Anthony Caro began making table sculptures in 1966. This development, which can be seen as a discrete thread within his oeuvre, commenced an area of activity within his broader output of sculptures placed directly on the floor or ground. By definition these works are modest in scale in comparison with his larger abstract sculptures and their generic title alludes to this essential quality of reduced size, the works being conceived for a surface whose scale relates to that of a table. From the outset the table sculptures were conceived as works in their own right, rather than as maquettes (preparatory or smaller versions of large sculptures) and were intended to deal with issues and to deploy qualities unique to their scale.
Déjeuner sur l’herbe II was made after Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863), painted by Edouard Manet (1832-83). It was completed in 1989 and demonstrates both the more ambitious scale of the table sculpture in recent years and also the expanded frame of reference which, since the mid 1980s, has increasingly characterised Caro’s work as a whole. His frame of reference has expanded both in terms of the materials with and the sources from which he works. Whereas the principal point of departure for Caro’s earlier works was often the latent expressiveness of a piece of found scrap metal, since the 1980s he has turned increasingly to other disciplines, such as architecture, and to other works of art as sources of inspiration for his own sculpture. During the 1980s Caro’s use of materials new to his practice stimulated a significant extension of his sculptural vocabulary. As he explored the formal possibilities of such materials as brass, silver, ceramic and paper a new fluidity began to emerge in his steel sculptures. The voluptuous shapes of Dejeuner sur l’herbe II, which belie the intransigence of the steel, demonstrate this changing direction in his work. Between 1987 and 1989 he addressed painting overtly in four sculptures made after works by earlier masters. Two of them, Descent from the Cross (after Rubens) 1987-8 and Descent from the Cross (after Rembrandt) 1988-9 are large floor based works. They were followed by two major table sculptures: Déjeuner sur l’herbe I 1989, inspired by the 1866 painting of that title by Claude Monet (1840-1926); and this work, Déjeuner sur l’herbe II.
Although based on, and named after, an earlier work of art, there is no literal equivalence between Déjeuner sur l’herbe II and its model; such so-called ‘source’ sculpture is not simply a question of transcription. Instead, Caro has taken the essence of the figurative original and transformed it into a fully resolved abstract sculpture. Sheets of steel have been cut and arranged to produce organic forms that contrast with the uncompromising nature of the material. The sculpture achieves its coherence through a sense of movement that flows through the complex arrangement of the various elements that have been bent, buckled and twisted before being welded together to articulate space and create rhythm and movement. This table sculpture draws on the energy and atmosphere of its model but in the process of engagement with it, the source is refracted, producing new a work in which abstract formal invention and new possibilities of meaning coalesce.
Paul Moorhouse (ed.), Anthony Caro, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2005, p.97, reproduced p.96 in colour.
Julius Bryant, Anthony Caro: A Life in Sculpture, London 2004.
Giovanni Carandente, Anthony Caro and Twentieth-Century Sculpture, Kunelsaw 1999.