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Seeing beauty in basics

Times Staff Writer

“I have one great talent,” says sculptor Carl Andre. “That is choosing great materials and getting out of the way.”

For his show at Ace Gallery Beverly Hills, he chose zinc, ordered a load of 16 by 16 by 1/4 -inch plates and placed 439 of them on the concrete floor. The resulting nine squares and five jagged corner pieces fill great chunks of floor space in the cavernous central gallery and four adjacent rooms. Whether visitors enter the exhibition by the front or back door, they follow a progression of works arranged in graduated sizes, from small to large to small.

That’s it. Nothing on the walls. No explanation beyond the short text in the exhibition flier. Just vintage Andre. In a variation on a theme he has explored for more than 40 years, the classical Minimalist seeks elegance in the basics: industrial material, straight lines, right angles, modular units.

At 72, with a round face and a gray fringe of beard, Andre is just about the last of a breed. With artists such as the late Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd and Dan Flavin, he shaped the austere, tough-minded movement known as Minimalism. Partly a reaction to the emotional excess of Abstract Expressionism, it grew into an enormously influential aesthetic force that continues to reverberate. The movement produced much more than Spartan geometry, as viewers saw in “A Minimal Future? Art as Object 1958-1968,” a landmark exhibition at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art in 2004. Andre was part of its hard core.

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He still is.

Dressed in overalls, as usual, he refuses to be photographed. “I have a horror of seeing my own image,” he says. “I had a Swedish grandmother who used to say, ‘When you look in the mirror, you see the devil.’ ” He agrees to an interview at the gallery, though, and settles into a wide-ranging conversation.

“Industrial materials are my palette,” Andre says. And he has dealt with a great variety, including aluminum ingots, red cedar blocks, steel plates, molded plastic angles and fire bricks. The silvery zinc was his choice for Los Angeles because, he says, “I hadn’t used it much lately.”

As for “getting out of the way,” he doesn’t fuss with his materials, which are cut to order. “We speak of some painters as being great colorists,” he says. “I’m not saying I’m great, but I’m a matterist. That’s entirely what I’m interested in, the property of materials and just not interfering with those properties. A lot of people will take a metal plate and bend it or polish it. That horrifies me.”

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In an age when vast warehouse-like workshops are emblems of artists’ success, Andre doesn’t have a studio. Most of his works are housed in museums or private collections and his dealers store the rest, along with materials in waiting. “I’m like a cuckoo,” he says. “I lay my eggs in other people’s nests.”

A self-proclaimed “mathematical dunce,” he insists that he doesn’t do much thinking about his work either, unless he sees something lying in the street that sets off his scavenging instinct. But artless as his works may appear, they don’t fall into place accidentally. A voracious reader of history and a poet as well as a sculptor, he has honed a logical body of work that expresses his intellectual concerns and his gritty aesthetic.

“I know some Minimalists hate the term,” he says. “Judd hated it. I didn’t mind because I always felt there is as little of me in my work as possible. In that way it’s Minimal.”

Andre tracks his life in art to his birthplace, Quincy, Mass., where his father was a craftsman in the shipyard and a tinkerer in his basement workshop.

“He was fascinated with materials,” Andre says. “In the poor part of Quincy there were several junk shops where people scavenged stuff. I used to go with him on Saturday afternoons when he prowled through the shops. There were also all kinds of metals at the shipyard and sometimes my father would meet a friendly machinist who would give him a copper plate or something.”

Andre moved to New York in 1957, after studying at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., traveling to England and doing a hitch in the U.S. Army. He wrote poetry and began making drawings and sculpture. Before long, he moved into a fifth-floor, walk-up apartment with two young artists and met Frank Stella, a painter on the rise who offered him a part-time work space.

“I was carving like Brancusi, my master,” Andre says of Constantin Brancusi, a Romanian Modernist. “Frank said I could carve in his studio when he wasn’t there. But he told me that if he found me painting in his studio, he would cut off my hands. He is Sicilian, so I had to take him seriously. I said, ‘Well, couldn’t I be a good painter?’ He said, ‘Yeah, but you are a good sculptor now.’ He was absolutely right. I never would have made a go of it as a painter. I just didn’t have that mentality.”

Sculptors, Andre says, “are considered to be oafs -- too stupid to make paintings,” but sculpture was right for him. And in 1965, after working for four years in New Jersey as a brakeman and conductor on the Pennsylvania Railroad, he made a breakthrough that has sustained him to this day.

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“The railroad was a great mine of materials,” he says. “These endless cars of scrap metal would go through and a lot of it would fall off the trains. I could also do what we called ‘night requisitioning.’ It was a great source of materials, and all free.

“The floor pieces started while I was working on the railroad because I could get plates and the only sensible thing to do with them, as far as I could see, was to put them on the floor. It wasn’t a eureka moment.” But it changed the way he thought about art. “Because I worked with freight cars and diesel engines that weighed many tons, I was never tempted by monumentality,” he says. “I got that out of my system.”

With a tome-like resume of exhibitions, Andre considers himself extraordinarily fortunate to have been affiliated with “not necessarily the most famous, but the best galleries” since the 1960s, including Tibor de Nagy and Paula Cooper in New York, Virginia Dwan in Los Angeles and New York, and Ace in Vancouver and Los Angeles.

There’s a dark chapter that he doesn’t discuss -- a three-year period, 1985 to 1988, when he was indicted and finally acquitted of the murder of his wife, artist Ana Mendieta, who fell, jumped or was pushed out a window of their 34th-story apartment in New York.

The widely publicized legal proceedings sharply divided the art world and what actually happened remains a mystery. He is now married to painter Melissa Kretschmer, whose work is on view on the second floor at Ace. And an international traveling retrospective of his work is being planned.

“I’ve been so lucky,” he says. “I look back now and it was like a series of pots of gold at the end of the rainbow. But you know why that was true? Because that was the early ‘60s. Art hadn’t come into fashion. The only people involved in the art world loved art. It is so different now. Art is a form of social climbing. There was a very small, very tight-knit community back then. There was no money, but you didn’t need much.”

suzanne.muchnic@latimes.com

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Carl Andre ‘Zinc’

Where: Ace Gallery Beverly Hills, 9430 Wilshire Blvd.

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays

Ends: Feb. 16

Price: Free

Contact: (310) 858-9090 or www.ace gallery.net


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