Carl Andre, austerely minimalist sculptor, is dead at 88

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Carl Andre, austerely minimalist sculptor, is dead at 88
A Carl Andre exhibit at Dia: Beacon in Beacon, N.Y., on May 25, 2014. Carl Andre, one of the most influential and ascetic pioneers of Minimalist sculpture, whose career was overshadowed by the accusation that he played a role in the death of his wife, the Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta, died on Jan. 24, 2024, in Manhattan. He was 88. (Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

by Randy Kennedy

NEW YORK, NY.- Carl Andre, one of the most influential and ascetic pioneers of minimalist sculpture, whose career was overshadowed by the accusation that he played a role in the death of his wife, Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta, died Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 88.

His death, in a hospice facility, was confirmed by Steven Henry, a senior partner with the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, which represented Andre.

Andre helped establish the terms of minimalism, which shifted the focus of art in the 1960s away from the heroic gestures of Abstract Expressionism toward rudimentary forms and industrial materials. He was a practitioner of the movement at perhaps its most austere, working primarily from a limited range of elemental metals along with granite, wood and brick.

Typically employed in the standard forms in which any contractor could order them from a foundry or quarry, the materials were arranged directly on the ground, with a plainness and Pythagorean purity that brought to mind cairns or sacred tessellation.

“I’m not a zealot,” Andre said in a rare interview with The New York Times in 2011. “I’m only a zealot subjectively, for myself. I have found a set of solutions to a set of problems in sculpture, and I work within those parameters. But it is limits that give us possibilities. Without limits nothing really good can be accomplished. I feel I’ve been liberated by them.”

He was best known for his floor pieces — tilelike squares of zinc, copper, steel, aluminum and other metals arranged into larger squares or triangles, meant to be walked on so they could be experienced bodily as well as visually. (However, most museums that own such pieces no longer allow them underfoot for fear of deterioration.) Abjuring any claim to conceptualism, Andre once said of the floor pieces: “There are no ideas hiding under those plates. They’re just plates.”

In 2014, on the occasion of an Andre retrospective at Dia:Beacon in upstate New York, Holland Cotter of the Times wrote that the sweep of Andre’s career revealed him as “an artist-poet of exceptional strength and invention,” as well as unexpected beauty. Richard Serra, his slightly younger and more well-known contemporary, said at the time of the exhibition that Andre’s innovations had fundamentally “changed the history of sculpture.”

For more than two decades, Andre and his work all but disappeared from the American gallery and museum world, for reasons that had nothing to do with art. On Sept. 8, 1985, he was arrested and charged in the death of Mendieta, 36, who plunged from a window of their 34th-floor Greenwich Village apartment after a long night of drinking with her husband, whom she had married eight months earlier.

In a call to 911, Andre said that the two had been arguing and that “she went to the bedroom and I went after her, and she went out the window.” Andre, who was found to have scratches on his nose and forearms, later gave the police a different account of what happened, saying that Mendieta had gone to bed alone and that when he went to the bedroom later, the windows were open and she was missing. His lawyers maintained that she either fell accidentally or died by suicide.

Andre was acquitted of second-degree murder in 1988 in a highly publicized nonjury trial. The case opened a bitter divide in the art world between his friends, among them several prominent art-world women, and supporters of Mendieta, who maintained that the prosecution had been deeply flawed in failing to include evidence that pointed to Andre’s guilt.

At a time when the art world was dominated by white men, her death became a feminist cause, and questions about the power dynamics surrounding the case have reverberated for decades, regaining momentum with the #MeToo movement.

Even before the incident, Andre had been an equivocal participant in the art world. Though he was generally represented by highly established galleries throughout his career, he harbored a profound distrust of the commercial system.

In 1969, in what he called a “reasonable and practical proposal” delivered during the founding of the Art Workers Coalition, a group that agitated for artists’ rights, he urged artists to sever all connections with galleries, stop consenting to be interviewed and cease exhibiting their work, except for friends.

“The art world is a poison in the community of artists and must be removed by obliteration,” he declared. “This happens the instant artists withdraw from it.”

In the end, with misgivings, he remained in that world, continuing to make work even as he himself became a spectral presence. In a 2011 profile in The New Yorker, the writer Calvin Tomkins recounted a chance meeting between Serra and Andre at an art opening. Serra, who had not seen his friend in years, said, “Oh, Carl, I didn’t recognize you.” To which Andre replied: “I’m like Cuba. Nobody recognizes me.”

Carl George Andre was born Sept. 16, 1935, in Quincy, Massachusetts, the youngest of three children. His father, George, who had emigrated from Sweden and taught himself English, became a naval draftsman, specializing in freshwater plumbing for ships; he was also a talented amateur woodworker, and his basement shop became a favorite haunt for Carl, his only son. His mother, Margaret (Johnson) Andre, was an office manager and later focused on managing the family home.

Carl attended the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and briefly attended Kenyon College in Ohio, where he studied poetry with John Crowe Ransom.

His survivors include his fourth wife, Melissa Kretschmer, and a sister, Carol. He lived in lower Manhattan for many decades.

On a trip to England to see an aunt in 1954, Andre visited Stonehenge, an experience he described as pivotal to his decision to become a sculptor. He served a year in the Army and in 1957 moved to New York City, where his circle included avant-garde filmmaker Hollis Frampton and painter Frank Stella, whose reductive stripe paintings on shaped canvases became an early influence.

Andre initially found it so difficult to support himself that he worked as a freight brakeman and conductor on the Pennsylvania Railroad in New Jersey. But after an epiphany that led to his severely simplified forms — work that spurned the theatrics of the plinth and explored the possibilities of horizontal sculptural space in a way few other artists had — galleries began gravitating to his work.

He preferred to call himself not a minimalist but a matterist, because his work emphasized a strict fidelity to materials, an effort to let them express themselves as straightforwardly as possible. “What I wanted,” he once said, “was a sculpture free of human association, a sculpture which would allow matter to speak for itself, something almost Neolithic.”

In 1970, when Andre received his first career survey at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, critic Peter Schjeldahl, writing in the Times, declared him “not much fun,” an artist “whose considerable formal and stylistic intelligence has been dedicated to the virtual elimination of form and style.” But, Schjeldahl said, he nonetheless admired Andre’s search for what seemed to be an irreducible art object, presented “with an aggressive air of completeness and finality, as if each were the only, or anyway the last, work of art in the world.”

The public, especially early on, tended to be baffled by Andre’s brand of rigor. In 1977, he created a major outdoor work in downtown Hartford, Connecticut, “Stone Field Sculpture,” composed of 36 boulders arranged in parallel rows of varying lengths. In an article in the Times that year, a Hartford resident was quoted questioning Andre sharply about the sculpture.

“How can we be sure you’re not putting us on?” the man asked.

Matter-of-factly and with no apparent resentment, Andre replied: “I may be putting myself on. If I’m deceiving you, then I’ve deceived myself. It’s possible.”

The flowing beard and hair that he kept throughout most of his life, coupled with his sometimes caustic intensity, led writers to invoke Rasputin or monasticism in describing Andre. He clung to a working-class ethos, installing all his work himself until he was too old to do so and dressing in an unvarying uniform of blue bib overalls, which he wore even during his trial. (He told Tomkins that the overalls were not an expression of his unorthodox Marxism, as some believed, but simply an accommodation to his ample belly.)

Until the end of his life he continued to live in the modest, sparsely furnished Mercer Street apartment from which Mendieta fell. Sitting in the living room of that apartment during the 2011 Times interview, with the living-room windows opened wide to catch the breeze, he responded only briefly to a question about her death.

“It didn’t change my view of the world or of my work,” he said. “But it changed me, as all tragedy does.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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