Wed, Jul 20, 2011 - Page 15 News List

For Carl Andre, less is still less

By Randy Kennedy  /  NY Times News Service, New York

The work of Carl Andre, one of the only minimalists to accept the term, is often as barely there as sculpture can get. In the first book to survey his ascetic half-century career, a maximalist doorstop published this month by Phaidon, the art historian Alistair Rider relates the story of a German artist who enthusiastically sought out Andre’s work at a gallery in 1967, only to become confused when he couldn’t find it. This was because the work, 100 square plates of hot-rolled steel arranged in a rectangle almost completely covering the gallery entryway, was directly beneath his feet. He had mistaken it for the flooring.

For more than two decades Andre, who turns 76 this year, has been almost as spectral a presence in the art world as his most inconspicuous floor pieces. He has shown regularly, at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York and around the world; but he rarely appears in public and speaks for the record even less than he did when he was young, which was not a lot. So it was disconcerting to meet him one recent afternoon in the hallway outside his Greenwich Village apartment, where he was waiting on the other side of the elevator door; he smiled, stuck out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Carl Andre,” pronouncing his last name with a flat “a,” in contrast to the broad “a” (“bahthtub,” “auhnt”) he carries conspicuously from his youth in Quincy, Massachusetts.

Andre still dresses in the bib overalls that have been his uniform for decades, the sartorial stamp of an unorthodox lifelong Marxism. He also still lives in the same 34th-floor apartment, in a nondescript 1970s tower near New York University, where his life changed instantly and irrevocably one early morning in 1985, when his third wife, the promising Cuban artist Ana Mendieta, fell to her death from a bedroom window after an argument with Andre, who later told the police he was not in the room when she fell. After a highly publicized trial three years later he was acquitted of second-degree murder, but the death cast a shadow over an already difficult career, greatly reducing his visibility as a pioneer of one of the most important art movements of the postwar period.

The Mercer Street apartment became the symbolic locus of a deep divide in the art world between Andre’s friends and supporters and those who believed — and still believe — he was responsible for his wife’s fall, some of whom took up her death as a feminist cause at a time when female artists were struggling mightily for greater recognition.

Andre and his fourth wife, the artist Melissa Kretschmer, invited a reporter to the apartment for a rare yet wide-ranging conversation about the Phaidon book, Carl Andre: Things in Their Elements, and about a retrospective being planned by Dia:Beacon for 2013, which will be the first US survey of his work since a 1970 show at the Guggenheim Museum. The new show and the publication seem to suggest a slowly growing separation between views of Andre’s life and his work, beginning to occur as he has all but stopped traveling and making new work. Until relatively recently he insisted that pieces could be made only by him, on site, in response to the space where they would remain.

One of his last major permanent pieces — a long-planned outdoor work for the Chinati Foundation, the shrine to minimalism in Marfa, Texas — was installed last year based on his plans but without his presence. Called Chinati Thirteener, the work covers a courtyard space of a U-shaped former Army barracks. It is formed of a bed of brown gravel, atop which 13 separated rows of steel plates sit, evoking the railroad tracks that run conspicuously through the heart of Marfa — though, strictly speaking, Andre’s works aren’t supposed to evoke anything other than the materials from which they are made and the space they occupy.

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