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Art Reviews : Reopening a Minimalist Door : Carl Andre's 1976 "Uncarved Blocks," part of a Newport Harbor collection show, offers richer meaning with the passage of time.

May 23, 1995|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEWPORT BEACH — On a long lunch break from jury duty in downtown Los Angeles recently, I lingered at the glorious late paintings in the Cy Twombly retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art and had to rush through a superb group of installations selected from MOCA's permanent collection to get back to the jury room in time.

Such painful dilemmas don't exist at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, however, where there isn't room to house two full-scale exhibitions at the same time. When "Object and Image" (through June 18) was first announced, it was to have been a modest collection sampler accompanying an intriguing-sounding traveling show, "Masculine Masquerade: Masculinity and Representation."

But rain damage to portions of the building (requiring the galleries to be used for collection inspection) forced the cancellation of "Masculine Masquerade." So the exhibition of works from the collection grew to fill the space, with 80 works by 37 artists (about 3% of the museum's holdings).

"Object and Image" is the ninth collection show Newport Harbor has presented during the past decade, and it contains many familiar pieces. Lacking even the pretense of an organizing idea (just as well, given the thematic flabbiness of such past collection shows as "Beyond the Bay"), this exhibition can't be said to be about anything in particular--other than presenting the case, once again, for raising $3 million to $4 million to expand into the building next door, vacated last year by the Newport Beach Public Library.

Since the volume (and, for the most part, significance) of additions to the collection has dropped off greatly in recent years, the novelty value of these shows is modest. If there is a lure, it's the chance to visit with old friends. Like human acquaintances, the ones we tend to value still have something to tell us even after a long absence.

Rather than exchanging one-liners with all and sundry, it might be worthwhile to visit with one piece in depth. One work that seems subtly different in retrospect is Carl Andre's "Uncarved Blocks" from 1976. Arranged in a long row on the floor, the piece consists of 15 arrangements of two to five concrete blocks. In each grouping, one piece stands on end while the others hug the floor around it, staking out the compass points.

Although Andre is a New York artist and the collection is ostensibly devoted to post-World War II California art, the work is an important example of the "primary structure" movement in sculpture that began in the 1960s. Also known as Minimalism, this approach to art-making marked a radical break with the expressive content, grandiose rhetoric and gestural markings of Abstract Expressionism.

Andre once explained in an interview that he tried to figure out the "simplest" and "least conspicuous" arrangements of materials, imbuing them with "a kind of symmetry in which any one part can replace any other part," like "the molecules in a glass of water."

The works have no metaphorical or theoretical underpinning: They are strictly about the physical and temporal experience of encountering an object or a group of objects. Andre has said that he views a piece of sculpture as "a road" with a "moving" point of view. Viewers are expected to walk alongside or on top of his pieces (some of which are nearly flush with the floor).

The four years in his late 20s that Andre worked as a brakeman and conductor on the Pennsylvania Railroad often have been invoked as a motivating force on his approach to sculpture. He himself has credited such structurally innovative influences as Stonehenge, Native American burial mounds and the work of Romanian-French sculptor Constantin Brancusi.

Andre's work normally incorporates mass-produced industrial materials (bricks, steel plates), but he also has used lengths of wood, stones and boulders. (Another, earlier version of "Uncarved Blocks" is composed of red cedar blocks.) The title derives from the image of a blank (and therefore serenely open) mind described in an ancient Chinese text, the Tao Te Ching--a reference that makes it extremely tempting to read a larger meaning into the piece, despite the artist's caveats.

Minimalism is history now; its self-imposed aloofness from the world was drastically undermined by Postmodern eclecticism. Seen afresh in a different art climate, the work seems much richer, particularly as it relates to meditative, landscape-based sculpture by Richard Long and others.

The rough-textured concrete of "Uncarved Blocks" has a curiously elemental quality, despite the man-made medium and the standardized size of the blocks. The viewer's need to "travel" the length of the piece to observe the increasing number of elements re-creates the physical benchmarks of an overland journey: moving through space, guided by tangible markers. In this light, the abstract "landscape" of the forms themselves (with the upright block mirroring the viewer's stance) yields an experience with clear metaphorical overtones.

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