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Lifetime achievement

review - Anthony Caro: Quest for the New Sculpture By Ian Barker. Lund Humphries, 2004. 360pp. £30

Anthony Caro reached his 80th birthday in March 2004. For more than 60 years he has made sculpture and, in that time, his work has traced a rich and complex line across the face of 20th-century art. Numerous books, catalogues and essays have recorded each distinct stage of this line as it has evolved.

The claim of the present book is that it illuminates the course of Caro's work - 'his quest for a new language for sculpture' - by assembling a sequence of contemporary writings. A principal source, particularly for the period up to the mid-1980s, is Caro's unpublished correspondence with other artists and critics. There are also interviews, published and unpublished, that Caro has given to critics and journalists, and, as counterpoint to the artist's own narrative, there is a selection of reviews, both favourable and critical. The text is accompanied by numerous images, both of the works themselves and of occasions in Caro's life.

I first became aware of Caro in the 1960s, just when his early works in steel marked a break with the tradition of English modern sculpture most strongly represented by Hepworth and Moore. Pieces such as Early One Morning (1962) and Prairie (1967) were revelatory, both as statements of the new sculpture and in their resonance for the sister art of architecture.

The principal virtue of this book is how it connects Caro's biography, his travels and friendships with the development of his thought as a sculptor. The influence of visits to America on the development of the early work, his links with artists David Smith, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski, and with critics Michael Fried and, particularly, Clement Greenberg, are revealed in great and compelling detail. The subsequent narrative brings equally important understanding to the later twists and turns of the work as new issues of materiality, scale and content were confronted.

Although, perhaps, a secondary theme in the big picture, Caro's relationship with architecture and architects runs from beginning to end of the book. He enjoyed a life-long friendship with Alison and Peter Smithson, who were architects for the conversion of the stable in Hampstead that became his home and studio. One intriguing architecture/sculpture connection, partly influenced by the Smithsons, was Caro's transformation of the plan of Ronchamp into the figurative sculpture Square Nude (1956). Louis Kahn and J°rn Utzon are other architects he admires: 'I'll go miles to see a building by them, ' he says.

There have also been significant collaborations with I M Pei and Tadao Ando in the installation of Caro exhibitions at, respectively, Washington and Tokyo. In the work itself, the most overt reference to architecture is to be found in the 'sculpitecture' of the 1980s, and the texts surrounding this phase are full of insights into the similarities of and differences between the two arts.

Two particularly powerful occasions when sculpture and architecture came together were the great retrospective installation of Caro's works at the Trajan Markets in Rome in 1992 and of the recent ensemble The Last Judgement in the Antichi Granai, Venice, during the 1999 art biennale. In Rome, the dialogue of modern sculpture and ancient structure brought new meaning to each, and in Venice the stark industrial simplicity of the Granai was transformed by the presence of Caro's evocative cabinets.

In attempting to bring order to this extraordinary corpus, Barker suggests that we keep in mind 'three axes'. The first is that of materiality, its nature and potential; second is the axis of figuration-abstraction; third is the question of narrative. As a broad framework this is helpful, and it is validated by the content of the book. But thankfully there is no attempt to map it literally onto the work, which, in its richness and complexity, is too multivalent to succumb to simple classification.

In January next year there is to be a major Caro retrospective at Tate Britain. This beautifully produced book is a fitting prelude to that, and is essential reading for all who seek out the background to the production of art.

Dean Hawkes is an architect in Cambridge

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