certainly the architect’s thinking stimulates me.




This is a shortened version of a talk given to the Art & Architecture Society; published in Art and Architecture: Journal of the Art and Architecture Society and Public Art Forum, Spring 1996, No.44

©Courtesy of Barford Sculptures Ltd




METAL WORK by W. A. S. Benson