A 1992 interview with Anthony Caro included in Richard Cork's recent book Face to Face: Interviews with Artists includes the following comment from Caro on his time as an assistant to Henry Moore:
'At Much Hadham, where I was living at this period when I was with him [Moore], we [Moore's assistants] would find things there and put them on the path where he walked, and he'd pick them up and he'd say: 'Look what I've found!' [laughs]'
The obvious way of reading this mischievous play is that of a critique of Moore's fondness of using stones, bones and shells as source material, examples of the 'principles of form and rhythm' he sought to incorporate into his sculpture as outlined in his essay in Unit 1 (1934). Caro and his colleagues, then, cracked the code, planting objects in Moore's path which, when selected by him, demonstrated that his apparent trust in serendipitous encounters with nature was in fact a predictable system. Caro was demonstrating the same sort of thinking that makes Ryan Gander prefer van Doesburg to Mondrian (Ampersand: Notes on a Collection, pp.129-31) as the less deceived.
David Sylvester, in a note on Moore from 1960 made clear what he felt were the limits of Moore's use of natural forms:
'There is something too passive about Moore's acceptance of nature's way of working stone and so on. What we ask of the artist is that he should have a kind of love-hate relationship with nature and that the very intensity of his love should be a motive for destruction [...]'
This was written at a time when Sylvester felt that Moore's adherence to natural processes betrayed a naivety, a lack of rigour. I suspect that he felt this way about Hepworth's work, although his complete indifference to it meant he never wrote enough about it to be sure of that.
By 1968, when Sylvester curated Moore's major 70th birthday exhibition at the Tate, his opinion had changed. Here, in the section 'Stones, Bones, Shells' in the monograph/catalogue for the exhibition, he suggests that Moore's fixation with these objects was to some extent an alibi, which fulfilled 'a need to tell himself that his abstract forms were obeying some authority beyond that of his own instincts'. Particularly in the climate of hostility to abstract art in which Moore developed, Sylvester claims Moore 'was painfully anxious to allay any suspicion that his abstract direction meant a retreat from reality [...] nevertheless, he protests like a man conducting an argument with himself'.
The change in Sylvester's thinking is clear: in 1960 Moore was too content in his ruralism to take entirely seriously; in 1968 he is seen as more complex and conflicted, a man who both wants to express his personal taste and fantasy, but lacks the absolute confidence to do so of a Picasso (hampered in part by a particularly English timidity). The question I couldn't help asking, then, was: if Moore had known that the stones were placed there by Caro rather than appearing by nature's good offices (or if, for argument's sake, if Caro had fashioned a similar-looking object and left it amongst the stones), would that have made them any less worthy of his attention? Maybe Caro (to his own surprise) would have been just as good an alibi as nature.
This need for a 'love-hate' relationship with nature can be found all over Sylvester's writings, and probably has something to do with growing up amongst the earnest neo-Romanticism of the 1940s. Mondrian was for Sylvester the classic case of an artist who approached nature with eyes wide open:
'One of the great landscape-painters of his generation, one of the great flower-painters of his generation, comes to find trees monstrous, green fields intolerable'.
More recently, I think this is the reason why Richard Long rejected the catalogue preface which Sylvester wrote for the 1994 Sao Paulo Biennial. Long, in a piece published several years later, said of Sylvester:
'he just didn't get my work. It was a classic case of an urban intellectual who didn't have a clue of what it was to walk in the Andes or getting wet in thunderous rain on a Scottish hillside'.
No doubt, and Sylvester's reading of Long's work is more indebted to Jasper Johns than anyone else. In their 1965 interview Sylvester and Johns memorably confronted Johns' claims of impersonality, and the same questions of acceptance and decision resurface in Sylvester's writing on Long.