Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place

‘I don’t want to make works that hit you over the head or smash you in the eye. I like works that you can be in the room with and ignore when you want to ignore them;’ said Carl Andre in 1974. One could hardly miss the vast sculptural installations presented in the colossal hall of the Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin (main image). The exhibition mingles the form, materiality and structure of the museum’s impressive architecture with Andre’s four large grid sculptures, placed at rhythmic distances from each other. The former train station’s dominating triangular arches and square metal windows echo, and even eclipse, Andre’s sensitive installations. His ordered geometrical arrangements are humbled next to this late neoclassical industrial architecture. It is fitting that Carl Andre, who worked as a conductor and brakeman on freight trains for the Pennsylvania Railroad from 1960 to 1964, has an exhibition in the former railway terminus that once connected Berlin to Hamburg. The walls are left unadorned, in keeping with the artist’s minimalist aesthetic.

With Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958-2010, the largest retrospective to-date of works by the American minimalist artist and poet, Dia Art Foundation curators, Yasmil Raymond and Philippe Vergne, emphasise one of the central concepts in Carl Andre’s oeuvre: sculpture as the locus of interaction. The exhibition traces the artist’s historical and aesthetic evolution through a careful presentation of over 50 sculptures, 200 rare poems, as well as photographs, assemblages, letters and ephemera. In the mid-twentieth century, the American artist shifted the relationship of sculpture to the spectator and its environment. Andre redefined the role of sculpture, changing how the artistic medium would be experienced. Previously, sculpture conveyed either a narrative or existed as a manipulated object–artifice honouring craftsmanship, typically placed on a pedestal. This exhibition invites viewers not only to consider concepts of place but also further ideas pioneered by Andre that revolutionised sculpture: locality, space, void, form/formlessness, structure and materiality. 

The first of four sculptures in the main hall is 6-Metal Fugue (for Mendeleev), Wolfsburg, 1995, composed of 216 plates, with subsections of 1,296 squares, made of aluminium, copper, iron, lead, magnesium and zinc. Referring to the Periodic Table of elements, developed by chemist, Dmitri Mendeleev, in 1869, the glistening, chequered plates are positioned flat on the ground and form a variety of colour combinations. Although made of metal elements, the sculpture quietly inhabits the surface and feels remarkably fragile to step on. Andre has invited his audience to walk over these precious-looking plates; however, most visitors are reluctant, accustomed to revere museum art objects from afar. The artist’s aim is somewhat compromised by visitors’ hesitance to walk on them. Nonetheless, 6-Metal Fugue (for Mendeleev) asserts its surrounding physical space, animating the void above, with or without museum-goer’s interaction. The sculpture holds time and place, while remaining vulnerable and disappearing into the atmosphere. The hierarchical relationship between the audience and the artwork has been dismantled; the spectator becomes an active participant, while the sculpture becomes the ‘place’ – underfoot but unmissable.

Behind 6-Metal Fugue (for Mendeleev) are three grid format sculptures, further affirming Andre’s engagement with materiality: monumental, red cedar planks, a sheet of weathered steel and 100 standardised concrete blocks. Stripped of their ability to incite tension through action, the sculptures’ physicality is diffused. Andre removed the materials from their intended purpose. The artist identifies himself as ‘pure materialist by nature’. These works highlight Andre’s interest in tactility, his use of raw materials, and the simplicity of structure and purity of form. 

The second half of the exhibition unfolds through fourteen rooms in the Rieckhallen, former dispatch warehouses that have been converted into exhibition halls, and are connected to the Bahnhof by bridge. Clean and linear, the architecture of these halls parallels Andre’s work. The first of these sequential rooms feature three early rare wooden totems, conceived between 1959 and 1960, and a floor sculpture, which pays homage to the Romanian modernist sculptor, Constantin Brancusi, Andre’s favourite artist. He regarded him ‘a “Minimal” artist [whose work] was reduced to the most basic elements.’ 137 horizontal firebricks extend out in a straight 348½-inch line out of the wall and into the exhibition room toward the entrance. This work, Lever, New York, 1966, is considered to be Andre’s artistic breakthrough. ‘All I’m doing is putting Brancusi’s Endless Column on the ground instead of in the sky,’ explained the artist. First exhibited in the show ‘Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculptors’ at the Jewish Museum, New York in 1966, Lever was a formal and conceptual move from the vertical toward the horizontal and from the manipulated material to the objet trouvé. Made from hard-fired clay, these firebricks are typically used to line the interior walls of ovens, kilns and chimneys and withstand high temperatures. Andre works with democratic, found materials, the antithesis to marble and bronze, and decisively abolishes the pedestal as a form of critique against traditional sculpture. Neatly aligned prefabricated units lie passively on the ground. They exist placidly as one large horizontal pillar, delineating a new unclaimed, physical space. When Artforum magazine attempted to publish a replica of Lever for the cover of their October 1966 issue, Andre protested that he had not laid out the bricks himself, thus deeming the work inauthentic, and retracted permission to use the image.

On view in the second exhibition room are over 200 rare typewriter poems, composed during his years of employment as a freight brakeman. Carl Andre asserted: ‘My interest in elements or particles in sculpture is paralleled by my interest in words as particles of language.’ His experiments with text-based grids play a significant role in his artistic practice. They are presented in massive, birch vitrines unfortunately segregated from the rest of the exhibition, hindering what could have been a stimulating formal dialogue with his sculpture. Nonetheless, the concrete poems are instrumental in providing context to Andre’s three-dimensional work. These word experiments enabled the conceptual shift from wooden totems towards grid floor arrangements. His avoidance of syntax and narrative, emphasising the inversion of negative and positive space, grid formatting and seriality, foreshadowed the emblematic floor pieces that occupy a position somewhere between the readymade and the objet trouvé. Andre treats words similarly to the way he does found objects; they are ‘existing’ material. Like the materials used in his sculpture, he removes words from their intended purpose.

The curators present Andre’s geometric wood and metal plate sculptures, created between 1967 and 2010, in chronological order in the remaining rooms. One exhibition room is devoted entirely to Passport, a scrapbook of Xerox photocopied pencil and ink drawings and collaged photographs, commemorating his most treasured found materials, important historical figures and reproductions of art-historical works. Carl Andre championed the photocopy machine as a democratic medium, using it frequently to publish artist book editions. The adjoining gallery room displays three impressive and rare photographic collaborations between the artist and Gianfranco Gorgoni, Hollis Frampton and Gordon ‘Diz’ Bensley. These exquisite photographs document respective site scavenges and capture Andre’s pursuit after abandoned, industrial sites, further demonstrating his continuous interest in materiality and place.

Five sculptures, created between 1964 and 2005, eloquently summarise the breadth of variety in materiality, structure and form in Andre’s oeuvre. It is noticeable how site-specific these works are. Three sets of units, 44 copper tiles, 44 graphite blocks and 44 graphite cubes, are arranged seemingly at random on the Hamburger Bahnhof’s concrete floor. Andre conceived this sculpture, 44 Carbon Copper Triads, Basel, 2005, in situ at the Kunsthalle Basel in 2005 arranging the materials in dialogue with the museum’s unique architectural character, by aligning them according to the diagonal design of the Kunsthalle’s parquet floor. 44 Carbon Copper Triads is a compelling example of how integral the surrounding space is to Andre’s work, offering a different visual meaning dependent on location. 

A pleasant surprise comes at the end of the show in room fourteen, with the presentation of rarely exhibited ‘Dada Forgeries’, re-appropriated objects that form plays-on-words and are mostly given to friends as presents. Throughout his artistic career, Andre did not create new objects, but rather repurposed existing ones, such as materials, words and in this case, objects. These ‘Dada Forgeries’ reveal a humour, and even a propensity for rebellion. The room is filled with assemblages, some fabricated under the alias, Alden Carr, placed on pedestals entrenched in Plexiglas cases. With these ‘fake’ ready-mades, Andre deflates academic rhetoric surrounding Marcel Duchamp, whilst contradicting his own aesthetic. Margit Endormie, 1989, is composed of a tennis ball with an ink inscription atop a bent metal spring, referencing Constantin Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse.

If location and materiality are key factors in Carl Andre’s work, then certainly his early environment and the conditions in which he was raised are important aspects when considering his work. Andre was born in 1935 in Quincy, Massachusetts, historically known for its many granite quarries and the first railroad in the United States, Granite Railway. His Swedish father worked for the local shipbuilding company, and his Scottish mother, introduced expressive language to her son at an early age. His four-year stint with the Pennsylvania Railroad also enriched his artistic career, not only in providing the opportunity of observing and physically administering massive quantities of industrial material, but also in procuring him with scraps of various wood and metal.

Carl Andre’s artworks serve a kind of Cultural Revolution within his own era. Throughout his life, he campaigned to maintain the integrity of his ideas and work, continuously insisting that they be presented in their integral state. The artist never had a studio. ‘I was one of the first post-studio artists. I used to do my works in the streets. I used to find them in the streets, and I used to leave them in the streets,’ said Andre. For exhibitions abroad, he advocated sourcing materials locally, rather than shipping them from elsewhere. The titles of his artwork correspond to the original context of production. As such, they existed solely for the exhibition. Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958-2010 references the artist’s reformulation of sculpture to represent place. His work not only reveals its origins but also transcends its new physical placement and establishes an elusive moment of interaction for the museum-goer. The setting of the Hamburger Bahnhof functions almost too well. It is as if these works were made for this building, making it difficult to imagine a presentation that is so in sync with its environment elsewhere.

Main image: Installation view, Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958-2010, Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin, © Carl Andre, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016 (photo: Thomas Bruns, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie)

Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958-2010, 5th May, 2016 – 18th September 2016,
Hamburger Bahnhof, Museum for Contemporary Art, Invalidenstrasse 50-51, 10557 Berlin, Germany..

Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958-2010, 18th October 2016 – 12th February 2017,
Musée d’Art Moderne, 11 avenue du Président Wilson, 75116 Paris, France

Aurora Corio