Carl Andre: tribute and controversy


A few weeks ago, Carl André, a major figure in the Minimalist Art movement but tried for the murder of Ana Mendieta, died at the age of 88.. In the press release announcing Andre’s passing, the Paula Cooper Gallery (with whom the artist had worked since 1964) recalls that “Carl Andre redefined the parameters of sculpture and poetry through his use of industrial materials and an innovative approach to language.”

Carl ANDRE (1935-2024) made his name in the New York art world of the 1960s with austere but sensitive work, which placed materials, the environment and experience at the heart of his creative approach. In 2000, he told The Economist he wanted “a sculpture free of any human association, a sculpture that would allow the materials to speak for themselves”. His work often consisted of shapes manufactured industrially from simple raw materials, such as metal, granite, wood and brick. He arranged his sculptures in free-standing patterns or on the ground so that the people could walk on them. A ‘totemic’ figurehead of Minimalism, Andre’s life and career was marked by a ‘before and after’ the death of Ana Mendieta.

A pioneer of Minimalism, but spoiled by bitter controversy

After graduating on a scholarship from the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, Andre traveled to the UK in 1954 and discovered the site of Stonehenge which apparently motivated his decision to become a sculptor. After a year in the army, he moved to New York in 1956 where he met Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi, whose work he would later say was essential in shaping his own practice, notably Andre’s early works in wood from the late 1950s.

Carl Andre: number of lots sold (copyright

In 1958 he met artist Frank Stella, whose work was very much in demand at the time. Stella allowed him to use his studio and this agreement between the two artists, which lasted until 1960, allowed Carl Andre to work on his Element series, made from pre-cut pieces of wood and arranged in rhythmic patterns. He subsequently started making what became his most famous works, a series titled Plains and Squares composed of thin metal plates arranged in a checkerboard pattern on the ground, on which spectators were invited to walk. The works in this series are the most highly-valued on today’s art market, with some fetching over $2 million at auction.

In 1965, Henry Geldzahler organized his first solo exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York, and five years later his works were shown at the Guggenheim Museum in his first retrospective in New York. Thereafter, Andre was a relatively famous artist who enjoyed a successful career for two decades. But in 1985, the tragic death of his third wife put a heavy veil over his public profile. Artist Ana Mendieta died after falling from the window of their 34th floor apartment in Greenwich Village. Carl Andre was accused of her murder but he fervently denied any involvement in the tragedy and was acquitted in 1988. Nevertheless, the controversy surrounding Ana Mendieta’s death and the court’s decision led to demonstrations on the sidelines of exhibitions of Carl Andre’s work in the following years. In 1992, five hundred demonstrators associated with the Women’s Action Coalition gathered in front of the SoHo Guggenheim because a sculpture by Andre was part of the inaugural exhibition. Some activists, including the feminist arts group, Guerilla Girls, even compared the Carl Andre trial to the infamous O.J. Simpson case. After the end of the trial, Andre moved to Europe for several years but the controversies linked to the affair stunted his artistic career.

Carl Andre: Auction lots sold per price range in 2023 (copyright

Throughout his long career, Andre created over two thousand sculptures and wrote an equal number of poems. But despite his abundant creativity, only 10 to 20 works appear on the auction market every year, generally in the United States and occasionally in the UK. A third of his works sell for between $10,000 and $50,000, like the installation titled Joseph and Louise (1992), which sold modestly for $20,300 (its low estimate) at Sotheby’s last December, although it came from the prestigious Emily Fisher Landau Collection (Sotheby’s). In February 2023, a large wooden sculpture from the superb Mallin collection, Sphinges (1985), sold at the low end of its estimated range for $406,400, despite its majestic dimensions of almost 5 x 5 meters.

His contemporary and friend Frank STELLA (b. 1936) enjoys a much more dynamic market with ten times more works on the auction market, including a record at $28 million (Point of Pines, 1959), compared with André’s peak at $2.9 million for Copper-Steel Alloy Square (1969), a metallic checkerboard from the 1960s that sold at Christie’s in 2019.