‘Art is the exclusion of the unnecessary’: Minimalist Carl Andre dies at 88

Last Wednesday, sculptor Carl Andre — one of 13 artists included in the permanent collection of the Chinati Foundation in Marfa — passed away at 88 years old. The artist was famous throughout his life for his use of conventional objects in unconventional forms — and infamous for the allegation that he murdered his wife, Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta. 

NEW YORK CITY — Last Wednesday, sculptor Carl Andre — one of 13 artists included in the permanent collection of the Chinati Foundation in Marfa — passed away at 88 years old. The artist was famous throughout his life for his use of conventional objects in unconventional forms — and infamous for the allegation that he murdered his wife, Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta. 

Andre was born on September 16, 1935, in Quincy, Massachusetts. He studied at the elite Phillips Academy, where he became friends with painter Frank Stella — the first of many relationships that would go on to transform the modern art world. 

The artist’s first publicly-displayed sculptures were made out of wood. In 1965, Andre was given his first solo exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York, where he showed a complex geometric form made out of styrofoam. He returned to the gallery the next year to display sculptures made out of sand-lime bricks — which would attract recognition and controversy over the next few decades. 

In 1965 — as the story goes — Andre went canoeing on a lake in New Hampshire and had the revelation that his work should be “as level as water.” Rather than building sculptures vertically, he began to think horizontally. He began a series of works called Equivalent, in which eight different groupings of 120 bricks were sorted and stacked in different arrangements. 

Around this time, Andre met and started showing work alongside Donald Judd, who was also attracting attention and consternation for his “stacks” — wall-mounted boxes made out of material like galvanized iron and plexiglass. The two would continue corresponding for the rest of Judd’s life and are frequently referred to as founding “minimalists,” though they rejected the term. 

To call Judd’s stacks or Andre’s Equivalent I-VIII “sculpture” was revolutionary at the time. In a departure with thousands of years of classical tradition, they were making work that was not a single piece of material molded or whittled into another form. 

Instead, Andre’s work was generated by arranging materials directly onto the ground, resulting in low-lying, horizontal works that invited the viewer to look over, step between and otherwise interact with negative space absent from traditional sculpture. “Art is the exclusion of the unnecessary,” he once quipped.

Through his Equivalent series, Andre began to explore his idea of “sculpture as place”: he insisted on installing his own works by hand, customizing each piece’s proportions to their new venue. While he insisted on personally placing work in gallery spaces, the pieces are designed so that anyone can take them apart for transport. 

Not everyone was a fan of Andre’s brick works. In 1976, a photograph of Equivalent VIII in a write-up about the sculpture’s addition to the Tate collection in London sparked a public outcry — many people felt that taxpayer money should not be spent on a rectangular stack of bricks. In protest, a vandal splattered the piece with blue food dye. (The piece has since been cleaned and is on view at the Tate Modern.)

Andre was also deeply interested in literature, and published hundreds of poems in keeping with the concrete poetry movement of the early 1960s. In concrete poetry, the visual appearance of the words on the page is just as important as the words chosen by the author. “These poems are not meant to be read in a book but seen, like art on display,” former Chinati Foundation Associate Director Rob Weiner wrote in an essay. 

His poetry follows a similar logic to his visual artwork: in An Absolution for the Names of Words, Andre rearranged individual words on the front page of the New York Times the day after the assassination of John F. Kennedy to reflect the frequency with which each word was used. 

Nearly 500 pages of Andre’s poetry have a permanent home at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa. Two years after Judd admired an exhibition of Andre’s work at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, Andre sent pages of poems — both handwritten and composed with a manual typewriter — to Marfa, a selection of which can be seen as part of a full collection tour. 

In 1979, Andre met his future third wife, Ana Mendieta. At the time, Mendieta — a Cuban American sculptor and performance artist — was at the Artists in Residence Gallery in New York, the first all-female cooperative gallery in the United States.

While Andre’s work focused on raw materials and objects, Mendieta’s work was deeply embodied. In 1973, while studying at the University of Iowa, fellow student Sarah Ann Ottens was sexually assaulted and beaten to death in her dorm room. The event politically radicalized Mendieta, whose sculpture and performance work repeatedly referenced violence, blood and the female form. 

Mendieta is perhaps most famous for her Silueta series, in which the artist’s outline is traced in natural settings with a wide variety of materials — blood, rocks, fire, flowers. 

On September 8, 1985, Carl Andre’s public reputation would change forever when police arrived at Andre’s apartment in Greenwich Village. “My wife is an artist and I am an artist and we had a quarrel about the fact that I was more, eh, exposed to the public than she was,” he told dispatch. “She went to the bedroom and I went after her and she went out of the window.”

Andre was arrested and tried for her murder. In 1988, he was acquitted by a judge — but the nearly three years of legal proceedings had torn the art world into two camps. 

Andre retained a few old friends and art world allies. He would continue to show works alongside Donald Judd: in 1986, he installed a work called Manifest Destiny at Judd’s residence in New York, composed of a stack of his signature bricks stamped with the word “empire.” 

Andre’s exhibition of poetry was installed at the Chinati Foundation in 1995, and a special show of his work was curated by then Director Emerita Marianne Stockebrand in 2010. To correspond with the show, Andre installed a permanent work called Chinati Thirteener, hot rolled steel plates arranged in the courtyard of the foundation’s temporary gallery. 

An obituary for the artist penned by Paula Cooper Gallery — which represented the artist for 60 years — was the first to confirm the artist’s passing. “Carl Andre redefined the parameters of sculpture and poetry through his use of unaltered industrial materials and innovative approach to language,” it reads. “He created over two thousand sculptures and an equal number of poems throughout his almost seventy-year career, guided by a commitment to pure matter in lucid geometric arrangements.”