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April 14 2012

Caro at Chatsworth

Chatsworth, Derbyshire

Beside the baroque pomp of Chatsworth, around an oblong pond with a jet of water whose spout commemorates one of the last Russian tsars, a group of 15 metal metaphors has been parked. The steel assemblages are by Anthony Caro, now 88 and recognised as Britain's greatest living sculptor – enigmatic abstractions, machine-like with their screws and rivets, some of them like farm implements negligently deposited here in an aristocratic garden where they have to keep company with statues of wrestling heroes, wilting nymphs and the lecherous goat-footed god Pan, along with a Madonna by Elisabeth Frink and a gang of bibulous metal picnickers designed by Allen Jones.

Caro's rusted flats and bolted girders, irregularly positioned around the water like guests at a dinner table, ought to look out of place. He has always resisted exhibiting his work out of doors, arguing that it needs tranquillity, enclosure and the neutral background of a white wall; he never wanted to people landscapes with totemic presences like those sculpted by Henry Moore, the mentor whose influence he questioned in an Observer article in 1960. In fact, the Chatsworth collection includes an indoor "Table Piece" by Caro, usually housed in a grotto inside the entrance hall but placed, for the next few months, in a sculpture gallery laid out to exhibit the souvenirs of successive Grand Tours by earlier Dukes of Devonshire.

This harpoon-like item, angled to ensure that its edges don't slice off the legs of passers-by, looks a little silly in a mortuary of bloodless neoclassical warriors and frisky Cupids, under a chandelier on which an eagle has alighted.

But outside, exposed to showers scything down from clouds that have the consistency of boulders, additionally crusted with white deposits from birds that perch on it in passing, Caro's work flourishes. It commands open space because it is so architectural, so comfortably civic. Goodwood Steps, a set of oxidised pyramids, is ranged against the southern facade of the grand house with its rooftop balustrade of urns, its columns and crests and cornucopias; the ducal residence is forbiddingly formal but Caro's construction seems habitable, like an embryonic city being pieced together from Meccano. Although you're not allowed to sit on the steps, I found dripping groups of visitors huddled in the defiles beneath and between them, grateful to have found a refuge from the rain.

The three-dimensionality of sculpture should encourage us to become aware of space, of its constructions and its amplitude, and to recognise the quantity of empty air that our bodies displace. Forum seems ready to accommodate a large public meeting, with an atrium for adult discussion and a climbing frame for restless children: a pity about the notices warning you not to touch or to clamber inside, since Caro's stalwart inventions want and need to be explored, inhabited, put to use.

Capital, poking upright in a coat of orange paint, puns about this architectural motive. Is it imitating a capital letter or remembering the proud thrust skywards that creates a capital city?

Egyptian makes a gloomier comment on the purpose of houses such as Chatsworth, which exist as containers for trophies and trinkets, the spoils of generations that stay behind when their owners dematerialise. It is an empty tomb, its internal passages no longer sealed to protect a treasure – an anonymous, impersonal monument that will outlast the man who made it.

Double Tent, with its droopy wings of silvery stainless steel, jokes about the temporariness of canvas, and doesn't bother to be watertight. For once, the failure to provide shelter hardly matters. Goethe said that architecture was frozen music, and this construction, with a pipe for a roof beam and great dishes of curved metal like cymbals at either end, resembles a silent orchestra, ready to turn air into exuberant sound. A metal box called Scorched Flats adds a legless grand piano to the ensemble. Emma Gate has the same entrancing playfulness. The gate is open, made of rods that don't prohibit entry; even the title, which derives from Emma Lake in Saskatchewan, where Caro made it, ceased to be a puzzle when I noticed that a bucket seat held upright by the cross bars contained a puddle of rain, like a shallow lake that shivered in the chill wind.

Despite Caro's preference for galleries, his work has an immediate affinity with the landscape in which it's exhibited here. Chatsworth is the product of a collaboration between art and nature. The vistas we admire are picturesque illusions, designed by gardeners who planted leafy screens to block the gaunt, bleak moors, and demolished entire villages because they interfered with the supercilious sightlines from the house. A rockery that resembles an avalanche is entirely artificial, piled up in homage to the Alps. Inside the house, cabinets of minerals show rock mutating into jewellery. Everywhere in the park, the elements have been persuaded to perform aesthetic tricks: water cascades down hillsides or shows off in fountains, and a weeping willow squirts actual moisture from its metal foliage. It's Caro's achievement to have demonstrated that steel is equally malleable, as easy to shape as water.

His solid, immovable weights seem thin as paper when you look sideways. He also delights in dodging across the border between machinery and organism. Pleats Flat draws attentions to a ridged spin that is meant to suggest a gathering of pleats in soft cloth; they reminded me of stitches in flesh, as if the steel had a wound that has not yet healed. No wonder so many dogs sniffed the sculptures, attempting to define the exact biological or botanical status of these puzzling monoliths. (Luckily metal has no smell, so the dogs felt no need to lift their hind legs and make a critical comment.)

Cliff Song is the most explicit allusion to geology, a steep, bevelled excerpt from a mountain, with an overhang that forms a suspended cave. Once more the harsh substance becomes squashy, palpable: clinging to the cave is an ungeometrical clump that looks almost obscenely carnal – a female torso perhaps, with breasts and belly but no head or limbs. The excrescence mystified me until I noticed that, thanks to the position chosen for the sculpture, it made perfect sense. Cliff Song has been set down next to a wintry tree whose swollen trunk has a series of corky bunions growing on it, exactly in the shape of the tumour soldered on to the metal. And, since spring comes late in north Derbyshire, the only evidence of life on the skeletal tree last week was the twigs that had optimistically sprouted from these morbid growths.

The pleasure of the display comes from such interactions between art and the spirit of place, and from your own dialogue with Caro's teasing contrivances. As I was pondering Forum, an elderly woman crept up and said: "Excuse me, do you know if this one has a title?" When I told her what it was, she said: "I was just saying to my friend that it looks like an old-fashioned locomotive with a cowcatcher on the front. Don't you think that's better?"

I told her that my own first thought, before I cheated by consulting the catalogue, was that it might also be a whisky still. She laughed and tottered on to decipher the next conundrum.

Thanks to Caro, the grounds of Chatsworth have become an adventure playground for the mind. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 28 2012

Steel the show: Anthony Caro at Chatsworth House - video

Jonathan Jones takes a tour of a retrospective exhibition of Anthony Caro's abstract steel sculptures in the grounds of Chatsworth House

Anthony Caro sculptures go on display at Chatsworth House

Commonly regarded as Britain's greatest living sculptor, Caro has put 15 of his enormous steel works on show at stately home

Sir Anthony Caro once famously said that he preferred his sculptures to be viewed in an enclosed space. Yet on Wednesday, Caro, commonly regarded as Britain's greatest living sculptor, put 15 works on show in blazing sunshine in the spectacular grounds of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire.

At the opening of the exhibition, Caro said there was "a strictness" about the setting that had made him reconsider his view. "I'm trying to stand up against the Romantic, pastoral thing. What I really mean is that one should really look at the work and not see it as part of the garden or something, and that's happened here because there's enough space to do it."

The enormous steel sculptures at Chatsworth, which was built between 1687 and 1702, rest on the grass around the 287-metre-long Canal Pond – Caro made art history in the early 1960s by abandoning the plinth. The exhibition includes two of Caro's early, brightly painted sculptures, but much of the work dates from the 1970s, when the artist was experimenting with rusted metal. The most imposing work is Goodwood Steps, which is 6.5 metres high and 33.5 metres across, almost blocking the view of the house.

"I don't think [ … the sculptures are] a challenge to the house but they're more like architectural things than pastoral things," said Caro. "The big one works with the house and I'm surprised it does."

Speaking at the launch, the Tate director, Sir Nicholas Serota, said that the work had "never looked better" than juxtaposed with Chatsworth's baroque splendour. He added that Caro was "in a certain sense a living legend … he took sculpture to a totally new place."

Peregrine Cavendish, the 12th Duke of Devonshire, who lives at Chatsworth, said that it was "a dream come true that this great artist should spread his work around our pond". Though Chatsworth has exhibited contemporary sculpture in its grounds for the past six years, and has a collection including pieces by Richard Long and Lucian Freud, this is the first show by a single artist.

The works were all loaned by Caro, who said they had been retrieved from a barn in Yorkshire where they were "covered in goo – this is the first time I've seen them pristine for years". He said that Goodwood Steps, which was originally commissioned for the Henry Moore Studio in Halifax, had to be fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle after the marks instructing how to do it had been lost.

"There was two foot of snow when they were installing it – hard to think of that today," said the duke. "The sculptures without any plinths, just growing out of the grass, look wonderful. We've had to cut the grass with nail scissors round it because obviously we can't use the strimmer but we'll deal with that."

Though admission to the house and grounds costs £20 per adult, the duke said he thought this was "very good value". The house has recently undergone an extensive restoration programme, including the re-gilding in gold leaf of 42 large windows.

Though the duke said he expected visitors to come from all over the world to see both the exhibition and Chatsworth House itself, he added that he enjoyed looking at the sculptures on his own – "at least once a day". © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 24 2012

This week's new exhibitions

In The Blink Of An Eye: Media And Movement, Bradford

This is the kind of thing that Bradford's National Media Museum does best: setting up media studies exhibitions that are as captivating as they are historically informative. Most fascinating here are the displays that reveal ingenious ways in which movement was captured in the era before moving film was invented. Here, of course, are Eadweard Muybridge's late-19th-century stop-frame photo sequences that for the first time illustrated in magnificent detail how animals and semi-naked humans moved around. But here also are Victorian zoetrope optical toys and mutoscope ("What The Butler Saw") erotic teasings. Here too are a praxinoscope theatre and a phantascope lantern, and then – far more up-to-date – a CGI motion-capture suit. Then, beyond all this trickery, you come across Richard Billingham's stark, stunning photograph of a cat caught in mid-flight after being flung over the photographer's drunk dad's head, and your attention suddenly stops dead still on the perceptual surprise of a simple piece of great art.

National Media Museum, to 2 Sep

Robert Clark

Gillian Wearing, London

Gillian Wearing's films and photography tap one of identity's central paradoxes: it's sometimes easier to be ourselves when we're in disguise. This survey of her confessional projects over the past two decades features a revealing cross-section of society's under-sung. The anxieties of teenagers are lip-synched by adult actors and people in the street write their true feelings on signs. Meanwhile, in an early work, Wearing herself dances in the midst of a Peckham shopping centre and later photographs see her dressing up as members of her family or creative inspirations such as Diane Arbus. It all adds up to a poignant study of selfhood in a reality TV age where the camera is our very public confessional box.

Whitechapel Gallery, E1, Wed to 17 Jun

Skye Sherwin

Mirror Neurons, Sunderland

Just when one would suspect the National Glass Centre might run out of good art made from glass, it comes up with another exhibition that demonstrates the medium's enduring metaphorical potential. The title refers to scientific theories about understanding emotions by observing and mimicking. So the sensitively interactive art here depends on our own presence. A central installation is Catherine Richards's I Was Scared To Death/ I Could Have Died Of Joy, a glass replica of the brain and spinal column that responds to one's approach by pulsing with electromagnetic light signals of distress or elation.

National Glass Centre, to 20 May


Brains: The Mind As Matter, London

Don't expect an enquiry into the elusive business of invisible thought and emotion from this show. It's all about brains as grey, squidgy, tangible matter, and what we've done over the centuries to probe them. This includes plenty of dodgy but fascinating apparatus, from phrenology models, sprung from the "anatomy is destiny" belief that a person's character depends on the shape of their head, to exquisite 17th-century maps of the brain locating essential landmarks such as the seat of the soul. No less wonderful or precarious-sounding are modern biology's attempts to navigate the brain, using jellyfish genes to make living cells fluoresce. This fishy theme is continued in one of the contemporary artworks featured in the show: Helen Pynor's Headache. This delicately gothic image of a brain afloat in a murky blue sea, entangled in black thread, suggests both the metaphorical sea of consciousness and the origins of life.

Wellcome Collection, NW1, Thu to 17 Jun


Cerith Wyn Evans, Bexhill-on-Sea

In horror movies, flickering lights generally mean something supernatural. There's a similar fusion of language, electricity and yearning in Cerith Wyn Evans's art, not least in his chandeliers, flashing messages in Morse code. This haunting quality permeates all his work. Here he creates a love letter to the De La Warr Pavilion, removing gallery walls and revealing windows to flood the space with bright light. On the roof, firework flares spell out Jimi Hendrix lyrics. Meanwhile, giant columns throb with light and heat, mirroring the building's modernism as something hot and physical.

De La Warr Pavilion, to 10 Jun


William McKeown, Dublin

William McKeown has been sorely missed since his untimely death late last year. Here was an artist who reminded many of us of why we got into art in the first place: the pure thrill of opening one's first box of paints, the wide-eyed amazement at seeing an expanse of abstract colour taken so seriously in a gallery. His paintings, building up sensitivity from layers of resonant colour, are almost painfully uncomplicated. McKeown charms us into just looking, but it's an illuminating kind of looking. In his own words: "There are two types of art – open and closed. All closed art is negative and anti-life. Art which is open is … expanding, positive and life-enhancing."

Kerlin Gallery, to 14 Apr


Patrick Keiller, London

When it comes to humour, poetry and interrogation of our political landscape, no film-maker in Britain beats Patrick Keiller. Since the last Tory government, his fictionalised essay-documentaries have mixed shots of inner-city decrepitude and drab hinterlands with wry narration on economic failures, forgotten history, literary heroes and the peculiar English mind trap of nostalgia. All of which makes him a brilliant choice for the next Duveen galleries commission at Tate Britain.

Tate Britain, SW1, Tue to 14 Oct


Anthony Caro, Bakewell

This is the first show in the magnificent Capability Brown gardens to be dedicated to the work of a single artist, and features 15 sculptures created by Anthony Caro over the past 40 years. It is hard to imagine any other living sculptor who would not be cowed by the grandeur of the Emperor Fountain, around which the works are sited. Resplendent in varnished or rusted steel, or industrially spray-painted in blue, orange and green, Caro's monumental abstracts stand their own ground. Yet, despite their bold weightiness, there is an almost lyrical grace to these giant slabs of brute metal. "To please the eye and feed the soul … It's just a natural thing," is, after all, how Caro defines his creative agenda.

Chatsworth House, Wed to 1 Jul

RC © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 23 2012

Caro at Chatsworth, Gillian Wearing and Michael Canning – the week in art

Sculptor Anthony Caro puts together a tasteful show amid Chatsworth House's stupendous gardens, as Wearing lands at Whitechapel Gallery – all in your favourite art dispatch

Exhibition of the week: Caro at Chatsworth

I'll be looking at this exhibition in depth in a Guardian video to be launched next week, so I won't anticipate. I'll simply say that anyone anywhere near the beautiful countryside of Derbyshire this spring should take the chance to see this exhibition, not least for its stupendous setting. Chatsworth is one step beyond other stately homes. The seat of the Duke of Devonshire and an aristocratic dynasty that goes back to Tudor times, the house has a history that includes such figures as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and today's dowager duchess, Deborah Mitford. Famous characters aside, it's a jaw-dropping wonderland set in a superb landscape that was sculpted especially to show it off by no less a designer than Capability Brown. Now I see what was so capable about him. The gardens surrounding the house are a magical blend of rococo fantasy – including the Cascade, a fast-flowing river carved by hand in a hillside on top of which is a lake created to power the park's waterworks – and the 19th-century garden engineering of Joseph Paxton. The Rockery is made of gigantic boulders in genuinely terrifying arrangements, with a full-scale waterfall: a sublime landscape rather than a gentle feature. Nearby, a colossal fountain soars up from a lake around which the sculptor Anthony Caro shows this well-selected and artfully positioned survey of his works from the 1960s to this decade. They frame views of classical statues and the newly restored facade of the house itself. Caro's exhibition sets off the strange and prodigious art of Chatsworth's gardens.

Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, from 28 March until 1 July

Also opening

Gillian Wearing
There was always a humane wit and poetic realism about Wearing that made her early work hugely attractive. How good does she look now?
Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 28 March until 17 June

Printed in Norfolk: Coracle Publications
Artists' books by Gustav Metzger and Kurt Schwitters and the work of artist poet Ian Hamilton Finlay feature in this retrospective of an important small press.
The Gallery at Nuca, until 21 April

Michael Canning
Eerie and surreally beautiful modern flower paintings whose precision paradoxically leaves everything uncertain.
Waterhouse & Dodd, London, until 20 April

Secret Egypt
Want to know where the archaeology of Egypt ends and modern myth begins? Find out the facts behind the Hammer films, and while you are here check out a superb permanent collection of Roman antiquities.
Tullie House, Carlisle, until 10 June

Masterpiece of the week

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Madame Moitessier, 1856
The reflection of Madame Moitessier in a mirror behind her transforms this painting from a simple portrait into a reflection on the nature of beauty. For Ingres, beauty is eternal and unchanging. It is the source – the essential truth of life. He is a classicist who believes in the perfection of an ancient Greek ideal of beauty, reflected in the proportions of temples and the harmonies of music. In the philosophy of Plato, this ideal truth is not carnal but intangible. The world of the mirror in Ingres's painting is like the philosophical utopia of Plato: in that perfect place beyond the glass, forms are pure and true, and the stilled beauty of Madame Moitessier is set free from everyday bourgeois life to be revealed as something absolute. Ingres dwells on this woman's beauty not just as a random accident of good looks, but a revelation of the underlying order of the universe. Nothing could contrast more with the impressionists who, soon, would plunge French art into the randomness of the everyday.
National Gallery, London

Image of the week

What we learned this week

How to sketch a David Cameron caricature

How great your art is

Whether tiffs ensue when artist sweethearts join forces

That violent LS Lowry robbers have been jailed

Exactly what the start of spring looks like


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Farshid Moussavi will be in conversation with Rowan Moore at the Guardian's Open Weekend. Find out more and book tickets here. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 16 2012

Anthony Caro: a life in sculpture

'I always pushed forward, and have had a career that would have been unimaginable even to myself back when I began'

In 1955 the influential art critic David Sylvester identified Anthony Caro as the best British sculptor since Henry Moore. But by 1963 he was having second thoughts. Shortly after Caro's groundbreaking Whitechapel Gallery exhibition that year, in which he had taken the then radical step of dispensing with a plinth for his abstract steel sculptures, Sylvester accompanied a group from the Royal College of Art – "in principle, the crème de la crème of Britain's sculpture students" – to see some of Caro's work at an open-air exhibition. When they got to Midday – Caro's 1960 yellow-painted assemblage of bolted-together pieces of steel, now often described as his first masterpiece and later acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York – "one of the brightest of them declared that he wasn't prepared to discuss the piece, as it wasn't a work of art", Sylvester recalled. The "distressing afternoon in Battersea Park" ended with a "perfunctory and embarrassed discussion of Midday during which at least half the class sulked".

Sylvester told this story – in a catalogue essay for a 1980s Caro exhibition – as an example of how "aesthetic conservatism can manifest itself where we would least expect it". And the fast-moving relationship between the radical and the conservative in the world of art has been a feature of Caro's long career as he has oscillated between the cutting edge and the establishment, depending on who you ask, and when.

"It's very difficult today to imagine what a battle there once was over these ideas and how much we upset people," Caro says. "Even over abstraction. Someone would always ask 'what's that sculpture for?' If you said it's not 'for' anything apart from looking at, there'd instantly be a big fight."

Like many revolutionaries, Caro was always, at least in part, an insider. His first job was as an assistant to Henry Moore, and he conducted his overhaul of British sculpture from a post at St Martin's school of art in London. For nearly 30 years he had significant influence over how and what art students were taught, but it was also at St Martin's that he was exposed to the sometimes brutally rapid movement of artistic evolution. Just a few years after his Whitechapel show had set sculpture on a new path and so enraged the conservatives, a new generation of students emerged – Barry Flanagan, Gilbert and George and Richard Long, among others – for whom Caro was someone to rebel against.

"That group was very much a reaction against the first group of abstract sculptors," he explains. "They were trying to find another way. And some of that was interesting. Where does art start? Where does it stop? Does it breathe? But I did also have a sense that the goalposts had somehow been moved." For all that, he says he was intrigued by some of Long's work and was "always enormously amused by Gilbert and George. They were lovely people, despite us not having much to say to each other art-wise. I remember seeing them doing their living sculpture thing and I said hello, and they ignored me. A little later they came up to me and apologised if they had appeared rude, but explained they couldn't speak because they had been busy."

In one sense, Caro's subsequent career has been essentially an establishment one. His work is in more than 175 public collections around the world, and as far back as 1976 he was presented with the key to the city of New York by the mayor. In the UK he was knighted in 1987 and made a member of the Order of Merit in 2000. But in art terms, he has remained restlessly innovative and has been a productive presence for more than 60 years.

There is now an opportunity to see four decades of Caro's work in the grounds of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire – itself a piece of radical architecture when built. "I was offered the whole of the estate, but I liked the areas nearer the house because it was formal enough to take the sculptures, and you are never looking from afar and seeing a great big sculpture on the horizon. I wanted something more intimate."

He has planned the sitings of the works at Chatsworth. Yet he says: "I always feel my job is to make the sculptures, and curating shows is really for someone else. It feels like looking backwards, and throughout my entire career I've always said, 'what's next?', not 'what's just happened?'. When I began, being a sculptor might have meant producing statues of generals on horseback. But I always pushed forward, and have had a career that would have been unimaginable even to myself back then."

Caro was born in Surrey in 1924. His father was a stockbroker, and it was assumed, although not by Anthony, that his son would follow in his footsteps. The family was Jewish and as the persecution of Jews in Germany became increasingly obvious, his mother arranged for a school friend and her three children to come to England, where Caro's father paid for the children's education. Caro says the small amount of religious education he had "didn't mean that much to me. It just seemed to say 'praise God' and I didn't know quite what that meant. I actually preferred Christian hymns and prayers, which seemed more personal. And when I went to university my friends there were mostly practising Christians." The spiritual strand in his life culminated in 2008, when he completed a nine-year project to restore and install new sculptures in a church in northern France destroyed during the second world war. "Is art so different from religion? It feeds the spirit, and through it you also try to find this inner part of yourself."

At Charterhouse School Caro did a lot of art "without much encouragement. We were not well taught and while I did do the school certificate in art, I didn't get a credit." In 1942 he went to Christ's College, Cambridge, to study engineering, which by now his father had identified as another potential career. Art was still out of the question. "But my father knew I was serious about it, so he showed my work to a teacher at, ironically as it turned out, St Martin's. He said I'd be no good and that I should just do it as a hobby. That suited my father very well as he thought artists were dilettantes and people who didn't fit in with society. And I suppose he was right there. But we still battled and battled." It wasn't until he was serving in the Fleet Air Arm at the end of the war, from 1944-46, that his father finally relented, and Caro spent the next six years having a "very traditional" art education.

While at art school he met the painter Sheila Girling, a fellow student. They married in 1949 and had two sons. His workshop and her studio still share space in a converted piano factory in Camden, north London. Shortly after getting married, Caro "pretty much just turned up" at Henry Moore's door and asked for a job. "He didn't say yes. But he did ask me in for a cup of tea and told me to come back in six months' time. Six months to the day later I rang him, and he told me I could start the following Monday." So in 1951 the Caro family moved to Much Hadham in Hertfordshire, where Caro became Moore's part-time assistant. "Henry was wonderful and taught me a great deal," he says. "We talked a lot about art, and he would look at my drawings and criticise them."

It was also while working for Moore that Caro was first exposed to Francis Bacon and Picasso. "I was shaken by them both. I saw that work needn't necessarily be like Henry's." But when Caro left Moore and returned to London, he didn't enter the louche art world scene inhabited by Bacon. "I was probably too bourgeois and focused on the art. I thought if I concentrated on the art, the rest would look after itself. I would visit my artist friends' houses and they were so tasteful and lovely. But mine was blank. I had no pictures on the walls. I said I wouldn't hang anything on my walls until I can find a painting that says to me 'do better'. In the end, I did find that sort of work and now have lots of paintings, but my whole life was around making better art."

Now ensconced in a new studio in Hampstead, Caro began to make the large, expressionistic figurative clays and bronzes such as Woman Waking Up (bought by the Tate in 1955), that prompted Sylvester to crown him Moore's successor. But in 1959 he was searching for a new approach. A trip to America, and a meeting with the critic and high priest of abstract expressionism, Clement Greenberg, helped him on his way. Greenberg advised: "If you want to change your sculpture, change your habit of working." In America Caro encountered the abstract painter Kenneth Noland and sculptor David Smith, who was already making large-scale steel works.

"I was very taken by American thinking and the whole abstraction idea. It was getting away from the English harking towards surrealism and the literary. When I do an interview in England people always want to know about Henry Moore. But when I speak in America they all want to know about David Smith. Moore was like both a parent and a teacher to me. Even though the age difference with David was similar, he would treat me much more like a competitor." The pair became so close, however, that when Smith was killed in a car crash in 1965, Caro acquired the stocks of raw materials from his workshops and shipped them back to use in England.

Caro's working and teaching lives had been conducted in parallel since 1953, when he began as a part-time tutor at St Martin's. He continued there until 1981. "It was a marvellous boon when I started. I had some money from my dad, I was being paid – albeit minimally – at Henry's, and I now taught. Working as an artist became viable and, more than that, if you teach properly then you discover things. Students ask the difficult questions and you have to think to find a proper answer to them." But it took him 10 years, and his incorporation of the influence of Greenberg and of American abstraction before his 1963 Whitechapel show could make such a remarkable impact.

The 15 abstract steel sculptures attracted some predictable complaints about "being just building materials", but their human scale, and placing of them on the ground – so removing them from the rarefied position of the plinth and bringing them down to the spectator's own space – "had made a huge difference as to how they were received", he says. "And with the use of colour I really thought we could be like the impressionists, at least in terms of what we aspired to." Caro says he was pleased that success came relatively late. "In my late 30s I was ready. If it had come to me at 25, it would have been much more difficult to handle. The idea of dealers going to degree shows and picking people out when they are 21 is jolly bad for an artist. It just puts too much extra strain on them."

Caro's long apprenticeship enabled his career to proceed apace after the Whitechapel show. A decade later he was receiving retrospectives, but he says some of the work he produced in the 70s – including some of the large "flats" of sheet steel on display at Chatsworth – "were not that well received when they were made. I think the reason was that it was quite blank work at a time when there was a taste for more readable sculpture."

There is a sense that over the years Caro's strict adherence to abstract principles have relaxed. He even, cautiously, admits that politics might have crept up on his work. "I had very strong views about something like Suez, but it had nothing to do with the work I was making at the time. But I think now, especially with television showing so much of what is going on, it does begin to seep in somehow."

His 1993-94 work called The Trojan War and his 2002 depiction of terracotta figures on wooden gymnastic horses, The Barbarians, both appear to have been informed by the first Iraq and the Yugoslav wars. "But I am still an abstract sculptor," he says. "And if there is any narrative content – if – then it is just a byproduct. The battle to make abstract art was so difficult in the past that if a work ended up looking like an insect then you'd think, 'oh my God, I didn't want it to look like an insect'. But when the battle was won, you could spread sculpture more widely without feeling guilty about it. Now, if something looks like an insect, it looks like an insect. If there is a narrative, it doesn't seem to matter half as much."

Caro turned 88 last week, and says: "I can't tell you how lazy I am these days. And even when I do start lifting something, someone else will run over and lift it for me. But as a result I have more time to make sculpture. I can tell people to try this here or there, and that way you can get a lot made." On the smallest scale, he is currently designing a gold kilo coin for the Royal Mint to mark the London Olympics. And on the large, he is preparing a huge sculpture that will occupy three blocks of midtown Manhattan later this year. He also finds himself more frequently writing for newspapers about old friends recently departed. "People very dear to me keep on dying. I really have got to put a stop to it. But I don't usually like looking back, and am surprised at how much of it goes on today. People keep badgering me to write an autobiography. I couldn't think of anything worse. I've always kept going by thinking about tomorrow, not yesterday. I'm not going to stop now." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 12 2012

Artists come together in a Crisis

The Crisis Commission at London's Somerset House will feature new works by artists including Gillian Wearing, Antony Gormley and Tracey Emin

A small and poignant bronze sculpture of a young man called Craig – who became homeless after serving in Afghanistan – will greet visitors to a new exhibition to raise awareness and money for the charity Crisis.

The work by Gillian Wearing goes on display at Somerset House in London on 14 March along with new pieces by artists including Antony Gormley, Tracey Emin, Sir Anthony Caro and Jonathan Yeo. All the works will be sold on 3 May, with the money going to the charity for single homeless people, Crisis.

Wearing said she was inspired by the real story of Craig O'Keefe who became homeless after returning from duty in Afghanistan. Eventually, with the help of Veteran's Aid, he managed to get work and a flat and is now a volunteer tutor for Crisis.

"Crisis were great because they really wanted artists to get involved directly with their charity," said Wearing. She was part of a workshop meeting people who work for and used its services. "It wasn't a passive involvement which I really thought was important."

Emin offered four works: two self-portraits and two neon signs saying Trust Me and Trust Yourself. She said they were words we often say to others and to ourselves. "Sometimes such statements need to be reaffirmed. The use of neon makes it all the more positive."

The two self-portraits, Deep Blue III and Deep Blue V, are part of a series Emin created for her forthcoming show at Turner Contemporary in Margate, in which she explores the idea "of the body becoming older, self-loathing and the notion of self-preservation".

Emin said she did not do anything different because the show was for Crisis. "I'm quite impressed at what a big show it is and how serious it is and not just a charity event."

Gormley has made a cast iron sculpture of a person we assume to be homeless. "The most challenging social sculpture of our times is made by the quiet performances of the homeless within the shelter provided by the doorways of the shops of our inner cities."

He said he was trying to evoke a fallen body which is, nevertheless, not at rest. "This exhibition allows one to think about those bodies that have no place. I believe that sculpture can powerfully evoke the nameless, the voiceless and the placeless."

The Crisis Commission show raises money and awareness at a crucial time, says the charity. After years of declining trends, 2010 represented a turning point when all forms of homelessness began to rise. In 2010/11, 3,975 people slept rough in London, an 8% rise on the previous year.

The show runs until 22 April and will also feature work by homeless and vulnerable people who have been helped by Crisis.

The charity's chief executive Leslie Morphy said: "We are thrilled that so many leading contemporary artists are participating in the Crisis Commission. This prestigious event will raise much needed funds for our work and bring a new focus to the worrying current rise in homelessness in society."

Other works in the show include Yinka Shonibare's Homeless Man, 2012, which shows a vibrantly dressed Victorian man weighed down by 11 suitcases. The artist said: "The idea of the work is to suggest that any privileged person can become vulnerable at any time due to circumstances outside of their own personal control, such as illness, death of a relative, war or unfortunate economic circumstances."

The artist Bob and Roberta Smith (also known as Patrick Brill) has made a piece called Kite because of its association with isolation and the elements. "My kite has 'help' written on it. It is a cry for help by the person flying it."

Brill said he was aware of homelessness rising and taught in an art school where some of his students are homeless. "Homelessness is about isolation. Homes are not just roofs and walls – they are networks – about nurture and care."

The show has been curated by Laurence Sillars, chief curator at the Baltic in Gateshead and the cost of creating the works has been met by GlaxoSmithKline. All of them will be auctioned at Christie's on 3 May. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 02 2012

Gilbert & George: our lives in art

'People said you can't buy their art because they won't be together very long. Everyone splits up, don't they? But we didn't'

"Man. Woman. Murder." Gilbert begins to intone. "Addict. Strangled. Rape." "Pervert", interjects George, "Suicide. Attack." It's almost comforting to hear Gilbert and George talk about their latest exhibition, London Pictures, which opens at all three of White Cube's London galleries next week as part of a 13 gallery world tour. The show comprises 292 pictures based on the 3712 newspaper sellers' posters they have stolen over the last six years – "we counted them in the end" – grouped together by headline words and arranged in their trademark grid designs. "And when you start to see the words together – School. Mystery. Tube – you start to see the most extraordinary townscape of London. And none of it is invented. These are real people's lives."

Their work has long been attuned to the beauties, the horrors and the mundanities of life around their east London home. The route to the Kurdish restaurant where they habitually eat passes a large block of flats. "Occasionally we see a policeman or woman ringing a door bell. You think 'my God. What has happened?' That could be a nightmare lasting generations. Death. Tragedy. Imprisonment. They say the shame of a family member going to jail can last for three or four generations. What do you tell the school? What do you tell the neighbours? And all that is captured in a word on a newspaper poster that lasts only a day before something else comes along and replaces it."

In a move away from the brightly coloured work they have produced for the last few decades, the London Pictures use just black, white, red and fleshtones. "It came to us with brutal simplicity. The only thing that united all the posters was humanity, and so we added flesh colour." The particular shade of flesh, of course, is essentially the colour of their flesh and images of the two men lurk behind the texts, as they have appeared in much of their work over the last 45 years.

Their distinctive appearance, subject matter and propensity to situate images of themselves in their art has ensured Gilbert & George are among the few artists to enjoy recognition by the general public. When they venture outside their Spitalfields home they are photographed by the art tourists who haunt the newly gentrified area. There is fan graffiti on the walls opposite their front door. "We are very proud of that," says George. "People say hello. Lorry drivers shout at us. One of those enormous trucks delivering steel once stopped and this middle-aged skinhead shouted out the window, 'Oi. My life is a fucking moment, but your art is an eternity'."

The forms and subjects of this eternal art have been many and various over the years since they first met as students at St Martin's School of Art in 1967. They began as "living sculptures", sometimes their faces covered in metallic paint, singing Flanagan and Allen's music hall classic 'Underneath the Arches'. A 1969 piece of "magazine art" called 'George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit', gave early indication of their ability to shock as well as pre-empting the potential criticism that might be levelled against them. They made large charcoal drawings – which they nevertheless insisted were sculptures – based on photographs of themselves. They further explored taboo language and images as they moved into films and photography proper through which they probed, with increasing graphic clarity, various subjects found near their east end base such as working-class youth, immigration and homelessness, as well as aspects of themselves including microscopic images of their own blood, semen and faeces, often accompanied by images of themselves in their trademark matching suits, or in varying degrees of undress.

"We have two main privileges," says George. "We can bolt the door of the studio and make pictures that say exactly what we want. Then we can take them out into the world and no one can say, not this one or not that one. You can't shout some of these thoughts on the street. You'd be arrested." "But it is all part of the language of human beings," says Gilbert. "People were told that shit was shocking. Shit is not shocking."

Their work has duly provoked more than its share of both real and sometimes manufactured outrage, and their professed Conservative sympathies have been equally frowned on within the art world. But more often than not they have enjoyed commercial and critical success as well as establishment recognition. They won the Turner Prize in 1986 and represented the UK at the 2005 Venice biennale. The Royal Academy once sought legal advice as to whether it could admit two people for one of its limited memberships. "Every two years they telephone to ask whether we would accept membership," explains George. "We say "Ask us. Write us a letter and we will reply". But they say it doesn't work like that. You have to say you will accept and then they will ask you. Not very honest, is it?"

In 2007 they were the subject of a large Tate Modern retrospective. "We felt we deserved it", says Gilbert. "But we wanted it in the right Tate, not the wrong Tate." When the idea was first proposed they were told that Tate Modern had never shown a British modern artist and had no plans to do so. "Then we knew we were on a journey. We had something to beat. And we won through by slow persuasion. We made it difficult for them to say no, because museum directors hate to say no in case they are proved wrong in the future."

They say they don't believe in the "racial division" of the two Tates. "You can't do art by passport," says George. "Gilbert is from Italy, Lucian was from Germany, Francis Bacon was from Ireland. That is what the modern art world is like here. And they have made a decision on those two buildings that will be forever fucked. A disaster. Show, say, a postcard of a Caro sculpture to anybody you meet in the street and they will say that is modern art not British art. So surely it should be in Tate Modern." "Every English artist who has a show in Tate Britain is finished two weeks later," says Gilbert. "It's the kiss of death. If you have Tate Modern, then the other one must be Tate Old-Fashioned. They're trying to say that they don't really believe in British modern art." It is a subject that has long exercised George. "At my first art colleges, art only came from wine growing countries. Teachers never mentioned an artist from the north. Later you couldn't be an artist unless you were from New York. That felt frightful. In that sense, to say you are English and an artist was a new idea."

This reference to his early art life – he only half-jokingly lists his teenage influences as "Jesus, mother, Van Gogh and Terry-Thomas" – remind us that while G&G was born in 1967, there was a time before Gilbert and George. In fact, George Passmore was born in Plymouth in 1942 and was brought up in Totnes in Devon. He had an absentee father, a larger-than-life mother and an elder brother who was converted to evangelical Christianity by Billy Graham and became a vicar. (Some years later his brother "saved" their missing father when he became a Christian.) George left school at 15 to work in a local bookshop, but took art classes in the evenings at the progressive Dartington Hall School where Lucian Freud had been a student before the war. His facility for drawing and painting prompted an invitation to become a full-time student and the plan was for him to move on to the Bath Academy of Art at Corsham where Howard Hodgkin was a tutor. Corsham rejected him and George left for London where he did various jobs – working in Selfridge's, in a music hall bar, and as a childminder – before enrolling at the art school of Oxford technical College en route to arriving at St Martin's in 1965.

Gilbert Proesch was born in a village in the Dolomites of northern Italy in 1943. He was from a family of village shoemakers and his early art revealed itself through traditional Alpine wood carving. He attended the Wolkenstein Art School in the next valley to his home and then, instead of taking the expected route south to Florence or Venice to continue his art education, went north to the art school at the medieval town of Hallein near Salzburg in Austria before moving on to the Munich Academy of Art where he studied for six years.

"So we are very highly trained," says George. "We did seven or eight years of naked ladies," adds Gilbert. But there was little evidence of their traditional background by the time they met at St Martin's on its renowned sculpture course. "St Martin's was very special because, briefly, it was the most famous art school in the world. And that department in particular. There were TV crews from Venezuela. We felt very arrogant about being there. They made us feel very privileged." But Gilbert and George, along with some fellow students such as Richard Long and Barry Flanagan, reacted against the orthodoxy of the time, characterised best perhaps by Anthony Caro's large abstract works, and an early product of their partnership was a jointly staged diploma show on two tables in a Soho cafe: "But we did give them tea and sandwiches when they got there." Later they photographed themselves holding sculptures before realising that they could remove the sculptures to just leave the human beings. "It was our biggest invention. We had made ourselves the artwork."

The opposition to this strategy included St Martin's writing to a potential sponsor advising having nothing to do with them. "And we felt very proud of that," says George. "We knew we were on our own. It was hard but that's why a two is such a common arrangement. It makes you stronger. People said you can't buy their art because they won't be together very long. Everyone splits up, don't they? But we didn't. It was us against the world in that the only galleries exhibiting at the time were minimal. Figurative was not really allowed. Colour was taboo. Emotions were taboo. It all had to be a circle or a square or a line. And be grey or brown or black or white." "And being in the work ourselves was not liked," adds Gilbert. "That's not the case now, everyone is in their work. But then we two were like a fortress. You become somehow untouchable."

The precise nature of their relationship has long been a source of speculation, given additional spice in the 90s when it emerged that George had been married as a young man and had two children. In 2008 Gilbert & George entered into a civil partnership, but they said at the time this was primarily to do with the practical business of protecting the others interests if one of them were to die. Even their friend, and biographer, the late Daniel Farson concluded by saying in his 1999 study of them that "frankly, I have no idea what goes on".

And far from being gay spokesmen they say they are "just the opposite". They object to their work being described as homo-erotic, claiming it is just "erotic". "Sex is just sex. When you ask for a steak in a restaurant you don't ask whether it is a girl or a boy." That said, they did complain when a critic said that at St Martin's they called themselves living sculptures while "anyone with eyes in their head could see that they were actually two fruity gays in suits". "I phoned the editor, not the writer," says George, "and she said it was meant as a compliment. I said 'Madam, you are a liar. Good day.' But I suppose it is another one of our battles in a way. So why not. We deal with everything."

In 1970 they were invited to show some of their charcoal works in Düsseldorf. "The dealer asked the price and, not thinking for one second that anyone would buy it, we said rather big-headedly, '£1000'. The next day he sold it. We were amazed and had enough money to misbehave for a year." Soon after they performed their singing sculpture in Brussels in a borrowed part of a gallery – "it would be called a pop-up space now" – and were invited, on the spot, to open Ileana Sonnabend's new gallery in New York which resulted in the NYPD having to control the crowds in one of the first downtown art events. By this time they were resident in the Fournier Street home that they have occupied ever since. They say when they bought the first house in 1972 they got a free studio at the back, when later they wanted to expand and bought the studio next door they effectively got a free house.

The change in the neighbourhood has been profound in the intervening 40 years – "We know people who live here and who have never been to Oxford Street. It's just some distant and boring place." – and the transformation of the art world has been equally dramatic. "When we were baby artists, you could ask people on the street to name an artist and they would only mention long dead ones; Michelangelo, Leonardo, Van Gogh. If you asked them to name a living murderer, they'd know two or three in prison. But that has all changed."

They are straightforward in their proselytising beliefs for art in general and theirs in particular. At St Martin's they made a looped tape recording simply saying "come to see a new sculpture" and used marshmallows and cigarettes to entice people. 'We did that because I remember Richard Hamilton coming in and speaking to seven people because no one had told the students. We thought how wretched. We never wanted to make that mistake. At least make sure people know about your work. No one has to go to an art show, but we want them to know that it is there if they did want to go. And if you take an exhibition to a city and 20 or 30,000 people see the show, your work stays with them forever. They become a little bit different than if they hadn't gone to the show."

Gilbert and George and their work have travelled all over the world including trips to China and Russia in the early 90s and most places elsewhere since. "We were recently in Gdansk where just the idea of two men being one artist is still something to get over. There may be a sense in London of people saying 'here they go again', but in other places it feels as pioneering as when we began."

Most of their early photographic work was made in the near derelict kitchen at Fournier Street. "It was very primitive", says Gilbert, "but those pieces are now some of the most expensive ones. And we didn't really know how to do it. It was a new type of art to make work out of negatives and photographs. Back then art meant oil paintings, especially for museums. To make this new work into an art form took years."

They say from the beginning they have had an eye on both posterity and the past. "We don't believe modern is it alone. We have to make an art that will survive into the future, and to prepare our pictures for that. And to take account of the past is essential." Not that they have set foot in a national gallery for years. "We know it all," says Gilbert. "But we want to be inspired by life in front of us and not that sort of brain pollution. A lot of artists go to a gallery and see a picture and then make art. We never did that." "If you have a landscape painting in a museum, people glide past it," says George. "But if there was a little policeman on the horizon and a tramp in the foreground masturbating, then it becomes an amazingly interesting picture. We have thoughts and feelings in our pictures, although that does have a price."

Preparing the vast amount of material that became the London Pictures was a physically demanding task, "but sorting through all those 'man dies' 'woman dies' left us sort of crazed," says George. "As we made these pictures we lived through them. You really began to feel it, all this death. But it is very important that we carry on telling the truth as far as we can work it out. We were making pictures then and we are making them now. It's very simple. How we are tomorrow is how our new pictures will be. But it is always a long journey, which can be exhausting and rewarding. But at the end of it, we know there will come a time when we will find ourselves standing in the middle of White Cube, holding a glass of white wine and being  licked all over by teenagers. It's quite a magic moment, and that will be that." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 01 2011

John Hoyland obituary

Prodigiously creative abstract artist whose ultra-vivid work went to painting's extremes

A painter and printmaker of prodigious creative energy and imagination, John Hoyland, who has died aged 76 of complications following heart surgery in 2008, was widely recognised as one of the greatest abstract artists of his time. From the beginning of his career, he unwaveringly championed the centrality of abstraction to the living history of modernist art. "Non-figurative imagery possessed for me," he wrote, "the potential for the most advanced depth of feeling and meaning."

For Hoyland, it was necessary for paintings to be self-sufficient machines, constructed to convey a powerful charge of visual, mental and emotional energy without recourse to any historically established figurative imagery. The expressive force of his paintings derives from the intensity and conviction of their engagement with colour, scale and abstract form, rather than with any direct expression of personal feeling. Hoyland understood the force of Braque's wonderful maxim: "Sensation, revelation!"

Hoyland was born in Sheffield to a working-class family. He was educated from the age of 11 in the junior art department at Sheffield College of Art, progressing to the senior school four years later. It was there that he met his first great friend in art, Brian Fielding, and began his passionate critical-creative engagement with painting.

The work in his finals show at the Royal Academy Schools, London, in 1960, was ordered off the walls by the then president of the Royal Academy, although Hoyland was still awarded his diploma. Within months, he was exhibiting with some of the best British artists of the day in Situation, a show of "large abstract paintings" organised by the artists themselves with a little help from the critic Lawrence Alloway. Situation kickstarted the 60s art scene, and London quickly became one of the most exciting art capitals in the world.

Hoyland was the youngest artist in the show, and his career followed a spectacular trajectory over the course of the decade. After showing in the follow-up exhibition, New London Situation, in 1961, he was taken on by Marlborough, at that time the most prestigious commercial gallery in London. When a critic described his paintings as "exquisite and refined", Hoyland was shocked: "Painting should be a seismograph of the person, and if I'm being 'exquisite', I'm being false. That's why I ditched all that optical hard-edge painting." It was by no means the last time Hoyland would attain a mastery of means, only to change direction deliberately and reinvent his manner and style.

In March 1964, Hoyland was featured in Bryan Robertson's New Generation showcase of young painters at Whitechapel Art Gallery, joining a brilliant galaxy of rising stars including Patrick Caulfield (who became a lifelong friend), David Hockney, Paul Huxley, Alan Jones and Bridget Riley. Not long after, he embarked on an astonishing series of huge acrylic canvases of high-key deep greens, reds, violets and oranges deployed in radiant fields, stark blocks and shimmering columns of ultra-vibrant colour. It was an achievement in scale and energy, sharpness of definition, originality and expressive power unmatched by any of his contemporaries, and unparalleled in modern British art. Visiting the studio in late 1965, Robertson immediately proposed a full-scale exhibition at the Whitechapel.

His one-man exhibition at that gallery in the spring of 1967 was a defining moment in the history of British abstract painting. It consolidated Hoyland's reputation, and established him without question as one of the two or three best abstract painters of his generation anywhere in the world.

Hoyland went to live and work in the United States in the late 1960s, and he was welcomed into the company of New York artists and critics including Clement Greenberg, Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, Barnett Newman and Kenneth Noland. Although he counted the younger "cooler" painters such as Noland, Larry Poons and Jules Olitski among his friends there, it was always the brave and visionary older generation painters with whom he felt most sympathy.

Newman especially struck a deep chord: "The image we produce," Newman had written, "is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete, that can be understood by anyone who will look at it without the nostalgic glasses of history."

Hoyland never felt particularly happy in the competitive hothouse of east coast painting. Encountering in a New York gallery the work of Hans Hofmann and recognising its European roots was a crucial epiphany. Acknowledging that he belonged essentially within the tradition of British and northern European colouristic expressionism, in 1973 Hoyland returned to England. Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Emil Nolde and Nicolas de Staël had all been deeply admired by Hoyland from early in his artistic life. His painting from this time until the mid-1980s was to be characterised by high colour, architectonic structures loosely based in geometric forms, and a richly textured, painterly surface.

For a talk at the Tate in the 80s, Hoyland wrote a wonderfully undiscriminating and inclusive list of the subjects, experiences and objects that fired his imagination: "Shields, masks, tools, artefacts, mirrors, Avebury Circle, swimming underwater, snorkelling, views from planes, volcanoes, mountains, waterfalls, rocks, graffiti, stains, damp walls, cracked pavements, puddles, the cosmos inside the human body, food, drink, being drunk, sex, music, dancing, relentless rhythm, the Caribbean, the tropical light, the northern light, the oceanic light. Primitive art, peasant art, Indian art, Japanese and Chinese art, musical instruments, drums, jazz, the spectacle of sport, the colour of sport, magic realism, Borges, the metaphysical, dawn, sunsets, fish eyes, trees, flowers, seas, atolls. The Book of Imaginary Beings, the Dictionary of Angels, heraldry, North American Indian blankets, Rio de Janeiro, Montego Bay!"

To which might be added: Zen poetry, classical, modern and contemporary painting and sculpture, domestic pottery, driving cars, humming birds, gulls and reptiles, eclipses of the sun and moon. At any time, Hoyland might be reading and absorbing the writings of Miró, the poetry of Frank O'Hara, the novels of Gabriel García Márquez, and Japanese and Chinese poetry. All of these things fed a voracious appetite for sensory, intellectual and emotional experience in a life of sharp sight and heightened receptivity, free of preconception and cliche.

Some critics found the uninhibited exuberance of Hoyland's later painting, its superabundance of effects and its technical extremism, overwhelming. But those who loved this work were exhilarated by its spectacular diversity of visual effect, and by its impulse towards fantasy released by a heroic ambition that took him again and again to the extreme of what painting might achieve. Hoyland was always a maker of evocative images, with a disposition to the grandly visionary-poetic which has been rare in English painting since that of his greatest heroes, Turner and Constable.

Hoyland was a critically generous and able advocate of British abstract art (he counted Anthony Caro among his closest friends, and acknowledged the great sculptor's enduring influence on him). He was a constant supporter of succeeding generations of younger abstract artists, who found in him an eloquent mentor and friend. In 1979, he selected the Hayward Annual, an exhibition that remains a landmark in the history of British abstract painting. In 1988, he curated an important exhibition at the Tate Gallery of late paintings by Hofmann. He was elected Royal Academician in 1991. In 2006, Tate St Ives held the exhibition John Hoyland: The Trajectory of a Fallen Angel, bringing together paintings from 1966 to 2003.

Hoyland was a man of acerbic wit, and a wickedly cruel mimic, but behind a carefully crafted persona there was enormous generosity of spirit and true kindness. A lover of pubs and restaurants, he was a man without side, utterly un-snobbish, and ever aware of his working-class beginnings. He was an inveterate traveller, visiting South America (with Caro), Australia (with Caulfield), and latterly Spain, Italy, Jamaica and Bali with his longterm companion, Beverley Heath, whom he married with great joy in 2008. Wherever he went, he relentlessly gathered ideas and impressions, in photographs and sketchbooks, as sources for imagery. Nothing was lost and nowhere was alien to this most complete of artists.

He is survived by Beverley; his son, Jeremy, from his first marriage, to Airi; and his mother, Kathleen.

John Hoyland, painter, printmaker and teacher, born 12 October 1934; died 31 July 2011 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 08 2011

Sir Anthony Caro disowns 'mutilated' sculpture

Artist accuses Bonhams auction house of misrepresentation after £100,000 Lagoon sculpture has metal legs welded on to it

A sculpture described as a "monumental work by Sir Anthony Caro" and expected to fetch up to £150,000 at auction has been disowned by the artist, who described it as "mutilated" and not his real work.

Caro, one of Britain's most celebrated artists, has accused Bonhams auctioneers of "misrepresentation" by describing the work as his in their catalogue.

He claims the piece, which has traces of graffiti and has had metal legs added since he sold it in 1984, has been badly cared for and altered without his permission and to auction it as a Caro infringes his "moral right as an artist".

The artist also hit out at those selling the piece, Peterborough sculpture council, as he said it was sold to them on the understanding it would be kept as a public work for future generations.

The five-metre, rusted and varnished steel sculpture entitled Lagoon is part of the 20th Century British Art sale on Wednesday, has had a catalogue estimate of between £100,000-£150,000.

Caro, who was awarded a lifetime achievement award in 1997, said: "It's been mutilated. It had legs welded on to it and it is nothing like the original. It stands several feel higher than the original. It is going on show on public exhibition as a sculpture of mine and it's not.

"I sold it to Peterborough Sculpture Trust, who I understood to be trustees for sculpture to keep for future generations. I didn't know they would use it as something to speculate with. That doesn't make me very happy."

A spokesman for Bonhams said: "The sculpture was commissioned from Sir Anthony by the Peterborough Sculpture Trust, which is now selling the work through Bonhams in order to raise funds for its other activities. The work was commissioned to stand on outside has legs for support. During its long period of exposure to the elements the sculpture has become weathered and at some time was unfortunately spray painted in some areas by vandals. The spray paint has been removed with only minor traces remaining.

"Sir Anthony contends that the legs on which the sculpture stands are not his work although that is not the recollection of the trust's staff who dealt with the installation of the piece on site many years ago. Whether Sir Anthony was responsible for the legs or not they have no impact on the artistic integrity of the piece. They are invisible when the piece is placed in the ground outside as originally intended."

Caro has offered to purchase the piece from the trust but terms have not been agreed. Bonhams said it expected the sculpture to attract considerable interest from collectors when it goes on sale.

The artist said he became aware of the alterations to Lagoon only after seeing the catalogue and denies that changes to the piece were carried out in consultation with him. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 23 2011

Modern British Sculpture – review

Royal Academy, London

Anyone who thinks Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII (the bricks) has been more reviled than any other sculpture in this country should think again. Jacob Epstein's statue of Day was regularly assaulted in the 20s. His Rima, in Hyde Park, was once tarred and feathered and you can still see the mutilated remains of his nude figures on the facade of Zimbabwe House in the Strand, noses and genitals hacked off in 1935 "on safety grounds" after years of vicious campaigning.

The bricks, by contrast, only suffered a mild dose of paint and the acid aspersions of the Sunday Times in 1976. But still the attack seems to belong to another era, an age of outrage, violence and censorship before sculpture became such a familiar, not to say popular, art form in this country.

For we are used to seeing sculpture celebrated annually on the Fourth Plinth, in the Turbine Hall, at the Turner prize. Our countryside is full of fixed Gorms. We know the art of Mark Wallinger, Cornelia Parker, Helen Chadwick, Marc Quinn, the venerable Richards Deacon and Wilson. Thousands travel to see the ghostly casts of Rachel Whiteread, the poetry of Ian Hamilton Finlay, the radiant illusions of Anish Kapoor. It is no stretch to claim, as Anthony Caro recently has, that sculpture has become our language.

So this feels like the perfect moment for an all-together-now survey of modern British sculpture. How could it possibly fail? Let me count the unexpected ways. To start with, not a single one of these British artists (bar Caro) is included. Perhaps they were not invited, perhaps they refused, but in any case the omissions weaken and distort the story.

You would not learn from this show (curated by the sculptor Keith Wilson and Penelope Curtis, director of Tate Britain) anything about the Geometry of Fear or the rise of installation art. There's no pop and not much advanced conceptualism. And if that suggests a bias away from Martin Creed, say, towards carving, casting or traditional craftsmanship, then bear in mind that all sorts of relevant candidates, from GF Watts to William Tucker to the Chapman Brothers, are also excluded.

Or, rather, Tucker is represented only in the catalogue, by his 1969 essay on modern sculpture in Studio International, just as all of Gustav Metzger's fiery creations and destructions are bypassed for a boring wall of his Page 3 girls. Half a gallery is devoted to ceramics or, rather, to demonstrating the influence of Chinese stoneware on potters like Bernard Leach, when Japan was surely as crucial.

Wonderful as it is to see the films of Len Lye screening in the Royal Academy, it is not clear why they count as sculpture, even when the definition is so elastic as to include anything (such as a happening, a performance or a Richard Long walk) that exists, or once existed, in three dimensions. And if Andre's Equivalent VIII can make the cut, though the American's minimalism never took root here, then why not Marcel Duchamp, whose influence is infinitely greater? Surely yesterday's headlines were not a factor?

In short, this show is either unintentionally patchy, perverse or a combination of the two. It spurns comprehensiveness in favour of "conversations" between exhibits. But its own tendentiousness gets in the way.

You walk into a gallery containing four flagrantly miscellaneous figures. Alfred Gilbert's neo-baroque Victoria, in which the old queen resembles nothing so much as Gilbert, or is it George, on a throne crowned with gilded lilies; Lord Leighton's classical athlete; Philip King's semi-abstract Genghis Khan and Charles Wheeler's bronze Adam, in which the pierced head admits light in most unfortunate ways, making the eyes come alive in Hammer Horror fashion.

What is the connection – leaders, empires, robes, on the one hand; heroic nudity on the other? The juxtapositions force the issue, but the bathetic answer is that these artists were all Royal Academicians (three former presidents, we're told, as if that matters).

The opening gallery is bent on displaying what every schoolgirl knows, namely the influence of ancient cultures on early 20th-century art. Tremendous loans from the British Museum alternate with modern sculptures so that one sees, definitively, the lessons of Indian carving for Eric Gill, the effect of Aztec figures upon Henry Moore, what Epstein took from Egyptian art.

It is an exemplary exercise, to be sure, but also a knockout for modern art. Every piece here is lessened by comparison. Gill looks like an art deco stylist, Gaudier-Brzeska appears silly, and next to the stupendous Assyrian reliefs he revered, Sargeant Jagger's first world war frieze looks about as sophisticated as sculpted icing.

Too often, the art is presented to make a point, or even two. Moore and Hepworth: figurative v abstract, horizontal v vertical. Gilbert's Victoria: commemoration v propaganda. The approach is vigorous and should keep visitors moving briskly – assuming they are not intent on the sculptures as art.

One hundred and twenty artists to choose from, yet so many poor or unrepresentative works. Why not borrow Gaudier-Brzeska's marvellous Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound instead of his dog? How about Damien Hirst's elegiac Away From the Flock, not another case full of flies. Sarah Lucas, Rebecca Warren, Richard Wentworth: none is well represented. Wilson even asks in his catalogue essay, as if to acknowledge the fact, whether weak works say more than strong ones.

There are brilliant moments in this show, it's true. To open with a replica of Edwin Lutyens's Cenotaph, that soaring monument that seems like the bright, solid opposite of a grave (and what associations with absent Whiteread) is to strike at the whole definition of sculpture right away. To see Epstein breaking free of the British Museum is to understand his thunderous impact on British sculpture.

And Anthony Caro's Early One Morning, with its dazzling array of steel girders, tubes and backboards, shifted and tilted until the forms seem to react to one another, signalling or springing flirtatiously apart, remains forever young. Open, free, airily articulate, its scarlet feet barely touching the ground, it feels perennially new after 50 years.

From Caro to Kapoor, there are so many different strains of abstraction in British sculpture; so many, and perhaps more, of figuration. You could tell a tale of primitive idols, hyper-real effigies and eerie tableaux, of philosophy, memory and the landscape transformed, of ideas made visible and dramatic illusions, of humour and politics and strange beauty: of immense creative richness.

But none of this is touched upon at the Royal Academy, with its joyless chronology and lack of focus, shape or story. In fact, by the time you reach the final room, where the objects are displayed like Hoovers in a shop, you may have lost heart, and no wonder. It would be hard to imagine a major exhibition that showed modern British sculpture to less advantage. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 27 2010

Tactility and turbulence

When Henry Moore's sculptures were first displayed, they were so shocking opponents decapitated them and daubed them with paint. A retrospective at Tate Britain explores the impulses that led to these controversial works. It is a magnificent rehabilitation, says Hilary Spurling

The only time I ever met Henry Moore was in the 1960s, when one of my first jobs, as a temporary British Council dogsbody, was to escort a visiting Israeli sculptor on a trip to Moore's headquarters at Much Hadham in Hertfordshire. We found him in his studio supervising a couple of assistants, all three dwarfed by the sloping mounds and cavities of a colossal work in progress made out of white poly­styrene. It was one of a steady stream of public pieces trundling out of Much Hadham ready to be finalised, as Moore explained, in bronze or marble. We set out on a motor tour of the grounds. When we reached another mighty piece positioned at the bottom of a field, Moore stopped the car, hopped out and made us both lie flat on the ground beneath his sculpture. "I want you to look up at it and think of infinity," he instructed his distinguished guest.

Timelessness, monumentality and permanence were essential qualities for Moore. He must have been the last major artist to see sculpture in these terms, and he was certainly by far the most successful in marketing it worldwide as a standard complement to the proliferating office blocks and municipal buildings constructed on a previously unheard-of scale from the 1950s onwards. For two or three decades he officially exemplified postwar civic reconstruction (and inevitably in due course its failures). "I grew up with a numbing sense of familiarity to his work," says one of the young British artists quoted in the catalogue to the Tate's new show. "There is something deeply unexotic about Henry Moore's work."

Its sleek glossy surfaces and elephantine mass, its towers and triumphal arches seeming to exude reassurance and nostalgia for a lost stability, spread everywhere. "I can't separate Moore from the idea of public space and of art seen in the context of town planning,' says Gareth Jones (whose own recent preference is for elegant understated works in materials such as Fablon, newsprint and chipboard). Commissions from 1950s English new towns, promptly followed by Unesco in Paris and the Lincoln Centre in New York, made a bronze or marble Moore an international badge of prestige and rank.

Cities vied for his attention. "Toronto was a hick town," said its mayor, explaining how the city bought its first Moore in 1966 in a successful attempt to reverse its image: "I was interested in seeing that it turned the corner of becoming a great metropolis" (Toronto is the Tate's partner in this exhibition). Ten years later a city-hall Moore did much the same for Dallas.

Moore's progress stupefied his fellow artists. For younger generations his work was a brooding presence, difficult to get through to and impossible to get away from. The Moore bronze on the forecourt of the Chelsea School of Art felt to student Steve Claydon "like an unwelcome uncle whose apparent intention it was to embarrass you in front of your friends". Moore himself had made a prescient drawing in 1942, Crowd Looking at a Tied-Up Object, showing a huddle of small, thin, nervous people staring up at a towering monolith, wrapped and roped like one of Moore's own later works in transit. Successive waves of sculptors had to fight back or be stifled by him. "Much of my early work was a kind of dismissal of Moore," says the stone-carver Peter Randall-Page. "I call him Heinrich Moore," says Michael Sandle.

In 1967 17 leading British artists – including Anthony Caro, a former assistant from Much Hadham and himself now the grand old man of British sculpture – wrote to the Times repudiating Moore and all he stood for. The trouble was that for most of them it was Moore himself who had opened up the paths that he simultaneously blocked off. Their predicament was succinctly summed up two years later in Bruce McLean's Reclining Nude, Fully Draped, a photograph of a human body shrouded in an enormous rumpled sheet. "It's me (fully clothed, actually) underneath that dustsheet," said McLean.

For its first 40 years Moore's life had been a different story. Stone was his preferred medium and, though he always had supporters, his work remained largely unknown outside the tiny circles of a British avant garde. There were virtually no bronzes before 1939. What he liked was slamming into stone with punch and pitcher, or hewing treetrunks with an axe. Extreme violence – "knocking, carving or bursting pieces off" – was followed by interminable weeks or months of minute labour, "like a mouse gnawing a hole in a wall". The aim was a release of tensions in the stone that seemed to correspond to some sort of internal pressure in the sculptor himself.

Moore made his early works from odd slabs of local stone picked up cheap in masons' yards. Often, you can still sense the confines of the rectangular blocks they came from, but already they seem to take up more space than they actually occupy. The Tate show opens with a massively uncompromising Mother and Child in dark grey Hornton stone – "a small mountain of a work" said Antony Gormley – confronting allcomers in a powerful, lively, complicated knot of interlocking heads and arms. Woman with Upraised Arms looks from the back like a mountainside herself, a pale, freckled expanse of sloping stone with a long, straight stream of hair spilling down between her shoulder blades.

Landscape and the female figure ("in my work women must outnumber men by at least fifty to one") fused in Moore's imagination from the start. The lovely riverine Reclining Figure of 1929, carved from a stone as muddy, soft and aqueous as the English weather, retains traces of watery origins in the shiny brown trickles of some mineral deposit animating elbow and knee, and in the wavy bands of drab grey and dirty yellow tracking horizontally through the rhythmic ­geometry of sturdy thighs and forearms. It is in part their ambiguity that gives these works a concentrated energy too often lacking from even the most polished of Moore's experiments with pure abstraction. They combine minute and drastically compressed observation with the ruthless vision of a practitioner who never stopped, never looked back, never did the same thing twice, working as if he risked his future with each fresh piece.

A group of a dozen young women with small, alert, expressive heads and expansive bodies await attention in the first room. Assured and humorous, lounging full length or poised calmly on slender, upright torsos, they nonetheless convey a palpable collective perplexity and disquiet. Several wring their hands. One with trapped tongue, pinpoint nose and squinty eyes seems to follow you round the show. A still more disconcerting figure, glistening like shiny, dappled frogskin, fixes her stare on the space above your head. These figures owe much to the ethnic prototypes Moore studied in the British Museum, and as much perhaps to Cézanne's bathers, nudes "sliced out of mountain rock" that came as a revelation when he first saw them in Paris as a student.

His studies of women suckling their children outraged contemporaries in the 1930s, and it is not hard to see why. In the Tate's mother-and-baby room, mothers swerve back or gaze blankly anywhere but at the infants, replete and lolling or grabbing and gorging on the breast. Emotional dislocation culminates in an uncharacteristically explicit mother with serrated head who seems, as Lyndsey Stonebridge puts it in her catalogue essay, "about to throttle her child", itself a birdlike creature, all vicious pecking beak and frighteningly long thrashing neck.

But it was the containment of inner perturbation that remained always Moore's speciality. He was 41 when he sold a Recumbent Figure to the Contemporary Art Society in 1939 as a present for the Tate, whose most ­notorious director, JB Manson, had declared the year before that Moore would enter the gallery over his dead body. Manson was replaced and the gift accepted within 12 months. Recumbent Figure is one of the highlights of the present show, an airy, graceful mass of striated stone that surrenders weight and density to the surging line of shoulder, buttock, hip and thigh, comprised in a single twisting curve like a wave with crests at either end on head and knee. Its purchase was a decisive stage in Moore's move from the private to the public arena. Two years later he finally gave up teaching to become a full-time artist. "It's never been like this for me before," he said in 1941, when the War Artists' Committee bought his drawings of people sheltering in the London underground from Nazi bombs, and asked for more.

If Moore's shelter drawings marked the point at which demand first outstripped supply, they also touched a depth of communal experience neither he nor anybody else had explored before. Moore said the only thing he could compare with the London shelters was the hold of a slave ship. The figures slumped beneath these cavernous vaults in Mooreish poses – sloping legs and supporting arms protruding from mounded bodies with broad, hollow laps – represent at bottom an unheroic civilian vision of war's passivity, helplessness and squalor. "They are life to which things (terrible things) are being done," Geoffrey Grigson wrote at the time. In retrospect some saw them as a foretaste of Belsen and Buchenwald. Certainly they were forerunners of the lank, fleshless, blank-eyed, slack-bellied bronze figures he made in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

Moore was unanimously promoted soon after the war as this country's representative of modern art, a role that turned out to be one part figurehead to three parts punchbag. It is difficult now to conceive the degree of ignorance behind this remarkable reversal, or to convey the sheer lack of information available in a Britain without TV, let alone the internet, at a time when there was no cheap foreign travel, no contemporary art galleries, no affordable artbooks, not even glossy magazines. Like most of my generation, I grew up knowing about modernism, if at all, from Punch cartoons in dentists' waiting rooms. I understood that it consisted of women with pinheads and holes where their hearts should be long before I saw my first real Moore.

This was not a specifically British condition, although it was admittedly aggravated by physical and moral insularity. The hostility spearheaded in this country by two former presidents of the Royal Academy, Alfred Munnings and Charles Wheeler (still protesting in the Times about "bronze oddities" as late as 1967), was replicated in civic warfare all over Europe and America wherever it was publicly proposed to buy or show Moore's work. His sculptures were decapitated in Dumfries and daubed with blue paint in Leeds. His Recumbent Figure had her head chopped off on a wartime loan to MoMa in New York, his Spindle Piece was vandalised with metal chains in Houston, and his Draped Seated Woman ended up tarred and feathered in the Ruhr.

The current show attempts to go back behind Moore's smooth beneficent public face to the secret impulses that prompted this visceral response. Its catalogue explores the turbulence and terror of what everyone who knew him agreed was a ferocious inner life, and traces his responses to the Spanish civil war as well as to the two world wars he lived through. The show stops in the late 50s, well short of the industrial production line he eventually set up to accommodate vastly increased output and incomings. It is a magnificent rehabilitation but it could have finished the job by arguing that Moore in his last two decades, when he modelled his work out of cheap, flimsy materials such as plaster, wax and polystyrene, was still as far ahead of his times as he always had been.

"It's having the idea how to do it that is difficult," he said, "not the physical effort." Moore's work, supremely visual, sensual and tactile in its early phases, remained intensely reflective to the end. He said he could never read a book on a train for fear of missing something outside the window. He started from the Yorkshire moors that surrounded him in childhood, incorporating in his work the forms of their component parts: caves, crags, hillsides, flints, pebbles, shells and bones. "You can feel that a bone has had some sort of use in its life; it has experienced tensions, has supported weights and has actually performed an organic function."

You could say the same of Moore's work over the entire span of his career. His early pieces go back to a world in some ways almost unimaginably different from our own. He went on to mirror in his work a communal postwar response to wholesale destruction, atrocity and dispersal as well as to the slow, brutal process of reconstruction that followed. He ended up complementing on a global scale the vast, bland, impersonal constructions of the evolving urban landscape that was his as much as ours.

Henry Moore is at Tate Britain until 8 August. Tel: 020 7887 8888. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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