Carl Andre's latest show was too good to be true. This was Minimalism as fine sculpture—or at least designer furniture. Its purity would outlast the passing tastes of a multimedia age, much less another weekend in Soho. The handsome, polished surfaces proclaimed no less, or did they?
On a closer look, one can start to see why performance art and Minimalism grew up together. Both put the artist as actor right in the space. Both celebrate chaos while tormenting the viewer with blankness and boredom. Both challenge the community to a game, and the artist refuses to be the first to quit. And yet the community may find at last a gesture of welcome.
Entering, I faced only the bare walls. At my feet, two broad paths curved slowly toward the far corners. I mistook their smooth, off-white paving for marble, but the actual cedar planks were hardly less refined. They touched at one corner, angled apart precisely to remap the room.
Clearly I was mistaken, too, in thinking of paths. A sign by the door forbid me to touch, let alone leave a footprint. For three decades, Carl Andre has made plain materials laid flat to the ground into his signature, and this time no one was going to efface it. He might as well have set his literal mark on woven paper, to be preserved behind glass. The alleged participatory art of the 1990s and "relational esthetics" may seem far away.
Careful not to nudge the curves one inch aside, I walked hesitantly forward. The floor narrowed uncomfortably beneath me. Only another visitor stood between me and a dead end. As I looked at him and back at the door, I knew I stuck out.
A safer part of the floor lay maybe a yard away. I considered jumping, but I might not make it, so I retraced my steps to the gallery entrance. When I finally reached the opposite wall and the gallery's back room, I doubted it had been worth the detour. The phrase "walking the plank" started to sound all too pointed.
Postmodernism has insisted on seeing Minimalism, like my movements that Saturday, as a dead end. Critics and artists alike have called it the ultimate failure of the high-art tradition. Its refusal of imagery ended a long chain of formalist nightmares.
In the modernist insistence on materials, artists and critics alike have seen a reductive arrogance. They note the signature of the creative genius, the artist's insistent control over the viewer's experience. Feminist critics know, too, that "he" is almost always the right pronoun. To add injury to mythic insult, Andre may have caused his wife's death. Yet as I leaned gingerly over the hard wood he had so lovingly prepared, I thought how different—how unpretentious—Minimalism once seemed, like a model for the subversive everyday art of a Neo-Minimalism today.
From the first drawings scrawled on cave walls like graffiti, art has shouted, pleaded, seduced, and cajoled: "Look at me." Often it served kings and churches. Increasingly it had to please new wealth—or the artist alone. Either way, it said, "I control what goes through your head."
All that changed with the 1960s. It was time for artists and patrons to stand aside so that others could take a look around. Now there was world enough and time to enter the experience of what one sees, and what you saw was what you got. With Tony Smith in sculpture or with Minimalism, even seemingly prefabricated art turned from the denotation of oil painting to the connotation of the everyday.
This art was perplexingly open. Physically it sat there, neither lost nor at home, amid a space it did not create and could not hope to define. Metaphorically it was open, because part of the delight was no longer being sure where the art lay. For Alberto Giacometti, the stranger and more frightening it looked, the less it stood out in the banal reality of an artist's studio.
Was Dan Flavin's work those intense fluorescent tubes, which seemed to dissolve before one's eyes if one stared too hard? Was it the illusion of colored light drawing on air? Or was it the physical and cultural reality of the installation? The viewer had to look at what makes a gallery into "the art world." Hermetic form had turned out to rely on what lay outside.
Minimalism was open, too, because of the masculine bombast it refused. Andre's bricks and plates lay strewn on the ground. Couldn't he get it up? Barnett Newman, whose joke that is, had called a painting Vir Heroicus Sublimus—man the sublime hero. Abstract Expressionism's epic struggles and sober meditation may as well have been centuries ago.
Was this art of the museum? Sometimes the work still found its way into an institution screaming, "Do Not Touch!!" Yet here was art I could walk on. Try using Duchamp's urinal, if Dada seems any less dogmatic. More than once I had moved Andre's plates back in position with my own hands. Someone else, just as casually, must have accidentally kicked them out of the way. Nothing could feel more "unmonumental."
No wonder I felt compelled to help disseminate my experience. Objects had been made to the scale of my movements. Amid a corporate culture of bricks, plates, and neon tubes, one felt an implicit dissent, a direct connection to transience and mortality. Connections to bodily form could lie in the materials as well. Before her death of brain cancer, Eva Hesse worked with pliant, anonymous fabric. It seemed to emerge from the troubled background of a dream, only it could be touched.
Hesse foretold the 1980s and 1990s, both neo-Dada and feminist uses of the decorative arts. Older art had celebrated subjectivity, while the art object used images from nature. But who was the artist to impose a brushstroke, drip, or hand print? Hesse took the body as objectified and the art as embodied. Along with Andre, not to mention Flavin and others, she made art into an extension of everybody.
Memory is always an idealization—even memories of the tangible and literal. My admiration of Andre's early production collided head-on with his newest show, and something had to give. In Minimalism's first years, art began to breathe. Had its breath finally become short? Andre once played with the very idea of an art institution. Now he had become one, and he may well be proud of it.
No rebel should be denied a few small victories here and there. Then, too, no audience should be denied its share of anger. In the light of the repressive present, how can Minimalism look subtle? In a sometimes forgotten Minimalist, Jene Highstein, it frankly does not, and Richard Serra, for one, delights openly in that aggression. Yes, his massed steel curves to caress space, returning deadening city plazas to the community of the artist and viewer. It is imposing nonetheless.
A little while ago, of course, Serra's tall sheets of steel raised a protest from ordinary workers in lower Manhattan. Andre's show, I started to fear, could well be his vertically challenged "titled arc." And then I thought once again of the perplexity and fragility of the human body. I imagined the artist as maker, sharing my own movements through a sometimes hostile world.
Andre's literalism remains a literalism of gesture. His prefabricated shapes refuse to suggest a creative gesture or a cultural icon such as a soup can, but they welcome a real, productive gesture. It is not the gesture of an eighteenth-century actor, in what Michael Fried derived as Minimalism's theater. I do not mean simply to turn his account around, but seeing it in a positive light. I saw now that Andre's triumph was not in eliminating his presence. Rather, it meant his entering the work as one more actor among many.
Art never can eliminate metaphor. It can only allow light, space, openness, and form to be appreciated as the metaphors they really are. The gesture in Minimalism could be the spectator's, reaching for a reflection in a mute, glass prism. It could be the artist's, as in the histrionics of Joseph Beuys, Sigmar Polke, and Bruce Nauman.
The creative search for nuance and control remained, but it came with a steep price. It put the artist's obsessions on a par with the viewer's. Rather than a solitary genius, the artist was co-producer of a public commodity. Once at least, the price included the artist's life.
Perhaps the single finest work of its time, Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, caught its vitality from natural processes. Its gentle reds were the algae that collected in its turns. After three decades it continues to rise into view and fall below the brackish water, and it runs the risk of becoming lost forever, as did Smithson himself. His very life became subject to the whims of the site, where he died in a helicopter crash. Today we most often encounter Spiral Jetty in a performance video, of Smithson happily shuttling back and forth along its contours.
Andre, too, has always been a performer without stage or curtain, almost as much in fact as Chris Burden. He bows for admiration, while he subverts the distinction between actor and audience. He restructures the world, while he refuses a privileged place within it. By comparison, a seemingly similar floor piece, cast tiles by Rachel Whiteread, comes with the gallery's firm "do not touch."
Perhaps Minimalism had never been as unpretentious as I once imagined. Conversely, the artist was never as detached and invulnerable as critics now pretend. I believe I was right to see this year's show as far from Andre's best, but one has to face the challenge of its heritage. Andre had always made demands, while the public could always talk back and reflect on the encounter. His new installation was little different, except that it had to accommodate more visitors.
Recall that man who stood between me and a dead end. He was really quite at ease, his back arched comfortably against the wall. Something made me too want to hang around. As I at last turned to go, he reached out his arm to welcome his girlfriend.