‘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 Nineteenth Copper Cardinal (1975) is an impressive example of a series that is arguably one of the most iconic artistic forms of the past fifty years. Comprised of nineteen copper plates laid out perpendicular to the wall in a single line which stretches 9.5 metres across the floor, it is a vivid instance of Andre’s unique approach to non-referential and non-hierarchical composition. Each of the work’s elements is 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 no preparation and without joining or securing the pieces in any way. Brazenly invading the space they occupy, these are forms described by Andre as ‘causeways’ – 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 8:10, 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 staidness 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 in this series is made up of a specific number of units indicated in the work’s title: Nineteenth Copper Cardinal has nineteen 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. The Copper Cardinal series has become one of the most famous within the canon of American Minimalism. Examples 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).
The flat metal plates in these works challenge the basic representational premise of sculpture which had dominated the medium for millennia. There is no preferred direction, beginning or end in the plates’ arrangement: they exist, like the floor, as a tangible fact. Quite literally removing sculpture’s pedestal, Andre seeks to divulge nothing with his work other than what is in front of the viewer, embodying Frank Stella’s Minimalist maxim that ‘What you see is what you see’ (F. Stella, quoted in B. Glaser, ‘Questions to Stella and Judd,’ Art News, September, 1966, p. 6). Andre always steered clear of art’s traditional modes, telling the critic Phyllis Tuchman that he had no intention of becoming a carver, modeller, 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). With these squares of copper laid in gleaming, uncompromising paths, such finality is triumphantly realised. ‘My life has been a search for my true limits,’ Andre declared. ‘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).