Given the work she herself makes, there was no question that I would ask the New Haven sculptor Jilaine Jones if I could accompany her on a visit to the exhibition of Anthony Caro’s work now on display at the Yale Center for British Art through Dec. 30
In the course of our conversation, I discovered that my request was even more apt than I had imagined, since she has been visiting Caro in his studio and working with him on a number of different occasions since 1981. As she noted at the very beginning of our conversation, “Caro was the sculptor ... He dominated the whole milieu I was interested in.”
We walked through the exhibition for nearly two hours, as she quietly, remarkably, set out the dimensions of Caro’s work.
What follows is that portion our exchange which focuses on Caro’s 1968 sculpture Trefoil. (The transcript has been edited and condensed.)
“A Dear Thing
Jilaine Jones: [Caro] tells a structure. There’s no separation between thought and structure in the work. That is a dear thing in our world now.
Stephen Kobasa: He resonates for me in the way that he fashions an order to things over and against a world that works to unfashion it. His work is a consolation – I can’t think of another word.
JJ: We really register it differently than we do other sculptures – sculptures of the past. There are a great deal of remarkable, radical changes that are happening because of our relationship to it physically. But it doesn’t say that this is a whole experience being created by the viewer. No, it is a set of relationships ultimately complete in itself and it doesn’t rely on the interaction of the viewer to complete it. But obviously it’s contrasted by the fact that part of what Caro does is move out into our space in a way that no other sculpture had done before. [This is] a work which is really quite difficult. You have to look at it and engage it and deal with it and apply yourself to it. You can’t feel entertained by its presence ...
SK: It’s self-contained, then? It isn’t meant to evoke a tradition?
JJ: Part of its achievement and part of what it knows within itself is certainly what it’s reacting from. But, despite its radical change, it is autonomous.
SK: There’s an integrity there that cannot be touched by the individual viewer?
JJ: No, it can’t be, it can’t be, [but] I would say that we are physically responding to it because of its levels in relation to us ... We are dealing with a kind of opacity on the surface, and a sense of being able to grab things and being right there on this tabletop ... a density up here ... a sort of softness on the top, and then what we have on the bottom is something very, very spiky and spatial and jarring ... holding up this level which is lyrical and architectural.
There’s a draw visually through the top of it and an entrance into the softness of this yellow surface, and yet, underneath it separates itself from us, physically. It’s there with us, almost, but separating us. Things are contradicted…the fact that you have this incredible contrast between something above – a platform like a table – and things below. There’s an equality. There’s as much sculpture underneath as there is on top. That brings our presence into the equation; space is activated in a way that it normally isn’t. We’re feeling the volume beneath the table and feeling the difference between the volume underneath that is somewhat delineated by its elements, in contrast to the more bas-relief-like top.
With those things being engaged, you have a quite extended and elaborate form of joined elements which is composed very symmetrically, the shifted rectangle helping us to orient ourselves and orient the things within that composition. You have the two verticals at one corner and then you have this almost landscape that turns optical and then physical as it becomes leg and then hill and moves across to the other side, so you have that contrast just as a composition, as a form.
SK: I’m struck by taking this new perspective moving around the piece. For me, the violence emerges here. These forms puncture the table surface as if they’ve been driven, literally, through it. This arc on the surface turns into the blade of a scythe. The table itself ... I was thinking stage rather than table, it’s a performance of forms.
JJ: You’re saying that the surface is a context, and it sets up a frame in which this movement is happening. And the bareness of it, the emptiness of it, is striking, and makes the elements that much more intense, and powerful, important.
SK: I am much more conscious of the spaces in between and how he arranges those, and the openings both above and below that you were pointing out. That sense of being face to face with it. We do meet it on our own scale.
JJ: Yes, very much. There is a sort of teasing with the theatricality idea…there is a place, an environment, set up, but it is so benign and comfortable, intimate, familiar. Which, when we speak of those issues – certainly the idea of a cozy Caro doesn’t make sense – but only as an important point of its intimacy and engagement.
SK: As you circle it, it’s quite extraordinarily the way the piece changes. It opens up to every conceivable vantage point. There’s no single point of view for it. Would you agree?
JJ: Oh, yes. I would say that about Orangerie, too [Also in the Yale exhibition]. The remarkable thing about them is that they will appear to make so much sense as a so-called composition, but they are really so three dimensional. I think that with the compression of the elements[in Trefoil]..they read as shape because of that compression; they have a tension and brutalness, but they also move us quickly through a space as opposed to the more volumetric – I’m forgetting what that rectilinear tubing is called – suddenly you’re not crossing it; you’re there with it, you sort of stop. I think that’s really essential that he’s got those three kinds of [metal] stock to both move us through and hold us back. Looking at Trefoil. How it still participates in our space, and does so much with so little. It just pushes sculpture forward.
SK: He would not work from a smaller model for this piece, would he? He would always think to scale?
JJ: I don’t think he would think to scale; he would just do it, physically. His studio for the original early pieces in the ‘60s was a small garage; he couldn’t even back up at all from the work. That was part of the idea. There was some excitement at the building of the thing.
SK: What would happen if this was in a smaller room that forced that perspective?
JJ: We can be right up close to it. Don’t worry, I won’t touch it [an aside at this point to an anxious looking security guard)] ... We can be right up close to it and it’s spreading. It’s actually quite fabulous getting right up inside it .
SK: That’s what I was thinking. of being forced to be contained with it.
JJ: It really is. Yes. And you really understand how three dimensional it is. It absolutely feels right, physically feels right three dimensionally. It’s wonderful how you can move through the piece. It’s great to spend all this time with it.