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."

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia