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?
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.
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.
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.
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.