I want to be this playful in my late eighties!

On the surface, visual arts are all about looking – which feels like obvious and objective stuff – but sculpture is always a tricky challenge for a photographer, because a sculpture can show so many different aspects and characters, depending upon the angle you view it from. You hate to rob those interested, of the visual gems that any one shot hides.

There are also critics and theorists aplenty – of every stripe – who remind us that mental angles also change what we see in what is before us, and what other potentials and meanings within that work are hidden by our particular personal perspectives.

The lives of artists are just as strange a thing to try to capture – picking an angle is no less tricky. Too often we register them almost like celebrities, noting their best known peak-period works and a few colourful anecdotes to remember them by – but just as we foolishly ignore the lessons from the growth of our heroes in politics and philosophy if we make superhuman icons out of them, we can only get clues that can inspire our own lives and art work, when we think about artists in terms of their life arc. Not a piece, but an effort.

When I dug into the story of Mies van der Rohe I was amazed to find that he, Walter Gropius and LeCorbusier all worked together as apprentices to Peter Behrens before the first world war. That very special workshop (and obviously brilliant master) cries out to become a play about young dreamers, grand ideas, tiny acorns and huge ironies, doesn’t it?

I’ll be honest twice over about Caro – I was not really aware of him before encountering this show of four of his later works at the AGO a few years ago. I’m also not an easy sell on abstract work, installations or steel sculpture in general – though Toronto is lucky to have many important and brilliantly conceived abstract works by heavyweights like Henry Moore and Sorel Etrog, which help balance my skepticism with great appreciation and lasting respect.

Sir Anthony Caro (1924 – 2013) was fortunate to have his artistic talent recognized early – spent his summer holidays at the Farnham School of Art and worked as a studio assistant to the famous and successful Royal Academy sculptor Charles Wheeler. Caro got his degree (Christ’s College Cambridge) in engineering, did a stint in the Royal Navy, then went back to study sculpture again at the Royal Academy from ’47 – ’52. By the mid 50s (his early thirties) he was exhibiting internationally, while also working as studio assistant to a great British sculptor with a special relationship to Toronto – Henry Moore.

Caro’s breakout came from meeting David Smith in the early sixties, and being inspired by his use of less refined materials for less figurative ends. Not all of his stuff from his early period sings for me the way these late pieces do, but we all find our way toward our vision in stages – the most important thing is to recognize we have some important seeking and striving to do!

He is known as the guy who insisted sculpture should come off its plinth and stand on it’s own – right in front of you – so you are invited to approach and consider it directly, without that old off-putting barrier of sanctity or preciousness.

Also – in 1982, with Robert Loder, Caro established “Triangle Arts Trust” initially a two week creative workshop and retreat for artists from many places to get together, work and learn. The Trust still flourishes today in more than thirty countries as a network of artists, organizations and workshops dedicated to bringing western art back from commerce and market, to process.

I can’t help thinking of this as a gratitude contribution on his part – for his own wealth of early inspiration and encouragement.

I love the fact that Caro studied engineering – one of my favourite teachers to sit for was the sculptor George Boileau, who had a first career as a mining engineer, before turning his extraordinary mind to creating art (including fantastic likenesses of Buzz Beurling for the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum and Farley Mowatt for the University of Saskatchewan) and whose surplus capacity of intellect and technique gave him great enabling playfulness as a teacher.

My own scientific education in electronics added lastingly valuable resources to my naturally artistic temperament. Being able to model properties with hard numbers allows for practical complex visualizations. Awareness of failure and real world consequence is also important, and a kind of responsible grounding all too often overlooked by aesthetes and social theorists.

Caro’s engineering chops allowed him to collaborate with Frank Gehry on a wooden village in the late eighties, and later with engineers Norman Foster and Chris Wise on the Millennium Footbridge in London. There again we see the hard reality side of grand works. When the bridge was first opened, it was designed to flex to distribute loads with minimal stress – but no one counted on all the people walking on it, walking in-time to the flexing!  Such spontaneous but highly organized behaviour completely obliterated the value of all the engineering calculations which had assumed random beats.

The bridge had to be closed for the installation of a number of clever shock absorbers and mass dampers – which did solve the problem (for a mere five million extra pounds) – but to this day it is still known as the “Wobbly” or even the “Wibbly Wobbly” bridge. No art critic ever delivered a heavier blow than an affectionate but permanent public-insult nickname. ;o)
(Though to be clear, Caro’s concept part was not considered to be at fault)

Caro didn’t just sculpt – he also taught for years – and I was delighted to read that he helped many successful students follow his modern path, but also helped many other students become no less successful, even though they reacted sharply against his ideas and ultimately became known for their excellent figurative work. I can’t help thinking his engineering background helped here – because teaching in terms of how to achieve practical results allows any student with a vision, maximum power to achieve it. Teaching only on the romantic side, can’t help pushing it’s own bias too strongly, because it lacks a full set of objective independently testable referents – more imploring, less enablement. Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, right?

I was grateful that I encountered these Caro pieces soon after seeing a fascinating film and exhibit about Richard Serra – another artist I didn’t know much about, but have since found appreciation for, as I delved into both arc and efforts.

Serra takes working with unusual materials and on unusual scale to extremes.  One of his early works – in Southern Ontario and now under threat by developers – was created using bulldozers and some reinforcing materials to shape meaningful contours into the land itself! Serra had some great and monumental international successes, especially with his heavy steel works and haunting minimalist memorials. But many of his most ambitious urban proposals were ultimately rejected.

Caro achieved great fame in his time and his work can still be seen around the world – but some of his most ambitious urban proposals were also rejected. In Serra’s case, the greatest missing masterpiece should have happened in Chicago – for Caro it was New York city – three full blocks of Park Avenue medians!

Thankfully, Caro kept the parts he’d used to make his demonstration models (the mind boggles envisioning the full intended scale), and rather than giving up in frustration, he decided instead to make these four playful sculptures out of them – in his late eighties, mind you!

There are many traditions within martial arts which respect the wisdom, experience and judgement of the aged master, but we tell fewer of these stories in art and life nowadays – we’re mostly interested in seeking terrible infants and provocateurs (hey sorry, but enfant terrible isn’t that hard to translate!) The personal colourful train wreck equivalent of click-bait!

I absolutely love youthful genius energy, determination and curiosity, don’t get me wrong – but there is often more to be learned from an accomplished (and usually far more articulate) master – unless we’re after a cheap thrill or a cautionary tale!

Rembrandt’s last period was an extraordinary departure from the work that made his name and fortune, likewise for Sargent – and while the best known corpus from these two mighty stalwarts has long spoken for itself, powerfully and eloquently, the way their incredibly energetic later discoveries are so often overlooked, quite baffles me.

Vigour is but one part of us – what are we trying to say gets subtler, richer and more generous as we follow our path, so does how well we can plan and envision how to say it, making best possible use of our available (albeit in some ways diminishing) means. Thing is – and this is big – our hearts are often intact when young, and usually a little kicked-around later on. None of us ask for this, but the years and world tend to deliver it anyhow. This heartbreak eventually invites most of us on a heart-growth path toward greater compassion. Even the most cynical and misanthropic, who willfully reject this growthful impulse usually do it from a wounded and embittered heart. Caring gone sour, not at all the same as blank indifference.

My point is that technique and thesis have their place – but full-spectrum intent is a much deeper thing than that. These four pieces are so filled with humour and warmth that I absolutely know I love and admire the spirit of the man who made them (notoriously gentle and generous both) and it goes further – they also make me love the possibilities of the whole world a little bit more.

A nifty demonstration of how to not be a show-off – even when you’re in the middle of a dazzling tour-de-force!   (The sort of a goal that doesn’t even occur to you – right up until it suddenly feels hilariously inevitable and/or absurdly inescapable).

I am always curious about what you are thinking

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