‘Mönchengladbacher Square’ By Carl Andre. 1968.
Carl Andre produced this work in 1968 for the Abteiberg Gallery in Mönchengladbach. He is known for what modern critics term ‘minimalism,’ that is to say, he has reduced everything to its bare essentials in the way Malevich did. The problem for Carl Andre was that, like Malevich sixty five years before him, he sees squares as the end point of minimalism. I have dealt with this argument in my post about Malevich, and is there, should you wish to read it (1).
To many, minimalism is pleasing; but it pleases for the wrong reasons. Reasons that I will explore in this post. Along with one or two other issues that Andre unknowingly points to.
Now, in the past, I have nailed my colours to the mast on several occasions, stating that art has to be new and original. In the late sixties everything was steel, concrete and above all, rectangular. Bringing these concepts into the realm of art would have been original in 1903; in 1968 it was old hat.
But that’s not the point of this post.
Because Carl Andre is trying to tell us something else. Indeed, as with all modern art, it’s hardly likely that he was even aware of doing so. Still, it’s there for all to see – just like the subconscious acts we perform without our knowing. The abstract world has arisen through this phenomenon, since the first things we will witness in revealing our subconscious actions are those that are the easiest to see. That is to say, things that are nasty. That is the challenge of the subconscious in our modern age.
It is the challenge of the abstract.
Because the nice things go unnoticed. That is an even greater danger in our modern world.
As Paul Klee, a modern artist himself, said, “The more horrifying the world, the more abstract becomes the art. A happy world, on the other hand, brings forth an art of the here and now.”
Now you know why this is. People are repelled by seeing their own subconscious revealed in the expressions of others. No wonder that people prefer to remain expressionless! Both in their facial expression and the things they say. No wonder then, that people prefer to regurgitate the stuff they see around them as art, rather than make a truly creative response to it.
Because squares like this one are hardly original. Laying steel squares on the floor of an art gallery is provocative, but no more provocative than using bathroom tiles to pave a city street. The weak ceramic tile is not fit for purpose in a city street, the steel square is not fit for purpose in a gallery. What we need in our day and age is an art that points to this, can awaken people’s awareness but without challenging them.
Well, of course, that is not how it works, is it?
You cannot awaken a person without them having to first become aware of the horrors that live within them. Far easier to tell others that they are horrible, as Milena did (2). The times for that were ripe in Rudolf Steiner’s day and age. Today it has died.
Thus modern art stands, and gatherings of the uninformed and unwilling to be informed will happily ask an artist like Carl Andre to make something pretty.
And, of course, pretty harmless.
In our day and age, you simply cannot offend. I learned that from the august moderators of the Anthroposophical Group on Facebook, who disliked me for precisely the same reasons that Milena did. I warn you: anything you do to stir awareness in another will result in them being offended. And I mean anything. The only answer is to let them rot in peace. They won’t know the difference because they are simply incapable of beholding it.
Conversation Through Art.
I guarantee you Carl Andre will be a poor conversationalist.
Look at it from this point of view: what is he trying to say with his art?
I’ll leave you to guess, shall I?
Because art that has nothing to say is made by people who are too fearful to risk offending those around them. Oh, but you say that this was a provocative act. Sure it was, in the way the Steiff factory near Stuttgart was provocative in 1903 (3). Today, that factory is provocative not because it looks like practically every cheaply built office block on the planet, but for the simple reason that it was thirty years ahead of its time.
Carl Andre’s square lost its provocation after a few months or a few years. If it ever had any, that is. Tom Thomson he was not (4). For all its rough edges and scrappy brushwork, Tom Thomson’s art has stood the test of time. Carl Andre’s will only have rusted a little more. Thomson painted because he got real pleasure from it: he wasn’t trying to shock, he was merely painting in the only way he could. It also gave him huge delight to first enjoy the beauty of the Canadian wilderness, but also to share it on canvas. And believe me, share it he did: look at his work ‘Maple Wood In Winter’ and you will hear the birds sing. I guarantee that if you have a soul, Thomson will speak to you.
When you look at Mönchengladbacher Quadrat, all you can hear is the distant traffic on Mönchengladbach’s ring road.
A Silent Spring Is Preceded By Silent Art.
Carl Andre’s work is silent; it has nothing to say that hasn’t been said a hundred, a thousand times before. And, what with our world being that which looks to facts, quotations – that is to say, the past – where else can our artists look but to the past?
But the past cannot speak.
It can only speak to those who can already listen, it cannot speak to those who have already abstracted themselves. Those who produce this kind of art will have made a choice to refrain from speaking.
Put better, refrain from offending.
A Closer Look At The Square.
Carl Andre’s work is comprised of a hundred steel plates that are formed into squares, and as a whole, form another. So why did Carl Andre choose squares in the first place? Well, firstly, they’re everywhere in our world: I described how this came about in my recent post about perspective (5). What’s more, Carl Andre swallowed this, hook, line and sinker. The real point is that he was not aware of this. He grew up in a world where the rectangular office block was seen as new, and thus his art reflected this. He could see nothing else. For him, like Malevich, the square was a primal form.
The quality of ‘fourness’ is primal, there is nothing else that can be four without this essential quality. Thus the square is but one expression of this, just as a four legged table is. Remove one of those legs and the table becomes unstable: squareness is a metaphor for stability. Only stability, for all its metaphorical qualities, is not primal.
Yet for all their regularity, the squares of steel are unique. They have the veneer of uniformity that a person can endow them with – but it is an error of the first order to imagine that uniformity is something that exists in nature. Nothing in nature ever happens twice: only in death is there uniformity. Creation and destruction are worlds apart, as Goethe knew.
So here we have a creative person who is working to achieve its opposite: the expressionless, so-called minimalist art. A contradiction in terms. But that’s what modern art is all about: not expressing yourself. Or to do so in a way that is repetitive and habit forming. In an upcoming post I will be looking at this need for expressionlessness from a scientific perspective.
Because true science, like true art, deals with reality and not the veneer of illusion we create to hide the gory details of our own subconscious. Not for nothing did Paul Klee say:
“The more horrifying the world, the more abstract becomes the art. A happy world, on the other hand, brings forth an art of the here and now.”
Mönchengladbacher Quadrat is on display at the Abteiberg Gallery in Mönchengladbach as part of its permanent collection. I cannot tell you for how long because they don’t tell you this kind of thing.
Modern art does not attract those who like conversation.
References with Links:
(2) My oft referred to post describing why Milena was horrified at the things I did here: ‘Why Milena Sees Witchcraft Everywhere‘.
(4) Tom Thomson was the epitome of art in our modern age. Swift, powerful and above all, expressive. You can find out more in my review of his exhibition in Groningen. It was so good that I visitied it three times. I visited the Gainsborough exhibition four times. By then I’d realized that these things don’t come back! “Tom Thomson Meets The Muse”.