Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Wolfsburg, Haus Lange and Haus Esters, Krefeld, Germany
Wolfsburg was a town of 150 souls until Hitler chose it as a site for the Volkswagen factory. After the War, the Allies decided to keep Wolfsburg in the Western Sector of Germany, if only just. More recently VW decided there could be more to Wolfsburg than a car plant and a concrete shopping precinct, so it built a museum where the shops ended. In a way, Wolfsburg epitomises the more recent history of many German cities - from industrialisation to near obliteration, followed by a period of reconstruction, and then capped with a temple of culture. 300 miles to the west, Krefeld is one of the richest cities in the wealthy Nord-Rhein area. It is marked by a more gradual, sustained and individualistic accumulation of capital. The elegant matching pair of pre-war Mies van der Rohe private dwellings-turned-exhibition spaces in Krefeld’s leafy suburbs are of the same generation as the original Peoples’ car factory, but they speak of another culture.
A retrospective is in many ways an awkward project; this one was complicated by the extreme difference between the sites in which it was held. 30 years work represented by 70 sculptures was divided between a space modelled on an aircraft hanger in Wolfsburg, and two buildings in Krefeld meant for more domestic traffic. You could probably fit both Krefeld houses in the one main hall at Wolfsburg. A retrospective is also a particularly clinical way to expose an artist’s oeuvre. Andre has often said of his work that it should ‘cut into space’, but could a sculpture less than a centimetre tall reasonably be expected to occupy a volume three storeys high and the width of a football pitch, and then do something similar in an entirely different environment? The answer, of course, is that art worth the name cannot be expected to be reasonable. And for the most part, Andre’s modular accumulations of matter looked wonderfully unreasonable. Not only did many individual works hold some very unforgiving spaces, but they also illuminated and intensified each other. Credit here must in some part go to Eva Meyer-Herman, who conceived the project and whose imaginative installation at each site produced some elegant rhythms and unexpected collisions and, above all, brought out the rich diversity of Andre’s work.
If Minimalism is not usually associated with diversity it is often because people look for diversity only in familiar places. In a room where most things are 0.5cm tall, a 1cm high sculpture is massive. The grey of tin is a world apart from the grey of steel, and the densities of wood, brick and lead are in separate material octaves. Andre’s sculpture is more varied than that of most of his contemporarie’ and many of his non-contemporaries. But, at the same time, it is more consistent; held within an uncomplicated compositional grammar and a trenchant series of exclusions. Diversity is contained, if only provisionally.
To look at 15 or so sculptures made at different times (between 1964 and 1995) from different materials (woods, metals, plastics, concrete) in different formats (lines, squares, stacks, curves, scatters) arranged in the same space, is also to become absorbed in a kind of dreamwork where differences are suspended and likenesses are divided. The key term is equivalence. First used as the title of the infamous ‘bricks’ in 1966, equivalence is less a statement of fact than an imaginative possibility. It is an invitation to look for likeness among different things and difference among like things; to suspend the prejudices and hierarchies of habit that conspire to keep things apart and in their place. Equivalence is a term that recurs in art. To find equivalence is to find a momentary balance, a static flux, or, as Andre puts it, a ‘fierce calm’. The stillness of the work is extraordinary and intense. It’s as much temporal as physical. Andre’s work is simultaneously contemporary and traditional; Baudelairean in its synthesis of modernity and history; allegorical.
This sculpture also occupies a strange and often strained place in the recent history of art. Andre’s work (and Minimalism in general) has the remarkable ability still to dismay or disgust both Modernists and Postmodernists in equal measure. Seen by some as merely
theatrical, and by others as irredeemably pictorial, it manages to fall between the two stools of idealist essentialism and nominalist contingency, between the unique aesthetic object and the Readymade, between content and context. The interesting question is not which denunciation is the right one, but whether in some way they could both be right.