Carl Andre: Is That All There Is To Art?

My work doesn’t mean anything. It is just the presentation of the materials in the clearest form I can make it. – Carl Andre 2013

“Art Is What The Artist Says Is Art” – Marcel Duchamp

Carl Andre: Mass & Matter a new exhibition which opened on Friday 1 February at the Turner Contemporary in Margate has reigniting the debate; What is Art?  It brings together a group of sculptures and poems by one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. Andre now 77 is the artist who created a public outcry from the gutter press, in the 1970’s, when the Tate purchased an installation sculpture titled Equivalent VIII. The piece, constructed using a grid of bricks, was famously depicted on the cover of the Daily Mirror, accompanied by the title “A Pile of Rubbish”. Like other artists associated with Minimalism, Andre is concerned with the character of different materials. He describes wood as ‘the mother of matter’. Bricks are as valid materials for making art for Andre as oil paint or plaster. He considers bricklayers to be ‘people of fine craft’. Along with his contemporaries Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Robert Morris and Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre is a leading artist associated with the emergence of Minimalism in the United States in the mid-1960s.

This exhibition, Andre’s first in a UK public gallery for over ten years, brings together eight sculptures made between 1967 and 1983, alongside a collection of his typed word poems from the same period. At the heart of the exhibition, and of Andre’s practice, is a concern with materials, which for Andre has always meant the common materials of everyday production – wood, bricks and metals such as aluminium, copper, steel, magnesium and lead. Andre selects standard, commercially available units of these materials for his sculptural arrangements without altering them. He has said, ‘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.’

Andre’s poetry is based on a similar process of reduction. Individual words and phrases, often taken from pre-existing sources, are arranged on the page according to certain criteria, isolated and freed from all grammar. His poems are as concerned with the visual appearance of words on a page as with the content of the language itself. Although some of his earliest poems were handwritten, most of Andre’s text works from the late 1960s were produced on a manual typewriter, which automatically sets letters down in grid-like rows and columns analogous.

A number of works in the exhibition date from the 1960s – a key period of Andre’s career – such as 4 x 25 Altstadt Rectangle (1967). Andre has worked with bricks throughout his career and this exhibition includes the more recent 60 x 1 Range Work (1983), a single line of equilateral bricks placed together to form a triangular prism.

Andre grew up by the sea and the Quincy of his youth was an industrial city, a centre of shipbuilding, surrounded by abandoned granite quarries. Andre’s father was a marine draughtsman in the shipyards whilst his Swedish grandfather had worked as a bricklayer.  Andre himself famously supported himself after moving to New York by working as a freight brakeman on the Pennsylvania railroad between 1960 and 1964, a period he later described as ‘my sculptural finishing school’. His work on the railways involved making up trains and breaking them down, a process which directly influenced his poetry and later his sculptures, both elements of his practice the result of taking identical units (single words or metal plates for example) and arranging them within a self-imposed system of rules, often based on prime numbers or other mathematical principals.

Andre has never minced words. In an interview on Radio 4’s Today Program, he stated his work was successful in “putting something in the world that has never been there before”, and pointed out that if someone else piled up bricks it wouldn’t be art, just an imitation”. Speaking on the subject that the art world had changed beyond recognition, he adding: “So called Conceptual art like Joseph Kosuth who believes Art as Idea as Idea “As long as art is just an idea it remains an idea, it doesn’t become art.”

Carl Andre: Mass & Matter Turner Contemporary 1 February 2013     – 6 May 2013 and will tour to mima, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art from 14 June until 19 September 2013.

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