When is a stripe just a stripe? Andre on Stella

Carl Andre, “Preface to Stripe Painting (1959),” in Stiles and Selz, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 124.

Minimalist Carl Andre wrote the short text “Preface to Stripe Painting” in 1959 for Dorothy C. Miller’s Sixteen Americans catalogue, published in conjunction with an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA). In it, Andre outlines his view of fellow artist Frank Stella’s stripe paintings, such as The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II (1959), a series of works that organize freehand black enamel paint stripes into linear configurations. For Andre, Stella’s work is subjectless; or, to put it another way, the subject is only the stripe. Andre writes: “There is nothing else in the painting.” (124) Andre seems to support Stella’s interest in the self-reflexive nature of painting, stating that the works are “not symbolic,” or expressive. (124) Instead, the stripes only evoke “the paths of brush on canvas” and therefore “lead only into painting.” (124) For Andre, Stella’s paintings are about painting; about the action of mark making. He privileges the control of the artist’s hand on the brush as it touches the canvas. In a larger context, Andre’s writing supports the central goals of the minimalist movement, a “style that uses pared-down elements” to explore the limits of the expressive capabilities of the medium. Indeed, he opens his text by stating: “Art excludes the unnecessary.” (124)

While Andre is writing about fellow artist Frank Stella, we could easily apply this interest in the “medium as the message,” to quote Marshall McLuhan, to Andre’s own minimalist sculptures of the late-1960s. For example, Andre’s 144 Lead Square of 1969 is comprised of 144 one-foot square tiles of lead organized into a twelve by twelve grid and laid on the floor. When assembled, the grid therefore measures 12 foot by 12 foot and is located at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This sculpture is all about materials and, like Stella’s stripes, was one in a series of works. Andre made six square sculptures each of a different material: aluminum, steel, zinc, magnesium, copper, and lead. Each work “presented [the materials] in their raw state.” The sculptures also embraced the rigid precision of the gridded form of the tiles. Finally, the artwork was about the floor itself and about flatness, as visitors were invited to walk upon the sculpture in the gallery. If, in his 1959 text, Andre had supported Stella’s interest in the formal qualities of the painted stripe, by 1969 he too had “excluded the unnecessary” in his own work in order to focus exclusively on material (different metals) and on form (the square).

– Naomi

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