‘My work is atheistic, materialistic, and communistic. It is atheistic because it is without transcendent form, without spiritual or intellectual quality. Materialistic because it is made out of its own materials without pretension to other materials. And communistic because the form is equally accessible to all men’ – C. Andre
Carl Andre’s Thirteenth Copper Cardinal is an early example of a series that is arguably one of the most iconic artistic forms of the past 50 years. Comprised of thirteen copper plates laid out perpendicular to the wall in a single progression which stretches out into the centre of the room, it is a singular example of Andre’s unique approach to non-referential and non-hierarchical composition. In the present work, each of the elements is comprised of a 50cm square piece of industrially milled copper, its utilitarian form and heavily burnished surface showing the evidence of its creation yet eschewing the hand of the artist completely. The placement of the plates is the extent of the installation – each element is laid directly on the floor with nopreparation and without joining or securing the pieces in any way. Shamelessly invading the space it occupies, Andre described these forms as a ‘causeway’ – because ‘they cause you to make your way along them or around them or to move the spectator over them’ (C. Andre, quoted in P. Tuchman, ‘An Interview with Carl Andre,’ Artforum 10, June 1970, p. 57). This almost performative aspect of the work was one that was encouraged by the artist, in part as an act of rebellion against perceived stuffiness of the art world with its mantra of ‘look, but don’t touch.’
Based on the cardinal number system (a mathematical classification which is the measure of the number of elements in a set), each work is made up of a specific number of units indicated in the work’s title: Thirteenth Copper Cardinal has thirteen elements, Twenty-Ninth Copper Cardinal has twenty-nine, and so forth. Among the series of works, there are rows, squares and rectangles made up of varying numbers of identical plates. The number of units in the rows is always prime; the numbers of units in the squares is always a square; and the number of units in the rectangles is always the product of two primes.
This unique form, along with the various iterations that Andre has worked on throughout his life, has become one of the most famous within Minimalism: other examples of the Copper Cardinal series are held in major museum collections including the Whitney Museum of American Art (Twenty Ninth Copper Cardinal, 1975) and the Staatliche Muzeen zu Berlin (Tenth Copper Cardinal, 1973). Andre’s close friend and fellow artist Frank Stella once famously declared that with the art of this movement ‘What you see is what you see’ (F. Stella, quoted in B. Glaser, ‘Questions to Stella and Judd,’ Art News, September, 1966, p. 6). In Thirteenth Copper Cardinal, the progression of metal plates challenges the basic premise of sculpture which had dominated the medium for millennia. Here, Stella’s words are manifestly true: Andre seeks to divulge nothing with his work other than the aesthetic of what you see before you. As a young artist in the 1960s, Andre wanted to avoid the traditional genres of art, telling the critic Phyllis Tuchman that he had no intention of becoming a carver, modeler, or welder. ‘Even as a child I hated plaster,’ he told her: ‘You always had to turn plaster into something else … I’ve always been drawn to materials that were strong and durable and would be final in themselves’ (C. Andre, quoted in P. Tuchman, ‘An Interview with Carl Andre,’ Artforum 8:10, June 1970, p. 58). ‘My life has been a search for my true limits,’ Andre argued. ‘Such limits define an artist. I realised that my vocation was to use my materials as cuts into space rather than cutting into the space of my materials’ (C. Andre, quoted in E. Meyer-Hermann (ed.), Carl Andre: Sculptor 1996, exh. cat., Museen Haus Lange und Haus Esters, Krefeld 1996, p. 54).