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Can skill with form capture the heart?

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EXHIBITIONS Anthony Caro: New Sculptures - A Survey At Annely Juda Fine Art, 23 Dering Street, London W1 until 18 April Caro at the National: Sculpture from Painting At the National Gallery, London WC2 until 4 May

Anthony Caro is without question a supreme manipulator of form, who can take the detritus of our industrial civilisation - the offcuts of mechanical and structural engineering - and invest it with powerful formal value; he can make the curves of a boiler cover sing and the textures of chequer-plate resonate.

In his earliest 'industrial' phase he used standard structural steel components - channels and Ibeams, tubes and plates (expanded, chequered, or plain) - as raw material in their pure state to construct his sculptures. But as time has gone on he has used more ready-made mechanical components - wheels, hooks, bolts - almost as a collagist, and at the same time has subjected the structural components to distortions, to strain, which they would not normally undergo.

His original statement - crisp, geometric, and brightly painted - was an assertion of an industrial viewpoint under the influence of the former Ohio car-worker David Smith, in contradistinction to the primitivism of his erstwhile master Henry Moore. But his later work is softer in outline, textured, rusty, and arguably, like that of the late Moore, increasingly portentous. The open spatiality of the early work has given way to a denseness and multiplicity of form.

The materials used by Moore were the same as those of Donatello and Michelangelo - bronze and stone - and it was legitimate for Caro to seek to make us love the material peculiar to our own time: steel. But the question is posed - is Caro a master of his material or mastered by it? Is the material chosen the best vehicle for an idea or is the material the idea itself? If so, is this enough of a basis for sculpture?

Steel is an intractable material, and Caro's original use of it in the form of unaltered standard sections was a truer expression of its nature than subsequent attempts to shape it as though it were clay. If treated in such a hand-crafted way, where is its machine-age symbolism? Certainly the sight of buckled steel induces a sense of awe, but that does not help the sculptural idea. It is worth remembering Rietveld's determination to design his Red Blue and Yellow chair without requiring any handwork to its machined timber scantlings except cutting to length, and out of this grew a whole new spatial aesthetic. It is arguable that having abandoned the ideological 'Modernism' of his early work, Caro's work has lost much of its raison d'etre.

On the other hand, it could be argued that the sculptor should choose the material best suited to his idea, which transforms it; that the architect can afford to display the elegance of an I-beam as a component of his structural system, but that it is too great an imposition on a sculpture: it is not, after all, the sculptor's own form. He has somehow to use it so that it becomes a transparent vehicle for his idea.

Picasso transformed the handlebars of a bicycle into the horns of a bull, but in Caro's case the spanners, wrenches and pliers that appear in his work as 'found objects' remain what they are, however tightly welded into the formal game.

This is partly an issue of figuration. Caro's predecessors in the use of steel - Picasso, Gonzalez, Gargallo - were figurative artists using the material unselfconsciously and largely in sheet form to convey an image, on which the viewer automatically focuses. Even in the works of his immediate mentor in the use of steel, David Smith, figuration played an important role, and the warmth of the human idea seemed to infuse the cold steel. Calder also used steel largely in sheet form, without any particular desire to make an issue of its steel-ness.

For Caro in the 1960s, however, the quest for pure abstraction was an article of faith, allied to his use of steel and his rejection of Moore. But it is, I believe, an obstacle to his assuming Moore's place in the nation's heart. (There are perhaps only two abstract artists with a secure place in public affection, Mondrian and Jackson Pollock, where they stand for the two extremes of order and disorder).

This is where the National Gallery show has relevance. By linking Caro's work to historic figurative paintings reproduced alongside, some of the pathos attaching to the originals is transferred to it, so that it becomes difficult to separate them. Would we respond as directly to Caro's Act of War if we did not know that it was an interpretation of Goya's horrific Third of May, 1808? But we do respond, and Caro's work is the warmer for it.

At Annely Juda there are a number of table-top sculptures where Caro again confronts the problem for an artist fired by the American bigscale tradition, of how to do small works. They revolve round the theme of the Book, which appears as a soft stoneware core to which metalwork is wittily attached. One is intrigued but not captivated, and left with a sense of frustration - such multifarious and enjoyable evidence all round of skill in the manipulation of form, yet the absence of something to which wholly to give one's heart.

James Dunnett is an architect in London

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