PRINT May 1976

Carl Andre: Art Versus Talk

KNOWLEDGE BOTH OF AN ARTIST’S writings and his myth (the things he allows to be said, whether true or not) usually creates friction for the viewer who wants to reconcile them with the visual objects at hand. It is not easy to “dismiss the evidence” when we know the artist thinks one thing and does another. And the artists and their apologists, taking refuge in the time-honored myth of le bête peintre (first attacked by, of all people, Duchamp) have literally felt free to contradict themselves on matters which they present as critically important or vaguely evocative, depending on the context.

Of all the artists involved in public debate concerning fundamental political and societal problems, Carl Andre is perhaps the most complex. He seems to be unsure whether or not he can divorce the verbal and visual, and this leads him into irreconcilable positions. Not only do his visual and verbal ideas and models conflict, but his own opinions are at war with each other. He is not just ambivalent about how we should view his work and intention, he is downright contradictory about it.

In an interview in Arts Magazine, Andre decidedly answered the question, “Does your moral position affect your work?” with a simple “No.” Yet he is quoted as saying that if his wood sculptures are successful it “proves the Indians won.” Now his position vis-à-vis the Indians may not dictate the look of his visual product, but that is not the same as having no effect on it. One hopes his feelings about Indians are shaped by moral positions.1 He must sense a relationship somewhere. Similarly, it is obvious that his work falls into the category of highly priced, precious objects, yet he states that “everything I do is free of access.” And when he wants to give his work some of that moral presence that he declares does not affect it, he says, “I may reflect the obsolescence of production as a mode of dividing people into classes.” Now is that remark intended as a Marxist critique of his position or is he being modest about his (art world) importance? The insertion of “may” into the thought relieves him from backing it up with anything concrete. And then his Marxism is at odds with the market value and consumption of his work, as much as we can understand Marxism as being antithetical to the idea of the privileged fetish-item. The British working-class taxpayer who poured ink on Andre’s bricks was on to something; if he had been familiar with Andre’s politics, I doubt whether this would have stopped him. Precious objects are precious objects.2

Andre’s answer to a lot of criticism has been that we cannot live as though the “revolution” had already been won. This answer is acceptable if we concern ourselves only with his visual creations. (In the Bicentennial year, the “revolution” comes in the guise of the newest microwave oven or garbage crusher.) But if Andre’s position, rather than consumer object, becomes a commodity, he cannot write off the criticisms so easily. The public personality who produces either consumer items or a consumable image must always be aware that his or her every “creation” is likely to become a commodity, no matter how dematerialized it is (i.e. political opinions). It is not only Andre’s acceptance of his work/objects as alienated commodities, but his fostering of a personal image which is internally contradictory but salable, that make us pause. If, despite their importance and consistency, his political ideas become consumed as products, they will be trivialized by their connection with his work and by inconsistent presentations of the connections between the work and the politics. The fact is that, without Andre’s visual work, we would pay little attention to his politics. (This is not to say that we ignore the politics of an artist who is less well known than Andre.) Because of his high visibility in the art world, because of his highly esteemed sculpture, he is far more responsible than most for his public statements. And thus his views are difficult to separate from his sculptures, because of the visibility of both words and works in the art world. Are we to believe that the art and politics emanate from separate parts of Andre’s mind? If they weren’t a product of some kind of unified activity, I doubt whether they would be as interesting as they are.

To be specific. Take the pieces he showed at the John Weber Gallery in January. One was a group of wood constructions. There was another variation on the checkerboard done in copper, lead, iron, zinc, aluminum and magnesium. Then a repeat of 144 Pieces of Lead at MoMA, this time in a very brittle-looking tin. (The difference between the lead and tin was truly obvious: at MoMA, people step all over the thing, usually without knowing it’s there; at Weber,they dared not touch it: it looked very expensive.) The wood pieces were basic placements of red cedar and Douglas fir which formed, in one instance, a crude sort of compass. From an art historical viewpoint, these wood pieces might surprise us in their “return” to the space of the room and building up of forms, as opposed to the kind of levelled-to-the-ground Minimalism we have come to expect. But these wood pieces were “proposed” in 1960 and therefore signal no new formal preoccupations. One question the works raise is: why show them 15 years late? But that is not quite fair. What is more interesting is how the work, because of its vaguely disguised repetition, helps us focus on more general issues.

And what kind of general, extra-art questions does it raise? Again, we can turn to Andre’s own statements somehow to go beyond repetitious formalist and phenomenological explanations which have been quite useful in the past, but will not suffice if we see the work in a larger context. What we can do is seek out some real-world associations which are suggested by Andre through his words, and through his sculptures. To search for these kinds of associations would not be doing violence to the spirit of Andre’s work, as he has sought to demystify the workings of art-world institutions in their relations with art workers (i.e. refocus attention to the real-world political meaning of High Art institutions’ actions and policies).3 The space of the gallery, in this frame of reference, must also be demystified, as must the work which is displayed in it. The private gallery is no less responsible because it is “private” rather than “public.” If the institutions are seen as ideologically partisan, then there is no way that the works which appear in them can be construed to be ideologically neutral.

If we were to choose Andre’s well-publicized years as a railroad worker as a starting place in discussion of his sculpture, what would we find?’ Certainly that his allegiance to metal and wood in simple, extended lines and areas would seem to echo that experience, the two materials being related to the railroad track. The wood beams and metal rails in this instance would relate to the environment (the virgin country) as Andre’s work does to the gallery (the virgin white walls.) Part of the environment which Andre claims as belonging to his sculpture—the column of air above the metal plates—is invoked almost as if this possession of air were somehow a “right” granted to Andre. The railroad felt the same way, of course: its property was not just the flat, extended metal and wood, but the air above and the minerals below. It didn’t think of the railroad as being “flat,” either, and held that it rightly possessed all that the railroad “supported.” The creator of the railroad and the creator of the sculpture become somewhat comparable. Now any metal sculptor who has been a railroad worker could figure into this kind of association. Yet with Andre, who asks that we take his experience as railroad worker very seriously, we must realize that the associations are not merely suggestive, but meaningful in the process of his politicization. He has flaunted those years as a working-class railroad laborer as a cause of his political beliefs, along with his choice and handling of sculptural materials. So, once again, his work cannot be seen as divorced from his politics.

Andre, like every artist, disseminates his work in the world where it becomes focused upon as a matrix of meaning and association for the viewer. Although we can choose not to accept the words which accompany the objects, we must believe that the object itself was intended, whether or not the words corroborate with our experience. What Andre has not been careful to control is the associations his words and objects will conjure up together, some of which he could say were absolutely not part of his intention. But, if he sets the viewer thinking of railroads through autobiographical material, emphasized by the use of certain materials in the sculptures, he will at least be prompting us to generate a logical extension of meaning into the real world. There can be no refusal of this extension if the artist himself invokes an enlarged context from which the object will be seen as a focal point of strategically picked, extra-art associations.

If the railroad is a source of inspiration—and it has been for Andre, both in his art and his politics—who can ignore the implications? Clearly he’s not thinking of the old image of the railroad as an oppressive tool of robber barons and ruthless capitalists, to which his Marxist program is opposed. Yet, one notes the interdependence of his sculpture and a powerful and prestigious art market, which, in its sphere of influence, parallels the railroad in oppression and ruthlessness. This is not a simple one-to-one correspondence. Andre’s sculpture will escape time and again from any such reading because it is filtered through rarified art historical explanations which frown upon obvious extra-art associations (especially if the artist injects political meaning into them) or ostentatious glorifications of material. (The latter is acceptable in certain sculpture when explained as “heroic,” in which case, the sculpture visually aligns itself even more readily to industrial glorifications of possession and consumption. The artist who comes to mind here is Richard Serra. Compare Serra’s immense log piece at the Pasadena Art Museum to Andre’s wood sculpture, but then add Andre’s political position, and you will see why Andre looks easier to criticize. But clearly, Serra is as vulnerable as Andre in many art/extra-art questions of intention.)

The railroad has a past which includes, among other things, ecological destruction, political tyranny and genocide. We might forego some railroad-type associations which deal with evocative biography and personal politics, but when Andre deliberately directs our attention to the Indians, in the above quotation, we must take that seriously. One cannot use Indians in convenient throw-away lines. Andre makes this connection to associate his work with a prestigious pedigree (the Noble Savage), although he makes other associations allowing the sculpture to appear complementary to the railroad, which helped destroy the Indians.

What is Andre’s intention in this case, and what is the result? Is he comfortable with this kind of contradiction? Of course not, but by presenting work and intention along with political commitment, we are led to an impasse—although we can be thankful for the broadening of contextual awareness that such contradictions and presentations engender. In a context which stresses political consciousness, one becomes sensitive to metal sculptures being accessories to strip mining. Given the enlargement of our perspective, we may think of some of these things. The question is not whether Andre is responsible for a viewer’s invocations or dissatisfactions. The question is whether he will simply accept the contradictions as a casualty of our social context, or whether he will begin to help transform the context by transforming his product.

Jeff Perrone contributes frequently to Artforum.


Short Bibliography

Carl Andre, catalogue from an exhibition at The Haags Gemeentemuseum, August 23–October 5, 1969, with articles by Hollis Frampton and Enno Develing. Frampton is good on biographical data, but blatantly partisan. Develing’s article, one hopes, has suffered in translation; as is, it goes past mere partisanship and moves into the terrain of criticism-cum-PR release.

Gould, Andrea, “Dialogues with Carl Andre,” Arts Magazine, May, 1974, pp. 27–8. This “dialogue” supposedly “serves to shatter numerous esthetic clichés”; however, its effect is that of a vapid exchange of epigrammatic clichés tossed back and forth between Ms. Gould and Mr. Andre.

Seigel, Jeanne, “Carl Andre: Artworker,” in an interview with Jean Siegel, Studio International, Nov., 1970, pp. 175–9. Following an article on the Art Workers’ Coalition, this interview basically is a promotion for Andre’s image and art, and not for the AWC’s politics. Its most gross attempt to illustrate Andre’s political thought is given in a diagram by Andre which reduces social reality to a three-vector drawing!

Tuchman, Phyllis, “An Interview with Carl Andre,” Artforum, June, 1970, pp. 55–61. Good for Andre’s placement of himself in sculptural history and tradition, but most noteworthy for his talk of an “infinitely expensive” sculpture done in platinum. No comment.



1. Not only does Andre bring up moral questions involved in using the Indians as a reference in his sculpture, but he and his supporters like to allude to formal and iconographical similarities between Indian burial mounds and Andre’s sculpture. (For example, see Frampton, in Carl Andre, pg. 7.1 The Indian issue is one instance where moral and political questions, which Andre would like to dissociate from his sculpture, seem to be quite central. Andre (in Siegel): “I have been subject to politics as long as I’ve been alive. . . . So I’ve been affected by it and hence since I’ve made my art, my art must reflect my political experience. I could not possibly separate them. . . .” Again, one must imagine that his politics are shaped by his morals; the impossibility of separating them in the last quotations, however, is quite different from the following sentiment (in Gould): “I have never seen any correlation between character and art.” This is again in conflict with a statement in Tuchman: “I submit to the properties of my materials [which make up his art] out of a reflection of my own temperament ’certainly part of his character].” The “properties” of the materials he is speaking of is the tendency for metals to rust, which he equates with his temperament. I think it is more revealing that he does not discuss how his objects reflect their commodity value. But then that would not be in line with the somewhat half-hearted attempt to separate the sculpture from its social context (see note 2).

2. At times, Andre has been quite critical of the ways that cultural custodians have (mis)represented his art, and he often takes incredible pains to correct their errors in classifying his sculptural enterprise in intention and historical style. But he also hedged on his own ability to do justice to the range of meanings art may represent. In Gould: “Artists are poor authorities on their own art.” I assume he includes himself in this generalization. And in Siegel: “It [art] was placed aside from the concerns of society not so much by the artist but by the critics and the curators and the art establishment.” This begs two questions: In what way is Andre’s sculpture involved with anything that might be a “concern of society”? But more importantly, if the artist is not to be trusted as an authority, and the art establishment isn’t either (they only alienate the work from unnamed societal concerns), who is left to decide the social or artistic meaning of art? The audience? History? Collectors? Andre has actually made it quite clear that he is the authority on his art, by the trouble he takes to monitor the readings of his work (See Artforum, April and May, 1976).

3. “It is the pretense of the museum [The Metropolitan] that they are an apolitical organization.” (Siegel.) It also seems to be Andre’s pretense about his own sculpture. He may attack the “art establishment,” but he does not consider that these institutions exist as custodians for art objects (like Andre’s sculpture) and it is from these objects that their power derives.

4. References abound. In Siegel:

Andre: I (much more) identify with a producing, literally, working class. I remember when I worked on the railroad.

Siegel: Did your experience as a railroad worker for four years influence your sculpture . . . .?

Andre: Very, very much.

Also see Frampton in Carl Andre, pg. 10; and Develing, Ibid., pg. 40, where he quotes from yet another source, a letter from Barbara Rose, with Andre’s “dropping out of the middle class” story.