Presentness is Grace

“All sculptors have dreams of defying gravity. One of the inherent qualities about sculpture is its heaviness, its substance. There is an attraction in the dream of putting heavy pieces calmly up in the air and getting them to stay there. I have tried to do this, for example, in Month of May. But later I realized that if you can make the floor act as part of the sculpture and not just the base, then the pieces will float and move anyway. In Prairie, the tubing appears to float, just extending into the air. I would like to make sculptures that are more abstract. Sculpture of its nature is not as abstract as painting. The sculptor’s problem right now, I think, is to make sculpture more abstract than it has been before. In the last few years, sculpture became more anonymous in order to get away from the tyranny of materials. And the treatment and paint surface all gave it a blandness. Right now, I wonder if sculpture could gain impetus from more feeling for material, possibly for materials that haven’t much been associated with it—string or paper, for example. Making sculpture more abstract doesn’t necessarily take away its reality, its stuffiness.” [Anthony Caro in conversation with Phyllis Tuchman]

“Presentness is not a quality or attribute of an object (like its dimensions, color, shape, etc.) that is possessed by the object for as long as the object exists in the world. It is or was a concept that was pertinent at a particular moment of crisis in the history of art. At a time when the question could not be avoided of whether the art of painting (and of sculpture) had already ended, the “presentness” of the modernist work was achieved insofar as the work was able to “compel conviction” in the beholder. The power of an art work to convince the beholder of its aesthetic quality (measured against the standards established by works of the past the quality of which is not in doubt) is the same as the work’s power to convince the beholder (in the grip of the experience of viewing it) that this is a painting (or sculpture), rather than a literal object in the world like any other object. Modernism affirmed that the question of classification (“is it art”) is inseparable from the question of evaluation (“is it good art?”). Something counts as a painting or sculpture only to the extent that it compels conviction in its quality; apart from its capacity to convince, an object that is nominally or trivially art (e.g., by virtue of the fact that it is displayed in an art gallery) is not art at all. (It follows that objects made and displayed in the spirit of Dada, which rely on the irony of non-art announcing itself as “art” fail to raise the question they purport to ask.) And because the value of a thing is never secured once and for all – because there are no objective criteria that distinguish between a fraudulent work and the real thing – presentness achieved is always in danger of being lost as conviction lapses or dissipates, leaving in its place a mere object. In other words, presentness is always achieved under the pressure of “objecthood”, and the constancy of this pressure implies that the practice of modernism (whether that of the artist or a modernist critic like Michael Fried) invariably conveys a sense of moral urgency. While this sense of moral urgency is present in all of Fried’s critical writing, it acquired a quasi-religious apocalyptic tone in “Art and Objecthood”, as expressed in its final sentence: “Presentness is grace.” [Carl Kandutsch on Caro, Fried, and “Deep Body Blue”]

“Every change that I made, and indeed make, is to try and make my sculpture more real. I’ve said that before, and when you’ve said something before in interviews you wonder if it’s just a repeat performance. But no, it’s true. I didn’t want to go into abstraction, I didn’t want to be avant garde. I simply wanted to make sculpture that hit the solar plexus, sculpture that really expressed my feelings. Yes, I wanted a surprise from it, a charge from it. But I simply couldn’t see a way of doing that in a figurative way. I had tried. After I left Henry Moore I had looked at De Kooning and Dubuffet and Bacon. For several years, I felt I had to go in an expressionist direction. After a few years, it wore thin….
I believe that we need to keep pressing into the unknown. Like making something which may not even be art—because the like of it has never been seen before. And then you can’t talk about quality. As a critic, you can talk about quality, because you judge art which has already been made. Artists can’t. They can’t talk in these terms because they don’t know what the hell it is, they don’t know where the hell they are. If they do know these things, they’re only setting the seal on the past. Artists have to use their intelligence and have the conviction that their intent makes sense, then they’re forced to keep going that way. All those interesting questions you’ve asked are questions that come from the critic’s standpoint but the artist comes from somewhere else. Clem had it right when he said the Impressionists had no alternative, they had to go that way. The only thing open to any of us is to follow where our art is leading. The art is stronger than the artist. I think it’s pretentious to make art and say “how does that stand up to Donatello, or Michelangelo,” or you name it, Cycladic art… You can do that, if you wish, because you’re a critic, but I don’t think that we can or should do it.” [Anthony Caro in conversation with Russell Bingham]

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