GRACED with a knighthood, accorded a dozen honorary degrees and acclaimed as Britain's greatest living sculptor, Sir Anthony Caro celebrated his 80th birthday last year. Still steaming along at full throttle, he unveiled a new body of work in an exhibition at Kenwood House, a historic mansion in north London, and prepared for the 53-year retrospective that would usher in his 81st year at the Tate Britain, the national gallery of British art on the north bank of the River Thames.
The retrospective was too unwieldy to travel, except for an abbreviated version at the Institut Valencia d'Art Modern in Spain through Sept. 4. But now Southern California is gearing up for its own Caro fest. "Anthony Caro: A Life in Sculpture: The Kenwood Series," opening Saturday at Scripps College in Claremont, will present 13 clay, metal and stone sculptures unveiled last year at Kenwood House. In Los Angeles, "Anthony Caro Sculpture 1966-1983," featuring seven large steel abstractions, will open Sept. 10 at Marc Selwyn Fine Art and the Daniel Weinberg Gallery on mid-Wilshire Boulevard.
The convergence of the shows is a fortunate coincidence that will provide a substantial showcase for a highly influential artist whose work is rarely seen here in depth. Selwyn and Weinberg will offer examples of the work that established Caro as a pillar of high Modernism. At Scripps, a traveling exhibition organized by ceramics dealer and scholar Garth Clark will offer insight into Caro's depth and breadth. After its California debut, the show will move on to Bentley Projects in Phoenix and the Garth Clark Gallery in New York.
Although he's known for massive metal constructions that define open spaces rather than fill them with solid volumes, Caro is a master of many materials who has explored expressive figures and politically charged themes as well as pure abstraction. In the last decade he has pondered human conflict and violence in large installations: "The Trojan War," a tableau in stone, steel and wood; "The Last Judgment," a walk-through environment of terra cotta, wood and steel shown at the 1999 Venice Biennale; and "The Barbarians," a battalion of stoneware, wood and steel warriors mounted on horses. At the moment he is working on steel pieces related to architecture, which he hopes to show in the U.S. in the next year or two.
"This is someone who is using every sound in the orchestra," said Karen Wilkin, a New York-based Caro scholar who will give a lecture on his work at Scripps on Sept. 17. "He is not leaving out a single instrument. Even though the works in the Kenwood Series at first may seem unrelated to what he is known for, he has never restricted himself. For the last 15 or 20 years he has been exploring more and more materials."
If a single thread ties his work together, it may be his ability to surprise his audience as he revisits familiar themes and broaches new subjects. Despite the size and weight of his art, he retains a spirit of ingenuity and freshness.
And that's essential, Caro wrote recently in an e-mail response to questions about his work.
"The art in sculpture depends in a large part on the immediate putting into real physical materials of the artist's feelings," he wrote. "All my work has about it a degree of spontaneity; this is something I strive for."
In his trademark steel abstractions, he has combined beams, plates, tubes, screens and cutout shapes in three-dimensional constructions. For the Kenwood Series, he worked in ceramist Hans Spinner's studio near Cannes, France, to make stoneware components that would be wedded to steel pipes and cast iron machine parts in table-like forms. Dark and heavy and given evocative titles such as "Orator," "Provisions," "Summit Table" or "Children's Games," the tables resemble the charred remains of business meetings, recreation rooms and kitchens. Two other pieces in the series -- a limestone and steel structure called "The Palace" and a long, low "Shelter" -- reflect Caro's interest in architectural forms.
"In ceramic clay in particular," he wrote, "any fussing with the material makes the work look tired and dead. It has to be worked on spontaneously and left or else thrown away and one starts afresh. This suits me very well. It means that I can work with the wet clay for a short time, then bring the fired parts to my studio in London and use them in sculpture in a less immediate way."
Recalling his history of working with clay, Caro wrote that he used "oily modeling clay" in his early days and explored other forms of the material before making his chunky stoneware pieces with Spinner. "Clay is a highly responsive material and very appealing. It offers less resistance than wood, steel or stone, and it has always been tempting to work with."