Art that speaks for itself: the Caro sculptures
Something truly memorable is taking place in Boston right now, sort of thing that should happen more often -- but doesn't. It's an outdoor exhibition at the Christian Science Center of 23 monumental outdoor sculptures by internationally renowned British sculptor Anthony Caro.
Entitled "Anthony Caro: The York Sculptures" and presented by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, with funding by private donors, this exhibition introduces some of today's most significant sculpture to the Boston area -- and to the nation -- as part of this city's Jubilee 350 celebration.
But while it is an important cultural event, it is also one of the most pleasurable art experiences I've had in quite some time: They are extremely handsome pieces displayed within very handsome surroundings.
The works themselves are made of rust colored steel, range in height from under three to 15 feet, and have been strategically placed throughout the center -- the two largest concentrations being on a brown brick plaza alongside a 700 -foot reflecting pool and on the lawn in front of the domed Mother Church building.
These Caro sculptures fulfill some of the highest objectives to which any art of our time can aspire. They are pleasant and stimulating to look at, and they appear not only to be in formal dialogue with one another but also in other forms of dialogue with us.
They are highly original, beautifully and sensitively constructed, and hold their own among strong buildings, large stretches of architectural space, green grass, and blue sky, however many people are viewing them at any one time. They exist and give meaning and enjoyment. They stimulate discussion and invite contemplation. They participate in the life of whoever views them.
What more can one ask of art?
My first real glimpse of Caro's sculpture at the Christian Science Center was under less than ideal conditions. A light rain had begun to fall, and I was trying to view these works with an umbrella in one hand and my notebook in the other. As I tend to get grumpy when wet, I was about to leave before my mood prejudiced my critical attitude when I was stopped from doing so by "Criss Cross Flats," a piece of sculpture 19 1/2 feet high, 13 feet wide, and weighing 4,876 pounds.
What impressed me about it was its total actualitym without dependent reference to anything else. It just was:m its perfect balance of various gravitational pulls and supportive construction -- and its warm, urbane, highly civilized presence.
I responded with equal warmth -- and stayed. I became thoroughly wet, but had a truly marvelous time going from sculpture to sculpture.
Although I responded warmly to the works I saw in the course of the next two days, quite a few viewers I noticed were shaking their heads in confusion and disbelief.
To appreciate Caro we must first throw overboard any number of traditional notions as to the nature and function of sculpture. Chief among these is that sculpture requires a pedestal, that it should be looked up to, that it has to occupy a fixed and unmoving point in space and time, and that it is an illusion of something else.
Having done this, we must then address ourselves to examining the alteration of sculptural reality during the past 50 years. Most essentially, with Caro we must accept the actuality of the very material used in sculpture -- its simple "isness" -- and not see this material as a property whose only function is illusion: to transmute metal into flesh or stone into a face.
In a Caro sculpture, a piece of steel is a piece of steel -- welded to another piece of steel -- first, foremost, and always. And the sculpture's identity depends not on representing something else, but on joining, on relating one part to another, creating tensions and movements, thrusts and counter-thrusts, whose forces and implications enjoin us to respond to those activitiesm rather than to some resemblance to other things.
We must, in other words, be willing to accept the possibility that a piece of sculpture can be a verb as well as a noun.
Our focus should be on what happensm in a Caro sculpture, and not on what, if anything, we think it looks like. A work of art can be "about" such things as the visual "pull" between Point A and Point B, or the length of time it takes our eyes to travel a slow, gradually descending curve before being startled by the ease with which the curve's edge of cold steel turns over as easily as though it were soft chocolate in order to form a lovely arabesque.
Just as there is something inexpressibly beautiful about the slow, easy flight of a bird that has nothing to do with the realities of a stuffed bird, just so is there beauty in the movements, the twists and swoops, the interruptions and collisions of a Caro sculpture that have nothing to do with the traditional realities of a piece of sculpture mounted on a pedestal.
I'm not suggesting that art on a pedestal is no longer valid. Far from it. What I am saying is that sculpture today has expanded to include new ways of seeing, appreciating, and finding beauty and meaning.
The history of the York Sculptures begins a few years back with an invitation from York University in Canada to Caro to work on the York campus during the 1973-74 academic year. Caro agreed -- and what followed was a remarkable demonstration of the fusion of creative and technical skills.
Working in a big steel yard, and with all the heavy equipment, full crew, and large cranes necessary to handle huge steel pieces, Caro managed to involve the workmen in the actual process of positioning and cutting the steel to his instructions.
Since he does not work from drawings and prefers to discover his final formal combinations by trial and error, this meant that he and the workmen had to understand each other's intentions and methods of working remarkably well. They did. In fact Caro has indicated that some of them actually became intrigued and enthusiastic as the project developed.
From the steel yard the pieces were transported to the university, where they were assembled, worked on by Caro over a period of a year during several trips he made from England, and then placed on view on the campus where they have been on display until now.
Caro is an ideal artist with whom to begin the process of expanding one's understanding of art. He is not so accessible and seductive as to mislead us, and neither is he so ambiguous or difficult as to be discouraging. He also has neither messages nor resentments to impart which might becloud the issue. He is an artist, and that's about it.
I wonder how many readers coming upon that last sentence responded with the feeling that just being an artist isn't enough, that an artist should also be a moralist, a teacher, a teller of tales, even perhaps an educator, before he becomes someone worthy of respect and admiration. That art, somehow, is of real importance and value only if it carries a moral message or induces social change.
The answer to that is a simple one, and yet it cannot be reiterated often enough. Art, produced with integrity, with honesty, and with an open, life-seeking attitude, becomes an example and a reminder of the value and the possibility of those very qualities. An act of creative integrity inspires integrity in other areas. An act of refusal to accept the banal and the shopworn will inspire a search for the fresh and open.
If something good and true and beautiful can be done in art, there is at least the possibility that something equally good, true, and beautiful can be done in "real" life. The very presencem of art can enhance life and induce improvement.