Monumental artworks that never were

Towards the end of his life – despite the fact that he was approaching his nineties – the British sculptor Anthony Caro was planning one of the most ambitious projects of his career: a gigantic abstract sculpture for the central reservation (median strip) of Park Avenue in New York.

Exhilarated by the “fast-moving arteries” of the city’s grid system, Caro sensed that there would be no point designing a “monolithic piece”, since, as he put it, “it would simply be seen for a flash as you passed it.”

Moreover, he wanted to fashion something that could engage onlookers high up in nearby skyscrapers, as well as pedestrians and passengers in vehicles at street level.

So he set to work conceiving a ‘long sculpture’ that would enclose the central reservation’s foliage and trees, while also echoing the incessant movement that he had observed hurtling up and down the avenue.

As he experimented, constructing a model on a scale of 1:20, the sculpture grew and grew – until what was originally intended to be the length of an entire city block had tripled in size, to three city blocks or one third of a mile (half a kilometre).

“These three parts would be structurally similar but at different tempos, like the different movements of a symphony,” Caro explained in 2011, two years before his death, aged 89. In astronomical terms, his plans for the Park Avenue sculpture were going supernova.

Man with a masterplan

Along with a crack team of technicians and assistants, he toiled in his studio, the former piano factory in Camden Town in north London that he had occupied since 1969, on the sculpture’s various sections, now working on a scale of 1:4.

These low-slung, horizontal models – impressive sculptures in their own right – were made by welding together large slabs, poles and pipes of rusted steel – a technique that had been Caro’s signature ever since he had revolutionised sculpture back in the early ’60s.

One of them, now known as Morning Shadows (2012), can be seen alongside a 1:500 scale model of the entire Park Avenue project in a new exhibition at the Hepworth Wakefield art gallery in Yorkshire in the north of England. Sculpture and model both suggest that, if it had been realised, Caro’s Park Avenue opus would have resembled a small Eiffel Tower lying on one side.

Even the logistics for how the sculpture could be erected were planned in fine detail. It would be fabricated, galvanised and painted in England. Then it would be shipped to New York in 10 containers. Once unloaded at the docks, it would be shifted onto 15 trucks and driven to the site. There, three teams of 12 (one team per city block) would work night and day over the course of a single weekend, using two cranes to erect the sculpture, which would then remain in situ for six months.

This complex operation was scheduled to take place in March 2012. Sadly, though, it never happened: in the end, Caro couldn’t raise sufficient funds. Even though in theory it could still be erected according to the artist’s specifications, in practice, following his death, it is unlikely that it will ever be built.

Towering ambition

What a shame: Caro’s Park Avenue epic would have been a fitting climax to a triumphant career. In a sense, though, it hasn’t been lost completely. It exists in the form of the 12 large models of the so-called Park Avenue Series. It also, in a curious way, thrives in our imaginations – like other Herculean works of public art or architecture that were proposed but, for one reason or another, never actually saw the light of day.

Perhaps the best-known 20th Century example is Tatlin’s Tower (1919-20), a colossal, corkscrewing Constructivist monument designed by the Ukrainian artist and architect Vladimir Tatlin, which would have spiralled up to the heavens to a height of 400 m (1,300 ft). Although it was never built – the cost of its materials (iron, glass and steel) would have been prohibitively expensive – Tatlin’s model for it quickly became a symbol of Utopian modernity, and proved enormously influential.

Half a century later, the Swedish-born American Pop artist Claes Oldenburg began proposing his own monuments for urban contexts. “At the end of the ’60s, I started to become interested in architecture and in turning objects into architecture,” he told me in his studio in New York earlier this year. “So I made a number of studies of buildings that I would propose for cities in the form of objects. There’s a whole collection of them, including several for New York.”

Oldenburg’s proposals take the form of self-consciously absurd drawings. In one sketch from 1965, for instance, he presents a gargantuan teddy bear sitting slumped at the north end of Central Park – turning the entire city into a playground. For Park Avenue, Oldenburg conceived two “monuments”. One is a colossal ice-cream bar squashed across the width of the thoroughfare between skyscrapers on either side.

“The other,” he says, “is a big bowling ball that rolls down Park Avenue from 96th Street and disappears in a hole where Grand Central Station is, before being carried back up on tracks to 96th Street, and then it rolls again. So you have to be very careful when you turn left on Park Avenue, because this ball is coming, and it’s not going to stop. That’s the feeling you have on Park Avenue.”

Colt classic

Oldenburg never believed that his tongue-in-cheek ideas would actually be built; he was more interested in creating playful ideas that were at the same time amusing and slightly sinister. More recently, though, the British artist Mark Wallinger did propose that a whopping object – a 50m-high (164 ft) statue of a thoroughbred white horse – should be constructed on a site in Kent’s Ebbsfleet Valley in south-east England, as a counterpart to Antony Gormley’s popular, 20m-tall (66 ft) steel Angel of the North near Gateshead.

Wallinger’s idea won a competition to design a new landmark for the area and at one point it looked as though it would become a reality. But then, like Caro’s Park Avenue project, his White Horse stumbled due to lack of funding.

“I was on the judging panel for that,” says Simon Wallis, director of the Hepworth Wakefield, “and I was so excited when we chose Mark – then sadly it came to nothing, I think because of the sheer cost of realising it. Projects like these usually founder for prosaic reasons – about money, about real estate, about failing to ensure that people have bought into the vision.”

He pauses. “But why are we still so tentative about realising these larger-scale projects, as though we have no faith in the power of what they can do? Something like the Angel of the North really ought to embolden us more. I don’t think there are that many artists who can make a great virtue of scale. But those that can: it really is something that ought to happen more frequently than it does. What is there to rival the Angel of the North in the UK? That had resistance at its inception – yet people ended up taking it to their hearts. We need major public works of art in the fabric of our lives – and I don’t think we have enough of them.”