Carl Andre is sitting in his preferred chair in his cramped one-bedroom apartment – the seat opposite the windows, which frame a wide view of lower Manhattan. He resembles a farmer from a past century, wearing his trademark overalls and a grey beard that runs from ear to ear below his jaw like a chinstrap.
He is recounting a day spent in Kyoto with his fellow minimalist pioneer Sol Lewitt some 40 years ago. They roamed from temple to temple and listened to monks explain the symbolism of each themed garden, before coming to a Zen Buddhist shrine. There, a monk advised the two artists, “This garden has no meaning whatsoever. It is only beautiful.”
Andre’s green eyes well up and he holds still for a moment, staring out at the white winter sky. Asked if he believes the same could be said for his sculpture, he answers simply, “Yes.” Repeating one of his favourite aphorisms, he says, “My work doesn’t mean a damn thing. There’s nothing hiding under those plates.”
It’s a pithy quote, but the very lack of reference to nature or some other symbolism in his pared-down abstractions has in fact been potently meaningful to generations of artists and viewers. From 1965, when he was first exhibited publicly, Andre set the art world abuzz by laying his sculpture flat on the floor. The act of reorienting sculpture on the horizontal and inviting viewers to walk on it allowed “people to enter the space of the sculpture, not just look at it,” says Sarah Martin, curator of Carl Andre: Mass & Matter, opening this week at Turner Contemporary in Kent. The artist’s first major show in the UK for more than a decade, it will feature a selection of his radical sculpture along with samples of his similarly avant-garde poetry.
Asked about his work, the artist says: “People want to be given a little phrase that can be a substitute for their experience with the art. They want a little spiel. I would have to tell you the story of my life, which is intensely boring. Just say I have no choice.”
In fact, Andre’s life is anything but boring. His story is one of the most tragic in postwar art, and at 77 his contributions to the field have been almost overshadowed by the events of September 7, 1985. In the early morning hours of that day, his third wife, Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta, plunged to her death from the bedroom window of their 34th-floor apartment. Andre was charged with second-degree murder but eventually acquitted in a bench trial (one without a jury) in 1988.
Today, sitting in the same apartment, Andre seems prepared for the inevitable questions about Mendieta’s death. “All I can say is it was a very tragic accident,” he says. “ I was not guilty of this charge.”
The art world, however, was bitterly divided. Many friends, such as Frank Stella, stood by Andre – but others abandoned him, and feminists let loose their vitriol. “There was really a campaign of calumny against me, and in a way there is nothing you can do about it because it would only bring more attention to their claims,” he says. His reputation severely damaged in the US, Andre exhibited mainly in Europe after the verdict.
Even 25 years later, he largely keeps to himself. His fourth wife, artist Melissa Kretschmer, who is sitting at the head of the table, is his chief protector. At one point, she can’t contain her outrage at his ostracism in the US and interjects, “I’ve even gotten emails from people: ‘How can you associate with Carl?’”
But a quiet re-examination has begun. In addition to the exhibition at Turner Contemporary, DIA:Beacon in upstate New York is planning a major retrospective for 2014, the biggest museum show of his sculpture in the US since 1970.
“He has remained a seminal figure,” says Sarah Martin. Andre’s use of common industrial materials was radical at the time, and he arranged them on-site in grids or in other simple geometric configurations. The artist made space itself his primary concern and celebrated materials for their own sake, two traits embraced by innumerable younger artists.
The origins of his work can be easily found in Andre’s childhood in the seaside town of Quincy, Massachusetts, where the two industries were shipbuilding and granite quarrying. He leafs through a book he had made of his home town in the early 1970s, all black-and-white photos of steel beams lying on the snowy ground, flat shoreline, slabs of granite sliced into rectangular tombstones. He hails from a long line of men who made things with their hands: his father built the family’s Cape Cod vacation house himself – down to its hinges. Andre, however, says, “I wasn’t inclined toward useful construction. I was inclined toward useless construction, which is what sculpture is.”
Andre attended the prestigious Phillips Academy Andover where, to his parents’ chagrin, he discovered his love for making art. “My mother was socially ambitious,” he says. “She wanted me to become a minister to a rich congregation. Later I said to her, ‘I hate to tell you this, Mother, but I don’t believe in God.’ She said, ‘How would that prevent you?’”
Bored with college, in 1957 Andre made his way to New York and fell in with the art crowd – including land artist Bob Smithson and critic Barbara Rose. He borrowed studio space from Stella, who convinced him to give up painting (Andre says his canvases were “terrible”) by threatening, “If I catch you painting here again, I’m going to cut off your hands!”
Turning definitively to sculpture, Andre foraged for materials on the street because he couldn’t afford any. Assembling pieces on-site, he was one of the first artists to see no need for a studio. To earn money, he took a job on the railroad.
But he was soon part of a powerful tide of change. His work entitled “Lever”, a single line of 137 firebricks, was included in the groundbreaking 1966 exhibition Primary Structures at New York’s Jewish Museum, along with fellow minimalists – Dan Flavin, John McCracken, Donald Judd among them – who were intently creating a new American art. In 1970 the Guggenheim gave him his first solo museum show; two years later, Tate’s purchase of “Equivalent VIII”, a work that comprises 125 fire bricks arranged in two layers, caused a memorable furore in London.
Like other radical creators, Andre had his share of critics scoffing that his stuff was not art. Andre, however, insists he never actually intended to be controversial – except for a single one-night show on the eve of Richard Nixon’s second inauguration in January 1973. Then, alluding to the US president’s odd culinary predilection, Andre carted 300 pounds of cottage cheese into a gallery, poured 10 gallons of ketchup on top and let it sit overnight until “it stank.” “I called it ‘American Decay’,” he says.
These days, Andre has said what he had to say, and he gave up making art on any regular basis a couple of years ago. “I think of myself as retired,” he says. “My work comes from a desire to do it. I have a horror of making unfelt works.”
His upcoming exhibitions aside, he is philosophical about the vagaries of the art world. “I’m no longer hot stuff – you know, in fashion,” he says. “But I’m in the books.”
‘Carl Andre: Mass & Matter’, Turner Contemporary, Margate, February 1-May 6.