To the Max

The Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery is currently featuring the compelling show Carl Andre and Melissa Kretschmer, which pairs a handful of Andre's recent sculptures with Kretschmer's hard-edged tar-on-glass paintings. Both artists share basic aesthetic concerns. "We're two modern artists who admire each other's work," says Andre, "and we happen to live together." Andre is, of course, one of America's best-known living artists, hugely famous for his role in the development of New York School minimalism in the 1960s. The movement was one of several formalist and anti-formalist responses to 1950s abstract expressionism. For her part, Kretschmer was still a toddler when Andre became famous. Though she is not as well-known, her bold vision on display at Rule will likely change that.

The Andre and Kretschmer exhibit had been in the planning stages for several years. Gallery director Robin Rule was introduced to Andre by his old friend Mary Obering, a New York-based minimalist with ties to Denver who was herself the subject of a Rule exhibit in 1996. "Mary told me that Robin would be interested in showing my work," recalls Andre. "She visited, and we had a great time. She took on Melissa, too."

About a month ago, Andre and Kretschmer came to Denver to check out the gallery and find local sources for art materials, since each created pieces here in town specifically for the show. Andre came away impressed, both with Rule and with her able assistant, artist Sean Hughes. "I said to them, 'Robin, you're the captain of dreams; Sean, you're the navigator of dreams,'" says Andre.

Andre's maritime analogies may seem pretentious until you recall that his father worked in the ship-building industry in Quincy, Massachusetts, where the artist was born in 1935. As a student at the exclusive and expensive Phillips Academy in Andover, Andre studied art with Patrick and Maud Morgan. But more important to his later successes in the field was his friendship with fellow Phillips student Hollis Frampton, who would go on to become a noted experimental photographer and filmmaker.

Andre left Phillips in 1953 and never attended college. He worked in a factory and then enlisted in the Army in 1955; he was discharged in 1956. By 1958 he was living in New York, where he ran into his old prep-school pal, Frampton, who introduced Andre to another Phillips alum, the future modern master painter Frank Stella. It was in Stella's studio that Andre made his first sculptures. At the time, Andre worked exclusively in wood that was often either charred or scratched.

Soon, however, Andre was making works such as his "Pyramid" of 1960, which was created out of stacks of found wooden timbers. "Pyramid" was the kind of work that would one day establish Andre's worldwide fame. But Andre was years ahead of his time. As a result, outside of a small circle of supporters, his work was ignored or rejected by the powers that be in the art world. His response was to get a job as a brakeman on the Pennsylvania railroad.

Then, in 1964, he got a big break. Stella was now an influential mover and shaker in the art world because of his position as one of the most respected painters of the 1960s. Stella got a re-creation of Andre's "Pyramid" included in the original minimalist exhibit, 8 Young Artists, at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers. This show marked the first time Andre had publicly exhibited his work. The next year, he was invited to participate in a group show at the legendary Tibor de Nagy Gallery in Manhattan. That exhibit, titled Shape and Structure, established minimalism as a major art current, and it is listed among the credits of Henry Geldzahler, the late Metropolitan Museum of Art curator. But Andre points out that the show was "only nominally organized by Geldzahler. It was actually put together by Stella."

Fame, fortune and...controversy followed. And Andre got to quit his job working on the railroad.

Andre's approach to sculpture, which he still embraces today, is to assemble identical ready-made multiples. He has worked in wood, metal and brick. The minimalist aspect of his reductivist work is easy to understand, but there's more to it than that. His use of multiples anticipates mathematically based art. And since his materials are found objects, he also connects up to the dada revival.

Plus, since he views his work as carving up the space around the medium he is using rather than the sculpture itself, he introduces the concept of installation into even the smallest pieces and has thus wound up as an early exponent of the conceptual art movement.

Despite the complicated nexus of art trends contained in Andre's work, its utter simplicity has led many, especially those outside the art world, to question its aesthetic and intellectual value. Take, for example, his brick sculptures of 1966, which were first shown at Tibor de Nagy. Using beige fire bricks, Andre arranged eight islands on the floor. The gallery sent out photos to museums around the world; London's Tate Gallery bought three of them a few years later. "It became front-page news in England--as a scandal," says Andre. "And they were inexpensive, as works of this kind were at the time. Today I'm completely forgotten in England, but mention the bricks and they remember me."

Accusations of charlatanism have long dogged Andre. When he was the subject of an exhibit presented in rental space in LoDo by the Friends of Contemporary Art here in Denver in 1972 (the last time he was in town), a man suggested that the artist was perpetrating a hoax. "He was an ordinary, American philistine male," remembers Andre, "a suit. I turned to him and said, 'I'm sorry, I may be hoaxing myself, but you, sir, have never entered my mind.'"

One of Andre's rare public commissions also stirred controversy. In 1977 he completed "Stonefield Sculpture" in downtown Hartford, Connecticut. The sculpture comprises a few dozen glacial boulders scattered across a grassy hill. "Glacial boulders are New England's only crop," says Andre. At first the sculpture was ridiculed in the local and national press, but today it is a popular--and beloved--gathering place.

However stinging it must have been to be an alleged faker, surely these experiences could not have prepared Andre for the charges he faced in 1985--as an alleged murderer. On September 8, after a loud, drunken row, Andre's wife, Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta, either fell, jumped or was pushed from the 34th-floor window of the apartment the couple shared. In 1988, Andre was tried before a New York judge on two counts of murder in a non-jury trial and acquitted. In life Mendieta was little-known, but in death she has become widely renowned, and her work appears in museums around the world. Today she is regarded as a key figure in the development of feminist art.

The shadow of the tragedy will always be with Andre. As recently as 1997, when he was the subject of a retrospective at New York's Ace Gallery, the feminist action group the Guerrilla Girls issued a poster pairing a photo of Andre with one of O.J. Simpson. The implication was clear: Both got away with murder. Even here, the Denver Art Museum, which hosted a lecture by Andre, increased security measures during his talk. Exhibition organizer Rule herself spent a sleepless night right before the opening reception, fearing demonstrators. But aside from a few complaints, protesters have not appeared, though some regular gallery-goers have been noticeable by their absence. And that's too bad.

The show at Rule starts in the reconfigured entry gallery with the Andre portion. The three Andres, all from the "Aluminum Double Twelver" series, are made of 24 aluminum bricks each. The sculptures, which were assembled on site, are only a few inches high. "People have actually tripped over them," says gallery assistant Hughes. The three pieces were created by Andre in response to the space and led him to create a rare diagonally oriented piece in order to formally accommodate a concrete patch in the otherwise wooden floor. "At first he hated the concrete, then he started to like it. Finally, he felt it made the series work better," says Hughes.

These sculptures recall Andre's brick pieces of the 1960s, such as those that caused all the commotion at the Tate. All three Rule pieces are closely related but distinct from one another. For the first one, Andre has lined up two rows of six aluminum bricks laid end to end, two bricks high. In front is the diagonally placed sculpture, in which Andre has laid out twelve aluminum bricks end to end, two high. Finally, three groups of four, two bricks high. Controversies, scandals and tragedies notwithstanding, as the pieces at Rule reveal, Andre can get the most from the least.

It's that same strategy that characterizes the Kretschmer paintings that fill the main room at Rule and the small space in the back. But don't be misled: Kretschmer may share concepts with her partner, but the results are clearly different.

Kretschmer was already a serious artist when she got together with Andre in 1995, and she was already working with the odd materials seen in her pieces at Rule--roofing tar painted on sheets of glass that have been sealed in silicon. "Prior to my current work, I was making all-black paintings. I discovered roofing tar, which has a much richer color than any oil paint, and I didn't have to mix it like paint. I didn't have to do anything with roofing tar," says Kretschmer.

Born in Santa Monica, California, in 1962, Kretschmer received both her bachelor of fine arts and her master of fine arts at Pasadena's respected Art Center College of Design. In 1990 she moved to New York, where she became a regular at the small, now-closed Julian Pretto Gallery. That's where she met Andre, who also showed there. Since that time, Kretschmer has exhibited her work internationally.

The three monumental paintings at Rule, "Vitrithrust," "Vitricrux" and "Vitriflux," were all made right in the gallery just a week before the show opened. For each piece, Kretschmer has leaned paired stacks of three large sheets of plate glass against the wall. In between each of the three sheets, Kretschmer has made hard-edged geometric images carried out in roofing tar, which has been applied in various thicknesses to the two bottom plates. Sometimes she has painted on the front of the second glass plate, (never on the top plate) and sometimes she has painted on the back. Interestingly, Kretschmer does not use sheets of glass that are the same size. They vary only slightly, just enough to add an unexpected poetic element to the otherwise rational work.

In the back gallery are a group of small Kretschmer pieces quite different from the large paintings, though they are also made from glass and tar. These smaller works deal in optical illusions. Kretschmer puts together several sheets of glass with tar in tight linear patterns caught between them. Since the pieces are many sheets thick, and because Kretschmer has painted different areas on different sheets, the geometric images actually proceed and recede from the surface. In "Frame In/Frame Out," a pair of patterns is placed side by side. It seems to be three-dimensional, but it still has a flat front surface. On the left, the image--a square pyramid--appears to be coming off the surface; on the right, it looks like it is receding into the wall. It's that "most from the least" idea, championed by Andre but uniquely expressed by Kretschmer.

Come to think of it, that's the same thing gallery director Robin Rule has done by presenting a show like this. She's made the most of the least by using her modest storefront gallery across from the Mayan Theater to host an exhibit rivaling those on display at local museums.

Carl Andre and Melissa Kretschmer through July 3 at the Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery, 111 Broadway, 303-777-9473.

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