The Nature of Carl Andre
This summer Dia:Beacon finally opened the long-awaited Carl Andre retrospective documenting 50 years of his career. Co-curators Yasmil Raymond and Phillipe Vergne, assisted by Manuel Cirauqui, spent years researching and organizing the entirety of Andre’s production and it shows in the comprehensive view and sensitive installation of the work. For Vergne, who left Dia to direct MOCA, Los Angeles, the exhibition is a triumphant farewell. The decision not to follow a strict chronology was wise, since one can scarcely speak of stylistic evolution in Andre’s career. Once he articulated a set of premises in the early ’60s, he stuck with them as a consistent argument about what sculpture was.
No one expected Andre to participate in the installation. When he actually showed up to make suggestions, it was as if a great grizzly had emerged from hibernation. Andre has been called “mysterious” and “enigmatic,” which makes him sound more like a coy Greta Garbo than like the shy, reticent, serious, and untheatrical artist he is. Despite the hullabaloo that Andre’s quiet, unobtrusive works frequently evoke, there is a remarkable consistency in both his art and his life. He has worked with the same dealer, Paula Cooper, since she opened her gallery in 1968 and has the same friends he had as a teenager, whom he met at Phillips Academy, Andover, the elite prep school he attended not far from his home in Quincy, Massachusetts. Andre’s best friend and roommate, filmmaker Hollis Frampton, died tragically in 1984 at the at the age of 48. But the other members of the precocious Andover brat pack, Frank Stella and cinematographer Michael Chapman, showed up at the opening along with Andre’s wife, artist Melissa Kretschmer, his companion since 1995.
Nothing about Carl Andre fits the conventional mold. It is easier to say what he is not than what he is. He is not a painter, architect, draftsman, performer, strategist, video or digital artist, political propagandist, slick social climber, or charming party animal. As a fashion plate, he would put Giorgio Armani out of business with the faded denim worker’s jumper he has worn for over half a century. He does not make objects or give lectures or address M.F.A. students hungry for the rules of how to succeed. In today’s art world, he is a curious anomaly.
Andre did not attend art school nor has he ever had a studio. In a world obsessed with technology and commercial fabrication, his work is the ultimate in low tech. For Andre there is no difference between working and thinking—one reason he rejected the conceptual artists who embraced him. The intellectual content behind the work is always embodied in material form. As long as he was able he did all the physical work involved in putting up his works without assistants. He has on occasion pled guilty to being a “minimalist,” a word pulled out of an article I wrote in 1965 about a sensibility across the arts that included literature, dance, and music in which I did not attempt to define a style or spurious art “movement.” I apologize to anyone stuck with the label.
Andre’s refusal to budge from his first premises dates back to his decision to redefine sculpture as a horizontal immersive experience and was not a nihilistic rejection of tradition but rather an act of Ghandian passive resistance. He turned his back on the hysteria for innovation that presumably defines the “progress” of the avant-garde, deciding rather to elaborate and extend his original propositions. Like Ad Reinhardt, whose black paintings with their square rectangles he obviously knew well, Andre seems to have concluded that the Western obsession with novelty and innovation, especially technical innovation, was not an indication of progress. Reinhardt rejected Cubism to study (and teach) the aesthetics of Chinese painting. Andre, too, chose meditation over action. Like Reinhardt, he was deeply politically engaged but made a strict separation between art and life.
Andre’s accumulations of untransformed materials can be interpreted as a critique of the origins of sculpture itself—particularly its relationship to the verticality of the human body. Rather than mirror the stance of the upright homo sapiens, Andre organizes his modular arrangements horizontally. To see his work, you must look neither straight ahead nor up, as colossal public sculpture forces you to do, but down. This is a disorienting experience.
Andre’s installations are meant to be walked through, their elements lying flat on the floor or rising to ankle, knee, or chest height. This redefines the traditional experience of sculpture in the round, which requires walking around it rather than walking through it. Sculpture in the past, whether carved, cast, or welded, has a finite form. Andre thought of another definition: an unattached organization of modular elements in a predetermined configuration, often a grid, rather than a fixed immutability. At first he scavenged the mean streets of SoHo for discarded building remnants; later he ordered industrial units from factories. He organized individual modular elements, which are not fastened or in any way tethered together, in ingenious constructions that require no external support. Laid down or stacked up in geometric formations, they depend on nothing but their own gravity to exist as a formal structure.
It is a mistake to say that Andre is a serial artist. He may make a group of works out of the same material at a given time but the works do not in any way constitute a series in the sense of the serial art of Ellsworth Kelly or Donald Judd. Nor does his work fill the “white cube” of the exhibition space. Not the walls nor the ceiling determine his forms which can be installed anywhere. They can ignore their container because all they need is the ground to stand. The one exception in the show is the single piece that does relate to the architecture: the monumental wooden staircase that climbs to the top of one of the gallery walls. Holland Cotter sees the piece as a Pharaonic staircase leading nowhere. For me it was Fred Astaire’s “Stairway to Paradise.” Again there is the sense of imminence: the stairs seemed to be waiting for a purpose, which could be either a court procession or a tap dance. Andre leaves it up to the viewer to interpret. Or just to enjoy its zigzagging rhythm and the monumental sturdiness of the material itself.
Andre does not transform his materials although time and nature may alter their color or consistency. The wood pieces, especially the heavy cedar timbers, become cracked and discolored in ways that vary their surfaces and speak of time and weathering. The metal pieces may oxidize. Duchamp “found” stable fabricated objects and called them art. Andre organizes found materials to form impermanent structures. This is a distinction with a significant difference.
The central feature of Andre’s sculpture is not permanence but imminence: They exist in the present as sculptures, but suggest both a past and future state of being disassembled. Given its dual identity of being and potentially not being, Andre’s work clearly has a strong conceptual element, although its existence is strictly material. Andre’s works necessarily inhabit the white cube of exhibition space. However, they do not relate to their architectural context (they could be anywhere) but to personal space as experienced by the viewer who moves around and within them. The installations are independent of their setting and context, self-reliant in their structure.
Standing like a guardian sentinel, the first sculpture in the show is a single, narrow wood beam that is both vertical like a human figure and crudely hand carved like a primitive totem: in its verticality and repeated geometric cuts the 1959 “Last Ladder” recalls Brancusi’s totemic “Endless Column.” When asked what sculptors he admires, Andre says only one: Brancusi. Robert Morris gives the same answer. Andre has said the origin of his sculpture was his decision to lay Brancusi’s column on the ground. The idea that Brancusi, or a critique of Brancusi, could inspire American artists in the ’60s seems far-fetched. It reminds one that Brancusi’s primary dealer was Marcel Duchamp, a fact that emerges from their correspondence.
Andre does not proceed from the literal anti-illusionism that caused artists like George Segal, Dan Flavin, and Donald Judd, who began as painters, to realize their forms in three dimensions in real space. Andre started out articulating filling space with familiar materials. Does Andre’s use of non-transformed modular units in art change their character? The question is analogous to John Cage asking if the truck outside is as musical as the sound of the truck in the music school. Cage has to be reckoned with as one of Andre’s starting points as he is for so much American art developing around 1960.
On the other hand, Andre has frequently voiced his distaste for Duchampian jokes and puns, and stopped using found objects after his small sculptures of 1960. Rather than Duchamp’s proclamation that the found object was art, there was another radical position posited by Yves Klein that appears to have affected Andre as much as it affected other artists who came to know the French artist who was in New York for his Leo Castelli show in 1961.
Among Andre’s earliest sculptures was a miniature stack of IKB “International Klein Blue” colored chalk that anticipated his later work. He planned to do a group of Untitled (Negative Sculptures) in which the geometric forms were drilled into the interior of a solid block of Plexiglas too expensive to realize and impractical on a large scale. He invented a game of three-dimensional chess only he could play. One has a sense that this is the game being played out on the different heights and shapes of the configurations at Dia. The iconic Duchampian image, the square spaces of the chess board, emptied now of the pieces, is recalled in Andre’s gridded metal carpets. Duchamp cast body parts but Andre makes you aware it is your own body making its way through his abstract installations.
Much has been made and appropriately so of Andre’s brief career as a freight brakeman and later switchman on the Pennsylvania Railroad. Staring at miles of horizontally laid wooden and steel tracks suggested placing similar units of wood or metal together in a manner reminiscent of coupled railway trucks. In such arrangements, all the modular units are equally important.
Simply placing the elements alongside each other creates a structure that is autonomous in its direction, unrelated to its context in the same way that railroad tracks are independent of their surroundings. There is also a hint of, if not metaphysics, then at least alchemy in Andre’s choosing the material for his grid pieces from the metals listed on the periodic table of elements. His grid does not come from Cubism but from physics and the physical properties of materials. The use of the given as a point of departure is also reflected in his concrete poetry in which words take on the function of stones or plates, and are typed out in geometric patterns. The way Andre interprets poetry is to make the words physical, sometimes covering a whole sheet of typing paper with the same word that becomes texture rather than text. It is precisely these subtle changes of function and redefinition of purpose that make Andre’s work constantly intriguing.
As a first principle Andre rejected the Constantinian colossal imperialism that defined the “triumph of the New York School” in favor of an altogether different attitude first articulated by Robert Rauschenberg in his “Feticci Personali.” These small wrapped packages removed sculpture from the authoritarian pedestal reducing it to a nonreverential intimate and accessible casual form. Both Richard Serra and Robert Morris—artists not known for their generous praise of others—have referred to Andre as a genius. Andre’s concrete poems, words typed into geometric forms inspired by Apollinaire’s calligrammes, preceded Serra’s list of verbs describing actions that could be used to make sculpture. Serra’s lead prop pieces come directly out of Andre’s self-supporting structures.
The idea that Andre is the bridge between Brancusi and Serra would not interest Andre who does not think of before or after but only of now. Like the weathered ancient stones of Zen gardens, which he admits inspired him, Andre’s works are instruments of contemplation not invitations to action. Holland Cotter, a poet as well as an art critic, praised Andre as a fellow poet. His New York Times review of the Dia show was titled “A Stonehenge for the Modern Age.” Cotter describes how Andre’s works spread out over Dia’s expansive main galleries could suggest sparsely settled lunar landscapes from a distance, noting it is not clear “whether we’re looking at cities in formation or cemeteries in ruins.”
Imagine an alien landing from outer space visiting the Andre show. Actually, Beacon has a kind of surreal lunar quality that makes it look like the ideal place to land a flying saucer. Andre refuses any iconographic reading of his art, yet there is something strange and ungraspable at work, especially in the heavy wooden stacked pieces made from ancient red cedar splintering under its own weight. One viewer referred to Andre’s sculptures as “weirdly moving.” For me they had a sense of the ineffable I felt seeing the assemblies of the great wooden Buddhas of Nara.
Until now, Andre’s work has been more appreciated in Europe than in the United States. Yet, there is much that is specifically and intentionally American about his aesthetic, from the do-it-yourself method of construction to the way works are self-reliant and self-supporting. In his nonconformist anti-materialist-persona, Andre recalls Emerson’s doctrine of self reliance. The sculptures depend on nothing but themselves to stand. Thoreau’s life at Walden Pond inspired Barnett Newman, and I would not be surprised if Andre, growing up not far from where Thoreau built his cabin, was affected by the homely philosophy of the Transcendalists.
Transcendalism connects directly to Taoism and the Chinese philosopher poets who interested both Andre and Hollis Frampton. There is a kind of ping-pong reciprocity in the dialogue between the two during their formative years. Frampton’s Zorns Lemma is based on words that follow the sequence of alphabet, raising the question of whether the juxtaposition of words creates meaning without context. As a filmmaker Frampton was a stucturalist who asserted that the fundamental property of film is that it consists of a series of images arranged in sequences, which do not necessarily constitute a narrative. He based the structure of his films such as Zorns Lemma, a film that parallels Andre’s organization of modular materials, on a mathematical concept.
Andre presents the elements of potential construction rather than a Constructivist dream of perfection. He leaves us guessing about what the future may hold. Perhaps the aliens will pick up the materials our abundant nature and our factories have produced and find some positive use, if not for mankind we know then perhaps for somewhere in the universe we do not know.
BARBARA ROSE is an art historian and curator who lives in New York and Madrid, Spain.