New York

Carl Andre

John Weber Gallery

Carl Andre’s new work, as one might expect, illustrates the problem contained in the repetition of an idea. Andre’s prominence has come from his identification of sculpture with the ground plane, which—as he made sculpture become an interaction between a specific materiality and an undifferentiated, though not unconsidered real space—has put him in a position possibly analogous to Barnett Newman’s some time ago. Andre is now, perhaps, confronted with the problem of maintaining a position based on an ultimate reduction. One problem with his new sculpture is that what Andre’s work proposes as a phenomenological reduction of the experience of sculpture to its essential condition has for other artists—Serra foremost among them—been a starting point rather than an end. Andre’s is a juxtaposition of signifier and signified that concentrates on the distinction between the two through materiality, and does away with an internal order that isolates the work from the space outside. And, thanks to his achievement, other artists have been able to engage in work amounting to a reconstitution of sculptural complexity that makes Andre’s concern with essentialism look almost superfluous. Almost, but not quite.

Andre, I suspect, is about to come in for the exactly opposite criticism traditionally served up—in conversation rather than print—with regard to Robert Morris. Morris is often said to have not stood still long enough at any stage in his career. Andre may be about to get shafted for not changing enough. Both criticisms are understandable and—in my opinion—both are wrong. Morris has never stayed long in one place, with regard to his use of materials, because his work isn’t founded in a concern with materiality in the first place. Rather, the variety of materials he’s used over the years seems to be about finding new ways to concentrate attention on a continuing theme—discussed above—in much the same way that Godard moved from a hand-held camera to a heavier one as soon as the audience had become used to the earlier tool. Andre’s work, in sharp contrast, has always been concerned with the visual behavior of sculpture’s materiality—as in 37 Pieces of Work (1969)—and the larger implications of that. The problem that Andre now faces isn’t one of an inability or reluctance to change, but its opposite, the possibility that change will undermine the main thrust of the work, and turn it into a more traditional enterprise.

Here, I find myself in agreement with Kenneth Baker, who said a couple of years ago “The question is: where are we speaking from? That I take to be the ultimate issue of Andre’s use of materials, his insertion of materials themselves into the cultural structure of presentation; what this calls for is a new sense of language as presentation” (Artforum, June, 1971).

Where Andre’s speaking from now seems to be a position subtly different from the location whence he’s talked in the past. Previously, my experience of his work has been one of a reduction to the base that connects the work to the ground in a way that identifies verticality exclusively with the sense of gravity and its consequences for visual perception. Asked about his 12 by 12 foot metal plates, back in 1970, Andre said: “I don’t think of them as being flat at all, I think, in a sense, that each piece supports a column of air that extends to the top of the atmosphere” (Artforum, June, 1970).

It’s hard to think of the new pieces in this way, and they suffer for it. Andre has chosen to mount a show that uses the kind of presentation of separate elements that one finds in Lever (1966), and uses this arrangement to refer to the wall as a vertical counter to the work’s movement along the floor. The effect of this is to make the wall substitute for the “column of air” previously called to mind, which in turn does indeed make the sculpture become flat. Andre has shoved things up against the wall before, but this has never reduced the visceral impact of the metal as it does here. The metal doesn’t seem to be the focus of attention any more. Since all but one of the pieces in the show come straight out from the wall, one finds oneself oriented into a position from which one is looking along the work at the wall, an effect that suggests a kind of nascent pictorialism at odds with the physicality of the work. This, the use of the piece as a kind of transitional object that connects the ground plane to a distant wall, militates against the experience that one at first expects from the work, a levering action that would seem to “levitate” the wall by virtue of the feeling of density and weight communicated by the metal on the floor. However, when Andre uses the idea of the object as a transitional zone—he has himself referred to his sculptures as zones, come to think of it—between the wall and the floor in terms that are extremely explicit, as in 35 Cold Deck (1974), it seems to make a great deal of sense. 35 Cold Deck is made out of shiny steel that casts a reflection on the wall while it’s itself extremely thin.

In this work the thinness of the metal and the lightness of its color combine to generate a weightlessness that appears to be countered only by the surface area of the piece, so that it seems to be only the size of the thing that holds it to the floor. It’s held down, that is to say, by drawing rather than materiality, by its perimeter rather than gravity. The “column of air” is eliminated in order to produce a sculpture that strikes one as an inversion of Andre’s characteristic way of working. The thinness of the piece identifies it with the floor—a consequence of having to see the surface area in terms of perimeter rather than edge—while the reflection connects it to the wall, so that the space between becomes the negative alternate of the positive, volumetric response to the weight of the piece one customarily expects to find there. Here, Andre’s use of the wall is revelatory and almost moralistic, in its suggestion that the alternative to an emphatic physicality is a sculpture that evokes pictorial ism. The negative space between the wall and the floor is the product of a reliance on steel’s capacity to deny its own weight, to engage in a kind of illusionism that counters its own materiality. Still, one has to say that it’s hard to see how much mileage Andre can get out of this kind of negative example. When all’s said and done, it’s most interesting only when put next to other works of his, and by itself constitutes a paradigm for the kind of sculptural illusionism to which his is by its nature opposed.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe