Carl Andre: Mass Matter, Turner Contemporary, Margate

The Tate “bricks” – Carl Andre’s geometric firebrick floor sculpture “Equivalent VIII” – became the most controversial 20th-century British state acquisition when the Millbank museum bought it in 1972. A waste of public money, or a work embodying minimalism’s elegant simplicity? Gallery-goers remain divided, although Andre is now recognised as seminal in 1960s-1970s American art.

He has not, however, had a US retrospective. Andre has been reclusive, even ostracised, since his wife, performance artist Ana Mendieta, fell to her death from their 34th-floor apartment in 1985; he was tried for and acquitted of her murder in 1988, but his American reputation never recovered.

Margate’s rare show of eight sculptures created from 1967 to 1983, opening with the steel-rolled “4 x 25 Altstadt Rectangle” and closing with “60 x 1 Range Work”, a line of equilateral bricks placed to form a triangular prism, takes as starting point Andre’s statement that “My ambition as an artist is to be the ‘Turner of matter’. As Turner severed colour from depiction, so I attempt to sever matter from depiction.” Using commonplace materials of industrial production – wood, bricks, metal – in commercially available units, he does not carve or weld but simply assembles these units into linear arrangements or grids on the floor, without joining them together.

His interest in the character of different materials – wood (“Phalanx, “Timber Piece”) is “the mother of matter” – emerges here; blocks of aluminium, copper, steel, magnesium, lead, zinc combine in geometric patterns, reminiscent of Mondrian, in “Weathering Piece” – emerges here. According to your viewpoint, such works either look rigorous and repressed – minimalism traces its lineage to American puritanism – or starkly poetic. Not in doubt is the historical influence: by reducing sculpture to basic elements of square, cube, lines, diagrams, re-orientating it from the vertical to the horizontal plane, and positioning it as place not object – walking round “Equivalent VIII” is meant to feel like wading through shallow water – Andre redefined the possibilities of his medium.

From Friday to May 6,

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