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There is nothing simple about Carl Andre. It may look simple: rows of bricks or pieces of timber arranged on the floor. Yet, the artist's work was key to redefining sculpture in the 1960s: eliminating the pedestal, refined materials or references to the human figure. Minimalism today may be standard decor in any mid-range hotel chain but when Andre laid a group of metal squares on the floor of a gallery, where viewers were told to walk on them, the effect was far from simple.

Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958-2010 is the first survey of the artist's entire body of work. It was co-curated by MOCA director Philippe Vergne with Yasmil Raymond in 2014 when he was director of Dia:Beacon in Hudson Valley, N.Y. After a tour of European museums, the show is impeccably installed here at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, where the curator is Bennett Simpson.

AndreInstall006-BrianForest.jpg
Installation view of Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958–2010
at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA,
Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
Photo by Brian Forrest

This overview of work by Andre gathered in one location made a big impression upon me when I saw it at Dia:. Like MOCA, that space is a renovated warehouse but the vast and roughly finished nature of those spaces diluted somewhat the impact. Though the Geffen is also immense, there is a greater sense of compression to the show revealing a greater coherence to Andre's intentions.

AndreInstall009-BrianForest.jpg
Installation view of Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958–2010
at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA,
Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
Photo by Brian Forrest

You might wonder how there could be any such an effect when the artist is using only blocks of wood or squares of metal. That is the poetry of the enterprise. Bringing sculpture down to ground level, literally, Andre allows the eye to absorb the qualities of humble materials, the spaces around the forms and opens the psyche to an experience not definable outside of the experience itself. Andre came of age in an era of great Minimalists: Donald Judd, Sol Lewitt, Dan Flavin, Richard Serra, Robert Morris, and, on the West Coast, Robert Irwin, Doug Wheeler, Larry Bell. But even in that exalted company, Andre's work offers astringency and feeling. My pulse actually quickened when I looked down on a long, rectangular grid of metal plates subtly changing color with the light filtering through the skylights.

AndreInstall014-BrianForest.jpg
Installation view of Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958–2010
at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA,
Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
Photo by Brian Forrest

If you saw a single work by Andre, as you are bound to do in any major museum, you might think of the artist as emotionally chilly. A section of the exhibition dedicated to the artist's ephemera reveals an Andre who read literature, who typed his own concrete poems, who sent bawdy mail art to critic Phyllis Tuchman, dealer Virginia Dwan and others and who made funny forgeries of famous Dada sculptures. They add a humanizing perspective to the intellectual quests of the artist.

Andre, born in Quincy, Mass. in 1935, studied art at Phillips Academy in Andover, where he met Frank Stella and Hollis Frampton. All three became artists and Andre shared a studio with Stella in New York from 1958 to 1960.

AndreInstall027-BrianForest.jpg
Installation view of Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958–2010
at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA,
Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
Photo by Brian Forrest

From 1960 to 1964, he earned his living working on the Pennsylvania Railroad as a brakeman and conductor. When he returned to sculpture, that work influenced his choice of industrial materials, modular arrangements and sense of scale. It also affected his politics as he embraced a Marxist outlook and working class sympathies. (He has continued to wear the denim overalls of a laborer as his uniform.) His work was featured in the historic 1966 Primary Structures show at the Jewish Museum in New York but it was truly embraced by institutions in Europe. Instead of shipping pre-made sculpture, he produced exhibitions on site using industrial materials that could be easily obtained in towns around Germany, Italy, the Netherlands. The works, made with ordinary elements of wood, metal or bricks, were unique to a specific space.

AndreInstall043-BrianForest.jpg
Installation view of Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958–2010
at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA,
Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
Photo by Brian Forrest

Andre's considerable reputation fell under a shadow after his wife, Cuban performance artist Ana Mendieta, fell to her death from their loft window in 1985. Andre was never found guilty of any charges associated with her death but the incident affected both his ability to make art and the willingness of institutions to exhibit it.

Controversy over the incident continues. Vergne spent most of a decade trying to arrange the Andre survey and finding museums willing to take it. He deserves credit for that determination and for supporting the life's work of this influential artist, whose sculpture still asks what it means to be authentic and original and present. The answers are not simple. The exhibition is on view to July 24.

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