New York

Carl Andre

Andrea Rosen Gallery

“First poem in the third grade,” Carl Andre recalled in 1963. “After the age of twelve a steady production”: so steady, in fact, that his poetic corpus exceeds one thousand sheets of paper. Many of these are owned by the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, and by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, making the opportunity to see forty-three of Andre’s poems and works on paper in the back room of Andrea Rosen Gallery worth the trip alone. But this museum-caliber show of work made between 1958 and 1966 had much else to recommend it. First was the decision to forego the usual practice of exhibiting Andre’s two-dimensional output in conjunction with his three-dimensional work. The artist has both dismissed and acknowledged their connection. “All I can say is that the same person does both,” he remarked in a 1975 interview, but then continued: “My interest in elements or particles in sculpture is paralleled by my interest in words as particles of language.”

The case is an easy enough one to make. In Essay on Photography for Hollis Frampton, 1965, for example, the sawtooth pattern formed by four staggered columns of typewritten words evokes Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column and several early Andre sculptures, such as Pyramid, 1959, and Cock, 1963, which took the Brancusi as their lodestar. But exhibiting his works on paper in isolation preempted the assumption of an illustrative or compensatory role vis-à-vis his sculpture (and vice versa) and allowed for an extensive demonstration of the breadth of Andre’s poetic abilities. Three rigorously gridded, printed board collages were likely included to add visual interest and serve as ties between the similarly nonhierarchical sculptures and the other work on view. Yet while colorful, they were unnecessary here: This exhibition showed his verse to be less a complement to his three-dimensional work than evidence that Andre is an accomplished concrete poet in the vein of Jackson Mac Low and Dick Higgins.

The fixed parameters of the letter-size and slightly larger sheets of white paper, twelve-point Courier type, and de facto grid created by the even letter spacing of the manual typewriter funded a startlingly varied set of experiments with language. If Andre’s sculptural work bedevils the conventional verticality of the medium, his poems frustrate the horizontality of left-to-right reading, with letters, words, and punctuation marks arrayed in stacks, fields, lists, bars, and abstract shapes. Columns of letters must be scanned vertically and diagonally to discern words, and lines of several words typed end-to-end without spaces between them require concentrated parsing. As in his sculpture, parataxis is the governing compositional logic. These are noun-heavy poems, without the connective syntactic tissue provided by verbs, conjunctions, and articles; one untitled work from 1963 features only the words if, no, and or, dramatizing their absence elsewhere.

In some works, language is used as pure material. Words function as modular units in the way that a piece of timber or metal would: The different lengths of the words time, bell, and ear, typed repeatedly in one untitled work dated ca. 1958–63, form wavy patterns in a solid block of text. In many poems the initial letter, length, or appearance of a word, rather than its meaning or semantic function, seem to have guided its selection (the alphabet is the ordering structure of the ten-page Autobiography, 1958–59). Thematic threads emerge in other works, complicating Robert Smithson’s assertion that Andre’s method “smothers any reference to anything other than the words.” Here are reflections on American history (Charles Lindbergh is the subject of one poem, Harper’s Ferry of another), sustained meditations on colors, and oblique valentines to friends and colleagues (Frampton, Frank Stella, the critic E. C. Goossen). Andre’s poems embody the Minimalist tension between an evacuation of subject matter and the recognition that such evacuations are more often than not impossible. Yet they also reveal, in their halting innovation, an unsung aspect of his work, and perhaps even of Minimalism: its wit.

Lisa Turvey