Interview by William Furlong, recorded May 1995
In this interview Carl Andre speaks extensively about his works in the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, titled, ‘Carl Andre Sculptor 1996’.
from Audio Arts Magazine Volume 16 Number 1, 1996
In this interview Carl Andre speaks extensively about his works in the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, in 1996.
William Furlong: You titled this exhibition ‘Carl Andre, Sculptor, 1996’. The exhibition could be described as a retrospective, but the title emphasises that the works exist in ‘the here’ and ‘the now’.
Carl Andre: This exhibition is a selection of the works from a large retrospective that has just closed in Krefeld and Wolfsburg, in Germany. There are over 50 works in that exhibition. The title was ‘Carl Andre, Sculptor 1996’, because it is a cross-section of my work over the years, presented now. And of course all work is in the present – there’s no other time that we can experience them.
WF: This piece we’re actually standing on, 6-Metal Fugue (for Mendeleev), which was made in 1995, comprises 1,296 identically sized square plates, made using six different metals. You’ve said that ‘the theme of the sculpture gradually unfolds, and it’s reminiscent of the fluctuations and repeats of a musical figure, and thus creates a spectrum of tones which, due to the expanse of the work, reveals itself only gradually.’
CA: Music is the great inspiration for all art – and was it Ruskin who said, ‘All art aspires to the condition of music’? The structure of this work to me resembles a fugue, because there is a statement of the six metals in six by six unit squares, and it begins with each metal by itself – 36 aluminium, 36 steel, 36 copper, 36 zinc, 36 tin, 36 lead, then they combine in pairs – aluminium and steel, aluminium and copper, aluminium and zinc, aluminium and tin, aluminium and lead. To me, it’s like a theme in a fugue that combines themes to make structures.
WF: And this piece was made in Germany and transported here?
CA: Yes, it was fabricated in Germany for the exhibition in Wolfsburg.
WF: Is it like other works you’ve made, where it could be re-arranged in other configurations?
CA: This is a work of fixed configurations; almost all my works are of fixed configuration.
WF: As well as this piece in the Upper Gallery, you have three other pieces. Perhaps you could describe them?
CA: Ah, to the right is Ash Convex Pyramid, which is a reconstruction of a work done in 1964, which was itself a reconstruction of a work which was done in 1958 and ’59. And those are made of slotted and joined timbers, in this case four inches by four inches, and they are in stacks of receding and intersecting right angles.
WF: The piece in the centre?
CA: The piece in the centre is a timber piece from roughly 1980, I would say, and that’s called Raw Matiere, and that is made of 12-inch wide, 36-inch long Western Red Cedar timbers, and it’s horizontal on the floor, and there are five lateral timbers, spaced by four pairs of horizontal timbers.
WF: And one other on the left, called 25 Cedar Solid, 1984?
CA: Yes, that’s 25 Western Red Cedar timbers. Each one is 12 inches by 36 inches, and they’re on end, making a solid block of five by five, a solid square block of timbers.
WF: They’ve just turned off the lights, here in the Upper Gallery, so the piece 6-Metal Fugue (for Mendeleev) suddenly becomes very different. I think it becomes very flat – it emphasises the gravity of the floor.
CA: My work does not rely on illusion, although there’s nothing wrong with illusion at all. I just happen not to be interested in it.
WF: Could you talk about the way in which your work interacts with the space?
CA: A work and the space that contains it are in a dialectical relationship. We tend to forget that all works of art must be somewhere. Perhaps it’s because we experience art largely through reproductions in books. The lights were just turned off because there’s a great deal of natural light, and a shadowless, diffuse light is exactly the kind of light that Cezanne used to like to paint from, in nature.
WF: The relationship to the human scale, with this work, is quite interesting and challenging. The individual components can be picked up, as with most of your works, but here one has to physically stride across it to get to the ends of the piece in each direction.
CA: My works have always been limited by my physical capacity.
WF: Was the choice and location of the metals organised?
CA: Oh yes, I knew what materials I was going to order, and I knew that I wanted to order them in the sequence of their atomic number, from aluminium (the lightest) to lead, which is the heaviest. Those are the ‘givens’, those are parameters that one works with.
WF: Shall we move into this room?
CA: And as you can see, we’ve gone from a large, high-ceilinged open room with natural lighting, to a low-ceilinged pillared room with only artificial lighting. On the floor of this room we have 25 Western Red Cedar timbers, 12 inches by 36 inches each, and there’s the same number of timbers in this room. This rather small room is filled with these timbers in random orientation. They’re all horizontal, they are not touching, and they are not parallel. We have to refer back to 25 Cedar Solid, because they were made at the same time, for the same exhibition in Düsseldorf. That work is the 25 timbers as a compact unit; here are the 25 timbers dispersed. It’s two works, but they are in relationship with each other.
WF: Shall we move to another gallery?
CA: I just want to check out this ‘information’ room. These are photographs taken by Eva Maria Hermann, who is the genius, actually, who put this exhibition together in Krefeld and Wolfsburg, and now in Oxford. She visited Quincy, Massachusetts, where I was born and brought up, because I’d made it very clear that my earliest experiences influenced the work I’ve done. Quincy, Massachusetts was a city of granite quarries and granite-cutting yards, and of shipyards. Henry Moore, the great English sculptor, said that the work of art is to recover the vividness of our earliest experiences, and I find that absolutely true.
WF: So, we have an image of a granite quarry here?
CA: The shipyards were where many of my relatives worked. I remember in 1941 I went with my family to witness the launching of the battleship Massachusetts from those very shipyards. Here we happen to see the current use of the shipyards, which is to make very large reactor vessels, actually for a sewage-treatment plant in Boston Harbour in Massachusetts. And the irony is, there are plenty of steel plates on display at the shipyard, but they’re all curved, because they’re making domed reactor vessels for the sewage plant, rather than flat metal plates, which I saw as a boy.
WF: So those industrial processes have remained consistent themes over the past 30 years?
CA: Absolutely. My father’s family were bricklayers and carpenters and shipbuilders, and so my earliest experiences are not of art, but of the materials and those are the materials that I continue to use. I never did anything that required the art supply store as I’ve always used industrial materials. All artists should simply use the materials that are appropriate to their ends. It’s a false issue to say this is ‘industrial’ and this is ‘art’ material.
WF: Now we’ve come down to the Piper Gallery, and there are two works here.
CA: This is a work called Sand-Lime Instar, and it contains eight islands of sand-lime brick. Each island consists of 120 bricks in two layers, giving a floor plan of 60 bricks each. Each brick island has the same number of bricks, but 60 is quite rich in factors, so we can have 3 by 20, 4 by 15, 5 by 12, 6 by 10. Now, since each brick is a rectangle, each of the chosen factors is a pair. So, we have a work which is 3 by 20, but it’ll be 3 the long way, and 20 the narrow way – or 20 the long way, and 3 the narrow way, which would give you the same area but a different configuration for each one of these islands of bricks. And in 1966 they made up the work called just Equivalents. They were not called Equivalents I to VIII until 1969. But these, called Equivalents in 1966, were meant as one work. When the exhibition was over the gallery was not interested in storing it, so all but one set of 120 bricks I was forced to return to the brickyard. Only one of these original sand-lime brick islands exists now, and I believe it is in a collection in Switzerland. In 1969 the remaining seven islands of bricks from the original – not ‘remaining’ seven, of course – that’s the confusing issue – the reconstruction of seven, was done in firebrick, giving a different colour and a different size, although the same principle of the equivalent number of bricks in each one. It was never reconstructed then as one whole work, but as seven separate works, and it was one of those seven separate firebrick reconstructions, of the individual islands from the original 1966 show, that the Tate Gallery bought as Equivalent VIII. Now this installation, Sand-Lime Instar, is in the same configuration and the same material as the 1966 exhibition. It’s a complicated story but it’s worth explaining.
WF: I suppose when you come to Britain you get fed up being reminded of that whole furore, over what is now described as Equivalent VIII.
CA: Ah well, it was only an accident of publicity that I was singled out. The campaign against the Tate was an attack against the Tate collecting contemporary advanced art by artists who did not yet have auction-room reputations. As a result, the Tate then was able to buy a great number of works by artists such as Richard Long and Barry Flanagan, who have since become very well known. So the Tate actually, in 1974 when they made those acquisitions, was getting a bargain! And now I suppose, if the Tate bought at auction, for millions of pounds, works by Barry Flanagan or someone like that, it would be considered to be doing some wonderful work! That whole campaign was nothing but a philistine attack on contemporary art, and it was only an accident that the bricks got chosen. It could have been a Richard Long boulder piece or a Barry Flanagan pile of sand.
WF: It was just ‘a moment’ then, that time?
CA: That I happened to be the one singled out was entirely an accident.
WF: The term used increasingly over the past five years to describe sculpture is ‘site-specific’, and I wondered what you thought about that in relation to your own practice.
CA: I always work on location. I’ve never had a studio. In the beginning I didn’t have a studio because it would have just become a warehouse for the accumulation of my materials. So, for the creation of the work, the site is specific, but for the display of the work, it can be displayed at any other site that has adequate lighting or adequate space to contain it.
WF: are drawings made in order to formulate the positioning and the structuring of the works?
CA: I don’t make drawings for my works at all. I order the material and I go to the site and I do the work. Drawings sometimes are made afterwards by other people in order to aid in the reinstallation of the work. Perhaps it’s a sign of my extreme limitation. I can only work with the material in my hand, in the space where the work is to be made.
WF: We’re now downstairs in the Goodman Gallery. There’s a very strange feeling in this gallery, because it doesn’t have natural light. It’s completely enclosed. Is light an important issue for you?
CA: I remember a time when an exhibition was being discussed with Ad Reinhardt, the wonderful American abstract painter of what ultimately were almost completely black paintings. And Ad Reinhardt wanted to put a white wooden stanchion in front of his painting, because it was subject to a lot of public abuse, fingerprints and stuff like that. And the other nine artists in the show were sculptors, and we were joking with Ad Reinhardt, saying he was trying to become a sculptor, with his protective stanchion, and Ad said ‘Sculpture is what you trip over when you back away from a painting to look at it.’ And I immediately ‘Well, when you turn the lights out, Ad, the painting disappears, but you still trip over the sculpture!’ Well, you could almost say everything’s made of light. But all the materials in the world have different colours, and different chromaticisms, and it has many other properties, too. Just as we say that a painter is a ‘colourist’, I think of myself as a ‘matterist’. I try to deal with the varieties of matter in the way that a good painter deals with varieties of colour.
WF: I’ve heard you relate the horizontality of many of your pieces to your earlier experiences on the railroad, where things are very flat, and also canoeing, when the water’s very flat, and there’s been mention of a kind of opposition to the idea of the ‘endless tower’, the Brancusi work that goes up and up. Is that a fruitful dialectic for you?
CA: Well, Brancusi was a great inspiration for me, and especially the ‘Endless Columns’, because, of course, no endless column is in fact ‘endless’. They are in various sizes. They were meant to be displayed vertically, but Brancusi actually carved them with the timbers in a horizontal position. And my work Last Ladder was cut in the horizontal position, because that’s the easiest way to do it. I just stopped raising my timbers vertically and started using them horizontally. I find that the horizontal extension gives a more efficient disposition of the material.
WF: The material in the pieces in front of us seems to be copper?
CA: Yes, all three are in copper. They are two ‘Cardinals’. There’s Thirty-ninth Copper Cardinal, which is the long three by 13 rectangle, and there’s the five by five Twenty-fifth Copper Cardinal. And there’s a third piece, which is metre-square copper plates, the bases of which are cut at an angle. The three copper pieces are in three different conditions. The ‘Twenty-fifth Copper Cardinal’ obviously has been on display for a long time, and has had a lot of traffic and become the dark, leather-like brown colour of copper when it’s just naturally aged inside. And the Thirty-ninth Copper Cardinal is a mix of fresher-looking copper plates with more weathered copper plates, which makes me think that the people who have been displaying this work have not been displaying all the plates of the work, but have reduced it to a smaller size to fit their space, which is a violation of the work. But that’s why it has a parti-coloured look, and the plates of the slant piece are all pretty much in the same state of weathering, which is between bright and darkening. For me, there’s never an ideal state for my work. There’s not one state, the things of this world are in constant change and so my works change constantly, and that’s something that people have to accept, if they accept my work.
WF: And the piece that is centrally placed, here in this gallery, is a piece of granite?
CA: Those were the blocks that I had cut from the Quincy granite, which still lies around the abandoned quarries. It’s impossible to get the granite cut from the Quincy quarries any more – they’re essentially exhausted, and have been for perhaps 40 years. However, the work was cut in Quincy, and it’s blocks six inches by six inches by 18 inches. And these have a configuration similar to that of Raw Matiere, which I’ve already spoken of, which is a series of lateral blocks that are spaced by pairs of longitudinal blocks – which leaves, again, vacant spaces or cells.
WF: And the final piece in this space is an uncharacteristic work, which is a very thin length of copper that bends according to the curvature of the material, along the wall. Is this an untypical work?
CA: It is indeed. It’s extremely exceptional for my work, because it is in one continuous unit, and my works are always done in particles, except with these very, very few exceptions. And also it’s a work which does not have a self-determined configuration. In other words, this coil of copper can be unwound in many different configurations. But for my birthday last year, in 1995, I returned to this theme, which I haven’t done since 1970, and I did a work in Switzerland, which was a large roll of copper; it was 100 metres of copper, and I unwound it to a coil of about two and a half metres across. So this is a theme that is extremely rare in my work. But the one thing that is absolutely consistent in my work is that the material is the strongest and most evident component.
WF: You mentioned the word ‘particles’, and I remember in the early 1970s we spoke about your exhibition of poems at the Lisson Gallery, and you talked about your use of language in relation to ‘particles of meaning’. And I wonder whether the process of making poems is still part of your overall project?
CA: Oh yes, I still do poems and I still employ words as ‘particles’ of various length. And I am aware that the linguistic part of the brain is a different part from the visual, tactile and spatial parts. But it’s possible to enjoy language visually also. Of course, there’s the great example of Chinese calligraphy, where you have both the linguistic areas and the visual areas of the brain highly stimulated. So I hope that people continue to enjoy poetry, and I hope they continue to enjoy art; but I hope they’ll stop confusing the two!