Anthony Caro 'Open Secret': meet our MA student curators

Warburg MA students look at Anthony Caro's Open Secret

This month, visitors to the Warburg can visit a special display in our Library Reading Room of Anthony Caro's Open Secret as part of the wider 'Ivorypress at Twenty-Five' exhibition.

We caught up with four of the exhibition curators, MA students in Art History, Curating and Renaissance Culture; Eleanor Lerman, Lydia Riley, Isabella Schwarzer and Francisco de Borja Herraiz Garcia de Guadiana, to find out more about the display.

Tell us about the project with Ivorypress and your involvement?

Lydia: Firstly, it was the Warburg Institute who approached us with the opportunity to help with the curatorial and online execution of Ivorypress’ multi-institutional exhibition that is to celebrate their 25th anniversary. The project is to commemorate the printing house's niche specialism in artists’ books, the Warburg also being a unique place, the institution was chosen to house two of Anthony Caro’s sculptural books titled Open Secret.

Being students interested in curatorship, as well as being part of our MA, we aided with manual preparation for the opening of the exhibition while also collaborating with Ivorypress’s coordinator, Valerie Maasburg, on the placement of the sculptures themselves and additional archival material. We had to get creative with the space – taking supplies from the Warburg’s Reading Room and Library stacks to create a narrative that complimented the reading of Caro’s sculptures.

Additionally, we created a webpage for the Warburg that introduced Anthony Caro and his art to help contextualise Open Secret within his oeuvre and to give visitors more information on his life and collaboration with Ivorypress. The website also contains the German transcriptions of the Hans Magnus Enzensberger poems that feature in the exhibition.

What did you learn about Anthony Caro’s work and 'Open Secret' in particular through taking part in the project?

Francisco: It became clear very quickly that to best understand Open Secret it needed to be contextualised within Anthony Caro’s six-decade career. Therefore, we sought to get to know Anthony Caro and try to understand who he was as a sculptor by the time Ivorypress’ Elena Foster Ochoa reached out to him with the idea of creating an artist book in the early 2000s.

Warburg MA students taking a closer look at Ivorypress' accompanying archive materials to 'Open Secret' © The Warburg Institute

What were some of the challenges of creating the display?

Isabella: One of the aspects that was most challenging in this project was the display context itself. Our brief was to create a display within the Library's Reading Room of the Warburg Institute. Since this room is normally not used for exhibitions we were lacking equipment such as plinths, space to put up wall texts and professional lighting. We only had one display case available which we used to cover the poetry. Other than that we had to improvise; we ended up using library desks as plinths as well as a book trolley.

Another aspect that proved to be challenging was the time constraint. We had about a week in between the arrival of the artworks and the exhibition opening. This meant that we had to be as coordinated as possible both within the Warburg team and with the curator of Ivorypress.

However despite these challenges the exhibition was a success in the end - in a way these challenges forced us to work better as a team and be more efficient.

Handling the display case as part of the exhibition © The Warburg Institute
The silkscreen cover for the imagined 'Open Secret' architectural project © The Warburg Institute

What have you enjoyed the most about the project?

Eleanor: Seeing and interacting with the archival material presented alongside Open Secret. It is rare to get a true and authentic feel for the behind the scenes activity that brought an artwork (or 31) to fruition. Often you only see a final product. Handling the weighty letterpress used to print Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s poems, unfolding the silkscreen cover with photoshopped locations for the imagined Open Secret architectural project, peering through Elena Foster’s letters with Caro added a new layer of meaning and intrigue to the sculptures. You become incredibly aware of the project’s materiality and its moving parts - so many people were involved in the making of Open Secret.

What conversations emerge as a result of displaying 'Open Secret' in the Warburg Library Reading Room?

Eleanor: The two Anthony Caro Open Secret sculptures are placed in the Warburg’s Reading Room alongside very clear ‘Do not touch’ labels. Although, in essence, they are books - both sculptures hold a portfolio of poems and text - their contents are relatively inaccessible to the public and they adopt the role of sculptures within this exhibition. Their placement opens up a conversation with the Warburg’s own historic library, one that is tangible in a different way to Open Secret. Each book in the Library holds a wealth of information, hidden behind their covers. Caro’s books sit ‘deconstructed’ in the Reading Room, allowing a unique opportunity to read and understand its portfolio of texts (displayed on tables alongside the sculptures). The title of Caro’s sculptures suggest that there is an inward mystery, waiting to be discovered. So too, the Warburg Library provides new surprises and insights each time it is used.

Warburg MA students look at Anthony Caro's Open Secret
Warburg MA students unveiling a steel version of 'Open Secret' © The Warburg Institute

What were some of the key curatorial concerns that were being considered when curating the space?

Isabella: Our curatorial decisions were in many ways influenced by the limitations of the space. Our objective was to make our limitations (eg., exhibition space and equipment), our strengths. This meant ‘embracing’ the fact that we are not a museum. Rather than pretend that we are a museum, the goal was thus to be true to our identity as a library and make the whole display about it - that is why we chose to use library desks and trolleys as well as handwritten flashcards as labels (rather than printed labels). We also decided to use one of the drawers of the library, that was used to store documents, to display works. We placed the poems on top of the drawer and covered it with a protective plastic case. Similarly, we decided to use one of the drawers to store the silk cover of the artwork; the idea was that the drawer could be opened and closed and thus make the display more interactive for the viewer.

At the same time, we were also concerned with the safety of the sculptures and the archival material. This had to be balanced out with other concerns, such as the ideal viewing experience. This is why Caro's sculptures were shown without a protective glass case but the archival letters were covered with an acrylic sheet. The thinking behind it was that while the the experience of the sculptures would be seriously impeded by a glass case (partly due to its three dimensionality), the viewing of archival material (which is naturally flat) would not be negatively affected by an extra layer of glass.

All together, our curatorial decisions were based on three main considerations: safety, viewing experience and practical availability (i.e., what supplies were available). The display that you can see today is a product of a constant negotiation between these factors.

Enzensberger's poems on top of a set of library drawers © The Warburg Institute

What is your favourite item in the exhibition and why?

Lydia: I would have to say my favourite item in the exhibition is the sculpture made from cardboard. To find a sculpture made from this material is so unique and intriguing, the material invites a certain tactility that you don’t get with the other artworks. Additionally, when looking out the window where the cardboard sculpture is placed sparks an interesting dialogue with the material and architecture of the stone church visible just outside the Warburg.  

So different from the it’s stainless-steel counterpart, which reflects the light and environment surrounding it, the cardboard Open Secret almost absorbs its surroundings and brings a certain cold comfort. To me, this speaks of the pessimistic optimism echoed in Enzensberger’s poetry.

The cardboard 'Open Secret' © The Warburg Institute

How did your studies in curatorship as part of your MA at the Warburg Institute feed into the project?

Lydia: As part of our MA we had to propose and virtually curate an independent exhibition sited in Room 1 of the National Gallery. Therefore, we already had some experience in curation but only in the theoretical sense, which is what made this opportunity so great as we could put our knowledge into practice. The curation module prepared us well for thinking about the narrative of the exhibition and how to situate it within Warburg’s to create a cohesive show.

What would you say to prospective students considering the Warburg’s postgraduate programmes

Isabella: I would say that in this programme you will not only immerse yourself in Renaissance culture but you will also have exposure to the practical aspects of curating. Part of the attraction of this course is that you learn about the theory of curating but you are also given the opportunity to apply it in practice by creating your own online and in-person exhibitions as part of your assignments. While you are doing that you will be able to look behind the scenes of the National Gallery and get to know the curators and restorers as well as the people who select the exhibition programme. Throughout your year you will receive guidance by your individual supervisor from the National Gallery who will advise you on every step of the process. In sum, I would say that if you are a curious person who enjoys theory but also likes to apply it in practice and you have quite a hands-on mindset, then this is the right course for you.

What is something that you will take forwards from this experience into your future career plans?

Francisco: In short, everything. This project has granted us an inside look into what it looks like to form part of a curatorial team. From the more enjoyable and gamerous, such as conducting in-depth research and attending events, to the more mundane yet essential, such as moving heavy objects around until one is happy with the space. As aspiring curators, being able to familiarise ourselves with the ins and outs of, not only the curatorial field, but also exhibition design and interpretation has been invaluable.

Our MA student curators with Warburg Institute Director Bill Sherman © The Warburg Institute

You asked this question of Bill and Valerie, so now it is your turn: What is a book and does Caro’s work alter your definition at all?

Francisco: This question has certainly been in our minds over the past few weeks, despite pondering it more times than we care to admit the nature of the book remains a mystery. This being said, we are confident in describing Open Secret as a sculpture evoking a book, rather than as a book. There are many elements Anthony Caro’s sculptures satisfy which help categorise these as sculptures rather than books, including their heavily modelled appearance, their cumbersome nature and weight, and –of course– the materials used. Alone, these elements describe a sculpture, however, perhaps only when open does Open Secret become a book. Because, much like a traditional book, it is only when opened and its information accessed that we interact with it as a book. If never opened, books are merely objects with the potential to become or be used as books. Having said this, we can say with certainty that Anthony Caro’s Open Secret pushes the boundaries of both sculpture and book, object and word, inspiring the viewer to venture into a most delightful exploration.

What is the most important thing you have learnt?

Isabella: Our key takeaway from this experience is that curating is as much about logistical planning as it is about the artworks. As Valerie rightly pointed out on our first day ‘Curating is not as glamorous as it might first seem’. We witnessed, first hand, that curating can involve heavy lifting, moving things around and not being afraid to have a hands-on approach. Equally we experienced that during the process of curating an idea does not always work out in practice as one imagined it - in moments like these it is important to not be afraid to throw one’s idea overboard since curating is very much about trial and error. In this sense curating is also an exercise in problem solving. Overall, this experience showed us the variety of skills that are needed to succeed as a curator.

> Find out more about the exhibition