Anthony Caro in the yard of his London home.

Eavesdropping on Artists' Lives: The life and career of Anthony Caro

Artist Richard Wentworth muses on his experience of making his life story recording for Artists’ Lives, and responds to extracts from the recordings made by sculptor Anthony Caro and gallerist, John Kasmin.

Making my Artists’ Lives recording has raised many questions for me. What to say? How to say it? What to reveal? What to withhold? The trust, curiosity and patience of National Life Stories’ interviewers is as provocative as it is encouraging. Each session is around three hours long. I don’t prepare but I try to keep my wits about me. I think about the processes of recall and the tripwires of memory. In each recording session I wonder about ‘truth’ and ‘fairness’.

The recordings are unusual. They are sometimes made over many years, and they set the making of art in the context of a person’s whole life. I was born in 1947. My time as a schoolboy coincided with significant changes in physics, technology, and social expectations. The transistor radio, vinyl records, the LP (Long Playing Record) and the Sunday colour supplements which came as part of the newspapers were just a few of the ‘inventions’, which touched my teenage years. I was too young to understand the ways in which society was changing but I could feel it happening.

An encounter with Anthony Caro’s sculpture Prairie

After studying at Hornsey College of Art, I was a student at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London from 1966-1970. One lunchtime, in 1967, along with my girlfriend Sarah, I visited the Kasmin Gallery in Bond Street. It was the first time I saw Anthony Caro’s sculpture, Prairie. On my earlier visits to the gallery, I had appreciated the grey Pirelli rubber floor that was a part of the architectural treatment of the gallery interior. The rubber floor was quite a statement, so seeing Prairie had the added surprise of a fresh setting as Kasmin had committed to a completely new timber strip floor. This not only took the weight of the sculpture but also changed the ‘temperature’ of the space.

Prairie is a complex and heavy sculpture, an assembly of assorted steel components. The whole sculpture is painted over with a very distinctive matt buff paint. Binding it with a single colour helps the eye see the overall composition. You understand it has been willed into being and is unambiguous. It doesn’t hesitate, it’s just ‘there’!

Despite the engineering of its form, Prairie seemed a ‘light’ confection. In our everyday bodily experiences we sense the weight (and ‘temperature’) of materials. We know that a bridge is heavy, but some bridges are so well engineered that we experience ‘lightness’. We enjoy the contradiction. Prairie is a bit like that. You can feel all those downward pressures but the overall experience is one of orchestrated weightlessness. It is counter-intuitive.

Prairie took my breath away. Partly it was the way it filled the gallery. It was also my delight in recognising how it had been made. Sculptors sometimes begin to try out an idea by drawing. Or, with a heavy sculpture, by using more manageable ‘stand-in’ materials to experiment. I sensed though, that Caro probably didn’t start with a ‘sketch’ and then shape the sculpture using the drawing as a ‘plan’. It wasn’t a ‘design’.

I guess that Prairie was made by Caro directing studio assistants to manhandle each of the steel parts until he felt they were in the right relationship to one another. When cutting steel, chalk is the usual marking tool, so it’s probable that there would have been chalk marks on the floor as the parts got arranged. In my recording I mention the sculptors Tim Scott and David Annesley. They were students of Caro at what was then called St Martin’s School of Art. Like many of his students at different times, they also became his studio assistants. Their own work shows that they were affected by him.

Anthony Caro’s teaching

I love listening to Kasmin’s recording. Caro was celebrated as a teacher at St Martin’s School of Art. I was never directly taught by him but Kasmin’s account of the way Caro would hold seminars around his sculptures in the gallery confirms what he was like. It compares with two occasions when I snuck in to his studio critiques at St Martin’s.

When you listen to the Artists’ Lives recordings it’s important to give attention to the pauses and gaps, the different expressions of feelings that are revealed by the way in which people speak. Just hearing a few seconds of anybody’s voice tells you a lot about them. Caro (1924-2013) was a little younger than my parents. In his recording his voice has an infectious frankness and sense of purpose. It has a whiff of the officer class. Well into the 1980s it was easy to hear men and women whose spoken delivery carried a tone of assured confidence.

Influences on Anthony Caro

Caro had begun as a figurative sculptor working in clay and plaster and sometimes casting in bronze. That’s how ‘things were done’ then. Like me, but much more seriously, he had worked for the sculptor Henry Moore at Perry Green. In the next extract, he remembers his first steps in making abstract large-scale work in steel. You hear how little he was interested in the process of making. How urgently he wanted to reach the end result. His change to working with steel came about after a visit he made to the United States when he sought out the American sculptor, David Smith. Caro acknowledges his debt to the critic, Clement Greenberg, whose views were to have a profound effect on him.

Another person who had a continuous influence on Caro was Sheila Girling, a painter, and also Caro’s wife. The following snippet from Kasmin’s recording illustrates her involvement and how Kasmin sometimes felt about it.

I love the fact that Shelia seems unaware of Kasmin’s bemused frustrations when the shows were being installed.

Bit by bit the oral histories add pieces to the jigsaw, constructing a sense of these times. This is especially so when Caro describes the ‘competitive boys’ on the ping pong table and how fashions in psychiatry were making people much more vocal and emotionally direct. The ‘competitive boys’ are painters Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski. The account dates from the time Caro and Girling were living in America, when Caro was teaching at Bennington College in Vermont.

Related oral history recordings

Follow the links below to listen to the life story recordings of individuals mentioned in this essay:

Sheila Girling

Many more life story recordings from Artists' Lives and other projects are available on British Library Sounds.

Selected extracts from the exhibition Artists' Lives: Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery (Tate Britain 2016-2018) are also available on British Library Sounds in Curator's Choice.

  • Richard Wentworth
  • Richard Wentworth (b.1947) is an artist working primarily with sculpture and photography. Since the late 1960s, his work has been concerned with material, language and the ways that humans cope with their environment. Countering the trend towards gigantism in post-war British sculpture, his work has always found aesthetic merit in modest events and things. Wentworth's repurposing of everyday objects continues the language game of the ready-made, begun by Duchamp, extending and inflecting it with a unique precision and material sensitivity.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.