In § 111 of the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein wrote: “the problems arising through a misinterpretation of our forms of language have the character of depth. They are deep disquietudes; their roots are as deep in us as the forms of our language, and their significance is as great as the importance of our language. –Let us ask ourselves: why do we feel a grammatical joke to be deep? (And that is what the depth of philosophy is.)”[i]
And in § 109: “The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known.”
Why do we feel that the meaning of a work of art is something deep – something lying somewhere underneath the surface when after all a painting or a sculpture is really nothing more than surface and shape? Why do we feel as though we need to see beyond and beneath appearances in order to understand a thing that according to its essential nature is appearance? These questions are related to although not identical with the question raised in Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, namely, why do we feel as though our ordinary language, hence our ordinary lives, is somehow inadequate, so that we must locate and pursue its “true” meaning elsewhere, for example in a region either below (in the case of language, its underlying logical structure) or above (in the case of ordinary mortal existence, its redemption in heaven) the place where we actually spend the days of our lives?
These remarks reflect the fact that we human beings tend to orient ourselves around a vertical (as opposed to horizontal) axis, literally (as in the fact that we stand) and figuratively (we aspire, reach for the stars, and when we fail, we fall down, are leveled, degraded, and so on). One manifestation of our vertical orientation is the traditional placement of sculptures on pedestals – as if placing them above rather than on the ground helps to secure the meta-physically elevated status of artworks as distinguished from ordinary objects in the world. (The device of the pedestal does for sculpture what the frame does for pre-modernist painting.)
Anthony Caro was not the first sculptor to eliminate the pedestal; however, as Michael Fried observes, he was the first sculptor to not just place his works at ground level but also to ground them in such a way that the ground is itself made abstract and in this way incorporated into the sculpture’s illusiveness. This incorporation of ground into the sculpture’s illusiveness is already evident in a series of works made at Bennington College in 1964 including Titan, Bennington and Shaftsbury. These pieces are low-slung, constructed from laterally-spreading steel “walls” running along their edges horizontally along the ground, angled in L- or T-shaped configurations; from these ground-running sheets, short lengths of heavy I-beams and/or other right-angled configurations rise in directions slightly inflected from vertical so that the off-vertical inflection enhances the piece’s overall lateral movement. The open feeling of these sculptures has to do with the fact that the ground is seen not so much the literal base on which the sculpture stands but as a modality of lateral extendedness that allows or invites or compels the horizontal configurations to reach and spread and run and open into view, a view that alters radically depending on the viewer’s position.
The abstraction of ground is also seen in several works from the early 1970s consisting of rods, grids, lattices and other shapes strewn about in not quite random-appearing fashion, overlapping or contiguous, and spreading out over (but barely up from) an area of ground. Air, pictured below, resembles the remnants of some structure that has collapsed, although none of the individual pieces make sense as an architectural component of any actual structure we can imagine. It is as if the force of gravity, combined with the obduracy of the flat ground – both the downward force and the unyielding intransigence of the ground being experienced less as natural facts than as virtual or abstract forces – have produced the final configuration of welded metal elements, so that the sculpture itself is seen not as a composition than as the result of a fateful encounter between these forces. As Michael Fried observed (referring to the Bennington sculptures), such works are not simply, as a matter of contingent fact, placed on the ground (in the absence of a base or pedestal); rather, they insist on being placed on the ground[ii] – because they acknowledge and formally incorporate what is perhaps the essential phenomenological fact about the ground, namely, that it expands and extends laterally in all directions to the horizon relative to the beholder’s standing position at any particular location.
That the ground can be abstract means that it need not be the foundation upon which the things of the world exist, and can be made to function as horizontal plane or level among others. The virtually infinite sculptural possibilities inherent in this idea are extensively explored in Caro’s table sculptures (among others), which, as Fried points out, are so conceived as to establish scale not as a contingent fact rooted in the object’s literal size, but as part of the sculpture’s essence. By placing at least one element of the sculpture so that some part of it drops below the level of the table surface so that it must be placed on the tabletop rather than on the ground, the sculpture’s (relatively) small size is secured abstractly. That is: because a tabled sculpture must be small in order to fit on top of something we recognize as a table, and because placement of at least one element running below the table’s surface demands that it be placed on the tabletop rather than on the ground (nothing runs below the level of the ground unless it’s a drill of some sort), the small scale of the piece is not a function of its actual (literal) size but part of its essence.[iii] Fried accurately observes that there is no precedent for this experience of scale either in prior sculpture or in the world. (Because scale means relative size, and the size of a sculpture is generally felt relative to the eye-level of a vertically standing human being, Caro’s invention of abstract scale implied yet another release of sculpture from our humanly vertical orientation.)
Returning to the question asked at the outset, and assuming that any of the foregoing observations begin to get at the meaning or significance of Caro’s sculpture, is that meaning located in or on the sculpture’s appearance to the eye, or somewhere else, for example, below or beneath the surface, in a location available only to the mind? Or, recalling Wittgenstein, is the problem of meaning solved (for example by disappearing) to the extent we are able to “[rearrange] what we have always known”? How might Caro’s preoccupation with grounding, tabling and horizontality bear on these questions?
Here is Caro’s Prairie, made in 1967:
This alternate view shows some of the underlying engineering in Prairie:
After explaining the way in which its individual pieces are connected and supported, Fried describes the experience of viewing Prairie:
Once we have walked even partly around Prairie there is nothing we do not know about how it supports itself, and yet that knowledge is somehow eclipsed by our actual experience of the piece as sculpture. It is as though in Prairie … illusion is not achieved at the expense of physicality so much as it exists simultaneously with it in such a way that, in the grip of the piece, we do not see past the first to the second. This is mostly due to the nature of the relationships which make a different kind of sense to the mind and to the eye. For example, that three of the long metal poles are held up at only one end is understood to mean that the full weight of each pole is borne by a single support far from its center; but the poles are seen as being in a state of balance as they are, as if they weighed nothing and could be placed anywhere without support. This impression is reinforced by the fact that the two poles supported at one end by a bent, upward-springing metal plate are held up by different plates and at opposite ends. Similarly, the one pole supported at both ends is held up by the far corner of the nearer plate and by the near corner of the farther one; and this deliberate staggering, while perfectly understood by the mind, disconcerts the eye enough to make it see that pole as if it were not truly supported at all. That all four poles are parallel to and equidistant from one another, and that three of them are the same length, are other factors which obstruct the eye from giving weight to the specific means by which each is supported. (It should also be said that the fact that the four poles are an almost imperceptibly lighter shade of sandy yellow than the rest of the sculpture gives them an added suggestion of lift.) In these and other ways Caro on the one hand has frankly avowed the physicality of his sculpture and on the other has rendered that physicality unperspicuous to a degree that even after repeated viewings is barely credible…More emphatically than any previous sculpture by Caro, Prairie compels us to believe what we see rather than what we know, to accept the witness of the senses against the constructions of the mind.[iv]
This analysis uses the traditional distinction between seeing (via the eye) and knowing or understanding (via the mind) to show how the experience of Caro’s work renders the distinction useless. We know everything there is to know about how the piece is put together; nothing – neither the pieces of painted steel nor the manner in which they are welded together – is hidden. (Our seeing the sculpture could not be made more complete by soliciting new information.) But this knowledge (of the sculpture’s existence as a literal object – of the materials involved, how they are put together, how the elements are connected and supported, etc.) does nothing to dull or defeat or blunt or otherwise undermine the sculpture’s visual illusiveness, our sense that the four parallel poles just above the corrugated sheet are hovering as if suspended in space in apparent defiance of the law of gravity. As Fried says, the piece “compels us to believe what we see rather than what we know…”
The distinction between seeing and knowing is undermined because seeing a sculpture like Prairie – really seeing it (as opposed to just looking) – itself involves a kind of knowing. Seeing Prairie is less like seeing objects, colors or shapes than like seeing the point – for example, of a remark, a comment, a question, an assertion or a gesture. If seeing the point is understanding the artist’s intention, then it must be said that the intention is not located anywhere else (e.g., in Caro’s mind) than in what there is to see in the sculpture itself, implying that understanding here is itself a function of seeing (or perhaps that the mind is made to function as an organ of sense). It is diffused throughout the sculpture’s pale yellow surface (roughly the color of a wheat field on a prairie in late summer) and pervades and suffuses the ways in which each part relates to every other: each pole to the other three poles, which together constitute a plane at the sculpture’s highest level; the four poles to the two wing-like, V-shaped asymmetrical sheets that span from underneath; each of those elements to the corrugated sheet running at a right angle to the direction of the poles, which that provides a second plane just below the poles, suspended below the poles but above the ground; and each of those to the vertically positioned square shape attached at its top to the outermost pole, and these elements to the two narrow lengths that jut out edgewise along the ground at oblique angles to everything else, and so on.
Seeing the point of these configurations does not depend on knowing – or on not knowing (e.g., ignoring) – the way in which the configurations were constructed. It is not based on or grounded in anything other than the configurations themselves, the connections between the parts and their relationships to each other.
…grasping exactly how Prairie works as a feat of engineering does not in the least undermine or even compete with one’s initial impression that the metal poles and corrugated sheet are suspended, as if in the absence of gravity, at different levels above the ground. Indeed, the ground itself is seen not as that upon which everything else stands and from which everything else rises, but rather as the last, or lowest of the three levels which, as abstract conception, Prairie comprises. (In this sense Prairie defines the ground not as that which ultimately supports everything else, but as that which does not itself require support. It makes this fact about the ground both phenomenologically surprising and sculpturally significant.)[v]
If we think of the ground on which Prairie stands as corresponding to the basis upon which the sculpture’s illusiveness is apprehended, then Prairie’s incorporation of that ground into its illusiveness, its rendering of the literal ground as abstract, can be seen as recapitulating or embodying the way in which modernist painting and sculpture generally is to be understood: our apprehension of the thing’s significance is itself ungrounded; it does not require support. The meaning of Caro’s sculpture rests on nothing more or less than Caro’s ability to use steel rods, sheets, beams, girders and indeed the ground itself to create visual gestures – forms that open, sprawl, reach, embrace, recede, lean, inflect, rise and fall, close off, shimmer and hover and glide and thereby make visual sense; and Caro’s ability to do all of that is fundamentally the same as our own ability to make use of our arms, our legs, our faces, sounds formed into words, or for that matter, anything that literally exists – to make use of these literal things to communicate human significance. “It is as though the Caro’s sculptures essentialize meaningfulness as such – as though the possibility of meaning what we say and do alone makes his sculpture possible.”[vi]
This is why Fried uses the word “conviction” to describe our route of access to modernist painting and sculpture[vii]: it is conviction that allows us to “believe what we see rather than what we know.” Conviction is something like faith in that it is necessarily (or “grammatically” as Wittgenstein would say) without support in anything we know, except that faith is in things unseen, whereas conviction involves exactly believing in what we do see. “The difficulty is to realize the groundlessness of our believing.”[viii] In that sense, conviction is more like trust. Being convinced by, or allowing ourselves to become convicted by the quality of a work of art (whether representational or not) is like trusting another person or trusting oneself. The point of characterizing our experience of modernist painting and sculpture as a kind of trust is to emphasize that conviction like trust is not achieved once and for all, but is always to be tested and can be betrayed at any time.
To appreciate how much the world has changed between the time Caro created Prairie in 1967 and the present, it’s worth a brief look at the work of a prominent contemporary artist – Jeff Koons’ sculpture called Poodle, for example.
The first thing to notice is that the pedestal is back – back with a vengeance, as Clement Greenberg might say.
The second thing to notice is that what is placed on the pedestal, and thereby proclaimed as “high art”, is an object that is really an image, an image that seems to have been “appropriated” from a store selling third-rate home decorations or knick-knacks. There is nothing particularly impressive about the image (in terms of craftsmanship, finish, form, etc.) other than its tackiness.
The third thing to notice – which follows from the first two – is that the concept of “conviction” is completely irrelevant to our experience of Poodle. Conviction is replaced, as it were, by something like irony. The term “irony” is appropriate here for several reasons.
There is the irony of placing on the pedestal an object that epitomizes bad taste. The pedestal elevates the object, exalts it according to a tradition, now lapsed, that accepts fine art as spiritually exalted. A quintessentially ugly and utterly ordinary object drawn from America’s junk culture is elevated to the place reserved for high art at the top of the pedestal. It is “Kitsch” that is being celebrated, notwithstanding the knowing smirk involved in Koons’ gesture. Clement Greenberg had this to say about Kitsch way back in 1939:
Losing … their taste for folk culture whose background was the countryside, and discovering a new capacity for boredom at the same time, the new urban masses set up a pressure on society to provide them with a kind of culture fit for their own consumption. To fill the demand of the new market, a new commodity was devised: ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nonetheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide.
Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivates this insensibility. It is the source of its profits. Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money – not even their time…Self-evidently, all kitsch is academic; and conversely, all that’s academic is kitsch. For what is called the academic as such no longer has an independent existence, but has become the stuffed-shirt “front” for kitsch.[ix]
Another irony is that the although the Kitsch poodle image is the epitome of cheap taste, the lowest common denominator of value, its price tag once placed on the pedestal by celebrity artist Jeff Koons is exorbitant, beyond the reach of all but a tiny minority of extremely wealthy people. (Although a quick search did not reveal the monetary value of Poodle, a rough measure is found in the fact that an anonymous bidder paid a record price of $58, 405,000 for Koons’ Balloon Dog (Orange) in 2013.) It’s as if Koons searches for an image or object that would fetch the lowest possible price in the bargain bin at a second-hand store, copies it (using better quality materials perhaps), and puts it on display in galleries, and up for sale at high-end auctions, in effect saying to the beholder: “And you thought you could afford this?” If Greenberg is correct that Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times, then the high value placed on Koons’ art suggests that life in our times is entirely spurious, and that the concept of “culture” is no longer pertinent in our world.
In reality, everything in Koons’ work was already implicit if not explicit in the very first “ready-made” displayed by Marcel Duchamp in 1914. The point – the meaning and significance of Duchamp’s gesture – was to demonstrate that the distinction between art and non-art is arbitrary and therefore meaningless; and that implies that the concepts of value and quality are meaningless when applied to so-called “art.” In any of Duchamp’s ready-mades, and in any of the countless objects made in the same spirit including Poodle and beyond Koons, “Reality TV”, the point is simply stated or given or established at the very outset, if not before the outset. And for that reason, the point can only be repeated, ad infinitum, but never developed. This is yet another way of saying that such works are academic from start to finish – like Kitsch. There no experience of the object because grasping it (like making it) is an act of intellection, not a matter of intuition – of allowing something to happen by way of one’s senses. There is nothing to experience, or intuit, and appreciating the object, taking it in, requires no conviction because there is nothing to convince anyone of, other than perhaps persuading us of the continuing validity of an idea (“art is a bourgeois sham concocted by snobs for the sake of fools”) that is already old. In place of conviction, rhetoric; in place of quality, irony; and in place of surprise and discovery, boredom and disillusion.[x]
If it is true that our world has already reached a point where all experience is vicarious and all feeling fake – in short a world that is (in Fried’s terms) irredeemably theatrical – then the truth of Koons’ work (and of others like him) must be accepted if not embraced. But isn’t this the same idea that Duchamp had perceived back in 1914, and wasn’t it the gathering pressure of that idea that forced art into modernism at mid-20th century as the only available way to retrieve and preserve its own viability? Has something decisive happened in the interim, and if so what? I do not purport to know the answers to these questions, but as long as we don’t really know the answers – as long as human beings are still capable of meaning what they say and do – it’s worth looking at Anthony Caro’s sculpture.
[i] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, translated by G.E.M. Anscombe (New York 1968). All quotations from the Philosophical Investigations are taken from this edition.
[ii] “Anthony Caro’s Table Sculptures, 1966-77”, in Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood (Chicago and London 1998), p. 203.
[iii] Id., p. 205.
[iv] “Two Sculptures by Anthony Caro”, Fried, op. cit., p.
[v] Id., pp. 182-83.
[vi] Id., p. 162.
[vii] “…within the modernist arts nothing short of conviction – specifically, the conviction that a particular painting or sculpture or poem or piece of music can or cannot support comparison with past work within that art whose quality is not in doubt – matters at all.” Fried, op. cit., p. 165.
[viii] Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, ed. by G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright, trans. by Denis Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe (New York, Hagerstown, San Francisco, London 1972), §166.
[ix] “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” in Clement Greenberg, The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. I: Perceptions and Judgments, 1939-1944 (Chicago 1986), pp. 12-13.
[x] Whereas the an object by Duchamp or Koons asserts that quality (hence conviction) is irrelevant to art because the distinction between art and any other kind of object is arbitrary, a work of modernist painting or sculpture asserts that apart from its ability to compel conviction in its quality, the object does not count as painting or sculpture (i.e., as art) in the first place. The difference is this: the truth of the former assertion may be assessed apart from the work itself (which to that extent itself irrelevant or at least infinitely replaceable), whereas the latter assertion has no meaning at all unless and until one’s experience of the work makes it true.
A second essay by Carl Kandutsch on Caro and Fried will be published shortly.