Thursday 7 March 2013

Review of Carl Andre: Mass and Matter at Turner Contemporary, Margate

Carl Andre: Mass and Matter
Turner Contemporary, Margate
1 February – 6 May 2013

“My ambition as an artist is to be the ‘Turner of matter’. As Turner severed colour from depiction, so I attempt to sever matter from depiction.” As such, Carl Andre (born Quincy, Massachusetts, 1935) became a leading artist in the emergence of Minimalism in the United States in the mid-1960s, making sculptures out of ordinary industrial materials – wood, bricks, and metals – arranged on the floor in simple linear or grid-like patterns. Following a visit to Stonehenge at the age of 19, Andre has worked with the idea of “sculpture as place” rather than the more traditional concept of “sculpture as form”. Although his life has been overshadowed by controversy, not least for the murder charge for the death of his wife, Ana Mendieta, in 1985, fellow artist Richard Serra’s claim that “he changed the history of sculpture” is not an exaggeration, and the eight works in this exhibition, accompanied by examples of his poetry, seek to justify this claim.

I have to confess to visiting Turner Contemporary today, as a supporter of Mendieta, intent upon disliking Andre’s work. Having stood and admired the rawness of matter in David Chipperfield’s imposing North Gallery, however, magnificently curated and exhibited, so as to have all eight works together in a relatively small space, playing off one another, highlighting for the viewer just how accurate Andre was in his judgment that “copper is more profoundly different from aluminium than green is from red,” and with the central placing of Phalanx (1981), 14 western red cedar timbers, in two diverging rows of seven verticals, like an arrowhead, pointing at you as you enter the room, I was, despite my reluctance, won over, at least to his credibility as an artist.

Entering the gallery, which feels almost as if you are stepping on to a giant chessboard, you are indeed invited to tread upon 4x25 Altstadt Rectangle (1967), one of Andre’s “2D” sculptures, flat upon the ground, but there is a large print request to refrain from touching any of the other works, since the materials are easily marked by the oils in human skin. Who would think this of wood? Or metal? Such everyday, overlooked materials? But here, we are invited to reappraise them, to see them afresh, as matter in their own right, each element the equivalent to Andre of each different colour in an artist’s palette to a painter.

“Ideas no… My work has no more idea than a tree, or a rock, or a mountain or an ocean.” This is Andre’s own frank statement, and perhaps chimes with what a lot of critics are wont to complain. But actually, his banishment of depiction and illusion, and his affinity with the Minimalist ideals, do not equate on any level with simplification or banality. In fact, one of the most complex and cerebrally challenging of his works, not on display here, is his notorious Equivalents I-VIII, each a different permutation of 120 bricks laid out on the floor. Not only do these works invite the mathematical brain to analyse and explore which work uses which factors, but also the title of the series makes reference to Alfred Stieglitz’s photographic series, from the 1920s, of clouds in the sky – an early study in abstraction and minimalism if ever there was one.

Another work where the title tells us more than we might otherwise glean from simply looking, is Well (1964, remade 1970), a 28 unit stack of wood, hollow on the inside. Since it towers above the average human in height, this fact of its hollow nature would not be know if it were not told through linguistic reference to a known entity. Such playing with language is also a feature of Andre’s poems, of which a number are on display here, from his grand oeuvre numbering nearly 2000. It is a little known fact that Andre initially went to New York wishing to become a poet, but, when his sculptures began to earn him his income, his writing took second place. Nonetheless, his poems might be seen to echo his material works in various ways: they are either stacked, listed, or laid out in fields, with a flatness and modularity to them, divorcing the words and phrases from their grammar and syntax. Ranging in subject from love, through religion, to political responsibility, and American, Western, and personal histories, the words, each typed with one sole index finger, are vectors, which virtually fly off the page.[1]

This exhibition might be billed by some as a taster for the larger retrospective which is due next year in New York State, but I am not sure that any display could outdo this one, where the call to focus on the minute details of each elemental material, and to see the contrasts between one and another, has been so successfully brought to the fore. In the light of this, the stacks of wood and chequer boards of metal squares, seem every bit as beautiful as a skillfully carved Renaissance nude. Go and see this exhibition with an open mind, and remember, it is the art you are there to judge, not the artist.

[1] Grant Pooke in conversation with Alistair Rider and Gavin Delahunty, at Turner Contemporary, 6 March 2013.


Timber Piece
Museum Ludwig 
Courtesy of Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln

Weathering Piece 
© stichting kröller-müller museum

© Carl Andre
DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2012

1 comment:

  1. Hey, I’m an interior designer and I’ve been a David Chiperffield fan for quite some time now. I love the way how he merges his creations with the surrounding environment and that distinct Chipperfield brand of mixing classic and contemporary designs on those drafts of his. I recently discovered a Portuguese furniture brand that fits perfectly on some of his projects… Boca do Lobo, have your ever heard about it ? Check out these masterpieces…

    Keep up with those useful posts of yours ! Congrats on the blog, Anna !