On 25 November 2006 American artist Carl Andre made a rare public appearance, taking to the stage at Tate Modern’s Starr Auditorium to read a selection of his poetry. This 90-minute-long event was the first time Andre had performed his poetry to a live audience since the mid-1970s.1 Introduced by Catherine Wood, the senior curator of international art and performance at Tate, Andre was also accompanied onstage for the duration of the event by the art critic and historian Richard Cork. Reading from a selection of poems produced between the late 1950s and the early 1980s, Andre’s performance was interspersed with dialogue between himself and Cork, as they conversed about the concept, origin and construction of each of the poems and ruminated on their relationship to Andre’s sculptural practice.
The poetry reading was commissioned as part of UBS Openings: Saturday Live, a series of bi-monthly live performance events at Tate focusing on contemporary cultural practice. This particular edition of Saturday Live, subtitled Word Sculpture, focused on the use of language within contemporary art practice and also featured a text-based performance work by Polish artist Ewa Partum and a lecture-performance by British artist Martin Creed. All three artists have treated words as sculptural material; Partum scattered words like confetti, Creed generated them through numerical sequences and Andre arranged them on pages in formal patterns. The juxtaposition of these three artists’ different forms of ‘word sculpture’ focused on language as a formal material for making.
Andre achieved notoriety in Britain in the 1970s when Tate acquired Equivalent VIII 1966 (Tate T01534), a sculpture made entirely of firebricks that much of the popular press deemed not to be art or worthy of entering the national collection. Like other artists associated with minimalism, such as Robert Morris and Donald Judd, Andre was interested in working with everyday materials, exploring their make-up rather than using them to build something functional. Repetition, as well as putting things in series, provided a way to get the viewer to pay attention to the materials, and Andre also used this strategy in his poetry. Often taking words or parts of sentences from existing texts, he deconstructed their original grammar and syntax and then used the textual remnants as raw material. He employed repetition of words, textual pattern and isolation of elements in a manner comparable to his use of units of material such as tiles, wooden blocks or bricks and treated the space of the blank page as an equivalent to the white cube gallery, exploring the potential of words as both linguistic referents and physical objects.
In First Five Poems c.1959 for example, where just a single word was presented on a page, Andre stripped away metaphor and the grammatical structure typically found in poetry, concentrating instead on the physical properties of the text itself. Speaking of the materiality and meaning of these works, Andre has said: ‘My poems are classic textiles. That is, my poems are re-weavings of fragments of pre-existing texts, mostly not by me. I do not, in my poetry, try to find the words to express what I want to say. In my poetry, I try to find ways to express what the words say.’2
At the beginning of his performance at Tate in 2006, Andre elaborated further on the material format of his poems, explaining that his text pieces could be divided into three categories: those more closely aligned to traditional forms of poetry, which can be read aloud by one voice; those in which multiple voices are needed to read the various elements of a poem simultaneously; and those intended purely as visual patterns and that cannot be read aloud at all. At Tate, Andre performed in the manner of the first category. Largely inspired by first-hand experiences and images from real life, the poems read during the early part of the performance were brief musings on human behaviour and life in modern America, constructed in haiku style. As the readings progressed, however, Andre read from works which adhered more to the concrete style with which he is most often associated, with words repeated during certain poems and elements of sentences omitted, so that the subject matter and source of each piece was obscured and the words came to form the building blocks of stark, minimalist sound sculptures. As described by Robert Smithson in his 1968 essay, ‘A Museum of Language in the Vicinity of Art’, in such poems, ‘Andre’s writings bury the mind under rigorous incantatory arrangements. Such a method smothers any reference to anything other than the words.’3
Though his text works are held in art collections throughout the world, including at Tate, Andre rarely performs his poetry.4 As such, the Tate Modern event provided the audience with a rare opportunity for engagement with the wider range of poetry produced by the artist throughout his lifetime, giving focus to those works intended for aural, rather than purely visual interpretation. Indeed, though a full audio recording was made of this event, Andre did not grant permission for images to be taken on the day, affirming the aural experience of the performance. Additionally, the event demonstrated the extent to which Andre’s works vary depending on their means of display and interpretation. Poems, which when viewed on a page convey structure, form and solidity, when spoken become ‘a powder of vowels and consonants’ floating and falling through the atmosphere of the auditorium.5