PRINT March 1978

Background of a Minimalist: Carl Andre

WHEN THE MINIMALISTS UNSEATED the reigning Abstract Expressionists, the new champions emerged from a field of lighter-weight contenders, including practitioners of Pop, Op, Systemic Painting and Lyrical Abstraction. They not only began to dominate the art scene in the United States, but also attracted adherents in West Germany, Italy and Great Britain. Ironically, Minimalism offered a real style to its camp followers, while the others offered merely a “look.” Although influential for over a decade now, Minimalism is still generally interpreted in formal terms, just the way it was first seen, during its fledgling years, by both its champions and its detractors. “I think there are some very general aspects and attitudes common to most of the best artists,” Donald Judd began, in the January–February 1967 Art in America. “These are mostly obvious,” he continued, “the large scale and its particular nature; bright color; use of new materials; three dimensions, in many cases; and especially the difference in the particular aspects of the work (the best work is unlike in appearance).” Characterizing ’60s art in a lecture that he gave in May 1968, Clement Greenberg more specifically noted how “design or layout is almost always clear and explicit, drawing sharp and clean, shape or area geometrically simplified or at least faired and trued, color flat and bright or at least undifferentiated in value and texture within a given hue.” From opposing corners, both men utilized similar criteria to come to terms with Minimalism.

Instead of continuing to analyze its elements in terms of style, the time has come to investigate Minimalism as an art historical movement. It has surely earned it, both from its longevity and from its impact on what has followed it. Surprisingly, these sculptors, who at times claim, rather, to be object makers, resemble the Surrealists, who also, at times, claimed not to be making art. Their work has been as affected by life-styles and thought patterns. They, too, are a peripatetic lot. They are as politically committed. Linguistic, mathematical, scientific, philosophical and psychological theories motivate them and assuage their admirers. The Europeans working between the two world wars developed significant means of creating art: automatic writing, biomorphism, frottage, exquisite corpses, dream imagery and such. And the Minimalists, particularly during the days of the Vietnam war, also focused upon process and procedure, if of a different sort: factory production, industrial materials, seriality, clean edges, smooth planes, and size as opposed to scale. Surrealism served as a bridge between Cubism and Abstract Expressionism; and, who knows, the true heirs of Minimalism just might turn out to be welded- metal sculptors like Steiner, Williams and Fauteux rather than Nonas, Rabinowitch and Highstein.

If the personalities of the Surrealist band are frequently discussed in the literature, the Minimalists can be treated similarly, although this has not as yet been done. Indeed, it is beneficial to assess the respective roles each man played in the genesis of this American-bred style. Then it is easier to comprehend, for example, the value of Dan Flavin’s letters and articles, which were published in Artforum, Art News and Arts during the ’60s. For his quarrelsome and witty diatribes provided Minimalism with a conscience and a moral fabric along the lines of speeches uttered by such Shakespearean fools as the one in King Lear. Sol LeWitt, by serving as the systems analyst, called attention to industrial hardware and terminology; he made it clear that structures were determined rather than traditional compositions. Robert Morris was ever the educator. Both in his position on the faculty at Hunter College and in his erudite Artforum formulations which reached countless art students throughout the world (beginning in February 1966, he published annually in this magazine, through 1971, an éxplication de texte of present-day art), he injected intellectual rigor into the style. By being the consummate performer, Morris also emphatically underscored the necessity of making things which (1) were identifiable as art and which (2) had to be experienced in order to be known.

Then there was Judd the Obscure. That his art looks so simple and matter-of-fact, and that his prose is so blunt and plain, belies its cryptic nature. Look for a long time at his progressions. People who have lived with them have, upon questioning, replied that they had not realized that intricate mathematical calculations had been used to determine any shifts in the spatial intervals or even the boxy projections themselves. Read a lot of Judd’s essays and reviews: it is still hard to understand how he uses a word like “quality,” even though it is a commonly used term in contemporary art criticism.

Of this group, Carl Andre has emerged as the quintessential Minimalist. Indeed, during the ’70s his influence has been as widespread as Frank Stella’s was during the ’60s. He has been very visible, participating in panel discussions, signing petitions, quarreling with critics, organizing and exhibiting in benefit art shows. Andre speaks and writes intelligently and with conviction; much of the breadth of his knowledge is accumulated from scholarly and theoretical tomes. Without courting publicity, like a Warhol, he has had his moments of notoriety. When one of his Equivalent brick sculptures caused a furor in Great Britain in 1976, and this past autumn, after a commotion was aroused by his Stone Field Sculpture in Hartford, features on his work were actually broadcast by national television news programs. Always clad in denim coveralls and jacket, and with long, flowing hair and beard, he has established a persona with his physical appearance as well as his intellectual discourse. While much about the immediate present of his life is public knowledge, it is seldom related to the seemingly rather austere, impersonal Minimalist art he exhibits. Yet, although his sculpture is geometric and abstract, it is nevertheless rooted in autobiographical experience.

For quite a while, Andre has been issuing, in catalogues, magazines and newspapers, a triangular diagram that he calls “Three Vector Model.” He described it to Dodie Gust in 1968, Jeanne Siegel in 1970, and Michael Ballou and George Morgenstern in 1976.1 “The theory of the three vector model, which is only a metaphor,” he related in 1976, “is that if the subjective, the objective, and the economic do not close, there is no possibility of production.” He explained to Siegel: “The first vector would be the subjective vector which represents one’s personal history, one’s talents, one’s skills, the accidents of one’s life—genetic and environmental influences—the whole thing that composes the human being.” “Another vector,” as he told Ballou and Morgenstern, “is the objective qualities and properties of materials and the material world: laws of gravity, matter, and so forth to which we’re all subject.” “The economic condition is the third vector, the economics of traveling to the site and the materials,” as he revealed to Gust.

Critics have elsewhere analyzed aspects of the objective and the economic vectors. The artist has briefly hinted at information needed to understand the subjective vector. “What early impression do you recall?” Andre asked himself in a self-interview he prepared for the catalogue of his 1968 Monchengladbach (West Germany) exhibition. Answering in capital letters as if no one would listen if he spoke in lower case, he replied:


“Quincy has a lot of things going for it,” Frank Stella told an interviewer last summer; “It’s the home of a lot of things in American history and it’s got the shipyard and it’s got the marble.” In contrast, Malden, the painter’s just-north-of-Boston hometown, “was really a dreary industrial suburb. It really only had Converse Sneakers. It’s a town of very little character and it’s been that way for three hundred years.” Comparing Quincy to Malden, Stella pointed out, shows “the difference between a place that has a certain sense of character and a place that has no character.”

When the filmmaker Hollis Frampton and the composer Mark Shapiro went to Quincy to see Andre during the summer of 1959, they were particularly interested in going to sites featured in Ezra Pound’s Cantos (before moving to New York, Frampton had been living in Washington, D.C. and meeting daily with the aging poet, who was then in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital). “July 4th seemed an appropriate time to visit [Andre] in the family seat of the Adamses,” Frampton later noted. And Independence Day had always been a special event during Andre’s childhood. For then the Quincy Fire Department would erect a huge wood bonfire not unlike Pyre, the structure that the sculptor proposed to build in his Element Series in 1960. (Andre’s attachment to his hometown was also, of course, the inspiration for his Quincy Book [Andover, Mass., 1973].)

If Andre’s birthplace is a site rich in Revolutionary War and Early Republic history, it is also a repository for prominent architectural monuments no less worthy of pilgrimage. Parris’ (Greek Revival) Stone Temple of 1828 and Richardson’s Crane Memorial Library of 1880–83 are both in Quincy. “The Unitarian ‘Church of the Presidents’—the two Adams presidents,” Henry-Russell Hitchcock wrote in Architecture: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, “outranks most [of the Grecian churches built in England during this decade] in dignity because of the superbly appropriate local material of which it was built.” Professor Hitchcock explains that the “best Boston buildings of the next thirty years or more” were built with Quincy granite, which became “available after the first American railway was built from the quarries to the sea-shore by Willard solely to facilitate bringing it out by water.” Indeed, what “really established Romantic Classicism as the last universal style before that of our own day,” Hitchcock notes, “is the fact that Boston architects and builders, when Quincy granite became available in the mid-[eighteen] twenties, arrived at a rational sort of trabeated design as distinguished as Shinkel’s . . . . Granite imposes rigid restrictions on detailing, but the new generation knew how to make of those restrictions an opportunity for developing a highly original sort of basic classicism.”

Across the green from this simple, serene church, on Olmstead-designed grounds, stands the still-used Crane Memorial Library which Hitchcock treats as the climax of small-town public libraries. A bold, forthright celebration of materials and geometric shapes, its facade interacts wonderfully with changing light and weather conditions (as Andre’s sculpture does). In the second-floor stacks is a ground-glass floor, illuminated from below, which enchanted the sculptor when he was a boy. While the library is representative of a particular building style, its quality has permitted it to transcend time and remain authentically original, something which Andre’s art aspires to accomplish.

Later on, during the late ’50s, Andre became interested in Frank Lloyd Wright, who espoused “the nature of materials.” Indeed, if the Pyramids of 1959 had each been carved from a solid block of wood (as he would have liked), their kinship with the spiraling concrete exterior of the Guggenheim Museum, which opened in October 1959, would be more obvious. The buildings with which he grew up, and his study of Wright, permitted Andre to become fluent in the range and scope of American architecture. To be familiar with Romantic Classicism, Richardson, and Wright—the span of 19th- and 20th-century building practices—is to be aware of how Americans have historically used materials to express style.

In practical terms, Andre has always been versed in how structures get built. His grandfather, a contractor, owned a small construction company which put up filling stations, houses, and such. His grandmother’s two brothers were blacksmiths. His father, a draftsman with the Bethlehem Steel Ship Building Company, specialized in marine and fresh-water sanitary plumbing. “I can remember being very young in preschool going around with my uncle to various construction sites,” the then-37-year-old sculptor told Paul Cummings in an interview prepared for the Archives of American Art. He mentioned, too, that his “grandfather was very proud of the Swedish bricklayers and Swedish carpenters, and it was kind of an ethnic thing . . . the Italian bricklayers were very inventive with patterns and with color. The Swedish bricklayers thought that was terrible. It was flashy and ugly and also, they said that Italian bricklayers were very slipshod.” When the sculptor made Lever for the “Primary Structures” exhibition and the Equivalent Series for his second one-person show at Tibor de Nagy, he did not betray his heritage.

At home, his father’s reference library included technical books on such subjects as steam engines, Egyptian pyramids, and geometry. The backyard had piles of wood blocks which the youngster chopped for firewood and which the 23-year-old used to cut his Quincy Exercises. Occasionally, on Saturdays, father and son (Andre has two sisters) would visit junkyards together. And it was a treat to walk, he told Cummings,

where the ships were constructed. There were just acres and acres of steel plates lying outside. They were just stored there until they were used, until they were bent or formed into whatever shape for the hull and deck plates. You can still see it now if you go by there—these enormous red or blue sheets, the color of the steel depending on how long it’s been out in the rain.

As a child, Andre would devise experiments with his chemistry set; as an artist, he has used the Periodic Table to announce exhibitions he has held. Similarly, he collected stones, and he has since made works of art with small rocks and with large boulders. Born in 1935, he has special memories of the scrap drives during the war years (so, by the way, does basketball-great Wilt Chamberlain, who wrote in his 1973 autobiography about his gathering expeditions). “It was a glorious period,” Andre related to Cummings, “because everyone was asked to put their metal scrap out in bundles so it could be picked up.” “I’ve always been a scavenger,” he added, linking the present with the past. “There was all this kind of metallic debris and scrap and stuff that was just ground into the earth. I remember we used to go there for months after this happened and scavenge for the kind of things little boys pick up.” As a grown man, the artist first began to make sculpture with metal plates after he found several by a Manhattan construction lot.

And there were the quarries to explore, too. Though the demand for granite as a building material had peaked, Quincy had an important monument, memorial, and gravestone-carving industry. Large blocks of stored stone were always visible. Before he had even learned how to read, the child Andre could see how to carve marble, weld metals, lay bricks, construct with wood. He knew that there were people who specialized in such trades and that there were books which could be consulted to learn how to fabricate things. Meanwhile, he played among finished products which were exemplary models of their craft. How many children have a Parris church, a Richardson library, or a Bethlehem ship to investigate?

Andre has published a lot of poetry, and he has exhibited poems and held readings. He has even used several of his poems for catalogue statements. “Just as there is no way to paraphrase my sculpture in matter there is no way to paraphrase my poems in language,” he wrote in the margin of a friend’s unpublished manuscript several years ago. In the May 1974 Arts he revealed: “My mother writes occasional verse for her friends. My father read Keats to me on his knee. My uncle recited Poe to me on the way to work.” If Andre was surrounded by materials and literature, he was equally engaged with the very nature of language itself. “My father was always fascinated with words,” he said in 1972. “He was delighted to bring home new words from his work and daily experiences and spring them on me, especially. I would ask what they meant and he always refused to tell me. He said if you want to find out what they mean, look it up.” Consequently, Andre often read dictionaries and encyclopedias during his adolescence.

While Andre has obviously mined his childhood experiences to make his Minimal art—and Minimalism is supposedly personality-less—the meaning of his sculpture nevertheless depends on his adult resources. Here his own past joins with the other vectors of his diagram. Interestingly, a fellow Yankee addressed one of his goals almost a century and a half ago. “I ask,” Ralph Waldo Emerson intoned in The American Scholar, “not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provençal minstrelsy; I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds.”

That Andre has accomplished such a feat is nowhere more apparent than in his recent Stone Field Sculpture, made for the city of Hartford last August: 36 glacial boulders weighing from 1,000 pounds to 11 tons are arrayed on a triangular strip of treeless lawn measuring 290 feet long by 53 feet wide. The largest block occupies the apex and is followed progressionally by the two next heaviest, then the following three, four, and so on. Because they are ordered, it is immediately evident that someone impressed a structure on their form. Yet, they are organized as simply as a child might count rocks while playing in a backyard.

The present is emphasized because this previously unused lot, which was the kind people walked or drove past, without pausing to linger, now invites the community to explore or rest among the boulders. A parklike ambience has been created, yet Stone Field Sculpture is not pastoral. Rather, it is agrarian, and hence very New England in its spirit. It calls to mind farmland before it has been cleared for planting. Indeed, in the September 1970 Artforum, the sculptor contributed the following communique to the feature “The Artist and Politics: A Symposium”:

Given: Art as a branch of agriculture.
1. We must farm to sustain life.
2. We must farm to protect life.
3. Farming is one aspect of the social-political-economic struggle.
4. Fighting is one aspect of the social-political-economic struggle.
5. We must be fighting farmers and farming fighters.
6. There is no merit in growing potatoes in the shape of machine guns.
7. There is no merit in making edible machine guns.
8. Life is the link between politics and art.
9. Settle for nothing less than concrete analysis of concrete situations leading to concrete actions.
10. Silence is assent.

Again, Andre explained in the October 1972 Domus, “Well, I think art is agricultural, that is, involved with maintaining life, and feeding life and offering people peace and happiness, and these very simple things.”

While Stone Field Sculpture also suggests pre-village America, the predominating sandstone (granite, basalt, gneiss, and other stones were also used) is the material from which much of Hartford was built. Like his home town of Quincy, the state capital of Connecticut is one of the few moderate-sized American cities to include great architectural landmarks. Upjohn’s state house is visible from the Andre plot; Richardson’s Cheney Block is a short walk away; the Wadsworth Atheneum is across the street; the Center Church, whose church house is alongside Stone Field Sculpture, had Thomas Hooker as its first minister in 1633.

During 1976–77, Andre’s exhibited work suggested that his sculpture had taken the firmest new direction since his second and third New York solo shows, with their brick Equivalents and 144 Metal Squares. Inside the Clocktower, outside the Detroit Institute of Arts, in the Wooster Street quarters of the Heiner Friedrich Gallery, the fields of the Nassau County Museum of Fine Arts, and on a public site in the city of Hartford, Andre rendered with multistacked timbers, 5,000 white cement blocks, upright wood beams, 100 wood units, and unbonded boulders, a monumentality and majesty which his art first suggested that he was capable of attaining in the colossal 37 Pieces of Work at the Guggenheim Museum during 1970. In 1836, Emerson wrote something that may aptly apply to Andre’s achievement: “Instead of the sublime and beautiful; the near, the low, the common, was explored and poeticized. That which had been negligently trodden under foot by those who were harnessing and provisioning themselves for long journeys into far countries, is suddenly found to be richer than all foreign parts.”

Phyllis Tuchman teaches at Hunter College.



1. Dodie Gust, “Andre: Artist of Transportation,” The Aspen Times, July 18, 1968; Jeanne Siegel, “Carl Andre: Artworker,” Studio International, November 1970, pp. 175–179; George Morgenstern and Michael Ballou, “An Interview with Carl Andre,” Minneapolis, 1976, pp. 1, 4, 8.