Obscure objects of desire

Carl Andre is best known for the Tate's infamous 'bricks'. A new show in Oxford affords the opportunity to judge the rest of his work. Plus, Langlands and Bell at the Serpentine; Langlands and Bell's message is that all buildings and objects of use have been devised to control us
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The Independent Culture
ART SCANDALS are often about minor matters, as is proved by the new Carl Andre exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford. Andre is of course the artist whose "bricks", bought by the Tate Gallery in 1972, caused such a stir. People criticised that modest and certainly harmless piece without having seen it. They still do. Today this is all rather boring. Personally I never thought the sculpture wicked, simply weak, and was more interested in another Andre piece the Tate bought that year, a work that somehow has never been mentioned in the arguments.

This was Ladder No 2 of 1959 (the "bricks", whose real title is Equivalent 8, are from 1966). It's not in the Oxford exhibition, but other works there take us back to the earlier date. I find it hard to understand what was going on in 1959 but am sure that this was the sculptor's crucial year. The Oxford show is a variant of a much larger exhibition called "Carl Andre Sculptor 1996" that has recently been in Germany. The date in the title is meant to emphasise Andre's relevance to the world today, and in this semi-retrospective his origins are somewhat played down. The fact remains that Andre was a far more interesting artist when he began - before, indeed, he ever showed in - than at any subsequent point in his career.

He was born in 1935 in Quincy, Massachussetts, so he is a contemporary of, for instance, his friend Frank Stella in the United States and the British sculptors Phillip King, Bill Tucker and Tim Scott. Not that these Britons had anything to do with Andre: I mention them because such people of their generation all made experimental though decisive steps at the very end of the Fifties. British sculptors had a heavier tradition to contend with in their efforts to make a genuine new art. In New York, though, the situation was easier because American sculpture was so soft. Who were the leading sculptors when Andre was a young man? David Smith was way out of town. So the scene was dominated by Ibram Lassaw, Theodore Roszak, Richard Stankiewicz, etc - all afflicted by a sort of prissiness that went with their expressionism.

We now see that Andre cut out this background by simply turning to the example of Brancusi - whose sculpture had not previously been much of an influence in America. So Andre worked by reduction, making "object- like" things rather than representations of nature, repeating standard elements as Brancusi often did, and thus producing sculptures that were abstract in a way that had not been seen before. Most of this work, which certainly has an important position in the history of American art, has been lost or destroyed, so the Tate did well to purchase Ladder No 2 when the opportunity came up (the "bricks" were purchased from the same New York dealer at the same time, so probably a financial package had been arranged whereby the Tate got both works at a reduced price).

Anyway, there's one significant work from 1959 in Oxford, but it's a reconstruction rather than the original. Convex Ash Pyramid is made of 72 units of wood of the same thickness. They stand tall from the floor in a regular diamond shape, thicker in the middle, thinner at top and bottom. It's effective, but I think the original might have been better. That piece was in fir (like Ladder No 2) and would have had more of a hand-made feel, to judge from photographs of similar sculptures that have not survived. The reconstruction in ash isn't like this at all. It looks highly machine-made. This fits in with Andre's present aesthetic: none the less the spirit of the original is surely lost.

Convex Ash Pyramid looks like a three-dimensional version of the regular stripe paintings made by Frank Stella at just the same time. Indeed they shared a studio for a while. 1959 was a breakthrough year for the young Stella too, and both artists were at the front of a change of sensibility in American modernism. Initially rebuffed, they quite quickly became celebrated. By the mid-Sixties, however, the dawn turned out to be false. Stella's work, though sporadically exciting, went downhill. To this day, his earliest work remains his best. The same thing happened to the slightly older Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. By about 1964 they were exhausted. Andre also falls into this dispirited pattern, except that his period of success was even shorter.

He went wrong when he joined the "minimalism" practised by Don Judd, Robert Morris and others in the middle of the decade. They were cool, empty, clever artists, supported by a great deal of opaque critical writing. Andre was never intellectual about his work in their sort of way. He should have remained a simple peasant carver, like Brancusi. It's significant that - like Brancusi - Andre has hankerings to make a monument. The Romanian could do so and his monuments are his achievements. Andre, though, holds back; and when he tries to make sculpture with an epic dimension it always looks timid.

There's an obvious reason for this failure (for failure it is). Andre pitches his sculptures too low on the ground. Repeated neutral elements only two or three inches above the floor will always lack eloquence. This was the problem with the Tate's Equivalent 8 and the source of its dull and rather negative effect. So also with the parallel work at Oxford, Sand-Lime Instar. The top gallery at Moma has an immense installation of 1296 metal tiles. It's interesting, but not for long. Andre is now an extremely repetitious artist. If he wants to do some radical work, he should take a risk with height - and perhaps hand-carving.

AT THE Serpentine, there are some minimal sculptures on the lawn by the American Tony Smith, another artist who made his name with minimalism. They are so lumpen that Andre by comparison has the grace of a ballet dancer. The work inside the gallery is better. Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell examine architecture, design and furniture. They subject buildings, tables and chairs to a visual scrutiny that undermines their original functions. Some of the pieces are amusing, but the general depressing message is that all buildings and objects of use have been devised by someone else to control us. This opinion ought to make Langlands and Bell into anarchists. Their bland and meticulous craftsmanship suggests, however, that they are part of the controlling system, since they understand it so well. I give the show high marks as neo-conceptualism, low marks as free creation. One can't often recommend the Serpentine's cheap gallery guides, but Dalia Manor's little introduction to the show (just 30p) deserves praise for its informative clarity.

! Carl Andre: Oxford Moma (01865 728608), to 30 June. Langlands and Bell: Serpentine, W2 (0171 723 9072), to 27 May.