Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958-2010
Dia: Beacon, Beacon, New York
5 May 2014 – 2 March 2015
by ANNE BLOOD
It has been more than 30 years since the last show devoted to Carl Andre was staged in America. As has been noted in the press both before and after the opening of the current retrospective at Dia: Beacon, much of the hesitation about mounting such an exhibition in the United States was due to the repercussions following the death of Andre’s third wife, the Cuban artist Ana Mendieta, who died when she fell from a bedroom window of their 34th-floor Greenwich Village apartment in 1985.
Though Andre was eventually acquitted of murder, the tragedy cast a shadow over his career: one that, arguably, has yet to lift, as the protest last month by artist Christen Clifford and the feminist No Wave Performance Task Force in front Dia’s Chelsea offices may suggest.1
Yet despite the controversy and previous reluctance to mount such an exhibition, the current retrospective, covering just over 50 years of work, is a revelation. Not because Andre had been forgotten, but because it is rare for the full impact of his oeuvre to be so beautifully presented. As a key proponent of Minimalism in America, Andre’s work is well represented in both public and private collections, but in many displays (even, for example, at Pace Gallery’s recent exhibition, Grounded, in Chelsea), the simple radicalism of his work seems to be superseded by its surroundings, as even the gesture of casting off the pedestal is lost.
Across much of his career, Andre worked with a limited set of variables, but what is immediately obvious at Dia is the astonishing range of effects he was able to achieve. Unexpected sensations also arise, such as the subtle range of colour found in the various materials and the distinct smell of cut wood. The artist himself feared that Dia’s vast galleries would dwarf his works, but, surprisingly, this setting provides the opportunity to experience the importance of the human scale in his work. Given the emphasis placed on Andre’s use of prefabricated industrial materials (one has only to remember the Tate “bricks” controversy to find evidence of this fixation), and the subsequent erasure of the artist’s hand, it is easy to forget how integral Andre’s own physical presence is to his art. Andre (now retired) worked without a studio. When engaged on a new commission, he did not ship the necessary materials, but instead would work with what was at hand in the various cities he visited. This practice meant that he usually had to chose components sized so that he could move them himself, creating a very direct relationship between his materials and his body.
Time and pressures of conservation have also meant that few of Andre’s works can still be experienced in the way that the artist intended; his works are meant to be touched, walked on. At Dia, the visitor is allowed to walk on only one piece, 46 Roaring Forties from 1988. The sacredness of the gallery space and the implied polite rules of interaction between object and viewer make this action psychologically challenging at first; one hesitates, afraid to defile the object, to tarnish its surface, to cause damage. But these are precisely the social structures and aesthetic protocols that Andre is challenging and rethinking in his work: how to make sculpture that is non-hierarchical, non-reverential and accessible. The subtitle of the current show is “sculpture as place” and while this can be understood as referring to Andre’s use of materials from specific places where his works were commissioned, it speaks more eloquently to the experience of his work as installation, as something that invites a corporeal reaction.
The narrative of the retrospective begins in 1957, when, after travelling around Europe and working in a factory in his hometown of Quincy, Massachusetts, Andre moved to New York City. The earliest works in the show are examples of his poetry, his first artistic calling. What is most fascinating about these pieces is the way in which they can be seen to foreshadow his approach to sculpture. Language is similarly deconstructed, traditional notions of lyricism are cast aside, and grammar is superseded by a different set of structural rules controlled by the logic of visual form. His poetry, like his later sculpture, is often built from found materials: quotes, like bricks, are sorted and combined in a very precise, calculated manner. The same standard typewriter font appears across all the pieces on view, but this simplicity and repetition of form makes the slight variations in spacing, change of ink colour, and creation of rows or columns all the more noticeable. At times, it feels that the formal organisation of the words on the page have directed the text because the visual form is equally as important as the semantic meaning.
Andre’s career as a sculptor started just after he moved to New York and, by 1959, he was making small assemblages called “Dada Forgeries”. These works are rarely shown and close to two dozen are on view in the basement galleries, providing an interesting angle on the gestation of Andre’s later minimalist works. The construction of the Dada Forgeries are driven by language, with puns created by choice juxtapositions, but what comes to the fore here is the placement of material and words; precision runs through Andre’s entire oeuvre. Among the Dada Forgeries are also several postcards Andre wrote to friends, including fellow artists, critics and art historians. While part mail art, these works also provide a neat picture of Andre’s travels and the people whose art, writing, and discussions informed his practice.
If there is one flaw in the layout of the exhibition, it is that the poetry-based works and the early assemblages come at its end; the Dada Forgeries are a coda, rather than an introduction. Remembering that Andre was first a poet changes the way you look at his later work, which can feel almost sterile if approached in the wrong manner. In a postcard to the critic Phyllis Tuchman, Andre claims that artist Donald Judd’s description of passé sculpture, as “made by part by part, by addition”, is an apt explanation of his own practice. With the clean, straight lines and strict grid structure of his work, Andre rethought what sculpture traditionally was, how to make and interact with it. Although most of his early works were destroyed, what we see in the main galleries at Dia are the forms that he returned to throughout his career.
• Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958-2010 will continue at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, 7 May – 12 October 2015; the Hamburger Bahnhof, Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin, 7 May – 25 September 2016; and the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 20 October 2016 – 12 February 2017.