What Caro can't carve

By Julia Weiner, May 16, 2008
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Sir Anthony Caro is regarded as the world’s greatest living sculptor. He talks about why he designed a church chapel but not a Holocaust memorial, and how he put his wife’s face into his latest exhibition

At the age of 84, Sir Anthony Caro could be forgiven for downing his tools and taking life easy. Widely viewed as the world’s greatest living sculptor, his work is represented in over 175 public collections all over the world. However, he continues to keep himself busy — currently there is a special display of four of his portrait heads at the National Portrait Gallery and his work is included in an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The display at the National Portrait Gallery is eye-opening because it was almost 50 years ago that Caro broke with the traditional representations of the human figure to explore new ways of making sculpture using industrial materials painted in bright colours to create pure abstract forms. But from the mid-1980s, when he felt that the battle for abstraction had been won, his work broadened to include a return to figurative imagery and he has, over the years, made a few portrait heads.

“Portraits are not something I do regularly,” he explains, “but I have a wife and I like to make portraits of her — it is a nice thing to do. And the portraits that I do of her are always experimental. I think I have just done two other portraits since I have become a full-time sculptor.”

One of these, a portrait of the former Arts Council Chairman Lord Goodman is on display nearby, the first time it has been shown in public. It is surprisingly true to life, especially when compared with the monumental heads that Caro has made of his wife. “They’re not exactly portraits, are they?” he reflects. “They are more mood sculptures.” Each one is named after a different time of day and has a different colour patina ranging from the turquoise of morning to the rust of evening. In one, the head appears soft, tender and wonderfully tactile, in another it is encased in the sheets of metal which usually dominate his work. The artist who is famed for having taken his sculptures off plinths here has his work displayed on specially commissioned beech-wood stands.

Caro’s wife is the well-known painter Sheila Girling, whom he married in 1949. “We were both students at the Royal Academy Schools,” he says. “I took her drawing board by mistake and it was a good excuse to go and have a cup of coffee.”

Girling played a major part in the development of his sculpture as it was often she who suggested which colours he should paint his work. “Her studio is just across the courtyard from mine,” says Caro. “I don’t visit her unless I am invited and she doesn’t visit me unless she is invited. We have coffee together or lunch together and we talk about art.”

Despite the fact that they have been married for nearly 50 years, it was only last year that they had their first major joint exhibition, which he considers to have been a great success. “Our works went together very well,” he declares. “They seemed to click very nicely. I think the mood is similar. When you think a lot about art, talk a lot about art, you are very in tune with each other. We are and pretty much always have been in tune with each other in a visual way.”

At the V&A, Caro is featured in Blood on Paper, an exhibition focusing on books where artists have been the driving force in conception and design. His work Open Secret is on show, one of a number of artists’ books commissioned by Elena Foster, wife of architect Norman.

Caro denies having a strong interest in the book form. “I’m not particularly interested in making books. I don’t like the idea of literature and art together. I’m anti-illustration. For me, the book itself should be the art rather than the contents.”

For several years Caro has been working on his Chapel of Light for a church in Bourbourg, about 12 miles east of Calais, which will open in October. It is the first chapel in France to be given over entirely to one artist’s work since Matisse completed his celebrated chapel in Venice in 1951. Caro is by no means the first Jewish artist to make work for a church; Chagall, Rothko and Jacques Lipchitz all having done so in the past.

“This one just happens to be part of a church. During the last war, a British plane crash-landed on the roof of the church and set it on fire. They restored the main church but not the choir, which was in very bad shape. They left it like that 60 years. When I came along they told me to do what I liked with it. So I regard it as a sacred space and not necessarily part of the church.”

The distinction was obviously important to him. “The Bishop wanted the entrance to be through the church only, but I insisted that there should be a door straight out into the street so you don’t have to enter through the church. The Bishop describes it as a baptistery and he feels that it is very much to do with the Christian faith. But I feel that it is to do with all faiths and I would like anybody who wants spiritual time either to ponder or be tranquil to be able to go in.”

Caro has previously expressed his determination to design a Holocaust memorial, but has yet to do so. Why not? He pauses for a long time before responding and then admits: “It’s the specificity of the Holocaust that makes it so difficult. I can’t quite see my way around it. I don’t know how I would do it. It would have to be very, very abstract. It is such a problem.”

Among all Caro’s successes, the Art Newspaper has recently reported one notable rejection — Westminster Council has turned down his offer to donate his massive 100-ton sculpture Millbank Steps to them saying that they could not find an appropriate location to site it.

Caro is clearly deeply upset by this and when asked if there is any possibility of finding another London location, he barks: “No. I wanted to see it in Westminster. It is now available for sale and that is that.”

Anthony Caro Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery until September 7. Tel: 020 7306 0055. Blood on Paper — the Art of the Book is at the Victoria and Albert Museum until June 29. Tel: 020 7942 2000

    Last updated: 3:02pm, August 28 2014