On Carl Andre and the Question of History

Leslie Hewitt delivering her lecture on Carl Andre (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Leslie Hewitt delivering her lecture on Carl Andre (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Ironically, Leslie Hewitt’s Monday night lecture on Carl Andre, which examined ways of escaping the hegemony of art and political history, was protested by those who opposed Carl Andre’s place within that history. On the original date of Hewitt’s lecture in May (rescheduled “due to an immediate medical condition”), a group of artists dumped chicken blood and guts on the sidewalk outside Dia:Chelsea. It was a partial reenactment of one of the late Ana Mendieta’s performances and a protest again Andre, who is currently the subject of a Dia retrospective and who in 1988 was acquitted of Mendieta’s murder.

On the evening of the rescheduled lecture this week, there was no immediate evidence of these past events; however, upon arriving early, I was greeted by a polite man in a black suit who inquired as to why I was outside the building. The door was flanked by stanchions, and the check-in table was set up downstairs, rather than up at the entrance to the lecture space as in the past. I wondered if this was a veiled attempt to take control of the sidewalk in order to prevent a repeat of May’s events. It seems to have worked: I later learned there had been another protest during the lecture, but by the time I left the building, any traces had been washed away.

Rather than shy away from this negative response, Hewitt met it head on, beginning her talk with a statement addressing these issues. “There is no doubt that the personal and tragic biography of Ana Mendieta and Carl Andre unleashes strong emotional and ethical responses in the art context,” she said. “Any such positions I am sure are present and seated within us here today, as well as outside with any such protesting entity, or even with those who chose not to attend either. We are a nation of laws with outcomes that we may or may not like or feel are just, and may even feel are designed with inherent biases.” Hewitt noted the recent decision regarding the Central Park Five case as evidence of this, before continuing:

To eclipse, silence, or potentially censor in this discursive space, especially in this context, I find quite interesting: a feminist group protesting the talk of another woman, whose position was assumed powerless, and whose voice was registered inert or lacking a critical stance. I reject this premise, and have the audacity to go off script — as a woman who does not render patriarchy invisible in my daily life, as a woman of color who has the long view, with pragmatism in mind, and as an artist who utilizes historical distance strategically as a way to address art history through a personal, social, and political lens.

With that, Hewitt left the controversy behind and dove into the dense material she’d prepared, demonstrating her well-practiced “critical stance.” The lecture explored the parallel narrative strands of concrete mathematics and 1960s minimalist sculpture. Reading calmly and methodically, alongside images “meant to parallel the text, not to illustrate or supplement it,” she began her presentation with the definitions of two terms: “root” and “radical.” She was, she said, drawn to the symmetry in both words, “that each word has a second life in realm of math processes and definitions” and also in “the realm of visualization.” This “double meaning,” or paralleling of concrete and abstract realms, ran throughout her talk.

The audience at Hewitt's talk (photo by Erin Goldberger)
The audience at Hewitt’s talk (photo by Erin Goldberger)

Turning towards her personal narrative, Hewitt recounted the political unrest and rampant racism of the 1960s, during which time her parents discovered a “shield from the horrors of everyday life” in mathematics. Slowly reading a list of mathematical terms including variables, equations, tangents, and trinomials, Hewitt set this autobiographical scene against the development of ’60s Minimalist and site-specific sculpture, quoting phrases and definitions from Rosalind Krauss’s “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” many of which dealt with “not-space,” or negative space. “The not- or negative space finds meaning that has little to do with the positivist meaning or understanding, but more to do with locating a seemingly unidentifiable space,” Hewitt said, “locating by way of only marking what it isn’t and creating a set of open parameters, providing a range of possibilities and locations.”  This opening of possibilities creates a “rupture of sorts” in the “linear history” of forms, a breaking of the cycle that recreates the past, a means of attempting to escape the oppressive nature of history — much like her parents’ immersion in mathematics, which also sought to create new spaces through concrete equations.

This type of sculpture developed alongside a heightened period of political activism. “But in addition to what is often perceived as the quintessential modes of protest, there are shifts taking place in the realm of art,” Hewitt explained. “Artists find ways to contend with the experiences of discontent.” As examples, she cited practitioners of the radical sculptural form, among them George Smith, Gordon Matta-Clark, David Hammons, and Carl Andre, as well as the conceptual work of Adrian Piper. Out of all those artists, she noted, Andre is “the only one represented in the Dia collection. So perhaps this is a Carl Andre in-relation-to or in-context-with lecture.”

She went on to elaborate on what she sees as the power of Andre’s work. “Somewhere lost in a sea of forms, amongst millions, there is always one that stops you, that haunts you, a form that arrests your attention.” This moment happens in the “liminal space between looking and thinking about what one is looking at … This spatial experience of navigation, or negotiation, is often immediately evident, when I look at the works of Carl Andre.” This experience causes you to forget your place in linear history, to exist only in the “in-between spaces,” only in relation to what it is not.

In essence, Hewitt’s talk was about the building of liminal spaces — how to create them outside the historical narrative and how to inhabit them, both mathematically concrete and visually abstract. The protest and uproar surrounding this lecture, Andre’s Dia retrospective, Mendieta’s horrible death, and her lack of wider art historical recognition can be seen in the same light: as attempts, like Hewitt’s lecture, to break free from the tyranny of historical circumstances.

“Leslie Hewitt on Carl Andre” took place at Dia:Chelsea (525 West 22nd Street, 5th floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) on June 30 at 6:30pm.

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