New York

Carl Andre

The Clocktower

The substance of Carl Andre’s work is strategy—of choice of material, of its environmental placement, of the (usually serial) relationship between its parts. For some time Andre has been trying to find a “profound” justification for his activities, as if to offset the obvious modernist character of their matter-of-fact manipulation of a medium. He intends to counterbalance the positivistic, rational character of his work by giving it an “irrational” raison d’être. A few years ago, in Art in America, he wrote a letter speaking of the “musical,” sensuous character of his metal pieces; in a text accompanying this stone piece, exhibited together with a series of photographs dealing with sites in his home town of Quincy, Massachusetts—generally lonely places of decay peripheral to the town center and residential areas—he refers to the “vividness” of his “earliest experience,” in words he borrows from Henry Moore. This is a kind of primitivist defense; at least since Baudelaire the child’s wonder and sense of the world’s freshness, based on inexperience, has been a staple of Modern art’s self-justification.

Does the defense work here? I think so, except that it has become as stylish—as tasteful, “civilized”—as the work has become ironical. The piece is extremely attractive, almost too attractive for its own good. The rows of rectangular granite stones, flattened until they reach the wall, where one row stands on end. have the same graveyard look as the series of gray photographs, beginning with one of an “Andre” tombstone and ending with one of Quincy’s garbage dump, with a sign, “Quincy Rubbish Only.” The use of language is telling: is Andre becoming ironical about himself? His art is not exactly in the first flush of youth—it’s becoming nostalgic, self-memorializing. The work reeks of death, which is its strength, but the death is as impersonal as the material and the seriality. Andre is consistent, amazingly consistent even in the face of his own extinction, which this piece contemplates. It has been said that we cannot envision our own death; so concrete and intimate is it that it becomes abstract to the point of invisibility, ironically reflecting the invisibility we are to become. This whole process is articulated by Andre’s pieces.

It is its subject matter that saves Andre’s work, not the juxtaposition of “immaterial” photographs and material stone, the reflections of a world that is as much mind as matter. Yet the juxtaposition itself is an artistic triumph, for it goes a long way towards showing that, “the coexistence of the physical object” does not have to come “into collision with the consecutiveness of speech,” as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing thought. Andre is a great artist, and I am happy that he has at last found a rationalization for his art. Yet the primitivism he attributes to it is a posteriori; it is not the work’s a priori source. That source is mundane Modernism, a Modernism spiced up by the new personal “explanation.” This new attempt to make it appeal to our palate not only reflects, however indirectly, the influence of the new expressionism’s appeal to the personal, but also shows Minimalism preparing for its resurrection. Andre will no doubt be first among equals with the Neo-Minimalists as he was among the Minimalists, and I predict that Neo-Minimalism will propose a personal source for its impersonal geometry.

Andre has set the model: to restore personal associations to eternal gestalts. But he also shows that these gestalts never carried such subliminal connotations in themselves; we must be force-fed the associations. I admire Andre’s attempt to bring homo faber and homo poeta together again in the same object—to ornament the geometrical with the unconscious—but he also shows us just how arranged the marriage is, how artificial is its state of affairs. But it is a good marriage, and likely to last, for its hypocrisy is tempered by tact. Minimalism is perhaps our most civilized art, for it makes clear that “abstract rightness” means looking the other way. Andre’s Neo-Minimalism shows us the profane reality we see when we do so. The sacred space his arrangements create mingles with the profane world of his photographs to create in a new way the Modernist utopian illusion that theory and practice, art and the life-world, have been totally reconciled.

Donald Kuspit