Biography of Carl Andre, Minimalist American Sculptor

carl andre
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Carl Andre (born September 16, 1935) is an American sculptor. He is a pioneer of minimalism in art. His placement of objects in strictly ordered lines and grids has inspired some and outraged others. The often large-scale sculptures raise the fundamental question, "What is art?" Andre was tried and acquitted for murder in 1988 in the death of his wife Ana Mendieta.

Fast Facts: Carl Andre

  • Known For: Minimalist sculptures that incorporate the placement of simple objects in pre-determined geometric patterns covering horizontal space
  • Born: September 16, 1935 in Quincy, Massachusetts
  • Parents: George and Margaret Andre
  • Education: Phillips Academy Andover
  • Art Movement: Minimalism
  • Mediums: Wood, stone, metals
  • Selected Works: "Equivalent VIII" (1966), "37th Piece of Work" (1969), "Stone Field Sculpture" (1977)
  • Spouses: Ana Mendieta and Melissa Kretschmer
  • Notable Quote: "I mean, art for art's sake is ridiculous. Art is for the sake of one's needs."

Early Life and Education

Carl Andre grew up in Quincy, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. In 1951, he enrolled in the Phillips Academy Andover boarding school. While there, he studied art and met future avant-garde filmmaker Hollis Frampton. Their friendship influenced Andre's art through conversations and meeting fellow artists, including Frank Stella, another Phillips student.

Andre served in the U.S. Army from 1955 through 1956, and he moved to New York City after his discharge. There, he renewed his friendship with Hollis Frampton. Through Frampton, Carl Andre became interested in the poetry and essays of Ezra Pound. The study of Pound's work led to the discovery of the work of sculptor Constantin Brancusi. From 1958 through 1960, Carl Andre shared studio space with his old schoolmate Frank Stella.

carl andre 10 x 10 alstadt lead square
"10 x 10 Alstadt Lead Square" (1976). John Kannenberg / Creative Commons 2.0

Although he produced several wood sculptures in the studio working along with Frank Stella, Carl Andre soon ceased sculpting. From 1960 through 1964, he worked as a freight brakeman for the Pennsylvania Railroad. With little money and time for three-dimensional art, Andre began writing poems. He constructed them from words and phrases borrowed from pre-existing texts. The text fragments were often arranged on pages by strict rules such as world-length, alphabetical order, or a mathematical formula.

Later in his career, Carl Andre continued to dress in overalls and a work shirt, even on formal occasions. It was a reference to his formative years working for the railroad.

Influences

Among Carl Andre's most prominent influences are minimalism pioneers Constantin Brancusi and Frank Stella. Brancusi refined his sculpture to the use of simple shapes. Andre's late 1950s sculptures borrowed the idea of carving material blocks into geometric objects. He used mostly blocks of wood shaped with a saw.

Frank Stella rebelled against abstract expressionism by insisting that his paintings were simply flat surfaces coated with paint. They were an object on their own, not a representation of something else. Carl Andre found himself drawn to Stella's manner of working. He watched as his studio mate built his "Black Paintings" series by methodically painting parallel bands of black paint. The discipline left little room for what was traditionally considered an "artistic" approach to painting.

Rise to Prominence

Carl Andre was nearly 30 years old when he finally took part in his first public exhibition in 1965 at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York City. In the 1966 "Primary Structures" show that introduced much of the general public to minimalism, Andre's "Lever" caused a sensation. It was a row of 137 white firebricks in a line projecting from a wall. The artist compared it to a fallen column. Many observers complained that it was something that anyone could do, and there was no art present.

Having used the first half of the 1960s to think about his art and plan for the future, Andre presented his work with a solid underlying rationale. He was articulate in the presentation of his philosophy to critics and journalists. Andre stated that his early cutting and shaping of wood was "sculpture as form." That evolved to "sculpture as structure" which involved stacking identical units of materials. The endpoint for Andre's early work was "sculpture as place." Stacks were no longer important. The new pieces focused on spreading over the floor or the ground taking up horizontal space.

An example of the movement from "sculpture as structure" to "sculpture as place" is the "Equivalent" series. Numbered from I through VIII, the sculptures consist of stacks of uniform white bricks. However, the stacks are not primarily vertical. They stretch and spread out horizontally in rectangular shapes. Andre likened them to the uniform leveling of water.

carl andre equivalent viii
"Equivalent VIII" (1966). Duncan C. / Creative Commons 2.0

Controversy occasionally followed Carl Andre's work. Some viewers continued to rebel against the idea of his carefully placed and stacked objects as art. In 1976, "Equivalent VIII" was defaced with blue dye in a notorious incident in the U.K.

By the end of the decade, Carl Andre's use of materials became more sophisticated. He moved on from using mostly bricks and flat sheets of metal. His "37th Piece of Work," first installed in 1970 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, features 1296 plates made from the six most commonly used metals in the periodic table of elements. The metals are paired with each other to form segments of the design in thirty-six possible combinations. Viewers of the piece were invited to walk on the plates.

carl andre 37th piece of work
"37th Piece of Work" (1970). Bertrand Rindoff Petroff / Getty Images

Large-Scale Sculpture

In the 1970s, Carl Andre began to execute large-scale sculptural installations. In 1973, he exhibited "144 Blocks & Stones, Portland, Oregon" at the Portland Center for the Visual Arts. The display consists of stones selected from a nearby river and placed on uniform concrete blocks in a 12 x 12 grid pattern. The piece took up most of the first floor of the museum.

In 1977, Andre created his only permanent public sculpture outdoors in Hartford, Connecticut. For "Stone Field Sculpture," he used 36 massive boulders dug from a gravel pit in the Hartford area. The quarry owners abandoned the stones. Andre placed the rocks in a regular pattern on a triangular lot. The most massive stone sits at the apex of the triangle, and the bottom of the shape is a row of the smallest stones.

carl andre stone field structure
"Stone Field Structure" (1977). Carol M. Highsmith / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Tragedy and Controversy

The most damaging controversy in Carl Andre's career happened in the wake of personal tragedy. He first met Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta in 1979 in New York. They married in 1985. Their relationship ended in tragedy less than a year later. Mendieta fell to her death from the couple's 34th-floor apartment window following an argument.

Police arrested Carl Andre and charged him with second-degree murder. There were no eyewitnesses, and a judge acquitted Andre of all charges in 1988. Despite being absolved of responsibility, the incident severely impacted his career. Supporters of Mendieta continue to protest at exhibitions of Andre's work. One of the most recent was a 2017 exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.

Legacy

Followers of Carl Andre see him as a vital figure in the history of sculpting. He brought out the essential elements of sculpture, shape, form, and place. Minimalism sculptor Richard Serra considered Andre's work as a critical jumping-off point for his own work. Dan Flavin's light sculptures echo the work of Carl Andre by using simple objects to build large-scale installations.

carl andre furrow
"Furrow" (1981). rocor / Creative Commons 2.0

Source

  • Rider, Alistair. Carl Andre: Things In Their Elements. Phaidon Press, 2011.