Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Anthony Caro and Oliver Nelson: Structure in Art

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Structure is a key concept in all art forms; it is inherent in the art itself. Structure is what holds things together. It gives the senses a focus whether it be hearing music, seeing a painting, touching a sculpture, smelling and tasting a fine cuisine.

Art is generally built, it is brought into existence, created through a process, a step-by-step unfolding of actions in a medium of expression.

Applying paint to a canvass, carving a block of stone or improvising Jazz, all take a certain ordering of skills and materials to achieve a successful result. As bassist, bandleader, composer-arranger Charlie Mingus so succinctly put it: “You have to improvise on something.”

One artist who has drawn heavily on the structural elements in architecture as the basis for syncretizing his art is the sculptor Sir Anthony Caro, who died on October 23rd of this year at the age of 89. As the obituary drawn from The Economist magazine explains, Sir Anthony went so far as to label his work “Sculpitecture.”

Composer-arranger Oliver Nelson always struck me as another artist for whom forms outside of Jazz had a large presence in his work, particularly in his fondness for developing extended compositions such as Sound Pieces for Jazz Orchestra, The Kennedy Dream [about which I will have more to say on November 22, 2013, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy], and The Jazzhattan Suite.

Created with the architecture and urban planning of New York City in mind, Oliver’s Jazzhattan Suite [Verve V6-8731] is one of the “... best recorded examples of the full range of his compositional abilities in a Jazz context [Kenny Berger].”

The suite open’s with A Typical Day in New York, followed by The East Side/The West Side, 125th and Seventh Avenue, A Penthouse Dawn and One for Duke [no one reflected New York’s urbanity better than The Duke].

The suite ends with Complex City which, as Kenny Berger describes in his insert notes booklet to Oliver Nelson: The Argo, Verve and Impulse Big Band Studio Sessions [Mosaic MD6-233] “... begins quietly with French horns and vibraphone prominent. This section is followed by a clarinet and xylophone-dominated section that sounds like Gershwin's AN AMERICAN IN PARIS on LSD. When things settle into a 6/4 groove we are back in blues territory with the theme stated by Woods' alto. This is followed by an exposition of several short melodic cells in a series of shifting meters in which Nelson makes imaginative use of the clarinet choir. The blues theme is then stated in a hard swinging 4/4, leading to solos by Patti  Bown, Zoot Sims and Joe Newman, with vigorous hand-in-glove backing from Ed Shaughnessy's drums and Bob Rosengarden's bongos. The piece ends with a return to the original 6/4 blues section and builds to a powerful finale.”

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it might be fun to combine the work of  Anthony Caro and Oliver Nelson into the video located at the conclusion of this feature using images of the former’s "Sculpitecture” with the latter’s orchestration of Complex City.

Here is more on Sir Anthony Caro’s life and work from The Obituary that appears in the November 9th-15th edition of The Economist.

© -The Economist, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“THE pieces of steel, rescued from the London docks, made a trapezoid, a circle and a square. In 1960 Anthony Caro put them up on chairs in his garage in Hampstead, in north London, and found, to his increasing happiness, that when they were tacked together he had a piece of sculpture. It did not look like anything; it was not about anything. It was just itself. It was good as itself. He painted it dark brown, put it out in the courtyard and called it "Twenty-Four Hours".

He had taken years to reach this point: to produce a sculpture that had nothing to do with human figures, or with clay or stone. It seemed a smallish breakthrough, as breakthroughs go. But it proved huge. "Twenty-Four Hours" was the first of a series of extraordinary pieces in which brightly painted beams and rods of steel, heavy as they were, seemed to float in space. When they were shown at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1963, they caused a sensation. Suddenly, sculpture was set free to go in any direction at all.

It was also democratised, for rather than using plinths Mr Caro set the pieces on the floor, at the viewer's level, to make them "have more meaning". Someone looking at "Early One Morning" (above) could see it as an open window, a sailing boat, a landscape, or nothing at all. There

was no narrative, no "arm-twisting". All Mr Caro would cheerfully say was that, after letting it flow out of the garage, he had taken advice from his painter-wife Sheila Girling and painted it bright red; and "early one morning" he had finished it.
Sculpture in his hands was fun, surprising and iconoclastic. There were no rules, he told his students at St Martin's. Sculpture could be feathers. It could be balloons, a builder's skip, a tank. It could be music, and he hoped his was, the pieces "dances" or "songs" that would run, touch and join. Above all, it should be direct, affecting people just for what it was.

Steel ("you just stick it or cut it off and bang! you're there") was his favourite medium. But anything went: car doors, girders, industrial springs, bollards and bedsteads, all piled up in a great rusting heap outside his studio in Camden Town. Teaching in America in 1964, he found z shapes of steel; a beautiful tension came from floating slim rods across them. In Italy in 1972 he discovered rolled-end steel, with softly waving edges to put beside sharp, straight ones. One of his loveliest pieces, the petal-light "Orangerie" of 1969, was inspired by ploughshares found in Devon.

Though trained as an engineer, he said he was lousy at it. His way of working was accretion, collage, "put and take". Hewould think about some bit of metal for a while, let it work on him, and then he would start to add and subtract. He could fearlessly go giant-sized, offering to make a piece three city blocks long for Park Avenue in New York; or small, in his hundreds of "table pieces", in which delicate assemblages of metal hung in perilous equipoise over a right-angled edge. The only predictable thing about him was that as soon as his work became the fashion, he would push on: so when city parks in the 19708 burst out in brightly painted metal, he puckishly turned his attention to brute chunks of raw steel covered in rust.

Clay on the floor

He left sculpture utterly different from how he had found it; and this surprised him as much as anyone. He had thought he would always be a figurative sculptor. It did not take him long, however, to realise how the scene in the 19508 was still tyrannised by generals on horseback, Canova's "Three Graces" in insipid white marble, Michelangelo's showy "David", and the rest. The hallways at the Royal Academy Schools where he learned his art (his stockbroker father's objections still ringing in his ears) were crammed with classical casts.

In 1951 he went as an assistant to Henry Moore, the greatest sculptor of the age; he found him an inspiration, but the human form now pursued him in organic and curvaceous style and huge as the hills. In an effort to get away from it he tried throwing clay on the floor and beating it with sticks, desperately looking for a new start. He put plaster on old wings of cars, but these were still "pseudo-people". On the Devon coast he collected large stones; they became the breasts of "Woman Waking Up".

His encounter in 1959 with avant garde American artists made the bold break, at last. They persuaded him that sculpture could be like painting: Cubist and Abstract as well as figurative, but in three rather than two dimensions. Advised to "change his habits", he threw out clay and plaster for steel and aluminium. Much later, in the 19908, he decided that sculpture could be like architecture too ("sculpitecture" was his word). No need to stand outside it: if he put in steps, towers and lookout platforms, that was yet another way of making sculpture say something immediate and fresh.

He had found his new language and, in his last years, considered the battle won. Sculpture could be what it liked. So when, after trips to the friezes of ancient Greece, his sculptures began to look a bit like figures again, he was unbothered. An installation of 2002, "The Barbarians", even featured terracotta warriors riding on gymnasium horses. His critics cried betrayal, but he said no. His shapes had, as always, decided their own identity; and human forms were what they wanted to be.”

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