Shaping a revolution

28th January 2005 at 00:00
Expressing emotions with huge abstract shapes made out of scrap metal transformed the artistic landscape of the 1960s. Harriet Curnow discusses the work of a leading British sculptor

Anthony Caro is one of the most important sculptors of our time. "Early One Morning" (1962) is a well known example of his revolutionary painted metal sculptures of the 1960s, currently on show at Tate Britain as part of a retrospective of the artist's work.

"Early One Morning" is made up of a rectangular sheet of metal supported by two rods at one end. A long straight rod extends at right angles and supports two horizontal squares and two upright girders on either side. At the opposite end a cross-like structure extends in all four directions.

Three additional poles spring from the work and reach out into the surrounding space. In contrast to a sculpture of the human figure that is solid and enclosed, the work is very open. It is made up of separate metallic shapes, welded and bolted together.

Visually startling, "Early One Morning" was unlike anything his contemporaries were creating. It pushed the boundaries of sculpture in material, subject, size, colour and placement on the ground. It is made from painted steel and aluminium. Using metal was a particularly innovative idea. In the 1950s, Caro and his contemporaries were creating figurative sculptures out of clay or plaster, later cast in bronze.

Caro felt limited using these traditional materials and in 1959 visited the US. He was struck by the energy and excitement of work being produced there, and inspired by the abstract paintings of Jackson Pollock and Kenneth Noland and the metallic sculptures of David Smith. As soon as he returned to the UK, Caro experimented with metal. Painted metal sculptures became his signature and, by the end of the 1960s, metal had become as adaptable as paint on canvas. He gathered metal from scrap yards in east London while the British Aluminium Company generously delivered some tubing and sheets to Caro's studio, some of which he used in this work.

Unlike Caro's work in the 1950s, "Early One Morning" is an entirely abstract work with no visible reference to the human figure. Caro decided that to make his sculptures more expressive and powerful he needed to eliminate any reference to a recognisable subject or an object. As soon as we see a sculpture of a figure we think about the feelings of that figure and we no longer concentrate on the sculpture as a work of art in its own right. He felt that if his work was to be expressive he had no alternative but to create abstract works of art.

Since the Renaissance, sculpture has been traditionally placed on a plinth or a pedestal. "Early One Morning", however, rests directly on the ground.

Caro subverted the accepted idea of viewing sculpture. Sculpture suddenly became free from the isolated plinth and part of the viewers' space. By the end of the 1960s most contemporary sculptors were not only using metal but also placing their works directly onto the floor. This is one of Caro's most lasting legacies.

Even though "Early One Morning" is placed informally within our space, we are not supposed to touch it. To touch the sculpture would imply that it is functional and reduce its status and importance. The fact that it is non-functional makes it distinct as an artwork as opposed to a piece of furniture. While no longer referring to the human figure directly, many of Caro's works are human in scale and invite the viewer to walk around and experience them from a variety of different angles. Later in his career, he explored the relationship between sculpture and architecture, allowing the viewer to enter and explore the sculpture directly.

In fact, its imposing size was one of the most influential and striking features of "Early One Morning". Caro had previously created figurative sculptures that were half the size of their subjects. This one was by far the largest work he had created to date, measuring more than six metres in length. Few sculptors had created work as big as this. Its colour and surface were also unique. Caro painted the metal to seal the surface and to distinguish it from its surroundings.

As with many of his other works, the colour was chosen from a Dulux paint chart rather than traditional artist's materials such as acrylic or oil paint from specialist manufacturers. Not only this, but the mass-produced paint colour was a startling primary red. Caro decided on the title after completion. "Early One Morning" reflects his emotional and physical response. It is about colour, light, space, optimism and openness: "what it is like to be alive."

Asking students for one-word emotional and observational reactions to its material, colour, size, shapes and forms will help identify its qualities and also explore the nature of abstract art. Help students compare responses to "Early One Morning" with similar abstract works such as Caro's "Sunfeast" (196970), also in the exhibition.

Harriet Curnow is assistant curator:s, schools programmes, Tate Britain

Anthony Caro

Born 1924

Anthony Caro studied sculpture at the Royal Academy schools and was a part-time assistant to Henry Moore. He had his first solo exhibition in Milan in 1956 and in London in 1957. He was an inspirational teacher and taught at St Martin's School of Art in London from 1953-79 and at Bennington College, Vermont in the US. He is now regarded as one of Britain's most influential sculptors.

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