New York

Carl Andre

Edmund Husserl, in the Origin of Geometry, suggested that Euclid developed his Elements from such practical activities as building, and this didactic function of construction as a way of illustrating geometric principles has played a central role in Carl Andre’s work throughout his career. The sculptor’s recent show comprised five pieces (all 1998) configured according to a common compositional operation: The structure of each work was determined exclusively by the combination of identical units.

Such alignments of uniform objects arranged on the floor in repetitive patterns were classic Andre—indeed, the show’s seven handwritten poems, or Hand Trials, were composed as far back as 1972 (although the artist had begun working on some of the subjects, such as King Philip’s War, over a decade earlier). While ostensibly unrelated to the new sculptural work, the poems, in pen and ink on graph paper, provided a historical dimension to Andre’s project. Their inclusion also underscored how the sculptor’s early experimental poetry and his incipient compositional ideas were conceptually interrelated. His poems are “shaped” or “mapped” according to various procedures; the artist might arrange individual words according to, say, a mathematical sequence. As isolated elements, the words become analogues to the units in his sculptural configurations. Two works in the show demonstrated the act of isolating a set or sets of elements: The Void Enclosed by the Lead & Copper Squares of Three, Four, & Five and The Void Enclosed by the Copper Squares of Three, Four, & Five. These works—in which each composite square touches the other two at adjacent corners, thus forming the negative shape of a right-angle triangle—are part of a series based on the Pythagorean theorem that Andre began making in steel for a synagogue in Stommeln-Pulheim, Germany, in 1997.

Despite Andre’s typical, careful attention to materials, the focus of the exhibition seemed to have more to do with the sculptor, his history and methods. What has made the artist’s work compelling in the past has been the manner in which his sculptures, through various manipulations of scale and industrial materials, preside in and over their space. Andre’s works succeed when they insinuate themselves in such a way as to sneak up on you, dramatically becoming part of the space by playing off the architectural features of a room, such as reiterating the mullions of a window. Here, however, the scale of the work was too small, rendering it maquettelike. If this effect actually adds to the work of an artist like Tony Smith—who executed his sculptures in multiple scales and whose smaller pieces were often enhanced by a handwrought finish and imperfection—it undermines Andre’s now rarefied sculptures, reducing them to studies or, worse, decoration.

In his new work, Andre appears to be mellowing somewhat, at least in terms of some of his strictures. Works like the two Void pieces and Parhelion are intended to be read metaphorically and represent a real departure from his earlier adherence to a minimal, decidedly nonreferential abstraction: The “void,” for example, refers to the destruction of the ancient Jewish community in Stommeln; Parhelion, a circle circumscribed by two rings of thirty-one poplar planks each, depicts a sunburst. The overall effect is precious rather than dynamic, object-bound rather than architectonic. It represents a return to the modernist ethos that Andre in the past had so radically and stridently challenged.

Mason Klein