LYNN NEARY, HOST:
Carl Andre has been called one of the fathers of minimalism and one of the greatest living sculptors. But he was also vilified after he was charged with second- degree murder in the 1985 death of his wife. He was eventually acquitted. Now the Dia Art Foundation in Beacon, New York has launched the first major retrospective of Carl Andre's work in the United States in more than 30 years. Karen Michel reports.
KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: It's almost as if Carl Andre became a serious sculptor by accident. In the late 1950s, new to New York City, he was sharing a studio with a noted painter Frank Stella, who forbade Andre to paint.
CARL ANDRE: There'd be scraps of canvas around and I would be daubing on the canvas. And one day, Frank came in and said if I catch you painting again, I'm going to cut off your hands. And I said, well, couldn't I be a good painter? He said no. And I said why? He said because you're a good sculptor now.
MICHEL: Stella was also accidentally responsible for Andre's subsequent approach to sculpture.
ANDRE: One day I was - I had been carving on a beam on one side. And Frank came in and he looked at it, and he says that's really good. And then he ran his hand down on the uncarved back of it. And he said, you know, that's sculpture too. And I thought about that, and then I realized, why should I carve into the block? I don't want to cut into the block, henceforth the block will be my cut. And I will combine blocks, not carve into them.
MICHEL: As origin stories often go, this one was based on a misunderstanding. Stella meant that Andre should carve the back of the block, too. Instead, what Andre did that was so different was to stop. Stop carving, marking, sawing, welding the material, altering at all and to simply arrange materials directly on the floor or ground. This may not sound like much, but it was a big deal. Gallerist Paula Cooper has been working with Andre, showing his work, for more than 30 years.
PAULA COOPER: His work is still more radical than anyone's, I think. The whole concept of his work and the physicality and the materials that he uses, it's almost like an elegy to industrial America.
MICHEL: One of Carl Andre's most important works is titled "Lever." First shown in the Jewish Museum in New York City in 1966, it's composed of 137 fire bricks in a line on the floor. Yasmil Raymond co-curated the Dia retrospective.
YASMIL RAYMOND: The only rule is to begin with one against the wall and then make a progression until it's finished. And there's no order. There's also nothing keeping them together. That means that when the exhibition ends, the sculpture can be dismantled without the need of making an enormous crate. You can pack it all very compact. But it does have to (laughing) - it does have to be this brick.
MICHEL: In part, this ease of assembly and disassembly is because Andre didn't have his own studio. He calls himself the first post-studio artist. In Dia's large galleries, work from the 1960s is placed near work from 50 years later. A staggered arrangement of wood blocks stands next to a single 12-by-12-by-36-inch block. Clumps of triangular aluminum ingots sit near a serpentine ribbon of tin. The assemblies are often large, but the individual pieces are not.
ANDRE: Well, I've never been a person of great physical strength. So that's why my sculptures are in parts because I couldn't move the big things, but I could, if they were in smaller blocks - I could move them. I was somewhere between 90 and 125 pounds. And that happened to be the weight range of the young ladies I was attracted to (laughing). I suppose there's a connection.
MICHEL: That's also the size of Andre's late wife, the Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta. One evening in September, 1985, Mendieta fell to her death from the window of the couple's 34th floor apartment. There were reports of an argument, and Andre was charged with second-degree murder. Andre was eventually acquitted. Mendieta's death is a part of his life that Andre doesn't want to talk about, even as he sits in the same apartment nearly 30 years later.
ANDRE: What can one say? What relationship does the story of an artist's life have to do with the work that they did?
MICHEL: That's a bit disingenuous. Andre cites other events and influences from his past - a visit to Stonehenge in his childhood in Quincy, Massachusetts. He did talk about how he didn't want to be involved with the Dia retrospective at first, how he slowly started coming around, and how he's pleased with the result and where life has taken him.
ANDRE: I am - I'm a lucky man.
MICHEL: In the basement at Dia, where the retrospective continues, there's a scrap of blue and white lined fabric with a typewritten sentence - the work of the artist is to turn dreams into responsibilities. For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel.
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