Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958-2010, Dia:Beacon, New York – review

Dia:Beacon’s current Carl Andre exhibition veers so far out of alignment with the artist’s original intentions that it verges on perversity. A good chunk of the show is made up of his justly famous floor works – heavy steel, aluminium, zinc and copper squares laid down like linoleum and meant to be trodden upon. From the beginning of his sculpting career in the late 1950s, Andre dispensed with the pedestal, emphatically affirming that his pieces were not things but places, viewing platforms from which you could look about and really understand your surroundings. Standing on the piece was the only way to complete the circuit between viewer and work.

The exhibition’s title, Sculpture as Place, recalls that radical shift and stymies it at the same time. We are permitted to stand on only one of the dozen floor works at Dia. The museum doesn’t explain why these tough surfaces have now become untouchable totems, but the policy clearly exists to protect the rising value of some pretty fancy investments. Andre’s rough constructions have probably never looked better than they do in the flattering, shadowless light that filters in through the skylights of the old box printing plant. His assemblages of timber blocks, bristling with splinters, preen in plain white corners, and his carpets of metal panels run the length of the factory floor. But in order to produce this handsome installation, the museum had to placate lenders who evidently didn’t want their possessions scuffed and defiled.

In the past, Andre was notoriously picky about how his work was displayed. In 1976 he accused the Whitney of “mutilation” and “property bondage” when he was dissatisfied with the placement of one piece. Yet he has signed off on the current installation, displaying a docility completely at odds with the artist who once proclaimed: “Free theory: a work of art is a weapon of the vision of the artist who created it. Slave theory: a work of art is the tool of the visions of buyers and sellers.”

Posterity has its price and Andre is ready to pay it. But it’s a devil’s bargain, because you can’t preserve the physical object without changing its fundamental meaning. Before, the “Floor Pieces” were rooms without walls; now they are altars to be observed from a respectful distance. Where they once projected raw strength, they now luxuriate in fragility. In the 1960s, Andre tried to cure art of its fetishistic tendencies. He venerated the factory, stripped his work of handmade imperfections, embraced the technology of mass production, and adopted the utilitarian look of modernity. He aimed for pure, formal beauty independent of the artist’s hand or the mystical bond with a creative soul. And yet here we are again, back in the realm of the sculpture as relic and financial instrument.

The resurgence of Romanticism shouldn’t really come as a surprise. It’s there in Andre’s work from the earliest days, a burbling chaos always threatening to overtake his rigid order. For “Scatter Piece” (1966) he randomly sprinkled an assortment of ball bearings, aluminium ingots and Plexiglas blocks across the floor. Walking around these components, it’s impossible to make out the work’s precise contours, which leak into formlessness. Andre later came to disavow the sculpture; in a video at Dia, he describes his desire to buy back and destroy all of its iterations and to expunge it from his oeuvre. It represented, he explained, the call of entropy, “a temptation that I fear and dread”. He went on to describe a personal inclination towards chaos, a mania for accumulation that led him, at one point, simply to abandon a studio on East Broadway that had festered into a mouldering nest.

All kinds of suppressed terrors and desires flow through Andre’s formalist poems. Hundreds of meticulously typed pages spill across a long, dim gallery at Dia. Most of them consist of endlessly repeating words geometrically spaced around the page in a rather clumsy attempt to dismantle lyricism and skewer feeling. Yet hidden among these “typewriter drawings” are a few poems that tread the traditional terrain of desire and mortality. Shivers of passion resist his efforts to tamp them down. A whisper of Jack Nicholson’s character from The Shining haunts these obsessive reams.

The spectre of destructive intensity also hangs over a 1973 book of photographs of his home town, Quincy, Massachusetts. By then, Andre was in his late thirties, and looking to this quasi-industrial suburb of Boston for the visual and psychic origins of his aesthetic. The series opens with a shot of a lone gravestone, incised with the name “Andre”, then moves through a mournful New England landscape: salt box houses, snow-covered logs, shipyards, granite quarries, railway tracks and other once-buzzing manufacturing sites, now slithering into decay. The repetitive forms of tracks, timber and tombs arrange themselves with sweeping simplicity, at once prefiguring and echoing the standardised units and radical symmetries of his sculpture. But the photographs also intimate the mathematical purity that, for Andre, is a life-saving bulwark against death and disorder.

Chaos came for him anyway. One September night in 1985, Andre’s wife, the artist Ana Mendieta, plummeted from their 34th-floor apartment in Soho and landed on the roof of a deli. Andre was charged with her murder and though he was later acquitted, the case divided the art world and continues to dog his reputation. Suddenly he seemed less like a master of cool geometries and more like a man troubled by an explosive psyche. The Dia show displays an interest in the rational Andre only, but even the insistence that viewers keep off the artwork can’t neutralise the darkness beneath the steel plates or keep the artist’s ferocious side contained.

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