Anthony Caro 'Open Secret': interview with Bill Sherman

Written by Francisco de Borja Herraiz Garcia de Guadiana |

On the occasion of Ivorypress’ 25th anniversary, the Warburg Institute is thrilled to display one of their unique artist’s books: Sir Anthony Caro’s Open Secret (2004).  

To celebrate the partnership between the Warburg Institute and Ivorypress for this exhibition, MA student in Art History, Curating and Renaissance Culture, Francisco de Borja Herraiz Garcia de Guadiana (who is also one of the curators of the display) met with Director of the Warburg Institute, Bill Sherman.

Read on to find out more about the exhibition, the relationship between Ivorypress and the Warburg Institute and the influence of Shakespeare on Anthony Caro. 

What is a book?

That is a complicated question. Books are in some ways one of the most unchanging cultural forms in history. Certainly since the move from scroll to codex, which was a very long time ago, it’s been the same thing for a very long time. And amazingly, despite all of the technological changes of the last two millennia, it doesn’t really show much sign of changing now. On one level it’s obviously a text, perhaps some image, brought together with something that gives it a physical bounded shape, a binding. And it’s usually something that is the same across the various copies of or instantiations of whatever it is. But my own research has focussed very heavily on the way readers use books, and from that perspective, every book is different. And when you get into the kinds of experimentation that Ivorypress have fostered then it can be almost anything. It doesn’t have to have a binding, paper, words, or images. 

How, in your opinion, do Anthony Caro’s sculptures conflict or compliment your definition of a book?

In one sense Open Secret has all of the necessary features of what I mentioned. It has a text, it has a bounded shape which holds it together, it is also a multiple. If I buy the cardboard copy, it’ll be the same as the other two cardboard copies and the other 30 metal copies. But when you look at it you think of it as a sculpture. From that perspective I think it’s nice because it challenges that preconception of what a book is. And the other thing I like about it is not only the relationship between book and sculpture, but also building. Book, sculpture, and building are the three components. This idea that Frank Gehry and Norman Foster had that this object could just as easily be a model for a building.

The display of two of Anthony Caro's Open Secret books in the Warburg Library Reading Room © The Warburg Institute

Everybody’s heard of the saying ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. How much does the sculptural shell of 'Open Secret' give a new meaning to this phrase?

I never say ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’! Because it’s actually one of the main ways that you’re supposed to judge a book. Book covers are usually one of the first things you see, the first impression. Whether it’s for marketing purposes to sell you the book, or for classifying purposes to make you understand what kind of book it is. So I think the cover of the book is all important. In a way, it is one of the things that makes a text a book. If you have a bunch of loose leaf sheets that can be picked up at will, it’s not a book yet. But rarely is a binding as sculptural as this. And rarely does it use materials beyond whatever you normally see: paper, cloth, sometimes wood, velvet, embroidery, and leather of course. In the past 400-500 years there have been many different kinds of covers. But I don’t think I've ever held a book before that is metal. So that’s quite unusual. It’s like our facsimile of the Bilderatlas which is so cumbersome you have to put it on a table. Quintessentially, books are a portable form. Open Secret is not a portable object.

Is it the idea of permanence that makes 'Open Secret' a sculpture?

It must be one of the things. Although there are plenty of portable sculptures, but [Caro] makes a monumental object. And [that is] maybe why it feels like it becomes a building. Because it is kind of a monument. The other thing that of course you’re aware of is that Open Secret is not meant to be handled much. Whereas other books are very much to be taken in hand. It’s a very manual cultural form. 

In the latter half of the 15th century when books began being printed, one of the biggest advantages was dissemination and distribution. I guess this book is a complete opposite of that. You have to go to it. 

That’s right. And we in the digital age call the earlier transition from scroll to codex random access. The point of book technology in part, is that you can access [the book] at any point in the text. So, I can open the last page instead of the first. But with a scroll you can’t. It’s a deeply linear technology. You have to go through [the entire text] to get to where you want. In the case of Open Secret, you have to go through the whole process of opening, propping open in the case of the cardboard, and then pulling out this lovely black portfolio, unfolding it, going through the sheaf of papers etcetera. And so, in a way, it’s no longer portable or random access. 

How did this exhibition come about? 

We have had a relationship with Ivorypress for a few years. In 2019 we were working very closely with the British artist and writer Edmund de Waal. And Edmund did the big annual project with Ivorypress called Breath. And that’s the same year he launched the project The Library of Exile. The talk Edmund gave on the Library of Exile, was here at the Warburg Institute in March 2019. When it came time for Elena to do the 25th anniversary celebration, there were two aspects: one was to show all the artist books and the other was to create this beautiful 3 volume celebration called Words, Books, Stories. One whole volume features interviews with people and I was one of those people, so the Warburg is very present in their celebration. I think Edmund probably deserves the credit as the person who created this relationship with Ivorypress but we’ve been very much kindred spirits. 

Anthony Caro Open Secret exhibition at the Warburg © The Warburg Institute

How do Ivorypress and the Warburg compliment each other?

Ivorypress have been leaders in the commissioning, creating, and collecting of artist books. For now and 5+ years the Warburg have been leaders in the custodianship of a great scholarly collection and the training necessary to use it. So we have very different missions and very different audiences in many ways. But increasingly, they bend toward each other. And over the last few years we’ve been working toward a building project that will facilitate engagement with artists and the sharing of our own collections through exhibitions. In a funny way this project is Ivorypress embedding one of their objects in our space, but on another level this partnership is about us opening out actively toward them. It really is a mutual two direction partnership.

Ivorypress were looking for spaces that were museums, libraries, and institutions. The Warburg is two of those, soon to be three. If Ivorypress was celebrating their anniversary in the future, would Caro’s sculptures be placed in the library or the gallery space?

That’s such a good question. I don’t know what the answer is. We were wrestling to figure out how to put such a beautiful sculptural pair of objects and related archival materials on display in a room that is not built for purpose. In the end we decided instead of fighting it just go with the fact that the Warburg is a library and Open Secret is a book. So they can live together. It is worth saying that the Warburg is not a museum but on the other hand, I can’t think of any other place where you enter past the nine muses and under the name of their mother - Mnemosyne the goddess of memory. So if we’re not a house of the muses (a museum), then what are we? I would argue that we were a museum first even before a library or university. 

Anthony Caro Open Secret exhibition in the Warburg Library Reading Room © The Warburg Institute

The Warburg studies periods in human history, and Aby Warburg was fond of finding the classical legacy and seeing how it applies to the Mediaeval and Renaissance. Caro as a sculptor was incredibly fond of Renaissance art. What do you think of the appropriateness of exhibiting Caro in the Warburg?

On the broadest level, it’s been interesting over these last few years to see how often I’m told that Warburg thinks like an artist rather than a scholar. That his projects and methods make more sense in an art context than in a university context. I suspect that Caro and Warburg would have had a lot to say to each other. Caro is one of those people who is deeply informed by the Renaissance and other periods. And what I’m so surprised by with this project is that the one text Caro chose was by Shakespeare. 

On the broadest level, it’s been interesting over these last few years to see how often I’m told that Warburg thinks like an artist rather than a scholar.

Using an excerpt from The Merchant of Venice relates to materiality, but what else can you draw out from Shakespeare’s influence over Caro?

It’s such a great title Open Secret, it’s already posing lots of questions where there are mysteries and answers all in the same place. One of my questions to think precisely what was the afterlife or survival of something in Shakespeare for Caro? I think there’s probably more than that and I’m going to find out what it is. I would say at the moment it’s more a secret than open. But I think in the course of the month it will shift towards open.

> Find out more about the exhibition