Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place 1958-2010

Carl Andre's Stone Field Sculpture, Hartford CT

Carl Andre’s Stone Field Sculpture, Hartford CT

Dia Art Foundation and Yale University Press, 2014

Philippe Vergne, Director of LAMoCA, and former Director of the Dia Art Foundation, was a natural choice to spearhead this retrospective of Carl Andre’s sculpture and poetry, and the catalog thereof. Andre is a good choice for Dia, and Vergne (with Yasmil Raymond, curator at Dia) a good match for Andre. This is not always the case: my eye falls on the catalog to the 2006 Whitney Biennial, “Day for Night,” co-curated by Vergne and Chrissie Iles, an overstuffed and awkward book for an overstuffed, awkward show. In this case, Vergne and Raymond have a tighter focus, even if it does encompass a much longer time period.
A book like this is more than just the record of an exhibition: it endures as a tool for learning about an artist from the basics to more abstruse facets of their work and times. Vergne and Raymond have gathered authors from various disciplines to explore Andre’s art in depth. The whole adds up to an exhaustive, but not exhausting, survey.
It’s good to learn something, or have an assumption challenged. For example. from p. 247, Yasmil Raymond’s essay, “A Theory of Proximity”: “From the earliest floor-bound metal works on which one is invited to walk to the later timber formations around which one navigates, Andre’s sculptures demarcate space into areas of access and contact.” Somehow I had come to assume that the timber works were earlier. It’s a case of my own prejudices (metal more refined than raw wood, ergo more advanced), getting in the way of facts. That’s the simplest lesson the book teaches.
My favorite essay is “Carl Andre’s Lyric Heart” by poet and critic Vincent Katz, both in the clarity of its language and educational value. It’s good to see Andre’s text-based work given its due in this career, though it seems like every one of the essays on Andre’s writings points out how they have been neglected. Underestimated, perhaps, but there have been gallery and museum shows built around Andre’s poems, and a permanent installation at the Chianti Foundation in Marfa, Texas. The four essays on his poems win out over those on his sculpture because they fall prey less often to theory and jargon (literature-speak is just as pernicious as art-speak) and they succeed in discussing his poems thoroughly without jumps.
What do I mean by ‘jumps?” When aspects of an artist’s work are separated and essays devoted to each in turn, information sometimes comes a little late. If you don’t know what Andre meant when he described his work as “clastic” (a term from geology, referring to rock that is made up of pieces of other rock), you will have to either look it up or bide your time until page 274, when Brooke Holmes (an associate professor at Princeton) explains. A single-authored work would allow for digressions and put the definition into the reader’s hand at once. This needed bit of information helps keep Ms. Holmes’ essay, which is otherwise theory-heavy, essential.
Philippe Vergne’s rhapsodic essay, which opens the book, is sometimes in danger of dissolving into impenetrability and even jargon. “Andre’s sculpture is a passage from one point to another; it is the mental and physical passage to full awareness through simultaneity of time and space, time in space and space through time” (p.233) is lovely, supportable in the context he spells out, and just a bit mystical. (I’ll pass over a discussion of the Oxford comma and its lack of use here.) Vergne’s description sound Zen or Taoist, which he mentions but briefly. Even a later essay, “Situating Rust Garden: Carl Andre in Japan” by Mika Yoshitake, from the Hirschhorn, deals less with influences on Andre, and more about one specific work. There might yet be room in the canon for a discussion of Minimalism and meditative experience.
I might wish for more color photography, though there is just enough to suffice. The question is: is sufficing enough? The cost of a book like this ($40.90 on Amazon, down from a list price of $65) is not excessive, but for the money you would expect something a bit more lavish…if lavishness is at all appropriate to Andre’s Minimalist styles. That’s a quibble, and relates more to money than to art. Looking at any photograph of an artwork (one that is not a photo itself) is to stand at a remove from the full experience; color vs. black and white is, especially in Andre’s case, is no reason to skip this book.


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