Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Carl Andre and Me

I’ve already described my meeting with Gilbert and George –but that wasn’t my first artistic encounter by any means. I spent a good chunk of my teen years, strange chap that I was, bothering various gallery owners and artists with what was, essentially, fan mail.

In 1991, aged 14, I sat down to compose a long and probably very pretentious letter to one of my absolute artistic heroes, Carl Andre. Carl is best known in this country for a story that made the front page of all the red tops in 1976. The Tate purchased a piece entitled ‘Equivalent VIII’, an arrangement of 120 firebricks. The sensational tabloid stories gave the impression that the purchase had been made from thousands of pounds of taxpayers money (it hadn’t), inspiring a wave of antagonism toward Carl, which made him in many people’s eyes a symbol of all that was cynical and money-grabbing in modern art.



Carl was another of the artists whose work I’d first encountered at Rosc ’84 – I really liked his contribution. ‘Dublin Line’ was an arrangement of peat blocks that, in the warmth of the gallery, expelled their distinctive fragrance. To a child, I guess the sense of smell is a very evocative thing. We burned peat on our open fires at home in Leixlip, and so the sculpture carried very place-specific associations with warmth and safety.

Even more memorable to me was the afterword Carl composed for the small children’s souvenir catalogue, which still sits on my studio bookshelf. As a child, I was fascinated by it, but disturbed by the sentiment.

“Art is what children have to stop doing in order to become grown-ups”, he wrote, “It is a good thing that most children stop making art because we need many grown-ups to grow food and weave clothes and drive buses.” It struck me as a cruel thing to say at the time - although as years passed I came to realize (especially after corresponding with Carl and learning more about his dry wit) that he was playing on what it means to be a ‘child’, whilst perhaps also being a trifle sarcastic about the notion that art and real life are mutually exclusive worlds.

He was clearly a Minimalist in many senses - a man of only a few words – words which, carefully chosen, ought never to be taken at face value. A few years later, I came across an even more drily ambiguous statement in a catalogue for Andy Warhol’s memorial retrospective. Amidst a swathe of fawning, long winded eulogies, Carl’s one line (non-)tribute sat uneasily on the page. “He was the perfect glass and mirror of our age, and certainly the artist we all deserved,” he wrote. Ouch.

My interest in Carl’s work truly began in earnest when Channel 4 broadcast a documentary on him. In marked contrast to Gilbert and George, Carl has a strict policy of suppressing his own image, in photos or films – so the explanations of his sculpture were given in considered, hesitant voiceover, thus lending the film an old school art-house feel. I videotaped it and watched it over and over.

I loved his clarity of thought, at the heart of which was a disarming resistance both to ‘dumbing down’ and also pretentious gallery speak. He was not, he emphasized, a conceptual artist, because his sculptures didn’t stand for ideas. They were objects to be appreciated for their own sake – it really was no more complicated than that.

The documentary helped to demystify art, for me. Modern art looked fascinating, cool and exciting, but I didn’t like the idea it was a closed shop or that you’d need a degree (or some huge backstory) to get it. I understood Carl’s work thoroughly – no bullshitting, I really did. I wanted to tell somebody. I wanted to let him know.

It seemed all the more important because, post-‘bricks’ scandal, he could be forgiven for thinking the man on the street thought he was a waste of space. I thought it would be a kindness to let him know he had a fan. I got myself down to Poole reference library, and in a huge volume entitled ‘Contemporary Art Directory’ I discovered a dealing address for him. Several garbled pages of breathless prose later, I had a letter to send him.

I nearly didn’t receive Carl’s reply, when it arrived a fortnight later. The postie fumbled the small postcard amid a mass of bills for my parents, and dropped it on the driveway. Luckily, it wasn’t a windy day – and my Dad discovered it when he came home from work.

I was delighted by the postcard – an artwork in itself. A handful of carefully chosen sentences were written in black pen, capital letters only, in sharply regimented lines. “Thank you for your kind and thoughtful letter” he said, before going on to say “Your grasp of what I am about is so sure, I almost want to ask you to understand me more slowly...”



*

In the fifteen years which followed I exchanged many letters with Carl, yet I can hold the entire archive of his 45 minimal replies in the palm of my hand. I haven’t heard from him since 2006 – but don’t consider this to be the end. Over the years there have been several pauses in our chat, often for years on end.

The correspondence has mainly consisted of Carl being a sounding board, listening to my troubles and responding like a far-flung Zen master with a series of occasionally impenetrable, often very witty aphorisms designed to encourage, challenge or inspire.

Once, for example, in response to a very lengthy letter detailing my ideas for some pictures, Carl responded that “Degas once said to Mallarme that he had some great ideas for poems, and asked Mallarme for his help in writing them. Mallarme refused, saying that poems are made of words, not ideas.”

In the early days I wanted to talk to him about his sculpture, and his responses ranged from his thoughts on truth to materials (“the vulgar mind strives always to appear superior to the material it contemplates. Hence, the vulgar mind must always strive to degrade the material it contemplates to the level of deficient comprehension.”) to thoughts on figurative art (“the oscillation between abstraction and representation is the cycle of paleolithic and neolithic”) to the, frankly, downright incomprehensible (“A collector from Australia recalled that I had once described sculpture as either point or field. Curious.”)

The postcards had plenty of dry wit, too. Dismissing one of my comments about a love for Picasso’s Rose Period, he responded that “before he met Braque, Picasso’s cubes were undescended.” The pun on Picasso’s balls dropping was great – and of course totally lost on the sixteen year old me.

Other times the humour came across in funny non-sequiturs, giving me flippant nuggets of advice. “Don’t bother going to the USA,” he counselled, “Brain death is everywhere!” On another occasion he closed a postcard with the instruction “Go to Amsterdam!”

A strange chapter in our correspondence took place when Carl experimented by ‘exchanging’ the correspondence of his two youngest fans. He began to pass my letters on to an American teen called Chuck McBride. Carl confided that he hoped we’d become friends and that he could thus “join two distant poles of my correspondence.” This chap had written to Carl as part of a high school art project. Intriguingly, Chuck later told me that writing to artists was part of their assessment each semester – and that, until his attempt, Carl had been notorious for never having replied to a student. Chuck was a big music fan, and commissioned Carl to name his band. (A quick search online has revealed that ‘Brainwave’ made no big impact on the music scene) Chuck and I didn’t correspond for long and the experiment petered out.

A slightly more embarrassing incident took place when, unexpectedly, two poles of my correspondence met. Carl wrote to me one day that Gilbert and George had entertained him for dinner in Fournier Street. They’d got chatting about fan mail, and realized they shared an admirer. Oh no! Carl was very gracious, telling me that G&G had been “impressed” with me, and that he’d at last been able to see what I looked like thanks to the photo in their archive.

Carl was clearly a kind, indulgent man – I sent him a painting as a gift and he responded - “I hope that you do not mind that I have forwarded your watercolor to a prisoner incarcerated for life with whom I share a correspondence of hope.” More impressively, when my brother was writing his dissertation on the poet Ezra Pound, Carl put him in touch via a personal recommendation with someone who had known Pound in the 50s.

This kindness is what strikes me when I leaf back through the archive. In fifteen years of strange ideas and silly hare-brained schemes, I always got the sense that anything I did with my life would be a delight to Carl. I tried to write a novel, he encouraged me in writing. I went to Japan to teach, he encouraged me in that. I became an illustrator, he encouraged me once again. That’s the definition of a good friend.



*

There is coda to the story because, in the year 2000 I did finally get to spend some time with Carl in New York. Like all the best things it was completely unplanned. I took a holiday from Japan on a shoestring to spend a fortnight with friends in LA, and another fortnight alone in NY (ignoring Carl’s earlier advice about avoiding the US). This was in pre-mobile phone days, I had no number for Carl, and even his address was an anonymous PO Box number. On the off chance, I wrote him a postcard to say I was staying at the Pioneer hotel on the Bowery – did he fancy saying hello?

The next day I came back from my travels to discover a new Carl Andre missive pushed under my bedroom door. Very exciting... It had a number and a time to phone him. Delighted but terrified, I called him up and we agreed to meet at his apartment for coffee the following day.

His apartment was located in an extremely swanky central Manhattan block, with a concierge at the door. I was directed up to the thirty-third floor and rang his bell. I didn’t know what to expect, never having even seen a photo of the man.

The door opened, and a white haired bearded chap in overalls peered out. “Peter?” he said. “Can I meet you out on the street in an hour, perhaps? I’m busy.” The door slammed shut in my face. It was an inauspicious start, certainly.

An hour later we tried again. This time he warmly greeted me on the street, and suggested we walk and talk. After so long of wondering what it would be like to meet Carl, the pressure on this conversation was incredible. I don’t mean that I wanted to say something that would make me sound cool. I just felt incredibly grateful to this man, who’d brought a little hope and excitement into a teenager’s life – now I dearly wanted him to like me.

Carl walked at a tremendous pace and made little eye contact. We evidently didn’t have an intended destination – this was a frogmarch around Manhattan. I struggled to keep up, while he asked me many, many questions about my life – highly reluctant to chat about his own.

Every so often he stopped to point out a public lavatory – appraising the relative merits of each one. (I think his favourite was located inside the American Indian Museum.) I suggested a trip to the top of the World Trade Center, but Carl politely declined and announced he was taking his leave.

“Would you like to meet me later for dinner though?” he asked.

Looking back, I think that first meeting was a bit of a test to make sure I wasn’t a nutter. He wanted to check I was on the level before introducing me to his friends...

Later that evening we met again, at a very swanky restaurant in Little Italy. He introduced his girlfriend Melissa – a younger, tall, blonde bombshell. She was gentle and extremely friendly, if a little shy.

Our other dinner guest was introduced as Carl’s friend Rosemarie. She was, I would guess, much the same age as Carl – and possessed a magnificent blend of confidence and powerful beauty. I fell in love with her a bit.

At one point during dinner, she and Carl began to bicker over something (probably sculpture). As the debate grew more heated, I felt a rising sense of embarrassment. I shared a shy smile with Melissa and she cast her eyes toward the heavens. Rosemarie broke off from the argument and turned to me with a smile.

“Don’t worry... We were married once. We did the sensible thing and divorced.” Wow. The realization hit me – I was sitting here with Carl’s girlfriend, and his ex-wife.

I had a great evening (and probably too much red wine). After dinner Carl and Melissa headed off, and Rosemarie, also a sculptor, offered to show me her studio. We arrived at a 19th century ex tenement building with faded grandeur and climbed into an ancient lift that didn’t have a door. We entered her lovely, artistically dishevelled loft apartment cum studio – and I feasted my eyes on a forest of beautiful metal sculptures, shining welded abstract arabesques. There was heavy duty metal cutting and welding equipment everywhere. This was one hell of a sixty something lady. We sat and talked, and she gifted me a drawing. I was amazed by the day I’d had.

Carl and I kept in touch for the remainder of my stay. He confessed at dinner that he’d been “absolutely horrified” by the state of my hotel, and called it “the last flophouse in NY.” (More on this later...) He was also disturbed to learn I was in New York all by myself, and insisted that I check in with him on the telephone, at least once a day. “If something happened to you, how could I face telling your parents that I’d let you roam the streets with no-one keeping an eye out for you?” Some days, he would use this daily phone chat to make another dinner date – we met another three times for amazing food. One evening, I recall, we went to a restaurant that was so exclusive that we were served, for one particular course - I kid you not - a grape. One single, very expensive grape. Carl entertained us with many long descriptive anecdotes – the most memorable being a humorous, probably very apocryphal account of how Andy Warhol first started screenprinting soup cans.

My last meeting with Carl took place under some rather un-nerving circumstances. I’d been living the high life with him, but my hotel (the cheapest in Lonely Planet) was rather a slum - the sort of place where, as you flicked on the lights, you glimpsed dozens of cockroaches running for shelter. One evening I distinctly remember lying on my bed, looking up at a mass of hairline cracks covering the ceiling. “Imagine if the ceiling caved in!” I thought, “but that would be ridiculous and impossible, right?...”

On my final day I came back in the early evening to discover my room door wedged shut. I pushed harder, and realized I was pushing against a huge pile of fallen plaster chunks. Too shocked to believe my eyes, I stepped into a dust filled chamber. My belongings were coated several inches thick in silt. The ceiling had come in. My drawing from Rosemarie was ruined.

In a panic, I dashed down to reception – breathless with horror, scarcely able to make myself understood. I expected them to be as shocked as me, and incredibly apologetic. A gum-chewing New Yorker shrugged behind a perspex screen.

“Whadya want me to do about it?” she said when I explained the collapse.

“You could start by coming and looking!” I ventured.

“No!” she blurted, “It’s only me here and I’m on reception.”

Reluctantly, she offered me an alternative room, making it clear that this would be her one and only concession (I’d paid the full balance upfront). I decided to take this offer, as it was my last night and already getting dark. She handed me, with no trace of irony, the key to room 101.

I needed to share the experience with someone. Moments later I was at the payphone, breathlessly attempting to explain what had happened to Carl.

“Let me get this clear” he said incredulously, “you came back and your ceiling had collapsed?”

“Yes” I said.

“You’d better come round straight away!”

This final short meeting with Carl turned out to be the only time I was admitted into his apartment. Melissa met me at the door with a concerned expression. Carl handed me a glass of champagne.

“You look like you need this” he smiled. I sat down and we shared a hearty laugh about the whole thing.

Carl’s apartment was decorated (unsurprisingly) in minimal style, with immaculate white furniture. A vast window looked out over New York, an utterly breathtaking vista.

“Wow, it’s so high up” I said, “you wouldn’t want to lean out the window, imagine if you fell!”

It was supposed to be a funny remark, but Carl looked distinctly unamused. Melissa also glowered back. I subsequently discovered that Carl’s second wife Ana Mendiata had died after doing precisely that – falling from the window of a New York skyscraper. I can’t be sure, but I think I made this tactless remark at the very same window from which she fell. (Carl, I also discovered much later, was tried and acquitted for her murder… but that’s another story).

Back in the room itself, I popped across the floor to set down my drink on a coaster – only to experience further embarrassment when I realized I’d inadvertently utilized what I now assume to have been a sculpture test piece. I blushed but the mistake was already made – here I was, resting my champagne glass on a section of a Carl Andre floor piece.



Carl was incensed enough about my hotel experience to insist I made some sort of complaint to the civic authorities. He and Melissa made a short list of helplines for me to phone. Not being a happy user of the telephone made this rather an embarrassing experience; sitting in front of a hero of mine, trying to explain my shit-hotel predicament to the NY Asbestos Helpline. It was late on a Friday, and most places were unmanned or uninterested. After half an hour we reached the last resort on Carl’s list – the New York Fire Department. I was unsure, but Carl had already dialled the number and thrust the receiver into my hand.

“You need to notify them of serious structural collapse at a building in Manhattan!” he insisted, “other people’s safety could depend on it!”

I falteringly told an angry sounding New York fire official about my hotel. He seemed distinctly unimpressed that I had wasted his time, but Carl was adamant.

“When we drop you off at the hotel, they’ll have shut the place down. They must have done. The fire department won’t stand for that.” I didn’t, to be frank, want any of this hassle - it made me nervous. If my hotel been closed down, what would happen to my stuff? And also, since the hotel owners knew I was the only one who’d witnessed the collapse - wouldn’t I be in trouble with them when I got back to the hotel?

A couple of hours later Carl accompanied me to reception – the hotel still looked very much open. Two angry looking men were waiting behind the perspex screen. I was nervous, so Carl marched forward.

“Room 101” he said. The receptionist gestured towards me.

“Are you the asshole who called the fire brigade on us?” He looked very pissed off indeed. My heart sank.

Carl bared his teeth.

“No he isn’t. But let me just say this. We’ve got photographic evidence of what happened to the room and you can just be thankful he wasn’t in there at the time. So you’d better be nice, a lot nicer. The room key, NOW”, he demanded. They looked genuinely nervous and hurriedly acquiesced without further comment.

This hearty, rather heroic defence was my last memory of Carl. I can’t even remember saying goodbye...

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