The following is excerpted from a recording made on 24th April 2013 at Sir Anthony Caro’s studio in north London. Intended as a brief ‘reminiscence’ on the art scene, rather than any definitive statement on the period as a whole, Kasmin and Sir Anthony were joined initially by the writer and director Jonathan Miller, who had dropped by for a cup of tea.
Kasmin and Caro in conversation during the installationof Caro’s exhibition at Kasmin Ltd, 1967photographed by Jorge Lewinski
Simon Hucker The narrative of this exhibition is all about how exciting and new the ‘art scene’ was in the early 1960s, but I wonder when it was that you sensed something really different was happening?
Anthony Caro I wasn’t very interested in what was going on with other people because I had worked at Henry Moore’s and when I came to London in the 50s, I was doing my own thing. They were all doing their thing, but there was nothing special. I think the exciting new atmosphere really started in ‘59 or ’60. Suddenly there was a new feeling abroad, the like of which I have not seen since – a feeling of hope, a feeling that anything was possible and that we didn’t have to abide by any of the old regulations. We needed to start to think afresh. Wouldn’t you say that was right?
Kasmin I felt very strongly that things started in the late 50s, and that what really happened in the British art world is that you had to shape yourself up against American art, rather than Parisian or Italian art. What provoked this were the shows of Jackson Pollock at the Whitechapel and the big shows of American painting at the Tate. We also had incredibly able spokesmen for this sort of thing. Even if we disagreed with the likes of Tony del Renzio or Lawrence Alloway, they made the ICA a place where we constantly had to go. What made me want to open a gallery was seeing the exhibition of Morris Louis Veils at the ICA. When I saw those paintings it made me want to make everybody look at that sort of painting. It was partly a bigger size, it was mostly a bigger ambition, and suddenly you realised that there was more to do, you didn’t just have to measure up to decorative École de Paris stuff.
Jonathan Miller This is something that is exactly synchronised with what Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and I did with Beyond The Fringe – which broke the mould of comedy in 1961. And the Royal Court Theatre started at the same time and had already broken away from the traditional sort of stuff, all those things where a door would open and a butler would say “dinner is served madam” was finished. Osbourne was part of it, but there were lots of other people writing in a new way, reconstructing what was relevant to see on the stage, in exactly the same way that the artists had reconstructed what was relevant to see on a canvas or on a piece of sculpture. For me, it was the consequence of the establishment of socialism immediately after the end of the War and a new sense of social belonging because, as it were, we had all suffered the the risk of the Blitz, we had all endured the restrictions on diet… and then suddenly food and clothes rationing came off, girls started to wear colours…
AC The fact of having to go with your ration book to get meat…
JM There was a complete social upheaval that occurred as a result of the social disruption and the political disruption caused by the War: people who would previously never have a chance to become officers were promoted to be officers, notwithstanding the fact that they were not grand aristocracy.
K It didn’t help the visual culture though so much – I mean I remember my art classes at school were spent drawing one of those little half-pint milk bottles - that was art for most kids at school. Thank God I lived in Oxford and could go down to the Ashmolean Museum and look at older stuff.
AC Kas was one of the standard-bearers of this new thinking. His place was very alive. It was a wonderful gallery – I’d never seen a gallery quite like it. You’d go down this dark passage, turn right, and suddenly there is this beautifully-lit space, in which there were paintings by Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, or the young sculptors. It was an eye-opener, to go there.
K And it was very different to galleries now because it was full of people, but ones who never spent a penny, never bought a picture, never thought of having one. I had two Barcelona stools in the middle of the gallery and kids used to bring in bring in sandwiches – art students – and just sit; it wasn’t much to do with business.
SH Should we be thinking about the Sixties more in terms of the social and political revolution that took place?
AC It was a period of hope. When the Seventies came along, it was a bit more real. The 60s was more a dream: Kennedy, getting to the moon, all that stuff… In the 70s I stopped painting my sculptures – now they clearly owned up to their being made of hard, rough steel.
K It was a number of factors – the invention of the teenager as well, that young people felt they could open their mouths.
JM There was no such thing as a teenager, it was a category that didn’t exist: there were children and then they were grown-ups…
K And in-between national servicemen…
AC I remember saying to students – “Sculpture can be anything, it doesn’t have to be stone or bronze. It can be anything if it moves you.”
K Hardly a day went by when you didn’t see something to be excited about – the only problem was that there wasn’t enough money, around – I mean the art world got by, to tell you the truth, on state money, the British Council, the Arts Council, the Tate Gallery, the Contemporary Arts Society, and just a few individuals buying. But then the feeling was that you didn’t have to supply art that made rich men feel happy and at home – you made art that you felt needed making, to look at it. That was the attitude…
JM It was about courage. In Beyond the Fringe there was a moment when we did a memoir of the Second World War. There was a wonderful moment in which Peter Cooke, playing an RAF officer said, ‘Perkins’, and I came on to the set, ‘Yessir’. He said, ‘Perkins, the war is not going very well, you know… we’re two down, the ball is in the enemy court. We want you Perkins to lay down your life. We need a futile gesture at this stage, it will raise the whole tone of the war.’ This was a joke which would have been inconceivable before then, even almost twenty years after the War ended.. But all the sort of neo-Dada and jokes that came in are part and parcel…
K There were all sorts of things that you could begin to do. For example, Hockney’s pictures where he would make references to love for boys… There were all sorts of innuendos and jokes about gay life at the time which were not actually understood by half of the audience that rather liked his work.
JM It was a palimpsest of fantastic changes occurring in many different categories of enterprise, which altered what the structure of what post-war Britain was like. That’s why pop music was so important. You have artists like the Beatles, like the Rolling Stones, singing stuff about the commonplace working class world that never would have been accepted for a subject for popular songs…Yet you suddenly get five hundred thousand people waiting for the Beatles to arrive in New York.
AC The effect of the Beatles was amazing. I remember in 1963 or 1964, I was in America, I had broken my leg and it was in a cast… and everybody drew on it. Helen Frankenthaler put her lipstick mark on the cast, and David Smith doodled wheels on the foot and Kenneth Noland’s wrote ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ because the time was all about the Beatles mania.
K All the scenes were laid in the late 50s: I was working in a gallery in 1956 and we showed Yves Klein, which felt very radical, and Tinguely. But in the 60s it felt like it was changing gear… But I was lucky: I found someone who believed in my taste, Sheridan Dufferin, who was willing to put money in, so I could do what the Marlborough did and give my artists a monthly stipend, so they didn’t have to teach full-time. But Marlborough only did it with people who had a reputation, that were selling, like Bacon, and Moore, and Pasmore. But for unknown artists? The average dealer would have said, ‘I will put up some money towards a show’, but wouldn’t have said, ‘I will give you x-amount a year.’
SH And how influential was the American ‘scene’on this ‘New Generation’ coming up in London?
AC In New York, Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg were the important critics – we read what they wrote in Art in America…
K We should say arts magazines meant an awful lot in those days – there was the European one, Art International, as well as Art in America. And through them we got to know Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Tom Hess, Pierre Restany… Critics were much more powerful than they are now.
AC Back then it was about the critics, about intellectual positions in art, about taste. I happened to meet Clem [Greenberg] when he was in England with Jenny, his wife. He said something about English sculpture being ‘no good’ and I said ‘Well you know, you haven’t seen my work - would you like to see it?’ And he said, ‘If you come and get me.’ So I came and picked him up the next day. We talked about art the whole day long, talking, looking through books. When he came across a Henry Moore sculpture and a Dobson carving on the opposite page, he said ‘That is the better sculpture’ pointing to the Dobson. Here you didn’t question the general opinion. When I went to New York on a scholarship I spent some time with him. He always had fresh opinions. We paid attention to his views, but I don’t think we were influenced by him. It was more that here was an outsider who gave you confidence. Trust yourself, go and do it.
SH And do you think America at the time was susceptible to the idea of ‘Young British Artists’?
K Are you asking, ‘Was there a Beatle effect?’ There was definitely a time in America in the mid-60s, when you were welcomed in a way that was extraordinary. It was partly that Americans were jealous of this whole new life in London: America didn’t have one big city – there are a lot of big cities and they are all separate. What goes on in Los Angeles is hardly understood by what goes on in Washington, and what goes on in New York is quite different from what goes on in Chicago. They were jealous of the fact that London was this humming place, filled with music and I have to say, quite honestly, fashion: they were very interested in what Mary Quant was doing. But the first person who really made a big difference for British art in America was Martin Friedman, the Director of the Walker Art Gallery in Minneapolis, who made that show of the London Scene in 1965. William Seitz, too, from the Museum of Modern Art….
AC New York was very welcoming to us. If you were a sculptor from England, they would throw a party for you. Louise Nevelson would be there, and Chamberlain, Johns, Rauschenberg and so on – you would meet them all.
John Latham, 1964, photographed by Jorge Lewinski
K My first trip to New York wasn’t until 1962. I took a suite at the Chelsea because it was so cheap. John Latham was there already, burning books in the basement of the hotel with a blow torch and I said, ‘I’ll make a show for you in my suite’ and gave a party. It was all about chutzpah but everybody I invited came, so that would be Dorothy Miller from the Museum of Modern Art… De Kooning, Barnett Newman. The problem I had was that Kenneth Noland, who lived in the hotel, did not want to mix with Larry Rivers who also lived in the hotel, purely because he was a Pop Artist. Ken said to me, ‘I don’t know if I want to be in your gallery if you talk to Larry Rivers – he likes the wrong sort of jazz and paints the wrong sort of pictures.’ But I remember De Kooning was pretty big news then, so was Barnett Newman, and here they were coming to see a young Englishman, to see an extraordinary exhibition of what was in those days was called ‘assemblage‘ of burnt books. They came – but it was a party.
AC Money and collecting did not come in to it at that time.
SH What are your recollections of your first shows at Kasmin’s? They weren’t until the gallery had been open for a couple of years…
AC Kas was extraordinary. I had a work in the ‘67 show called called Prairie and the shapes within the work mirrored the shapes of the corrugated rubber floor. Kas could see that the sculpture and the floor would interact badly, so he took whole floor up and put a new wooden floor down just for my work. Pretty staggering.
K It also had that lovely piece that the Arts Council bought, Slow Movement… it was a really nice show.
AC Lots of people loved that show. Every artist wants a dealer like Kas. He believed in art – not simply about trying to sell things. It has got to be art, got to be firstrate art.
SH And was it difficult to get British collectors in particular to go with you on this?
K I had not really done it to make money, I had done it to influence things, to change people’s way of looking at art – so that side of it was successful. But of course Sheridan [Dufferin – Kasmin’s business partner] was helpful. We ran out of money twice and he bailed us out. The point about the scene in the 1960s is that we did not sell that much to English private collectors. We had good support from the public bodies in England, such as the British Council and Arts Council.
AC And from towns, outside of London…
K Yes Ulster bought things, Swindon bought things… Aberdeen. But I had more collectors in Belgium. The Germans were the new wealth in Europe in the 60s but they were crazy about Pop: they were completely rebuilding themselves in a modern style and Pop art went with that whole look.
SH And, to conclude, when do you think it all ended?
K I think the 60s actually came to an end really in about 1972, when the global slump came with the oil crisis and that affected everyone, and we all had to worry about money. There were strikes, the three-day week… Galleries closed and tough times were on us.
AC Quite suddenly it wasn’t a time for optimism; it was a time for getting down to reality. The confidence in the future wasn’t there anymore.
K Of course, we musn’t forget that there were all sorts of terrible things going on in the world in the 60s too, like the war in Vietnam. I had people in my gallery who I pretended to have on the payroll because they were dodging going into the American army: in a way we were protected from that in England.
In the 60s, optimism arose in the art world and we newer people thought we could change the prevailing British culture and make the Visual rival the Literary attitude. We admired daring and enthusiasm. We were enemies of ‘good taste’. For us paintings were no longer adjuncts to polite living and sculpture went wild. No more ‘over the mantelpiece’ or on a plinth, the artworks challenged and exulted. We were on a severalyear- long ‘high’.