Carl Andre, Chinati Thirteener, 2010, hot-rolled steel, thirteen rows of ten parts, each 1/4 x 12 x 36". Installation view, Chinati Foundation, Marfa, TX.

Carl Andre, Chinati Thirteener, 2010, hot-rolled steel, thirteen rows of ten parts, each 1/4 x 12 x 36". Installation view, Chinati Foundation, Marfa, TX.

Carl Andre

Carl Andre, Chinati Thirteener, 2010, hot-rolled steel, thirteen rows of ten parts, each 1/4 x 12 x 36". Installation view, Chinati Foundation, Marfa, TX.

WE NEVER STOP RELEARNING the significance of certain bodies of work. A remarkable installation on view at the Chinati Foundation demonstrates—or, better, reminds us—how Carl Andre can collapse the distance between almost-nothing and almost-everything.

Installation is intrinsic to the subliminal power of Andre’s sculpture—to the way we not only examine the work but physically engage it—and “Cuts into Space: Sculptures by Carl Andre” (organized by Marianne Stockebrand, until recently the director of Chinati) has been installed with perfect tact. Five works occupy the venue (a converted army barracks, in the form of a rectilinear U, devoted to temporary exhibitions): three installations indoors; one work outside, Chinati Thirteener, 2010, consisting of thirteen rows, each composed of ten steel plates; and a found-object sculpture of 1963 (The Sign of Immortality, an iron rod with a loop at one end through which a Camel cigarette pack has been stuffed), leaning against an interior wall like a slangy amulet. Chinati Thirteener was commissioned for the courtyard, but the three installations indoors were matched to the gallery spaces with virtually the same degree of discrimination. Those spaces—unornamented and naturally lit through rows of windows—are long, almost corridor-like, and each work corresponds in format: 46 Roaring Forties, 1988, takes the form of two abutting rows of twenty-three one-meter-square steel plates; 35 Timber Line, 1968, a straight line of meter-long timbers placed end to end; and Zinc Ribbon, 1969, a coil that unspools across the floor in a meandering strip of variable length, here approximately thirty feet.

The three large works inside represent three kinds of “cut.” This is the word Andre and others chose, beginning in the mid-1960s, to describe the operation that their work was understood to perform on actual space: a partitioning of the space of the world—a room, an urban lot, a desert floor. At Chinati, the configuration of plates is broad and flat, a cut we walk on; the timber piece, like a narrow ridge, is one we walk beside (or step over); the cursive ribbon, which belongs to the realm of anti-form, is an aleatory cut. Each in its way can be described as both sight line and, physically, site line—that is, as an orthogonal and as a running seam. Composing this review, I found myself turning to list making as a means of description, which seems right for the way in which Stockebrand’s installation concisely expresses the iterative, propositional nature of Andre’s work. But in the exhibition space, the consecutive account one makes of the three works gradually gives way to the dilating experience of each one on its own terms.

Andre’s work is structurally dependent on the grid and the row, as well as the coil, and on the regularity of individual elements—he calls them “particles”—which are always identical in shape and size within a given piece (and which never reach dimensions that would make them too unwieldy for one person to move). The form of the work is determined by the function of the cut, but deeper apprehension depends on acknowledging the work’s material qualities—the perceivable weight and variegated surface of the metal or wood and the slight unevenness of fit from one element to the next (even, in the case of a work that invites physical contact, the way plates can be felt to shift beneath one’s feet). We don’t pointedly address such things so much as we detect them; they represent the work’s secondary affect. In identifying Andre’s work (as we generally do) with phenomenological encounter, we must square its radicality of form with the degree to which it presents itself almost as pure medium. Then, given the work’s material irreducibility, its obvious mass, and its lateral articulation of empty space, we gradually recognize that, finally, it serves as “ground” for what could be its primary subject: the verticality, weight, and equilibrium of the beholder.

All of this was made clear at Chinati: A proper installation—which can be hard to come by in a typical museum setting—frees the work to function in its fullest capacity. In so doing, it also demands new terms. Andre’s forms are sometimes identified by the artist with, on the one hand, tools, principles, or structural prototypes of building and, on the other, landscape space. Titles function as cues: Lever, Pyre, Plain, and so forth. Moreover, early on Andre deployed two figures, the lake and the road, to describe the shift from standing construction (with timbers) to flat extension; both figures—which characterize the work, according to Andre’s own terms, as being not object but place—belong to landscape, although the road represents an incursion; in effect, it is a utilitarian cut. The second floor-bound installation that Andre made, Equivalents I–VIII, 1966, was named for a long series of cloud photographs by Alfred Stieglitz (dating from the 1920s and ’30s). It is, we often say, the permutational nature of the photographs to which Andre was drawn (the original installation, at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York, consisted of eight works of varying configurations, each composed of two tiers of sixty cast sand-lime bricks). But it would also be apt to claim for the photographs—small, largely horizonless images of cloud formations—the relevance of orientation: The images posit a potentially rotating camera eye. Indeed, in multiple instances, Stieglitz chose to rotate the prints themselves, indicating that some could be shown in any position. As Andre’s model, they might be said to make looking up—sky gazing—a condition of dialectical significance for looking down, which was, with Andre, sculpture’s radical turn. (The relation is further expressed through the opposed but reciprocal sensations of weightlessness and weight, and, as a result, the influence of perceptual experience on one’s bodily sensation of self.) Can multiple positions be equally correct? This was a new question for photography, with respect to the photograph as both image and object; Andre made it one for sculpture—for the work itself and for the mobile observer. Perhaps his Equivalents contradict his later statements against photography. If so, then they also implicate something like directed seeing as, counterintuitively, a quasi-photographic condition of his sculptural practice. Andre may have even derived his terminology from Hollis Frampton, who described the photograph as a spatio-temporal “cut” in his Dialogues with Andre in 1962–63. Looking out across the floor of the Chinati space, as well as looking down, one could likewise grasp that certain works by Andre—here the rows of plates and the timber line—constitute a refuge for the long-abandoned devices of linear perspective: Each work’s recession is actual, but, as cut (and, in the case of the plates, as grid), it also maps the space of the ground, positioning us within the coordinates of a plan.

The media of Minimal art are typically said to belong to industry. Some of Andre’s materials were salvaged from construction sites, yet they could just as easily be identified as preindustrial: the bricks and timbers especially, although metal plates hardly conjure midcentury industrial manufacture per se. Perhaps this implied archaism is amplified by his titles (Pyre and Plain, after all, could be Homeric); the artist has even identified his work with “neolithic experience.” But Andre’s debt to high modernism has always been open and obvious: to the materialism and repetition evinced in Constantin Brancusi’s sculpture, for example, or to Russian Constructivist faktura, or, in Andre’s poems, to the plasticity of language in the writing of Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. In characterizing the work’s relation to the historical, we might say that, while it is not precisely conditioned by either archaism or modernism, it holds both—even as, remarkably, it manages to resist trafficking in primitivism, utopianism, or nostalgia.

Here the idea of irreducibility is useful. No work—not even work that is phenomenologically framed—escapes its own historicity. (Perhaps the ideal viewing conditions at Chinati, as isolated as the place is, bracket this concern.) The question is, Does Andre’s work mean to? Such a consideration reflects on the entire production of Minimal art: of work grounded in modernist abstraction but strategically styleless, at least by conceit, and staunchly inhospitable to traditional conventions of artmaking—that is, to the “hand.” What strikes us instead about Andre is that his materials are close to being historically (if not culturally) neutral, while the simple operation through which his “elements” are installed, piece by piece, implicates the body in a way we associate with post-Minimalism—or “process” art—rather than with the work of his contemporaries. Even Andre’s poems qualify, one noun or adjective after another typed onto, and thereby punched into, the surface of the sheet—which is to say, with resolute mechanical strikes derived from repeated actions of the body: This procedure is a cognate for the operation of laying elements in rows and grids. In both cases, the relation between labor and form is artless and exposed. (In this regard, in Andre’s sculpture, the occasional scatter piece functions no differently than the grid or the row.)

The situational nature of Andre’s work is idiomatic to the emergence of post-object art, but its contingency takes a more extreme form than we find in the work of his contemporaries. Andre bypasses the challenge to authorship and craft represented by the practice of delegated fabrication, which typifies Minimalism (the work of Donald Judd and Dan Flavin, among others). Instead, he comes as close as possible to eliminating fabrication altogether. The assembly or installation of his work (unlike that of Judd or Flavin) unceremoniously disavows technical expertise. Andre’s authorship is discreet: The work is not, of course, anonymous, but it comes close; better, its authorship can be described, in one respect, as shared, in that the act of installation—when it falls into hands other than the artist’s—is collaborative. Given this, the work’s absence of preferred vantage constitutes a form of openness, and so does its transience: Here today, gone tomorrow. Rather than being aggressively antimonumental, Andre simply sets the rhetoric of the sculptural monument—its form and formality, its grandiloquence—to one side and substitutes no other authoritative claims.

Andre’s modular elements are preordained by the culture, already-made. Assembled but unjoined (and, like the poems, without syntax), they signify a renunciative ambition: to produce work that is not built, after all; work that is articulated but otherwise only barely formed, and made to function at our feet. Laid low, the elements are reclaimed and redeployed. (Here it’s best to speak not of labor so much as of pleasure—again, Andre’s preferred term.) The work’s atomism spatializes the measured unfolding of our encounter with it through time—seeing is making, or remaking. As an operative principle, irreducibility is, for Andre, material and physical, and also temporal. His means are self-limiting: Anything more would place medium in the service of image; anything less wouldn’t be work at all. The intensification of our sensation of space and ground is the primary function of the installation. Otherwise contingent, it is poised to vanish. In Andre’s work, the historical oscillates around the present tense: History is in the making.

“Cuts into Space: Sculptures by Carl Andre” remains on view at the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, TX, through July.

Jeffrey Weiss is curator of the Panza Collection at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and an adjunct professor of fine art at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.