March 8, 1924, is the birthdate of the late, great British sculptor Anthony Caro, who swung between phases of both figurative and abstract art, and was perceived, at various times, as both avant-garde and establishment. When he died, in 2013, most obituaries referred to him as one of the world’s greatest contemporary sculptors.
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Anthony Alfred Caro was born in New Malden, southwest of London, and was the youngest of three children. His father, Alfred Haldenstein Caro, was a stockbroker, who had married a distant cousin, the former Mary Rose Edith Haldinstein.
When Anthony was 3, the family moved out to a farm in Churt, Surrey. Beginning in 1937, he attended the private Charterhouse School (founded in 1611), in nearby Godalming. It is then that he began doing sculpture – in clay – working during school holidays in the studio of the then-prominent artist Charles Wheeler.
(The Caro family, though Jewish, was not religiously observant. In the 1930s, however, as the situation for Jews in Germany became more perilous, Mary Rose Caro arranged for an old friend and her three children to move from Germany to the United Kingdom, and to pay the children’s school fees.)
No ham, on the table
Anthony’s father was determined to have his son go into business, like him, but when it became clear that he wasn’t interested, he agreed to have him study engineering, which he did at Christ’s College, Cambridge, until entering the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy.
Only after his release, in 1946, did his father relent, and Antony began studying sculpture at London’s Regent Street Polytechnic, before undergoing a full, traditional education at the Royal Academy Schools.
In 1949, Caro met and married a student of painting from the Academy, Sheila Girling. She recalled to the Guardian, in 2013, how Tony had wanted to get married just three months after they met, but “there were some complications in that Tony was Jewish.”
The difficulties apparently came from her side, since, she noted, “his family were never strict – his father would allow the ham to be carved on the sideboard, but not on the table.”
Life in a converted piano factory
The couple, who had adjacent art studios at their home, a converted piano factory, in Camden, London, had two sons, born 1951 and 1958.
In 1951, Caro became a part-time assistant to the sculptor Henry Moore, and his early works were figurative, in the tradition of Moore. It was a 1959 visit to the United States that pushed Caro in the direction of complete abstraction.
Probably his two most important encounters there were with the critic Clement Greenberg, a cheerleader for abstract expressionism, and the sculptor David Smith, who was creating large-scale abstract works in steel.
“America made me see that there are no barriers and no regulations,” Caro observed in conversation with an art critic in 1961.
By 1963, with a show of 15 large, painted steel pieces at the Whitechapel Gallery, in London, he had arrived. The sculptures’ lack of subject, and the fact that they stood directly on the floor, rather than on a pedestal, was revelatory for viewers.
In the 1970s, Caro began making truly monumental sculptures with untreated, unpainted rolled steel. In 1980s and 1900s, he did several series of figurative works, inspired by such subjects as the Parthenon and the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia.
He spoke about a desire to do a Holocaust-related work, but by 2008, explained to the Jewish Chronicle that he was stymied by “the specificity of the Holocaust I can’t quite see my way around it. I don’t know how I would do it. It would have to be very, very abstract."
Christian art came more naturally to him, and in that same year, he saw the unveiling of “The Chapel of Light,” his nine-part series of works – some figurative, some abstract -- created over a decade for the choir section of a bombed-out (from World War II) church in Bourbourg, France.
Caro taught art for much of his life, and continued creating art until the very end, which came on October 23, 2013, when he died, suddenly, of a heart attack.