Carl Andre
Last Ladder 1959

Artwork details

Carl Andre born 1935
Last Ladder
Date 1959
Medium Pine
Dimensions Object: 2140 x 156 x 156 mm
Acquisition Purchased 1972


Last Ladder 1959 is an early wooden sculpture by American minimalist artist Carl Andre. It is made from a tall, thin beam of reclaimed timber, into which five hollows are carved. These hollows are almost identical in width and height, but the configuration of the indents themselves alternates between hollows with a flat plane at the bottom and a curve at the top, and hollows with a curve at the bottom and a flat plane on top, giving an undulating, wave-like appearance to the channel of vertical concaves engraved in the wood.

The beam from which Andre made Last Ladder was found on a New York construction site by his two close friends – the painter Frank Stella and avant-garde filmmaker Hollis Frampton – and brought back to Stella’s studio, where Andre began work on it. Laying it horizontally, he used 3.8 cm chisels to carve the hollows in the wood. Apart from these hollows the beam was left in its found state, and as such it bears the marks of its use as a building material. A crooked, rusted nail sticks out from the left hand side of its temple and a series of large, drilled holes line the sides of the work, piercing through the width of the wooden beam. The work’s surface is covered in cracks, with one particularly large split running down its right hand side. Its edges are scuffed and the wood’s surface has a natural patina, almost completely black in areas toward the base, that hints at its industrial past life.

Unlike its smaller counterpart, the carved wooden sculpture First Ladder 1958 – made by Andre in New York a year earlier and set into a wooden block to give it stability – Last Ladder does not have a base, but stands upright on its own, though somewhat unsteadily. First Ladder and Last Ladder were the only Ladder works made by Andre and were originally titled Ladder No. 1 and Ladder No. 2 respectively. Although both sculptures have markings that resemble footholds, like all of Andre’s sculpture they have no practical purpose and neither is fit for use as an actual ladder. Rather, the titles serve to emphasise the unusable nature of Andre’s art objects, while affirming their relation to the human body. At just over two meters high, Last Ladder towers precariously over most viewer, its stature, proportions and unsupported verticality giving it an anthropomorphic quality.

During the late 1950s Andre mainly worked in wood, a material with which he has continued to experiment throughout his career and which he has called ‘the mother of matter’, owing to its timeless quality and its origins in nature (Andre 2000, p.2). Last Ladder was his largest carving to date and its tall, vertical form was directly inspired by sculptor Constantin Brancusi’s (1876–1957) series of Endless Columns, the repeated hollows and alternating pattern cut into Last Ladder paying homage to the carved, truncated pyramids and the simple, repeated motif that make up Brancusi’s largest Endless Column, completed in 1938 and located in Târgu Jiu, Romania. As critic David Bourdon has stated, Andre looked to Brancusi because the European artist was ‘unexcelled in essentialising forms’, a quality which, at the time, appealed to Andre’s developing minimalist sensibilities (Bourdon 1978, p.18).

Last Ladder was Andre’s last carved wood piece and proved to be a significant turning point in his career. Soon after it was made in 1959, Stella commented to Andre that the untouched, uncarved back surface of the wooden beam was sculpture too. Hearing this, Andre had a revelation about his own practice, realising that: ‘the wood was better before I cut it than after. I did not improve it in any way’ (quoted in Bourdon 1978, p.19). From this point onwards, although he continued to work with wood, his sculptures were modular constructions made from square or rectangular wooden blocks, rather than carved single pieces. Talking about this change in his approach to making, Andre has said:

Up to a certain time I was cutting into things. Then I realized that the thing I was cutting was the cut. Rather than cut into the material, I now use the material as the cut in space.
(Quoted in Bourdon 1978, p.19.)

In contrast to Andre’s later works, Last Ladder and the other carved wood sculptures of this early period are distinct in their demonstration of the artist’s hand and in their evidently autonomous nature as artworks. Whereas later wood works, including Cedar Piece 1959/1964 and Secant 1977, are not cut into or drastically altered but rather are arranged by the artist, these early sculptures stand out as singular works. As the art historian and curator R.H. Fuchs has noted: ‘They are like strong signs, heavy and robust (paying homage to the material), each of them with its own identity’ (Fuchs 2000, p.6).

The legacy of Last Ladder was the emergence of a sculptural practice far more focused on the ability of material itself to convey meaning and message to the viewer, and the highly streamlined and minimalist approach to form evident in Andre’s later work.

Further reading
David Bourdon, ‘A Redefinition of Sculpture’, in Carl Andre: Sculpture 1959–1977, New York 1978, pp.13–40.
R.H. Fuchs (ed.), Carl Andre: Wood, exhibition catalogue, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven 2000.
Paula Feldman, Alistair Rider and Karsten Schubert (eds.), About Carl Andre: Critical Texts Since 1965, London 2006.

Clare Gormley
March 2016

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.