THE PAST DECADE AND A HALF has been good to Minimalists and post-Minimalists. Yet compared with many of his contemporaries, Carl Andre has been relatively undersung. The last American retrospective of his work was in 1978–80; the last European survey in 1996. A chill has surrounded Andre’s art since the horrific death of his former wife, the remarkable artist Ana Mendieta, in the early morning of September 8, 1985. Andre was acquitted of responsibility, yet the furor surrounding his life drowned out attention to his work, which is among the most important contributions to the history of modern sculpture. During the early 1990swhen the wounds were still fresh and the art world was in the throes of a lively politicization that now seems a distant memoryAndre’s inclusion in an exhibit of entirely male masters at New York’s Guggenheim Museum SoHo raised the ire of feminists, who rightly pointed to the show’s gender bias. Museums and curators followed suit. Apart from a series of beautiful shows staged by the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, and a permanent installation of his poetry at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, Andre’s art was rarely exhibited in the US. (Ann Goldstein’s remarkable 2004 survey “A Minimal Future? Art as Object, 1958–1968” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, which placed Andre’s sculpture front and center, was a notable exception.) My own efforts to work with the artist were deflected by directors with little appetite for controversy and suppressed by a colleague at a university museum with Savonarola-like fervor.
With the opening of the Dia:Beacon survey in May, this unspoken moratorium would seem to have come to an end. That Dia would break the ice was by no means a given. Although identified with Minimalism since its founding, the institution never paid much attention to Andre in the past. Unlike such mainstays as Walter De Maria, Dan Flavin, and Robert Ryman, whose connections to the Munich gallery of Dia cofounder Heiner Friedrich run deep, Andre was never part of the dealer’s stable (he exhibited there twice). His absence from the permanent exhibitions at Dia:Beacon appeared all the more conspicuous as others of his generation were added to the initial group. When Philippe Vergne took the helm in 2008, the lacuna was noted; a retrospective was planned.
Vergne and cocurator Yasmil Raymond took on a weighty task. They would not only need to account for a career spanning five decades, a breadth never explored in American museums, but they would also have to decide how to present Andre’s equally prodigious work in poetry. Where other curators have typically featured one medium or the other, Raymond and Vergne have given his poems and sculpture equal billing. An ample selection of his typewritten sheets is displayed in a long vitrine of Andre’s design, and the catalogue includes many essays on the subject. (The impressive contributions by Vincent Katz, Marjorie Perloff, and Alistair Rider relate Andre’s practice to the traditions of the sonnet, shaped poetry, modernism, Concretism, and the postwar Oulipo group, in many instances distancing his project from these precedents.) Even better, Raymond and Vergne have examined more arcane expressions of the artist’s sensibility: his talismanic book Passport, 1960/1970, displayed as a color photocopy set; his early mail-art collages and essays; video portraits of Andre and his contemporaries filmed by his former gallerist Virginia Dwan; and an impressive selection of the found-object sculptures Andre has made since the late 1950s known as “Dada Forgeries.” Suffice it to say that this is the first complete survey of the artist’s copious and variegated practice.
Certainly, the most iconic piecesfloor sculptures of bricks, metal, and timberare the focus. Raymond and Vergne have given three cavernous galleries to this body of work. Andre has often described his development and the history of sculpture since the Renaissance as coterminous, conceiving of his practice as rephrasing and extending this history. The Dia:Beacon show retells this narrative. In the hallway behind the first large gallery we encounter examples of “shaped” sculpturesculpture that has been chiseled or carved as in a tradition reaching from antiquity to Rodin. The type is represented here by Last Ladder, 1959, a Brancusiesque block of pine that Andre gouged with repeated concave cuts, and Untitled (Negative Sculpture), 1958, a block of translucent acrylic drilled with holes, inciting the viewer to penetrate the block with her eyes, to “feel” the synthetic material’s soft opacity perceptually. In 1959, Andre also developed a “structural” sculpture, in which a serial arrangement of units of progressively increasing or decreasing size yielded a series of standing sculptures known as “Pyramids” (represented at Dia:Beacon by one of the few remaining examples, Pyramid [Square Plan], 1959/1970). Sculpture-as-structure is logical, architectonic; its origins are Constructivist. Beams are “meant” to be stacked, and so Andre did stack them following a predetermined plan. (Like the stripes of certain paintings by Frank Stella, which inspired these works, each beam is a few inches shorter or longer than its neighbor.) Stacked beams can also fall. And so Andre cut notches in the ends, resting each beam inside the groove of the one underneath, the entire thing held together by this fitted joinery alone. He used only the minimum beams needed to hold the arrangement in place. Parsimonious, self-exhausting, the structural sculpture is a tautological expression of its own built necessity.
The third and final phase of Andre’s art (a “phase” that has continued unbroken to this day) is a sculpture that occupies and reveals place. This is the Andre we know, who does not carve or join or even weld, as his modernist precursors had, but who discovered that sculpture could also be made by arranging units of identical kind and size on a horizontal plane. (Andre seldom mixes elements in a single work: Scatter Piece, 1966, a work combining ball bearings, pulley discs, aluminum ingots, and other things, is an exception.) Rather than cut materials himself, Andre ordered them precut, clastic, a word that derives from the Greek verb for “breaking off.” As Brooke Holmes notes in her brilliant catalogue essay (a reckoning with the atomistic underpinnings of Andre’s project), the clastic is in contradiction to the atomic (an atom cannot be “cut”). In order to achieve a sculpture of the particular, of the atomica sculpture that conveys to us the understanding that form is the outcome of matter, not an expression of an ideaAndre paradoxically worked with clastic entities. He proposed an art of stringent materiality, uncluttered by concepts. This aim also harbored a second contradiction: In order to make matter appear “as matter,” in order to bring its obdurate substance to the threshold of perception, he needed to arrange it in some way. He had to give it a form. The simple number schemes he favored for this purpose are more ancient than the atomist theory of Lucretius, and more obvious. A mental substrate lurks within Andre’s art, as with all Minimalist practice. But his claim that he is no Conceptualist must also be taken seriously. Where the readymade paradigm dwells in the revelation that banal things can be transfigured into artistic ideas, a clastic aesthetic achieves the opposite of this Duchampian aim. Prime numbers and multiplication tables allow one to see bricks as sculpture, and thus their identity as bricks. Matter does matter.
As the show demonstrates, the artist’s discovery of “sculpture-as-place” starts early. In the “Elements” series, 1960–82, exhibited at the start of the exhibition, Andre placed timber beams on the floor without a pedestal. In Redan, 1965, he arranged three tiers of timber in a pattern of inverted triangles, horizontally distributing their considerable weight (the work came about when a vertical stack of timber he made caused the floor of Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York to buckle). In the iconic Lever, 1966, made for Kynaston McShine’s seminal exhibition “Primary Structures,” Andre laid 137 firebricks in a row in the Jewish Museum in New York, outlining the plan and volume of two adjacent galleries and baffling viewers who could not imagine that a line of bricks so plainly arranged could be called a work of art. The time is long past when such a work is capable of shocking us, yet even now Lever retains an irreducible strangeness. Andre’s bluntest demonstration of clastic arrangement, Lever induced skeptics to speak of a “minimal” art. One can still see why.
Andre began to exhibit squares of thin metal plates in 1967which are prominently featured in the central gallery at Beaconand with these, his art merged with the floor. Sculpture-as-place does not impress a viewer with its imposing grandeur, as some Minimalist and post- Minimalist practices do. It occupies a place quietly. This has much to do with how the work is made. A clastic work consists of units that an individual can lift and place. (For decades, Andre arranged his sculptures himself.) His works, however expansive, are scaled first and foremost to a bodya body located in a particular place. The architectural frame, significant though it may be, is a secondary, if by no means ancillary, consideration. Andre’s sculptures articulate place, but they are (for the most part) not site-specific. Unlike some of his peers, Andre has never responded to the ever more grandiose scale of the turn-of-the-century museumthe scale that Dia:Beacon did much to usher in. The Beacon space is a theater of conflict between historical Minimalism and its contemporary progeny, between ’60s and millennial scale. Next to Serra’s “Torqued Ellipses” down the hallthe most monumental of Dia:Beacon’s opening salvoseven the largest works in the Andre exhibit are unobtrusive and restrained.
A sculpture of metal plates on the ground is meant to be walked on; this is one of its imperatives and pleasures. It affords a place to stand, a station for viewing everything else. It forces one to look down. Andre has described how a viewer can listen to the sounds the plates make as she walks on them, how she can intuit with both ears and feet the different qualities and densities of the elements. (It is a different thing to stand on hot-rolled steel than on tin.) He has described an art that a viewer can inadvertently step on and miss. And so it came as something of a disappointment to be greeted at the show’s entrance by a proviso banning viewers from walking on all but one of these works (no doubt the lenders’ preference). Andre’s sculptures have aged; some are fragile; they are increasingly valuable. The plates are interchangeable but not replaceable. The dilemmas of exhibiting Eva Hesse’s latex works or refabricating historical Donald Judd pieces have occasioned much debate. In the case of Andre, museumification does not deaden aesthetic experience (the fate of all works that enter the museum, according to Theodor Adorno) so much as change the way in which his sculpture is seen and understood.
An Andre on which we cannot walk is a different work. It no longer affords the satisfaction of standing on an artwork or the tactile sensation of intuiting its density with one’s body. Instead, the experience is that of looking at the sculpture rather than being inside it; of walking around it (counting the plates) and peering across it rather than inhabiting the space it makes and observing one’s environment from this platform. (Andre once remarked that the best photograph of one of his sculptures would be of the work’s surroundings taken by a photographer standing in the sculpture’s center.) More and more the experience of Minimalist and post-Minimalist practice occurs in the amorphous tense of the present past: A spectator views the work and remembers it simultaneously. (The phenomenological encounter described by critics such as Robert Morris and Rosalind Krauss as one that occurs in “real time” is no longer adequate to the increasingly mnemonic and mediated encounters that such objects create.) By making Andre’s extraordinary achievement visible in its entirety, Raymond and Vergne have revealed definitively the historical nature of his contribution, heretofore repressed in American museums.
“Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958–2010” is on view through Mar. 2, 2015; travels to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, May 7–Oct. 12, 2015; Hamburger BahnhofMuseum für Gegenwart, May 7–Sept. 25, 2016; Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Oct. 20, 2016–Feb. 12, 2017.
James Meyer is a contributing editor of Artforum.