CARL ANDRE with Michèle Gerber Klein and Phong Bui
On the occasion of Carl Andre’s monograph Carl Andre: Things in Their Elements by Alistair Rider (Phaidon, 2011), and his forthcoming retrospective at Dia Art Foundation (March – December 2013), co-curated by director Philippe Vergne and curator Yasmil Raymond, the sculptor/poet welcomed contributing editor Michèle Gerber Klein and Phong Bui to his West Village home to talk about his life and work.
Michèle Gerber Klein: Carl, did you begin writing poetry when you were a child? I know both your parents loved poetry.
Carl Andre: Yes, poetry was a very common experience in our family. My mother was sort of a secretary of the mothers’ club of our church, and she would write wonderful poems in rhyme. My father, although he could write beautifully, preferred reading poetry out loud. I would be sitting on my father’s lap after dinner, and he would read Shelley and Keats, and other English Romantics.
Phong Bui: So it wasn’t just the graveyard poets—Calvin Thompkins mentions Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” in his New Yorker profile of you. [Laughs.]
Andre: No, not at all.
Klein: How old were you when you wrote your first poem?
Andre: Maybe I was seven or eight years old. I was in third grade. I wrote about my observation from my second floor bedroom window looking down on the two large cherry trees in our backyard one April morning. First I thought it was snowing, but then I realized it was the petals of the cherry blossoms falling down: It was beautiful.
Klein: You’ve said that naming things is like poetry. Is the title of your first poem “Snow”?
Andre: Well, the true poem about one specific object or event should be its name or title. Let’s take a rock for example. What better poem about a rock than “Rock”?
Klein: Oh! Do you think of rocks as being alive?
Klein: What about your steel, copper, and magnesium sculptures? They’re so interactive.
Andre: That’s because people are interacting with them—otherwise I don’t think when they walk on the materials they would feel anything. I don’t think inanimate matter is sentient in any way, so it wouldn’t be an interaction.
Klein: Yes, but we’re sentient, and we bring that to it. So the experience would be interactive.
Andre: Well, every perception is a misperception, you might say. Actually, my career has been based on some profound misunderstandings.
Bui: [Laughs.] The most memorable one was, of course, your misunderstanding of a piece of advice from Frank Stella. When he saw you carve into one side of a column of timber, he pointed to the uncarved underside and said: “You know, that’s sculpture, too.”
Andre: Right. But you know a misunderstanding can be as useful as an understanding, if it leads in a fruitful direction.
Bui: Like how you told Ron Gorchov that he was a retarded terror, which he heard as “retardataire.” Because of that misunderstanding Ron stopped showing his work for nearly 10 years—long after his last show at Tibor de Nagy in 1966.
Andre: It probably was my last show at Tibor as well.
Bui: Which worked to Ron’s advantage because it gave him ample time to perfect his invention of the shaped canvas. In any case, before going to Kenyon College on a full scholarship to study English with John Crowe Ransom (founding editor of the Kenyon Review and founding member of the Fugitives), and then leaving Kenyon two weeks into the first semester, you attended boarding school at Andover. Did you study with any notable teachers there?
Andre: Well, there were good poets, like Dudley Fitts, who was known for his translations of Greek tragedies and comedies, teaching at Andover, but my experience there was essentially dominated by visual arts. I studied with Patrick Morgan, an ex-student of Hans Hoffmann, and his wife Maud, two excellent teachers. I remember telling my parents how I really enjoyed the art classes, and they said, “Oh, of course, that’s play” [laughs]. They didn’t take it seriously.
Klein: What sort of things did you make? Painting or sculpture?
Andre: Well, they would set up a still life just to start things off, but soon I was just “beavering” away at whatever I was doing, which was entirely something else. You may say it was a painted collage.
Klein: Abstract or representational?
Andre: I admire people who can draw beautifully or have athletic skills. But since I have no hand-eye, body-eye coordination, I made abstract art and wrote poetry instead.
Klein: Are you mathematical?
Andre: Not really. I use some basic arithmetic in what I do. For instance, I explore by typing a word over and over again on a sheet of paper so you can no longer read the word but can see the whole texture across the page. I was always a one-fingered typist but I’m surprised how much typing I did at that time with one finger.
Bui: So if you didn’t study much modern poetry in boarding school you must have already read T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and e.e. cummings in middle school.
Andre: Yes. I was especially interested in Pound, partly because of his involvement with the visual arts: Brancusi, Wyndham Lewis, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.
Bui: Which led to Vorticism and Blast magazine.
Andre: Right. You may say that Pound’s Cantos was inspired by Brancusi’s devotion to formal perfection and beauty.
Bui: Another Poundian is your old friend Hollis Frampton, whose films and writings I greatly admire.
Klein: Who moved to Washington, D.C. in 1957 and visited Pound nearly every day for over a year while he was working on the Cantos.
Andre: That’s right. Hollis and I shared many common interests. But Hollis was an authentic genius, he really was. He had a tremendously high I.Q. and had a great gift for language, which I don’t have at all, except perhaps for English [laughs]. Hollis had already studied Greek, Latin, and Hebrew before going to Andover. I remember once shouting out some German expression. And Hollis, who was taking German at the time, mockingly told me it was a victory slogan of a dog cart hunt [laughs].
Bui: In an interview with Robert Garder on his TV show The Screening Room, Frampton said that in the ’50s young people like him who had a diffused interest in the arts wanted to be poets; in the ’60s they all wanted to become painters; and in the ’70s everyone wanted to make films. What do you think?
Andre: That was the basis of the 12 Dialogues, which would be lost if Hollis hadn’t kept them. You might say that it was our way of spending time together, having fun and figuring things out at the same time. That’s the whole predicament and challenge of artists of any kind. I have an adage: “To do the thing is easy enough, but to put yourself in a position to do it is extremely difficult.” In other words, you have to be perceptive about yourself. And you have to allow the authority of yourself to conflict with the authority of the world, so you can create something the world doesn’t yet have, which is what art is about to a great extent. At least it is to me. So whatever people gravitate towards, poetry, painting, or film, or whatever, it’s the putting themselves in the position to do it that’s very difficult.
Bui: Do you agree with John Ashbery when he said: “What matters is the artist’s will to discover rather than the manual skills he may share with hundreds of other artists. Anybody could have discovered America, but only Columbus did.”
Andre: To put it another way, the fact that Columbus got the credit doesn’t necessarily imply that the person who gets the credit is the one who actually did the job.
Bui: Are you saying that uniqueness can be a matter of luck?
Andre: Well, it’s hard to say. There was a time when artists just worked alone in their studios and didn’t get any recognition, but they just kept making their own work. I had the same experience—I was influenced by David Smith and Brancusi but had little rapport with my contemporaries, except of course with Hollis and Frank Stella, who were very important to my growth as a young artist. In fact, Frank was the one who insisted that I was a sculptor, not a painter, which was absolutely true. Frank was a very perceptive and brilliant person. Except that since I was the one who introduced him to Barbara Rose, he never forgave me.
Bui: [Laughs.] Maybe Barbara feels the same way about you, too.
Andre: Barbara made a tremendous contribution to art criticism. She was a great reporter. She had a sense of what was important and didn’t miss many chances. She was at the forefront.
Klein: But even before Frank encouraged you to be a sculptor, wasn’t there the experience of Stonehenge? You left Kenyon College, went back to Quincy, worked in a factory, saved some money, and went to London to visit your aunt?
Andre: Yes, my aunt Silvia was a nurse in the Second World War. In fact she was in the Battle of the Bulge, where she met this very dashing fighter pilot named Raymond Baxter. They immediately fell in love, and what Raymond did, which was completely against all regulations, was fly with Silvia sitting on his lap from Belgium to Switzerland; they got married there, then flew right back [laughs]. They both were a lot of fun, and they were the ones who took me to see Stonehenge.
Klein: Can you say again how you fell in love with Stonehenge and how it inspired your sculpture?
Andre: First of all, the whole Salisbury Plain is so enchanted. There are wood henges, arable land in this magical chalk plateau, which is full of Neolithic remains, including a few large Mesolithic postholes. The landscape in itself really affected me sculpturally, partly because unlike in North America, where land has been systematically cultivated for less than 300 years, the English have been doing it for 3,000 years. You might say we’ve just plowed the first furrow.
Klein: And the roughness of the rocks?
Andre: I didn’t consider them rough. I considered them very elegant; they were hewn of bluestone and sarsen sandstone. But the amazing thing is they were dragged 300 miles from Wales. I could only imagine the rocky mountain outcrops in western Wales. The common theory was they were transported there by glaciers.
Bui: Or rolled along on top of tree trunks.
Andre: It’s all speculation at any rate. Maybe Merlin brought them [laughs].
Klein: So when you look at the rocks, do you feel their materiality?
Bui: As Frampton said, the concept-made-material was the thing of beauty.
Andre: Yes. It’s all the materials. Actually, when people ask me about the ideas behind my work I often say, “There are no ideas hidden under those plates! You can lift them up but there’s nothing there.” My work is essentially about my material relationship with the material, not a conceptual relationship with the material. Unlike let’s say Lawrence Weiner’s relationship with various typographic texts, and what can be executed and which cannot, and so on, I had to get rid of language to do sculpture.
Klein: But you use language like sculpture. There’s such an emphasis on the arrangement of the words on the page in your poetry. So to me it’s almost like you scratched out the words when you’re making the sculpture.
Andre: Subjectively, I don’t feel that at all. For me the area of the brain involved with experiencing poetry, whether you’re writing or reading it, is very different from the other area that is engaged when you’re thinking and making sculpture. It in fact took me a while to really learn this difference—at least in my case because I grew up in a language-dominated family. My father would come back from work with a new word everyday, and would challenge all of us, “What does this word mean?” And of course most of the time we didn’t know so we would ask him for its meaning, and he would just say, “You have to look it up in the dictionary.” This was how the habit of looking things up was inculcated in me. This was how I came to like all sorts of dictionaries, I would just read them from page to page. Sometimes I’d spend the whole day doing this.
Klein: So you like the facets—the multiplicity of meanings in a word?
Andre: Yes, and I also like to look at them on the page visually. But then again there is that predicament, which is that when you read more about something you experience it less. This was why I had to break the language dominance in myself in order to make art, because I couldn’t talk myself into a work. I would have to feel myself into a work. In other words, the periodic table of elements is a palette to me like a color spectrum is a palette to a painter.
Bui: Without ever having seen the painted collages you made at Andover, I have a strong feeling that you would have liked Patrick Henry Bruce’s paintings, described as “hard-edged and geometric forms, arranged on a tabletop, evenly applied with flat colors, and painted with subtle repetition and seriality.” Do you know “Peinture/Nature morte” (ca. 1924, given to William H. Lane)? It’s in the permanent collection of Addison Gallery of American Art.
Andre: As I remember he died relatively young at around 55. And sure, I liked his paintings very much. But the truth is the thing I have learned about painting is that I am not a painter. Which is not the same as I am addicted to television therefore I can’t have a television [laughs].
Bui: I’m with you, but the fact that you did it in order to discover that you’re not meant for it is very good. Actually, it’s not that different than Hollis Frampton spending over a year with Pound only to realize that he’s not a poet. But what about the photograph of your East Broadway studio (Frampton’s portfolio of 40 photographs) that appeared in the segment on photography in the 12 Dialogues? Among your sculptures and things there were two abstract paintings, one hard-edged and the other gestural.
Andre: Yes, that’s all my stuff, and the paintings were terrible [laughs]. I remember asking Frank, “Won’t I ever be a good painter?” And he said, “That’s beside the point, you’re a good sculptor now.” Which was very reinforcing because it referred to useless objects that I was putting together when I was a kid. I didn’t know then they were called sculptures. In fact at Andover’s art department there were all kinds of paintings you could do, but there was no sculpture to speak of. And in the ’50s and ’60s, sculpture was more or less looked down on. Of course there were great exceptions like David Smith and a few others, otherwise there were many bad ones. As long as I remember, beginning with the time when my father took my two sisters and me to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, painting was considered art and sculpture was a bastard child. When you called someone an artist, you meant he was a painter, not a sculptor. That was one of the reasons that in the beginning, conceptual art really meant art as ideas. It was a way to shift conventional meanings and readings around. Also, I recognized early on that I had no gift as a painter. To quote an anonymous Chinese painter when he was complimented on his work, “Untalented as I am, I’m condemned to the narrow limits of my art.”
In the ’60s there was a renewed consideration of Constructivist art, both Dutch and Russian, as being very profound. And artists like Joseph Kosuth, Sol Lewitt, and Lawrence Weiner were very involved with Duchamp and the possibilities of conceptual art while others like Don Judd, Dan Flavin, and I were interested in both Duchamp and the Constructivists. Especially with Kosuth because of his involvement with the Art & Language journal (1969).
Bui: And the Fox magazine (1975–76). In addition to a few seminal essays like Lewitt’s “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” (1967), would you say that 12 Dialogues with Frampton was one of the earliest attempts to deal with the loaded legacy of New York School painting, the ramifications of Duchamp’s work, and the revived interest in Constructivist aesthetics?
Andre: That was how some people read it, but for us the dialogues happened because Hollis and I used to meet every Saturday evening at a small apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, which I shared with the painter Rosemarie Castoro. It was something to do between drinking sessions.
Bui: I know the set up was like a chess game: One typed and the other sat or read, waiting for his turn to reply. How long would each turn last?
Andre: Hollis and I had an agreement that once one of us was typing we would not discuss aloud what was transacting between us. It’s not a transcribed conversation; it’s a conversation in typing. And each visit might last two or three hours, but it would be about an hour’s worth of typing. Actually, towards the end of some of the dialogues, you can tell both of us were a little tipsy [laughs].
Bui: I read all the dialogues quite carefully and I wasn’t able to detect any tipsiness.
Andre: That’s because I edited out my tipsy parts. They tended to be a little insulting of other artists.
Klein: Why did you and Frampton stop the dialogue?
Andre: Hollis got a girlfriend. He didn’t need to kill time anymore so he stopped coming over on Saturday nights.
Bui: That was it [laughs]. Anyway, looking at the reproduction of your early works, between 1959 and 1962, most were destroyed or lost.
Andre: That was because at the time I was living out the leases of friends’ lofts or apartments, so I just threw away or abandoned my debris when I left.
Bui: The presence of Duchamp is certainly felt in a ready-made piece with a telephone in a glass bowl filled with water (“A Marat,” 1960). In an “Untitled” piece (1958–59) made with plexiglass, which you gave to Barbara as a gift, one detects a Constructivist influence. All the smaller wood pieces such as “Maple Spindle Exercise” (1959), the whole “Radial Arm Saw-Cut Sculptures” series (1959), and the larger ones like “Pyramid (Triangular Base)” (1959) evidence a synthesis perhaps of Brancusi and the Constructivists.
Andre: First of all, one could not be a conscious artist living in the ’60s and now not be aware of Duchamp. Duchamp is very paradoxical. He had great wit, and most of his work is actually very funny, if you get the joke. You may say that he was a sly fox. He understood that he was never going to be anything better than a second-rate painter. He knew that the very beginning of anything that one does is to understand one’s own limitations, “stay within your self,” as they say in athletics. Dada was established to be anti-art, to make something that was not art, but then it was quickly adopted as advanced art. You never know. You intend a work to convey some specific messages to people, but they perceive something entirely different, which is good. And that’s why good works of art are so rich, because people bring so many different and varied readings and associations. I didn’t think of my Dada forgeries, which were intended to be Dadaistic works, as being Duchampian. But then when people were looking for a category to put them in, Duchamp was the closest thing they could think of.
Bui: And the “Found Steel Object Sculptures”?
Andre: Yes, those were made a year later (1961–1962). Otherwise, whatever was reproduced in the 12 Dialogues was all made within three years (1959–1962) when I had no money. What is now SoHo was called Hell’s Hundred Acres because it was full of sweatshops, which were firetraps, very dangerous places to live and work, but filled with endless materials to be scavenged. Whatever I could find on the streets was my only source of materials. On the other hand, as much as I found Brancusi and David Smith inspiring, I have never been a craftsman, so I didn’t join things together. I taught myself how to cut with a handsaw, then gradually with a table saw, then finally I realized what and how cutting into an object meant something different than cutting into a space. I accepted that a work is composed of separate elements. This inevitably had advantages and disadvantages in terms of commercial viability. But none of us ever thought what we were making then had that kind of value. Overall, I was very lucky in that my first group show and solo show were the result of last-minute cancellations at Tibor de Nagy. Barbara said: “Why don’t you show Carl’s work?” And so they did. So I was sort of an accidental artist. Again, the first two shows at Tibor had nothing to do with the production of works. But in terms of exposure, they were good.
Bui: Do you think it’s because of the experience of doing the dialogues with Frampton that you were able to clarify the lineage of 20th-century sculpture into an accessible maxim: “1) Sculpture-as-shape, which refers to the shaped and modeled sculpture from antiquity to perhaps Rodin; 2) structural sculpture, which relates to the repeated form or joined elements, and emerged with Brancusi; and 3) sculpture-as-place, about unattached units laid directly on the floor.”
Andre: Right, the sculpture becomes a place. That was my contribution.
Bui: Which came right after your revelation on a canoeing trip on a lake in New Hampshire?
Andre: Well, there were moments of realization, you might say, along the way. That particular moment with the lake was my recognition that I knew the space at Tibor well since I already had my first show there (1965), and I knew the material I wanted to use, which was sand lime bricks, but couldn’t figure out the configurations. One option was to stack them at different heights. But after seeing the calm, even surface of the water at the lake I decided that they all should be the same height, horizontally lying as close to the floor as possible.
Klein: What about the whole problem of Brancusi and the pedestal?
Andre: I think as Brancusi developed, by 1910–15, the polished stone or metal pieces “on top” became an excuse for the pedestals. In other words, the pedestal became the dominant sculpture. And of course, the most inspiring piece for me is his “Endless Columns,” which I laid down on their sides.
Bui: What are your feelings on Dan Flavin’s work? For example, take “Monument for V. Tatlin.” The title evokes Dan’s affinity for Tatlin’s high idealism or purity but the material can be found in any hardware store. So the fluorescent tubes and the fixtures are really “found objects.”
Andre: True. And to me the idea of a perfect work of art is his diagonal fluorescent (“Diagonal of Personal Ecstasy [the Diagonal of May 25, 1963]”). You just can’t get more essential than that piece. He is an artist I admire very much. Although I would say that I’m a little disturbed by the thought of sculpture or art that can be turned on and turned off [laughs]. I mean art turns people on or turns people off but you’re not supposed to turn the art on and turn it off [laughs].
Bui: Do you mean that expressing paradoxes with conceptual clarity is a way to avoid the seduction of emotion?
Andre: Well, the term “conceptual” has come to apply specifically to all the abstract work of that period. I feel the distinction of conceptual, art as idea, has been lost. I used to infuriate Lawrence Weiner by saying to him, “I don’t know how good a sculptor you are, Lawrence, but you’re a hell of a good poet.” His one-liners about describing the work are just terrific.
Klein: Were you also ever interested in Brazilian Concrete poetry?
Andre: Actually not. I don’t read or speak Portuguese.
Klein: Then to Pound again, I’m thinking of “In A Station of the Metro,” what about your haiku?
Andre: Yes, I’ve probably written 1,000 haiku, all of which were lost, fortunately. Japanese haiku is very hard to do, especially for an English-speaking person, because an English-speaking person is supposed to be expressing a sentiment and haiku is about expressing an instant, it’s a quick grasp of something which is gone immediately as it’s grasped. It’s just simply hard to do because you have to deny your sentiment, which basically is yourself.
Klein: Pound once said, “Neither can anyone learn English, one only learns a series of Englishes. I don’t mean a language to use but a language to think in.”
Andre: Well, that’s a very complex statement. We know the written language is very different from the spoken one, and we know how difficult it is to transcribe a conversation; it’s practically impossible. It of course is similar to the way one thinks of the world as entirely different from the way one sees the world. This wasn’t true with the dialogues, mostly because unlike writing a poem, which is basically a dialectic with one’s self, the dialogues are between Hollis and me.
Klein: What about your three operas?
Andre: Well, there would be three lines of words maybe from three different characters and I would analyze the words alphabetically and so forth, and then the lines would be read simultaneously by a group of people. Actually, on a few occasions, I’ve heard one read aloud by three people and I was enchanted by, you might say, the babble of the words. You’re listening to one person reading in one stream, which is one thing, but when you have all three streams going at the same time, all the counterpoints or variations are inevitably occurring simultaneously. It’s like what Walter Pater said: “All art aspires towards the condition of music.”
Bui: Can we shift the subject to your political side: When and from where did your Marxist tendency come from?
Andre: Well, I certainly didn’t follow the path of Georges Clemenceau, when he said: “If a man is not a socialist in his youth, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 30 he has no head” [laughs]. My father had been interested in socialism since the ’20s and more or less had sustained it throughout his life. He was a very close student of the news and various broadcasts, especially when the United States entered the Second World War after the bombing of Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941); I was 10 at the time. My father also worked at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy as a designer of fresh water and sanitary plumbing for ships, where many cruisers and airplane carriers were being built for Great Britain. The so-called Lend-Lease was carrying on between Churchill and Roosevelt—we got bases in countries around the world in exchange for financial and material aid. I remember listening to the radio every morning and afternoon after school about how Germany knew it was stronger than the United Kingdom as a country within itself, not the British Empire and the Commonwealth, which was stronger than Germany through its external connections around the world. Of course the British were defeated in the fall of France. It was the famous evacuation. Not to mention that there were a lot of people in Britain who were right-wing and wanted to make peace with Germany. It’s amazing that Britain survived that period. In all, you can say that I was exposed to politics from a very early age, and I continued to absorb more and more as I grew older. At some point at Andover, I began to read Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto.
Bui: Did you talk to Frampton about this side of your political interests?
Andre: No. Hollis, like Pound, was in the opposite camp. Hollis was Hollis and I was me, and we weren’t going to have an exchange. I also went to a rally for Adlai Stevenson’s presidential bid against Eisenhower in Boston Garden one Saturday in my second year at Andover (1952). He was a great favorite among liberals, although he lost, both that first time, then again the second time in 1956. There was no hope. Well, gradually, I became more interested in politics in the historical sense, not in the kind of politics that involve who’s going to get elected.
Bui: But what about the war in Vietnam and the AWC (Art Workers’ Coalition)?
Andre: Oh, I was totally against it. AWC’s formation in 1969 was sparked by the sculptor Vassilakis Takis’s conflict with the Museum of Modern Art when they tried to exhibit his work against his wishes. The group was initially concerned with building dialogues between artists and museums, but soon became involved with both the anti-war movement and civil rights issues. Ninety percent of the artists were against the war in Vietnam, and 10 percent were in favor of American imperialism. Most of us just thought the war was a crime. I mean the Vietnamese people wanted to rule themselves, and they didn’t want to have puppets installed by the French or the Americans. They just wanted to be left alone. One of the fears that the American government wanted to spread out to all the people was that Vietnam was an extension of China. But of course, just four years after its unification, Vietnam went to war with China.
Bui: So there was no discussion about art?
Andre: No, one of the rules was that we never discussed art, because there was a subterranean bitter division between figurative artists and abstract artists [laughs]. Not to mention that within the figurative artists there were left-wing, socialist/realist kind of artists, who didn’t get along with right-wing realists [laughs]. At any rate, as the group got involved with other issues like women’s rights and gay rights, by 1971 AWC ceased to exist.
Klein: What are the politics of your practice? Do you feel a certain serenity in your work?
Andre: I once said to Richard Serra, a sculptor I admire very much, “You put matter at risk and I put matter at rest.”
Bui: That’s partly because Richard is about verbs and you’re more interested in nouns and adjectives.
Andre: That’s very true.
Bui: Both your and Richard’s fathers worked in the ship industry. Do you think this relates to your mutual attraction to tough materials?
Klein: [Laughs.] I just think that their works reflect very different personalities. But I have a last question. Carl, how do you want to be remembered?
Andre: Do I want to be remembered? Well, if I had the miraculous power, I would send everyone to my 1970 show at the Guggenheim, partly because I consider the Frank Lloyd Wright building so great. And one thing I liked very much about that show was when you stood in the middle of my “37th Piece of Work” and looked up at the museum’s rotunda all you saw was the spiral—you didn’t see any work of mine at all. I really like that.
Andre: Well, it’s similar to what Bob Ryman does in his nearly invisible paintings. It’s art that isn’t pestering you all the time, saying: “Look at me, look at me.”
I like art that takes you by surprise.