LONDON — Unpretentious" is a good word for the often low-lying work of American sculptor Carl Andre. So low-lying, in fact, that people sometimes find themselves standing on or walking across it before realizing what and where it was. What it is, is basically the materials it is made of. Where it is, is basically on the floor. "Basically" is a good word for it, too.
Andre's work makes the character of different materials of paramount importance. It makes sculpture a matter of place and placing.
The floors on which his works are placed generally belong to art galleries. His works are site-specific. Since they are placed in art galleries, they are, by context if nothing else, art. But the materials Andre favors are generally commonplace and industrial. When he first used them in the 1960s, they were not at all the materials Art was supposed to be made of.
These materials (he calls himself a "matterist") are units of sheet steel, zinc, tin, square-section hunks of sawed wood, copper strips, and so forth. The sort of materials we mostly overlook. They are chosen, placed, and arranged by the artist, but are otherwise unmodified.
Andre is widely recognized as one of the defining figures of 20th-century art. Attending the preview of the sizable exhibition honoring his work at London's Whitechapel Art Gallery (until Aug. 27), he seems as unpretentious as his art.
His seriousness as an artist - four decades of work under his belt - is not in doubt. But one is quickly aware, also, of a engaging sense of humor.
There was a time - also in London - when he surely needed this sense of humor. Even now, more than 20 years later, the incident of the Tate bricks is inevitably mentioned whenever Andre is discussed here. His work "Equivalent VIII," consisting of plain gray firebricks stacked neatly in a long rectangle two bricks deep, was bought by the Tate Gallery. Although it had been previously shown at the Tate with no adverse comment, what happened next was a public lynching by media and popular opinion. "The Bricks" came quickly to symbolize everything ordinary people distrusted about modern art. The bricks were easy meat to anyone who assumes that Art must indicate the mammoth genius of the artist, and that Art also has to evidence a great deal of hard work.
Andre's bricks did neither. And the works now on view at The Whitechapel demonstrate that his aesthetic hasn't changed. The irony was, and still is, that it is the very unpretentiousness of his claims for art that enraged people. A remarkably inoffensive art object suddenly became the butt of vitriol aimed at the "elitism" of the art world. The bricks just lay there, mute before their accusers.
Andre today accepts this erstwhile nonsense with good grace and a laugh. But if the event brought him notoriety in Britain, and labeled him a con artist and fraud, it also did little to encourage people to understand his thought processes or to see that his work was itself rather pointedly questioning the pretentiousness of art and the art world.
Radical art at first often appears to be little more than negation. It is defined by all the things it is not, the things previously considered essential to art. Today, Andre's exhibition is treated with positive admiration by the British press. And there is, in this show, an effort to explain his work.
His earliest pieces, now mostly destroyed, are displayed in an impressive series of photographs by Hollis Frampton. They evidence an artist working in a direct line from the carved wood sculptures of Constantin Brancusi, particularly his "Endless Column" of 1920, but going further and arriving at Andre's own aesthetic. There is also a wall devoted to Andre's poetry, arrangements of words, just as his sculpture is arrangements of steel plates or hunks of cedar.
Chatting with visitors, the artist comments on the art and attitudes of today. He is determined not to be considered a "conceptual artist" - an artist of ideas instead of objects. Nor does he believe the viewer of art should just lie back and be moved or entertained. Looking at art involves hard work, he says.
He talks of certain fallacies under which he had labored for years. One was that he made every effort to rid his art of human content. This was presumably because sculpture had for so long been overwhelmed with expression and sentiment.
"But now I realize that the only thing there is to sculpture is human," he says.
Yes. But it doesn't have to depict the human figure. And it doesn't have to force emotion on its viewers. As Andre's work shows, it can just be what it is: a rigorous, yet unexpectedly warm celebration of the qualities of materials and the fascinations of order and form.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society