We went to see the exhibition of sculpture by Anthony Caro in the Chatsworth gardens today. The works are laid out in a circuit around the Canal Pond and in full view of the house.
I was not familiar with Caro’s work before seeing this exhibition, which is probably a rather shameful observation as he is, at 88, one of the UK’s most senior and distinguished sculptors. He has apparently never previously wanted his work to be exhibited outside, preferring it to be shown in large, quiet halls where it does not have to fight for attention with the landscape. But in fact the works are certainly of a scale to be shown outside and indeed it is probably the tension between the large, abstract, steel sculptures and the background of Chatsworth and its carefully managed natural landscape which most intrigued me about the exhibition. My sense was that set against a sterile background, the work itself would become rather sterile.
Even with this background it is is not an easy exhibition to enjoy. The work has little direct emotional draw; it is an intellectual challenge. The narrative and meaning of the works is not entirely clear, at least to the uninformed. I was therefore forced to reflect on the pieces almost as architectural studies and whether the form and substance resonates with the landscape. The work is not helped either by the numerous signs requiring you not to touch or climb upon the works. The signs themselves are frequently distracting but, more importantly, the size and three-dimensional nature of the work is just begging to be touched and explored. Indeed some of the pieces could not really be fully seen because you could not clamber up them. I realise the need to protect arts works, but these are made of industrial strength steel plate and would be difficult indeed to damage; it was a disappointment not to be able to feel the surfaces or explore the interiors of some of the work.
The first piece you see when approaching the Canal Pond is Goodwood Steps (1994-6). This is the most monumental of the works consisting of seven large stepped structures arrayed directly in front of Chatsworth. If ever a work was defined in terms of its context, this was it. It was the very contrast between the structure of the work and the facade of Chatsworth that defined the work, and made it one of the most interesting things in the exhibition.
Down either side Canal Pond were ranged a series of works, each large but dwarfed by Goodwood Steps. Two of them are illustrated above. I confess that these works largely left me cold. Perhaps this is where Caro was right and they were, individually at least, left looking rather puny by their surroundings.
All of the work I have mentioned thus far was essentially unfinished steel which has been allowed to rust, though they had subsequently developed or had added a protective patina. Actually, it looked like they had developed a patina from being repeatedly handled which made the prohibition from so doing particularly frustrating.
But at the far end of the exhibition are two very different, brightly coloured, works, the earliest in the exhibition. To me these had great appeal. The colour change the luminance of the work – it was a very grey day. it emphasised the three dimensional nature. It reinforced the contrast between the steel fabrication and the natural world and it breathed life into the work.
The final piece which I saw as we started to leave was Vespers, positioned a little away from the rest of the works at the beginning of a long avenue of trees leading to a large urn on an elevated pillar. Again, this was painted and I felt worked rather well.
Overall, this is clearly an exhibition which anyone interested in C20 British Art should try to see. There is much to admire and even more to think about. And for someone already familiar with and committed to Caro as an artist it will be a unique opportunity to see so many works in such a setting. Not everything on show moved me or resonated with me, but that does not mean that I regretted the visit for a second.