Caro at Chatsworth, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, UK

The crooked cone that tops St Mary’s church tower came into view as the taxi taking me to see Chatsworth’s show of work by Anthony Caro sped away from Chesterfield station. The spire struck me as a true and extraordinary piece of sculpture, suggesting the raised limb of some grotesque life form. But I was on my way to see 16 works brought together from Caro’s own collection as a representative survey of his own work in sculpture from 1960 to 2000 and, although his pieces are similarly made from elements of the building trade, they would have little else in common with St Mary’s spire.

It was at the end of the 1950s that the sculptor separated himself from tradition, and from his powerful early mentor, Henry Moore. It was a decisive break and made with panache. Not now, for Caro, modelling, moulding or carving, but the industrial work of welding and riveting; not the mallet and chisel, or shaping with hands, but the spanner, bolt cutter and oxyacetylene blowtorch. At that time, on both sides of the Atlantic, the link between sculpture or painting and the messily emotional business of organic life was being rejected. But Caro’s uncompromising embrace of manufactured metallica – angle-irons, steel-plates, I-beams and RSJs – did so by means that were all his own.

His method brings to mind the heavy industry of the time – English shipyards on the Mersey and the Tyne, the steelworks of Sheffield and Corby, and frames of brutalist tower blocks that were rising all over the country. But Caro was not trying to evoke the products of those industries, nor even the components of those products. In the classic Caro sculpture, girders and steel-plate neither represent something else, nor appear in his work as themselves. They are simply components in a system of non-representation, and should be defined as exercises in modernist abstraction, verging on minimalism.

But there was, even then, a tantalising side to Caro, a hovering on the edge of representation, that distinguished him from the solemnity of his starker minimalist contemporaries. He often attached a misleading or, at least, unhelpful name to a work: here we have “Egyptian”, “Forum”, “Vespers” and “Cliff Song”. One of the better-known formative works, made in 1962, is of two rectangular plates of steel, with deep flanges riveted along their longer sides. These are placed side by side, but one of them is canted upwards, as if caught half way through some reciprocal movement. The ambiguous title, “Lock”, nudges the game along: if this is a mechanism it is all gummed up, and parts of it have been removed. But, then again, it probably isn’t. Other pieces too – “Emma Gate” and “Fathom” – look as if they just could, once, have been something constructed or mechanical, but have become jammed, dissembled and depleted. “Pleat’s Flat” (1974) might conceivably be a broken section of slatted fencing, while a late piece, “Egyptian” (1999-2000), looks from certain angles like amputated elements of a storage unit.

All these impressions are illusions from which the viewer inevitably awakes, before returning to the purity of non-meaning. However, the largest sculpture here, “Goodwood Steps” (1994-5), signalled three different kinds of departure from previous norms. It is made up of six identical pairs of what are undoubtedly stairs, three going up and three down, on bases linking the pairs, in turn at front and back. The first novelty here is that, while the younger Caro had not been interested in making objects that could not be walked around in a few strides, or were higher than a person’s reach, this is a monumental piece, more than 30 metres long. Secondly, Caro had previously made a fetish of asymmetry – of barely achieved balance – but “Goodwood Steps” has meticulous symmetry in its very essence. Finally, the piece has manifest content and opens itself to the viewer’s interpretation; it looks, in short, not unlike an artist’s installation.

There are other ways in which this exhibition might dismay Caro purists. All the works are distributed around Chatsworth’s long, rectangular Canal Pond, which stretches away from William Talman’s imposing south front – in its time just as revolutionary a thing as the sculpture it currently looks out on. Yet Caro himself used to insist that his work is best seen in an enclosed space. A more important and constant stricture was that the objects should rest unmediated on the floor, and never on any kind of podium. Here, by contrast, two pieces are placed on small, specially built paved terraces to compensate for sloping ground. They look just like plinths.

From the window of the homeward train, I look out on trackside industrial spaces around Derby and Leicester. Many have rusty detritus reminiscent of Caro’s sculptural raw material – prefabricated steel sheets, joists, fence-posts, piping, angle-brackets. The industrial heavy metalwork that once provided his inspiration is now mostly done in other parts of the world. As this useful survey shows, his art has moved on too – even to the extent of colonising, for a few months at least, a green and resolutely pre-industrial baroque landscape.

Until July 1

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