It’s astounding that there has not been a major American museum survey of Carl Andre’s work since 1979, for, in this luminously beautiful retrospective, he proves a foundational figure not only of Minimalism but also of a post-1960 artistic mindset informed by politics and performativity. The oversight may be due less to the infamous death of his wife Ana Mendieta (in 1985), for which he was charged, tried and acquitted, than to a divergence between recent market fashions and his work. Despite similar interests in geometric articulation and industrial materials, he rarely made self-contained, easily consumable objects like fellow sculptors Donald Judd or Sol LeWitt.
At Dia, his signature arrangements of readymade modular wooden lengths, metal plates and limestone blocks are installed in three corridorlike spaces in ways that play the contrasts of their materials – such as the iron, copper and zinc of the metal pieces – off one another and create geometric relationships between the artworks and the place. They effect an immediate and visceral understanding of scale and arrangement based on the viewer’s presence: what is sculpted – as it is in architecture – is space and our experience of it.
Several long cases contain examples of Andre’s ‘poems’, typed arrangements of words and phrases, many taken from nineteenthcentury American literature or histories of the artist’s native Massachusetts. Like his sculpture, the poetry reduces language to its constituent parts: words, phrases, punctuation and spacing. Repetitions and lists of words create odd, poetically resonant combinations and suggest that thought is produced, structured and experienced over and through time, much as the various scuffs, tinges of rust and occasional marks of industrial process on the sculptures suggest their history of production and use. A set of postcards of tartan fabrics sent to the artist Marjorie Strider in 1970 indicates that Andre’s is an aesthetic of ordering, and that he understands the world in systems of distribution and production, right down to the network of exchange that is the US mail.
A few works from the late 1950s hint at Andre’s thinking before he hit upon the flat floor pieces. There’s a hand-drilled acrylic block, a carved pine beam that resembles a Brancusi and a couple of pyramid-shaped stacks, one painted red. They presage Andre’s modular aesthetic (by 1964 he was arranging small magnets into grids) and his interest in preexisting, industrially produced units, but they look fussy compared to the rigorous maturity he reached by the mid-1960s.
The show does not fully articulate the connections and divergences between the early and the mature work, nor, thus, the fundamental leap from standalone, artist-produced object to spatially engaging arrangements in which the artistic gesture is practically evacuated (although the catalogue contains several highly perceptive texts on the development of his art and his ideas). It’s what is behind this shift that renders Andre’s work critical in terms of current understandings of performance and conceptual gesture, which is why this show, despite its authority, begs a follow-up investigation.
This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue