At once maker of icons and iconoclast, Anthony Caro played a pivotal role in the development of twentieth century sculpture. Beginning his artist career in the mid 1950s, after having spent two years assisting Henry Moore in his creation of, amongst other things, the highly abstracted Reclining Figure, 1951, as well as a series of serenely draped figures, the result of a trip to Greece in 1951, Caro emerged as an enthusiastic, expressionistic modeller, whose clay figures, he explained as ‘trying to describe what it’s like to be inside a human body’ (Caro quoted in T. Marlow, ‘Man of Steel’, Cambridge Alumni Magazine, 1997, http://www.anthonycaro.org/frames-related/Publications.htm accessed 28 April 2016). Everything changed however, when, travelling to New York in 1959 on an English Speaking Union grant, Caro met influential critic and avid advocate of abstraction Clement Greenberg, becoming friendly too with post-painterly abstractionists Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler and Jules Olitski. Greenberg also introduced Caro to the welded metal abstracts of American sculptor David Smith. The effect of this visit was to call into question ‘dependence on the conventions of traditional culture, and open the way to a more direct and free sculpture’ (Sheila Girling quoted in P. Fuller, ‘London, Waddington Gallery and Knoedler Gallery: Anthony Caro’, The Burlington Magazine, 1986, p. 916). On his return to England, Caro completed Twenty-four hours, consisting of three shaped planes of roughly cut painted steel, announcing his adoption of new (or rather found) materials and working methods. Throughout the 1960s he made use of pre-constituted industrial elements which he transformed and re-combined through cutting and welding to create assemblages often painted in bright household colours. In effect these were fully three-dimensional collages, new, urban, radical and entirely self-referential.
Caro’s desire, in the artist’s own words, to ‘expand the language of sculpture’ involved consistently ‘pushing at the boundaries to see where it gives’ (Caro, quoted in T. Marlow, ibid.). Inspired, indefatigable and experimental, Caro sought throughout his life to challenge constantly and to re-invent his working methods.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Caro’s influence both as a sculptor and as an artist-teacher at St. Martin’s School of Art, continued to augment. His second major retrospective took place at the Museum of Modern Art in 1975 followed by a US tour and in 1978, the same year in which Midnight Gap was completed, Caro carried out a commission for the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington D.C. In addition, a British Council exhibition of the Table Sculptures 1966-67 toured the world between 1977 and 1979. American formalist critics hailed the dawn of a new sculptural turn to ‘radical abstraction’, his work seen as more radical even than David Smith’s in its unequivocal anti-anthropomorphism. For Clement Greenberg, Caro’s ‘breakthrough’ was related to the ‘radical unlikeness to nature’ of his work. Greenberg argued that a Caro sculpture did not rely on ‘illusion’, but rather depended upon the creation of a non-referential ‘syntax’, which Greenberg defined as ‘the relations of its discrete parts’. In his 1986 book Anthony Caro, Terry Fenton distinguishes Caro from Smith on the grounds that Caro’s sculpture ‘did not symbolise or represent … the shapes that composed it were just shapes’. It was, ‘a new sculpture that aspired to the ‘condition of music’ (T. Fenton, Anthony Caro, 1986, p. 10).
Caro seemed sometimes to endorse such interpretations. Indeed, as late as 1979, he stated that ‘in some new way’ (Caro quoted in P. Fuller, ‘London, Waddington Gallery and Knoedler Gallery: Anthony Caro’, The Burlington Magazine, 1986, p. 917), he foresaw his work becoming more rather than less abstract, and yet works like Midnight Gap had already presented such a complex textured surface of bumps and hollows that Caro’s construction seemed to be seeking ‘to convert itself into the modelling out of which it first sprang’ (loc. cit.). By the early 1980s, Caro was producing work aimed at recuperating the more traditional elements of sculptural pursuit - such as modelling, casting, figuration, surface patinas, imagery and illusion - elements which he had previously jettisoned in achieving his initial breakthrough.
Midnight Gap, a strikingly multifaceted assemblage of uniquely transitional import sits somewhere between the Flats, a series of 37 large scale sculptures produced between 1974 and 1976 when Caro worked (intermittently) at the York Steel Company factory in Toronto, the Emma series, conceived between 1977 and 1978 - (Emma Dipper and Emma Dance are part of the Tate collection, London) in which, as Artist in Residence at Emma Lake summer workshop, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Caro began using tubular steel in a linear mode and even the Writing series, seeming an amalgamation of all three experimental modes. Midnight Gap is not only a visually complex work but also an incredibly visually rewarding one - the result of the composition and intriguing juxtaposition of diverse and disparate parts - the more one looks, the more one sees. It is fascinating too to witness the way in which light (and shadow) interacts within and beyond the surface and body of the sculpture.
Despite its resolute abstraction, Midnight Gap relates too in particular and profound ways to a statement Caro made in an interview published in Artforum in 1972, that ‘all sculpture in some ways has to do with the body’ (P. Tuchman, ‘An Interview with Anthony Caro’, Artforum, June 1972, p. 98). Years later, this statement was followed by the admission that, ‘I never want people to handle my sculpture, to run their hands over surfaces. But I do want them to grasp it in a physical way, to relate to it with their bodies; that is one reason why the early works were so big. It is as if the eyes become a surrogate for the body…. Looking is physical, not conceptual…even if you do not lift it, you have to be aware of [an artwork’s] real size, real weight’ (Caro in an interview with Peter Murray, June 2000, http://www.anthonycaro.org/ysp2-with-peter-murray.htm accessed 28 April 2016). It is this sense in which Midnight Gap’s physical impact relates both to the actual body of the sculpture, its haptic fascination, as well as to our own bodies, the experience even of looking is incredibly haptic, that Caro speaks. One feels keenly both the sensation of being kept forcibly at a distance as well as drawn in, seduced by its haptic potential. ‘Distancing yourself, and imagining yourself in… has been an important feature of a lot of my work. A sculpture has an invisible barrier around it’ (B. McAvera, ‘Influence, Exchange and Stimulus: A Conversation with Sir Anthony Caro’, Sculpture, Vol. 21, No. 2, March 2002, http://www.sculpture.org/documents/scmag02/mar02/caro/caro.shtml, accessed 28 April 2016), which it is for the eye only to attempt to penetrate.
Steel, so synonymous with Caro’s oeuvre (and out of which Midnight Gap was conceived) remained, throughout his life, the artist’s favourite medium, enabling him ‘to do things that no other material allows’. As with Midnight Gap, Caro used colours in order to set off the individuality from the particular elements he incorporated into his sculpture in an additive or collage-like manner, as well as to homogenise their appearance. Caro, it might be argued, went further towards completely revoking the ordinary conditions of physicality than any other artist of his generation, altering forever our expectations of what and how sculpture could be and giving us a new vision of the possible.