Dr Nikita Vanderbyl

Carl Andre in Berlin

Review Carl Andre at the Hamburger Bahnhof-Museum fur Gegenwart

The exhibition is called Sculpture as Place 1958-2010 and is the largest solo exhibition to date of American artist Carl Andre’s oeuvre. For a minimalist artist this exhibition space is firstly ideal, the industrial metal and concrete construction are a harmonious backdrop to the basic materials used by Andre in his various sculptures. Walking through the converted train station it appears this is the most suitable environment to display artworks which challenge the ideas we might have about what constitutes a work of art.

Just as a painter wants to get to the truest expression of colour, line or surface, Andre is concerned with letting the materials speak for themselves. This is conceptual art without a concept, if such a thing is possible. The exhibition is most succinctly summed up by the quote: ‘My work doesn’t mean anything, it’s just the presentation of materials in the clearest form I can make it.’ (2013).

This raises the question of how an artwork can have an absence of meaning – surely the meaning is present in its absence? … Is meaning unavoidable in art? This was all I could think of while walking around this large and intriguing exhibition.

Installation view with floor works.

The exhibition begins in a long hallway, the Historic Hall of the former train station. Arches and skylights rise above four large sculptures on the floor. Each of these demonstrating Andre’s engagement with the essence of materials. They are a good introduction for a review as they hint at the rest of the show. The first is from 1995 – 6-Metal Fugue (For Mendeleev) it resembles a checkerboard of magnesium, aluminium, iron (here: steel) copper, zinc and lead, arranged here according to their position in the periodic system. This is a complex work, relatively speaking from an artist whose output is later characterised by a single material per artwork. Some pieces are just big blocks of wood which have been sourced from industrial sites in his home town of Quincy, Massachusetts. Conceptually complex the sculpture is composed of all the possible combinations that these six elements can fit into forming a large square of 1292 smaller metal squares. Andre compared this to the palette or spectrum of a painter, he said he was the ‘Turner of matter’. However, for a sculptor he returned to specific materials repeatedly, rather than using a palette composed of the entire periodic table of elements.

Moving from the Historic Hall through a subway tunnel (complete with remnant graffiti) the viewer faces a very long hall, renovated from the old dispatch houses in 2004. Here the 300 plus works of the exhibition are displayed. I’m not exaggerating – this hall is long. This space works well to display Andre’s minimalist pieces, the floors are textured concrete and the walls are white, the industrial history of the place is indistinct but striking enough to complement in a way that is seamless and astonishing.

The most significant work in this long section is probably Lever (1966) and consists of a row of 137 firebricks aligned on the floor protruding from the wall. While Andre is interested in the purity and essence of materials he has also worked with pre-fabricated materials which challenges the notion of essences while also being highly reminiscent of the work of Dadaist Marcel Duchamp. Indeed this exhibition includes pieces titled Dadaist Forgeries which reference that art movement. He does not take Duchamp’s seminal invention of the Readymade seriously however, and these pieces are meta-narratives referencing art history, sex and religion. A book of literary criticism with a 3 inch hole drilled through it Cask of Meats (1959) is a jest executed against books.

The accompanying text describes the artist as outspoken in debates about the rights of arts workers against museum and art market policies during this period. In the scope of the exhibition these vitrines are a visual relief from the stark simplicity of beams of wood, concrete blocks, metal tiles and metal shapes on the floor. The curator Lisa Marei Schmidt and assistant curator Veronika Riesenberg have executed a varied and interesting display of five decades of Andre’s work. For an artist who so concerned with truth to materials I was left thinking that it is still impossible to get away from meaning, even if we are left thinking ‘steel is steel, wood is wood etc’ – the arrangements of these objects still elicit some kind of response (boredom, confusion, or more productively memories of growing up is spaces with bare materials for example.)

Simple materials, repeated. The viewer brings their own narrative.

Andre’s work seems more like a thought experiment, working through ideas about representing ideas – ideas specifically about art. In this way it is no different from conceptual art, but aesthetically it is still interested in line, texture, space and the encounter with the viewer.  

The importance of the medium for the artist is unavoidable and this meaning is communicated to the audience in spite of his statement that they are meaningless. To use Turner as a point of reference once more, the paint itself becomes as important as the subject depicted. Andre is tries only to be interested in the paint, i.e. the wood or the concrete. But he undoes this at points when he configures wood into interesting shapes and repeating forms – proving that there is more to the artwork than simply presenting the raw material as is. He undoes this even more when he sources the wood from his home town – obviously a place rich in memory and meaning.

Meaninglessness is an integral part of concept art. Andre did not say his work was without concept, as this seems highly impossible in years following the Readymade, what I was left wondering was – how did he reconcile the properties of the materials with their unavoidable associations?

One thing I can say for certain about exhibitions such as this one: the simplest materials often give rise to the most varied and expanding explanations. There is plenty of grist for the critic in this show, five decades is a suitable length of time to explore the artist’s practice. Andre’s poetry, for example, seeks to sculpt words in ways similar to concrete blocks – the results are more obscure than the sculptures. Or his floor works which the viewer is allowed to walk on but not touch – I walked tentatively but couldn’t escape the feeling that the tiles were too fragile or that I shouldn’t be standing on them. Or Andre’s colour photocopies which explore images and text of the 60s and include political overtones and juxtaposition – demonstrative of a newly developing technology.  Or even his photographs collected in the book Quincy (1973) which document his home town in Massachusetts. After all this though, the scale and minimalist sculptures stood out against the other works as the strongest and most thought provoking. In spite of his intentions, or exactly because of them, the viewer ends up engaging with things meant to be meaningless. The meaning of a search for sculpture without meaning seeps into everything. It did for me.

The Hamburger Bahnhof architecture contributes much to the way we interpret the artworks.

Carl Andrew at the Hamburger Bahnhof continues until 18 September 2016