I was particularly sorry today to learn of the death at the age of 89 of sculptor Anthony Caro. Like many others, I believe that he was a great artist, and he was also – at least on the evidence of my experiences of filming with him, including for our series theEYE – a warm and generous and entirely unpretentious man. (All three of these qualities are perhaps less common amongst artists than one might hope they would be.) Yet for the last thirty years or more, despite numerous major shows and a seemingly unstoppable flow of new work, he seems to have been an almost defiantly unfashionable artist. There is a very fine tribute to him and his work by Fisun Guner at The Arts Desk and the excellent Guardian obituary by the late Norbert Lynton is here. He also maintained an exemplary website of his works. All that I can add is a handful of memories that are trivial and yet, for me, important to acknowledge.
I still have the catalogue for a retrospective show of his work at the Hayward Gallery that I must have seen when I was about 17. This was towards the end of what many people who regard as the years when he made his greatest works – highly coloured, space defining objects of great power and presence like Early One Morning (1962) which is on display at Tate. The Hayward show is one of those that shaped my sense of modern art, and it was the hope that I might at last make a film with him that in part prompted me to start the series of artist interviews that became theEYE. Before that, however, I saw his impressive work in numerous contexts, including at Tate Britain in 1991 and at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in the early 2000s.
theEYE series depended on being able to film for ourselves a substantial body of an artist’s work, and the opportunity for that only came around in 2005 when Tate Britain mounted a major show. (The informative room guide to this show remains online here.) His response to my request to film an interview was immediate and gracious, and director of photography Ian Serfontein and I were invited to the Camden studio that he had set up in, I think, an old piano factory.
In several large spaces there was a profusion of large metal fragments, full-scale models for works under construction, pieces being welded and sheet steel being cut, and Caro encouraged us to film whatever we wished. He pointed out things that were of interest to him but he avoided prescription, apart as I recall from determining the chair in which we were to shoot the interview and the work that would feature in the background.
I found in filming theEYE series that it was the older artists who by and large were more prepared to listen to the questions and respond with genuine answers – whereas a few of the younger ones had an interview they were going to give whatever one asked. Certainly Caro replayed some of the familiar anecdotes, such as knocking on the door of Henry Moore’s house and asking to be taken on as an assistant. (Moore sent him away for six months and then gave him a job when he returned.) But Caro at least gave the sense that he was engaged by the questions and that he wanted to offer thoughtful and honest answers – and I think that comes across in what I feel is one of the best interviews that I have done.
It was equally pleasurable to film the works at Tate Britain, and to be there when a few days before the opening he came to see how the show was shaping up, and then gave all of us who were there an impromptu guided tour. He spoke about his art in direct, down-to-earth terms, aware of its strengths but not blind to what might be a piece’s weaknesses. I thought that show was a marvel, but it received – as Caro’s shows so often did – a respectful but rather muted round of notices. It was as if Caro was already a monument, to be acknowledged and admired but not to be recognised as someone whose work remained vital and relevant.
Not too long after that, in the spring of 2007, there was the opportunity to make a further film with Caro in a series for the American cable channel Gallery HD. He was to have an exhibition at the New Art Centre at Roche Court near Salisbury where he was going to show alongside paintings by his beloved wife – and very fine artist – Sheila Girling. The focus of his exhibition was to be a series of comparatively unloved rusted steel works from the 1974. These were known as the ‘Flats’ and they had been made constructed in Toronto. We agreed that we would make a film about both his practice and Sheila’s.
I am frustrated that because Gallery HD has gone out of business this film is inaccessible, but it was a wholly enjoyable experience observing Sheila at work in her studio, spending more time in the piano factory, and then walking the grounds of Roche Court seeing how Caro’s apparently harsh geometries responded to the land and the changing light of the Wiltshire countryside. (There is a good Guardian review of the show here by Tim Adams.)
In his mid-eighties then, Caro remained full of enthusiasm and energy, and I walked alongside him across the rolling landscape with little sense of his years. As is well-known, he continued to work almost to the end – and he was quoted often as saying that he hoped he would remain active as an artist when he was 100. It was also immensely touching to see how much he cared for Sheila – and how much he appreciated her art, which looked glorious in the light-drenched galleries there.
I must have spent eight or nine days with the sculptures, and simply looking at them again and again was both entirely enjoyable and educative in a way that I found revelatory. Those days remain one of my most significant engagements with the visual arts. I am profoundly grateful to Anthony Caro for that experience, and for his generosity during our filming, and more generally for the wonders of his sculptures. I am also simply sad that this man and this artist is no longer with us.