When the museum is crowded, a trip to the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden at the Metropolitan Museum of Art includes a huddled wait in line for the elevator. You ride up, packed in a sticky car with a school group and some tourists. When the elevator doors open, everyone rushes out, blinking in the sunlight, into what feels like another world. At first, the views of the city and the park dominate, then the five sculptures by Anthony Caro begin to assert themselves. They invite the viewer to come in close; the vista begins to act as a backdrop. The sculptures are substantial but also appear light—one looks as though it could soar right off the roof, whereas another is in danger of caving in on itself. Anthony Caro, knighted in 1987, is one of the most influential British modernists. Our interview felt like a lesson in itself: he answered my flowery prose with simple sentences; when I called him to elaborate, he pushed me toward more crystalline questions. He has an authoritative voice, and he spoke with a purposeful exasperation. One sees this impulse in his work, too: a dogged pursuit of form from a man who helped shaped modernism, whose simple philosophy matches his training as an engineer.
The roof is a unique place to show—any installation is buffeted by the gleaming skyline and greenery of Central Park. Did you choose particular pieces that might work in this setting?
The pieces were chosen because they were sturdy pieces that were in the New York area and fairly easy to obtain. I think that the New York skyline sets sculptures on the Met roof beautifully.
Mind you, all sculpture on the Met roof fits beautifully. It is a wonderful place to show because you have that marvelous background. And I feel it’s quite intimate in a funny way. I think my sculpture is intimate. Mostly it is not public sculpture, though what I’m making for Park Avenue is public. But it is not a monument and has nothing to do with being a monument.
Did New York City inspire your upcoming Park Avenue installation? What are the distinctions in your approach between a public sculpture and one on a more intimate scale?
New York has always been a big inspiration for me. The long sculpture that stretches for three blocks in Park Avenue definitely interacts with that space. It was made especially for it.
One of the most important things about sculpture is the way in which the viewer is invited to look at it. Whether he looks up whether he walks around it, whether it corkscrews like a Michelangelo or moves around like a Brâncuşi—the way in which it would be seen was governing how I approached the sculpture on Park Avenue. I was asked ages ago to put sculpture in the central reservation and I didn’t want to put a lump. I wanted to have sculpture that kind of flowed. Also it’s in that canyon of these big buildings. So I made photographic representations of the buildings in order to build the sculpture.
This show marks the fiftieth anniversary of your first show in steel in 1961. How has your approach to sculpture changed?
My approach to sculpture is of course modified by the times we live in, but essentially it is the same as it was in the sixties.
Yet the works on the roof vary considerably, from the kind of propellant elasticity of Midday to the more architectural End Up, 2010. Is it meant to be a lesson in your stylistic history?
It happens that the works do seem to match decades, but it is not a lesson in my stylistic history because an enormous quantity of my sculptural work is not represented there.
You say there has been no change in your approach, yet the work has changed so much.
We have all changed. Have you changed since when you were a child, when you were an adolescent? But you probably had many of the same wishes and hopes and ideals as now, and there is not much more to be said.
Where do you look now for inspiration?
I look at sculptures of all types and times. I love Indian sculpture, archaic Greek sculpture and Oceanic sculpture. I have also been influenced by painting—the old Masters—and am now interested in architecture.
Your Chapel of Light in the church of Saint Jean-Baptiste in Bourbourg, France, is sculpture that also functions as architecture. How do the two fit together? What do you bring from architecture to sculpture?
Well, you’re asking too big a question. We can learn a great deal from architects. We can learn about repetition, about scale—there are a hundred different things we can learn from architecture.
I think sculpture comes close to architecture. It also comes close to painting. There are three disciplines and they are very alive, and you see that in the Renaissance. So although my work comes up to the edge of architecture I don’t think I could ever call myself an architect.
Your sculptures appear very human size. Even though there are many NO TOUCHING signs on the roof, I witnessed many people trying to lean or play with your work.
I am delighted if my sculpture is human size. For me this is very important. I am seldom interested in people leaning or playing with my work. I don’t think my sculpture is to do with the playground, but it is to do with people and not with monuments.
What starts a work of sculpture for you? Is it a curve? An idea? A philosophy?
Of course I think about where I want to go with the sculpture, but then it is the steel or the terra-cotta or the wood or the paper or the silver—the material stuff that gets me started.
And because of this human scale and intimacy the viewer has the opportunity to observe a very high level of detail in the material, such as the underside of the grommets, the way that paint pools around a hole, or the texture in the wood. Do you consider the interplay between detail and whole?
I try to join things and detail them in the most direct way possible, so I am guided by this rather than aesthetics in the detail.
Do you have a favorite sculpture?
My favorite sculpture is the one I finished yesterday! I made a sculpture called Prairie in 1967, and I think it is the most abstract sculpture I made. I hoped that I could go on and that I could take this further but I found myself moving instead into something more complex and so I made Xanadu, Elephant Palace, and the Chapel of Light. Each one has absorbed me.
Abstraction is the ultimate goal? And how does complexity fit within this?
I think the last thing I wanted to do early on is abstract sculpture. I wanted sculpture to be something in its own right, not an illustration or representation, and as real as talking to another person. I’m not interested in complication, but things get more complicated and scattered, and I must simplify—it’s just a natural progression.
I’m not against figurative sculpture. In the sixties we gained the freedom to make abstract sculpture. I think the freedom to make abstract sculpture echoes part of my interest—I’ve not got rules, not at all. In fact I think a lot of abstraction can get to become sheer decoration as well as figurative.
After Summer is reminiscent of sails or shells. The sculpture has a certain movement to it—boatlike, or birdlike, it reminds one of things in the world. So maybe not figurative exactly, but would you tolerate the word evocative as a way to describe it?
I like evocative but I don’t like figurative. I want everything I make to have meaning. I don’t want it to be empty. Evocative is a thing, is a word I like.
Caro’s sculptures are on the roof garden of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, through October 30, 2011.