Anthony Caro: A man who carved his own place in history

By Julia Weiner, October 30, 2013

Sir Anthony Caro, who died following a heart attack last week, aged 89, was widely regarded as Britain’s greatest sculptor.

He was born in New Malden, Surrey, in 1924. Although his great-grandfather had been a rabbi, he did not have a strict Jewish upbringing and remembered struggling with Hebrew lessons. He was educated at Charterhouse and Christ’s College, Cambridge.

His father was a stockbroker who thoroughly disapproved of his son’s chosen career. Caro told the JC in 1994: “He regarded artists as dilettantes and he wanted me to enter the family firm.”

Despite this lack of encouragement, he persevered and won a place at the Royal Academy Schools, before working for Henry Moore, a post he won by turning up on the sculptor’s doorstep uninvited and asking for a job.

His early works were figurative and made of clay or bronze but everything changed in 1959.

After a visit to America, he developed an approach that revolutionised sculpture. He went from figurative to abstract, from clay and bronze to welded steel and above all, he took his works off plinths so they were no longer elevated above the viewer.

He painted many in bright colours to create a uniform surface, the chosen shades often suggested by his painter wife, Sheila Girling.

Over the years, his work became more and more monumental, sometimes combining sculpture and architecture to make towers that the public could climb.

From the 1990s, he also worked in clay, wood and metal to produce works that can be seen as figures, many commenting on current events such as The Last Judgement, inspired by war in Bosnia.

He was working right up until his death and a major new sculpture was the centrepiece of the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition.

At the Gagosian Gallery he also exhibited a series of works that were the basis for a sculpture for New York’s Park Avenue which he sadly abandoned because of funding problems. He once told us he felt restricted by having to persuade others of the viability of a public commission.

Even so, he was involved in the design of the Millennium Bridge and designed a chapel of rest for a church in France. He had planned to make a Holocaust Memorial but abandoned it, saying “the specificity of the Holocaust” made it so difficult.

Caro was, above everything else, a warm and friendly man, a true gentleman who remained approachable despite his great achievements. He will be much missed.

The director of the Tate, Sir Nicholas Serota, led tributes this week, describing Caro as “one of the outstanding sculptors of the past 50 years” and a man of “great humility and humanity”.

Charles Saumarez Smith, the Chief Executive of the Royal Academy, called him “one of the greatest sculptors in the second half of the 20th century.”

Maria Miller, the culture secretary, said: “He was a ground-breaking and monumental figure in 20th century art and the British art scene will miss him greatly, although I have no doubt his work will be admired and enjoyed for many generations to come.”

Julia Weiner is the JC’s art critic

Last updated: 1:45pm, October 31 2013