Sir Anthony Caro, who has died aged 89, was a pre-eminent artist of the post-war era who created a new language for abstract sculpture in the 1960s with brightly coloured, horizontal assemblages of welded steel
“In all of modern art, there have only been a handful of truly great sculptors, and Anthony Caro is one of them,” said Michael Fried, a professor of art history at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
A one-time assistant to the sculptor Henry Moore, Caro established himself as a rising sculptor in Britain in the mid-1950s with rough-hewn, expressionistic works that depicted struggling human figures, gravity-bound and laden with the weight of their own flesh.
He experienced an artistic conversion in 1959 on a trip to the United States in which he was exposed to David Smith’s sculpture as well as the work of the colour-field painters Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis and Jules Olitski. “America made me see that there are no barriers and no regulations,” he said.
Caro embraced Smith’s use of industrial materials that implied a radical break with the traditions of monumental sculpture. He began working with steel plates, beams, metal tubes and wire mesh, materials with no art-historical associations.
Mass, weight, volume
He applied brilliant colour to his geometric forms, which put an emphasis on the purely pictorial qualities of his work rather than the traditional sculptural qualities of mass, weight and volume.
Colour imparted a sense of lightness that made his works seem to hover, touching the ground lightly at a few points. “I have been trying to eliminate references and make truly abstract sculpture, composing the parts of the pieces like notes in music,” he told William Rubin, who, as the director of the Museum of Modern Art’s department of painting and sculpture, organised the first US retrospective of Caro’s work in 1975.
He continued: “Just as a succession of these make up a melody or a sonata, so I take anonymous units and try to make them cohere in an open way into a sculptural whole. Like music, I would like my work to be the expression of feeling in terms of the material and, like music, I don’t want the entirety of the experience to be given all at once.”
Caro’s articulated assemblages, derived from constructivism and cubism, seemed to deny the premises of monumental sculpture. He took them off the traditional plinth and placed them on the floor, in the viewer’s space, where their low horizontality forced the eye downward . Viewers had to circumnavigate a Caro, see it from all angles and let the forms make a cumulative statement.
Caro’s work evolved in unexpected ways. He abandoned colour in the 1970s and began producing larger, closed forms that were often made from untreated, rolled steel, which he acquired from mills.
At the same time, he embarked on an extended series of small-scale tabletop sculptures. For a time, he created “sculpitecture” – large works that invited the viewer to enter and explore.
In the 1990s, he rediscovered the human figure, mixing clay, steel and wood, in works such as The Trojan War, an installation of 40 sculptures representing the heroes and gods of the Iliad, and The Last Judgment, a sombre installation inspired by the Balkan wars.
He also collaborated with celebrated architects, notably Frank Gehry, with whom he constructed a wooden village in 1987. With Norman Foster and the engineer Chris Wise, he designed the London Millennium Footbridge spanning the Thames between St Paul’s Cathedral and the Tate Modern.
Anthony Alfred Caro was born, the son of a stockbroker, in 1924 in New Malden, Surrey. After attending Charterhouse School, he studied engineering at Christ’s College, Cambridge. He then saw war service with the navy.
Defying his father, he studied art for a year at the Regent Street Polytechnic Institute before enrolling at the Royal Academy of Art.
While studying at the Royal Academy, Caro was an assistant to Moore, who introduced him to a world of sculptural influences not available at the academy.
After visiting the US, he produced the first of his abstract works, Twenty-four Hours (1960), a trapezoid, a round disc and a square arranged one behind the other. This initial foray into abstraction led to light, open-form sculptures such as Early One Morning, an arrangement of red steel planes and lines along a horizontal axis.
In the 1970s, he abandoned colour and began producing looser, more vertical sculptures with non-geometric shapes.
After visiting Greece in 1985, and closely studying classical friezes, he embarked on a series of large-scale narrative works, including After Olympia, a panorama more than 75ft long, inspired by the temple to Zeus at Olympia. After Olympia reflected the restlessness that led Sir Anthony, who was knighted in 1987, to readmit figure and story into his work, most tellingly in The Trojan War and The Last Judgment .
"I think it's my job to try to push sculpture forward, to keep it moving, keep it alive," he told The Observer in 1999. "And you don't keep it alive just by doing what you can do; you keep it alive by trying to do things which are difficult."
In 1949 he married the painter Sheila Girling. She survives him, as do their two sons, Timothy and Paul, and three grandchildren.