New York

Carl Andre

Seagram Plaza

A view of siting in the urban environment is provided at Seagram Plaza, where Carl Andre has arranged 100 blocks, each 18 inches by 6 inches by 6 inches, into a small rectangular solid. The blocks are soft grey granite hewn from the quarries of Andre’s native Quincy, Massachusetts; the sculpture is entitled Fermion, in reference to the first nuclear-fission experiments conducted by Enrico Fermi in 1942. In a prepared statement Andre has stated his aim of counteracting, in all his work, this new and frightening historical relation by assembling “at a certain point in space and time, a critical mass.” Like most of New York’s public art, this is a temporary installation; after three months Fermion will, happily, disappear.

Andre has been working hard over the past few years to make his obdurate Minimalism yield to the language of interpretation—most specifically, of autobiographical and sexual interpretation. By this logic, the factual description of elements—their size, substance, and structure—is seconded by evocative effects: in the timber pieces, for example, by the wood’s “warmth,” its “maternal” connotations, “eternal” powers, etc. In the case of Fermion, the logic won’t work: no wondrous wand of words will make this work political. It can’t do much for the granite, either. The stone remains cold, factual, irresolute. Knowing its source may make some Quincy stonecutter happy, confirming the allegiance of a favorite son, but it does nothing to alter our perceptions. What it does confirm is Andre’s willful imposition of his artistic “self” upon the urban environment.

At its best, public art represents the conjunction of personal style, public expectation, and spatial appeal. In its worst and most typical manifestations, it presents only personal style. Too much has been shuttled from gallery to plaza, scaled up or down, unmindful of the public horizon. And Fermion might be one of the worst examples of this estheticism. All that style is there, plunked down in space with an astonishing indifference to the public. Small in size, the work is directed against the monument; it doesn’t vie with all those Turds in Plazas juxtaposed with Sixth Avenue towers. Nor does it set itself up in any combat with the Seagram Building, designed by Mies van der Rohe in 1954–58. But it does make its claim over space with an unsurpassable arrogance. In no way can you miss it while crossing the plaza. And, placed in the center and directly before the buildings doors, it exacts its own reverential homage—a homage to Andre’s art.

Looking at Fermion, I couldn’t help remembering two instances in which Andre tangled with public concerns. One was the “Tate Bricks” (Equivalent VIII, 1966, destroyed—rebuilt 1969), where the museum’s long-term historical commitment insulated the work against immediate ire. Fermion literally stands the bricks on end, reversing their flat configuration within an open environment where the public can’t be ignored. The other was Stone Field Sculpture, 1977, the infamous “Hartford Rocks.” In his statements, Andre said that he wished to extend the silence of the neighboring cemetery into the sculpture’s site, hoping, through the steady progression of stones, to evoke that quiescent mood. In this city, Andre’s standard arrangements, placed against windows, blocks, and other insistent grids, repeat a lesson already too evident.

Kate Linker