Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism. Become a member today »

Installation view, ‘Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958–2010,’ showing “46 Roaring Forties” (1988) and other works, at Dia:Beacon, Riggio Galleries, Beacon, NY, May 5, 2014–March 9, 2015 (all photos by Bill Jacobson, © Carl Andre/Licensed by VAGA, New York, courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York)

BEACON, NY — Carl Andre’s 50-year, career-spanning retrospective at Dia:Beacon is coming down this weekend. If you think that Modernism is god, that its spawn, Minimalism, is the lord, and that Andre is her messenger, you’d best catch the show before it’s gone. After all, it’s been more than 30 years since any major institution put together an exhibition like this, and who’s to say when something this elegant and problematic will turn up again.

Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958–2010 is expansive, consisting not just of Andre’s well-known works in a dizzying array of metals, stacked or laid low on the ground like monumental tiles for real and imagined places, but also of prints, little-seen assemblages, and his early-career run at poetry. The show manifests, gallery by gallery, Andre’s views on materiality, but it’s also impeccably installed as a summation of an art life. As such, it draws heavily on Andre’s biography — a curatorial decision that casts a red light on the absence of the one datum, or perhaps debt, that deserves to be acknowledged: did he or didn’t he?

Installation view, ‘Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958–2010’ at Dia:Beacon, Riggio Galleries, Beacon, NY, May 5, 2014–March 9, 2015

If you didn’t know about Carl Andre and the death, under suspicious circumstances, of his third wife, artist Ana Mendieta, you wouldn’t learn it from the show’s installation as a love song to Andre’s art practice. You wouldn’t know that the works on display in three large galleries, lit by the high, bright winter’s light streaming in from large-paned windows, carry the burden of what must be an impossible acknowledgment. You’d have little idea that a basement installation of prints, artists books, and amusing, Dada-inspired ephemera is morally charged, because it contains in the middle of a large table a work titled “Foot Candle” (2002), featuring a woman’s shoe with a funerary candle.

Installation view, ‘Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958–2010,’ showing some of Andre’s Concrete poetry (click to enlarge)

Through works like the Element series — a progressively more monumental set of red cedar blocks stood up and stacked — and through rectangular tile works placed on the floor, plus a display of typed and handwritten poetry, the exhibition traces Andre’s life as a factotum native of Quincy, Massachusetts, and a poet who made his Concrete poetry more concrete in metal, wood, and graphite. Curator Yasmil Raymond points to Andre’s early leftist politics in the exhibition brochure, and the installed work looks very anti-capitalist indeed. Speaking to a friendly gallery attendant, I learned that the curators had initially planned to invite visitors to walk over all the floor pieces, as Andre originally allowed, in an attempt to activate the works and introduce a touch of the transgressive. But look at the museum didactics, and you quickly realize that most of the works are borrowed from museums and private collections. The owners found out about the curators’ plan and announced that save one piece, none could be touched. On the day I visited, I was gently and firmly told that because of snow and salt outside I could not walk on even that one. The works are on display here to solemnly collect the bountiful provenance the owners think they’re owed.

That’s a shame. Andre’s best pieces, like “Uncarved Blocks” (1975), “Twelfth Copper Corner” (1975), and “Pyramus and Thisbe” (1990), feel like a still vital attempt to work out an ethics of material and place. At this moment when industrial production of Serras and Koonses and 3D printing rule the roost, Andre’s works on the floor feel like they’re toeing the line between quaint nostalgia and the revived possibilities of optimism that anchored the work of the great and mighty Modernists, mostly white middle-class men who lived in New York and LA. Put another way, the whole exhibition feels iconoclastic, and transcendentally so. It’s as if all the world’s sculpture should be flattened, and the pieces would only be art after you were invited to stand on them, and you did just that.

Installation view, ‘Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958–2010,’ showing “Breda” (1986) in the foreground

The transcendental quality of Andre’s gorgeous work and the broadly cosmopolitan, universalistic ethic he espoused in his poetry let him off the hook from his commitments to specific circumstances and people. They let him attend to materiality in lovely ways without fulfilling his corollary commitments to an audience that might want to engage with the work; he doesn’t dissuade the viewer from close engagement, but he doesn’t invite it either.

This might sound unfair, but if biography invites into the conversation the mantra of genius, then we must deal with the flip side of that myth: control, coercion, and violence. Mozart was a genius, sure, but he was also a mendacious, immature, unkind creep. Andre was arrested on suspicion of Ana Mendiata’s murder. He was acquitted, but the facts must be acknowledged in some way, whether as a curatorial position or a hard-line declaration. In the exhibition materials, in any statement related to this show, Mendieta — much less her death — is never mentioned at all.

Installation view, ‘Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958–2010,’ showing “Fermi” (1979) and “Lament for the Children” (1976, destroyed, 1996 remade)

Perhaps the most poignant work in the show, if not the strongest, is a small untitled piece of typewriter ink on fabric. The typed text reads, “The Work of the Artist Is to Turn Dreams Into Responsibilities.” It would have been good if Carl Andre had taken that imperative seriously.

Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958–2010 continues at Dia:Beacon (3 Beekman Street, Beacon, New York) through March 9.

Support Hyperallergic

As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever. 

Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.

Become a Member

Faheem Haider

Faheem Haider is an artist, writer, art critic, and political analyst. He studied at SUNY New Paltz, the London School of Economics, and New York University. Through the journey of his life, living in...

13 replies on “The Problematic Elegance of Carl Andre”

  1. “If you didn’t know about Carl Andre and the death, under suspicious
    circumstances, of his third wife, artist Ana Mendieta, you wouldn’t
    learn it from the show’s installation as a love song to Andre’s art
    practice.”

    Nor should you. To try to actually criticize an exhibition of Andre’s art for not talking about the death of his wife which was either suicide or murder and instead focusing on the artist himself is absolutely ludicrous.

    1. To be fair, the reviewer was not critiquing Andre’s work on the lack of acknowledgement of the controversy but the curatorial conceit that leaned heavily on biography without addressing it, which is suspicious at the least.

      1. Wait.. you find it suspicious? In what way?

        If you were Andre would YOU want every or even any show you did even decades later to talk about the death of your wife, whether she killed herself or you killed her?

        1. As there is no reference, all assumptions as to why it was left out of the biographical details are merely that (including your own). They could have just mentioned it in the exhibition literature as a tragic event with no judgement passed. The show (as in the artworks and the display) doesn’t talk about his dead wife nor does Andre. But the curatorial task to present a historically minded, biographically aligned exhibition should. That’s the point of the reviewer in this post. They didn’t and one is only left with suspicions as to why.

          1. So much of what’s been written about Carl Andre has had to do with Ana Mendieta’s death. I wasn’t there; I don’t have an opinion about his innocence or guilt, as unpopular as that view is among some of my fellow feminists who are sure he’s a murderer. But the indisputable fact is, he was acquitted. I don’t find the omission of Ana’s death to be anything but a proper focus on the work itself. It would be like saying that every exhibition of Pollock’s work should talk about what a drunken SOB he was…

          2. Well, I suppose we will all have to agree to disagree. I don’t have an opinion on his guilt or innocence as well. However, I don’t buy into the whole ‘let the work speak for itself’ in general. Seems like a willful suspension of disbelief not to mention separating art from life, which is pointless and dangerous in my estimation. But that’s a whole other discussion.

            There is already a great deal of artifice that tries to do all this (gallery space, explanatory literature sidelined, brief bio details; name, DOB, place of birth, the lack of critical reviews in exhibition materials, etc.). And this is all used in this show. But if the established curatorial premise to Andre’s work in this show is on biography, it should be in there. It’s not about EVERY show, just this one. If one made a show of Pollock’s work and put emphasis on his biography, yes, it should mention his alcoholism.

          3. Good points. I’m in favor of less biographical info than more in exhibitions and I don’t think that necessarily separates art from life. I think each artist gets to negotiate self disclosure in the work. That said, I’m a voracious reader of biographies. I just would rather try to see the work on its own terms first.

    1. I disagree, but finally at least a valid opinion on his work that DOESN’T focus on his dead wife.

      1. Okay, point made. I’m sure you can find reviews of this exhibit that doesn’t bring in Mendieta into the conversation. This author, however, did to make a valid point. And we’re free to consider free of trolling.

  2. “Upon their return from Europe nine months later, on September 8, 1985, Mendieta dies in a fatal fall from the window of their SoHo apartment. The exact circumstances of the event remain unknown. Andre is arrested and charged in her death; he is freed two day later after Paula Cooper and the artist’s closest friends (most notably, Stella) gather the funds necessary to cover the $250,000 cash bail…Andre’s case will last for three years, during which time Paula Cooper keeps his work regularly on view at her gallery in a show of support. The case is dismissed on February 10th, 1988, leaving an art community divided in his regard. The sensationalistic coverage in the local media makes it difficult for Andre’s work to be shown in the United States.”

    A passage from Carl Andre: Biographical Notes by Manuel Cirauqui Curator Associate for the Dia Art Foundation a part of the exhibition catalog for Carl Andre Sculpture as Place

  3. “Upon their return from Europe nine months later, on September 8, 1985, Mendieta dies in a fatal fall from the window of their SoHo apartment. The exact circumstances of the event remain unknown. Andre is arrested and charged in her death; he is freed two day later after Paula Cooper and the artist’s closest friends (most notably, Stella) gather the funds necessary to cover the $250,000 cash bail…Andre’s case will last for three years, during which time Paula Cooper keeps his work regularly on view at her gallery in a show of support. The case is dismissed on February 10th, 1988, leaving an art community divided in his regard. The sensationalistic coverage in the local media makes it difficult for Andre’s work to be shown in the United States.”

    A passage from Carl Andre: Biographical Notes by Manuel Cirauqui Curator Associate for the Dia Art Foundation a part of the exhibition catalog for Carl Andre Sculpture as Place.

Comments are closed.