New York / Marseille

Carl Andre

Paula Cooper Gallery/Ace Gallery/Musée Cantini

Since it is the mark of a truly great racehorse, or tennis player, to be able to win on any sort of surface, perhaps it’s the mark of a truly great artist to be able to prevail in any sort of space. If it is, Carl Andre has given proof of greatness in three recent exhibitions, at the Paula Cooper Gallery late last year, the Ace Gallery last spring, and the Musée Cantini in Marseilles this past summer—the first venue lofty and light and brand-new, the second a complex of catacombs, built in concrete but timeless, the third a beautifully proportioned and daylit period townhouse.

Andre was one of the earliest Minimalists but, born in 1935, was decidedly younger than Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd (b. 1928) or Robert Morris (b. 1931). And, indeed, from the outset he was essentially another sort of artist, a Romantic among Neoclassicists.

Now, the essence of Minimalism, it seems to me, is its commitment to modularity. One form this takes is an emphatically regular geometry. Thus, a 1989 work in Cor-Ten steel by Judd, recently shown in London, is a topless box, 100 centimeters high and 200 long and wide, its interior bisected by a divider half its depth rising from the bottom and one of the halves bisected in turn by a similar divider descending from above. But Minimalism’s most explicit form of modularity is, of course, its repetition of uniform units, whether by construction or assemblage. An arrangement of bricks tells us at once that it consists of modular components; so does an arrangement of square metal plates set on the floor or a stack of metal shelves mounted on a wall. Here, too, there is of course great scope for numerical games: in Andre’s installation of eight different configurations of 120 bricks, first set up in 1966, the configurations give two layers of—length first—20 bricks by 3, 3 bricks by 20, 15 by 4, 4 by 15, 12 by 5, 5 by 12, 10 by 6, and 6 by 10.

The commitment to a form of standardization is the great link between Minimalism and Pop art; it also recalls forerunners such as Léger and, in Andre’s case, the avowed paradigm of Brancusi’s “Endless Columns.” But with Andre—though not when working with bricks but with timbers or metal plates—no sooner are modular forms put there than they start to change, responding to time and chance: tiny gaps appear between the plates, gaps that on uneven floors become increasingly untidy, and each plate comes to have its surface scratched in a different way; in wooden sculptures cracks open up and widen, differently in every unit. But even before the units are assembled and the individuation wrought by time begins, the repeated modular forms are not identical, as they are with Judd and LeWitt and in Minimal works by Morris: obviously it is the timbers that vary most, in color and grain, and they may even be marked, not unlike Richard Serra’s steel, with the stenciled numbers and letters of industrial production. Furthermore, whereas with Judd and LeWitt the work usually appears as if it has been entirely machine-made, with a work by Andre, whatever the medium, it is always evident that at some stage or stages a human hand has been at work. Judd’s and LeWitt’s art looks immaculate; Andre’s looks handled.

A sense of having been handled into place is nowhere stronger than in the pair of works in western red cedar made for Andre’s exhibition in Krefeld in 1981; dispersed when sold to different collections, the pair was shown together again in Marseilles. Each consists of seven timbers measuring 30 by 30 by 90 centimeters, which are put together to form the outline of a cube. In Philemon, six of the timbers are horizontal and one vertical; in Baucis, four are vertical and three horizontal. It looks as if, in the fitting together of these mysterious structures, brain and hand interacted as rapidly as in a child playing with building blocks, and that, as with the child, there was a sublimated sexual satisfaction in pushing the parts into place. A work by Andre can make us aware of the process of its assembly, whereas one by Judd or LeWitt keeps the attention focused on the finished fact. Which is not to say that that awareness of process with Andre undermines the work’s presence: the sculptures in wood especially are paradigms of vibrant repose.

Our relation to works of art entails two antithetical responses, one or the other of which is usually dominant: confrontation with the image and envelopment by it—on the one hand a Seurat, on the other a Monet lily pond. A cube made of timbers by Andre, despite its compactness, tends to have a psychologically enveloping effect, doubtless largely because of the warmth of the color. Not for nothing is his name generally associated with sculpture that occupies the floor, given that sculpture that does so is avowedly enveloping. But Andre’s inclination to envelop the spectator physically can also be fulfilled in wood. In the entrance hall at the Musée Cantini stood 25 Cedar Solid, 1992, a compact mass in which that number of beams, each measuring 12 by 12 by 36 inches, were butted together vertically; in the room beyond was 25 Cedar Scatter, made at the same time, in which the same number of the same-size beams were spread all over the floor in an apparently random horizontal order. This work meant very much less if you looked at the pieces from the edges of the room than if you moved around among them so that you were part of a configuration that was constantly changing according to where you were (a physical re-creation of the notional effect of a Pollock drip painting). And what the contrast between the two sets of twenty-five cedar beams seemed to be saying was that the scattering was a release of pent-up tension, an imperative, joyous, triumphant release.

But as you went on looking at the scatter piece you sensed a sort of need for those dispersed timbers to come together again and rediscover their unity. This is a feeling that I do not think one gets when Beuys sets up a scattering of large units: these seem to want to remain isolated. And I think that the longing for solidarity seemingly expressed in Andre’s work is, analogously to the enveloping effect, at least partly an outcome of the warm colors of the wood: the color seems to be that of an organism with an instinct to get close to other entities of its kind.

That warmth is not restricted to the wooden sculptures. Floor pieces made of reddish or brownish plates can look as soft and welcoming as wood: Roaring Forties, 1988, in weathered cold-rolled steel, 23 meters long, lay in a wide corridor at the Musée Cantini, stretching out into the distance like a red carpet to a transcendental destination. But Andre isn’t dependent on warm color to arouse emotion. Nothing in the Marseilles exhibition was more poetic than 144 Tin Square, 1975, in which the tin plates contain an extraordinary dull inner light that combines with their rather small dimensions to achieve something mesmerizing in its mystery.

The works that appeared in Marseilles included 25 Blocks and Stones, the 1986 segment of a 144-unit 1973 original. If ever there was a maverick among Andre’s output, this is it, a regular arrangement of twenty-five slabs a foot square on each of which a geological specimen, every one different, is centered. The exhibition literature suggested that the work was like a cemetery with offerings on the slabs, but that sort of fanciful interpretation seems to me to diminish the piece. What is beautiful about 25 Blocks and Stones is the contrast between the way the specimens sit on the slabs and the way the slabs sit on the floor. One of the great qualities in all Andre’s work is the resonance with which it makes our bodies feel the apposition of one thing out there to another.

Apposition both to a floor and to a wall occurs uniquely in the sculpture that seemed to me the greatest in any of the three shows: Fall, 1968, in steel, shown at the Ace Gallery, covering 49 feet with twenty-one uninterrupted L-shaped units, the 6-foot verticals with their backs to a wall. With its immense emotional charge and awesome grandeur, it’s the embodiment in sculpture of the Abstract Sublime.

David Sylvester’s critical essays were collected recently in About Modern Art (Henry Holt).