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Andre's material world

Carl Andre At the Whitechapel Art Gallery, 80 Whitechapel High Street, London E1 until 27 August

It's the smell which hits you first: walk through the doors of the Whitechapel Gallery and take a deep, deep breath. The smell of untreated wood. Then look at Karlsplatz (1992) in front of you: tonnes of western red cedar, made into two foot blocks and arranged in perfect symmetry, punctuating the white gallery space. Here, buried in the rawness of the material, we smell the honesty of a hard day's work and experience the visceral connection with the stuff that comes out of the earth: wood, metal and stone.

Carl Andre has been working with this material for 40 years. His most seminal experience came in 1960-64 when he was employed as a brakeman for the Pennsylvania Railroad. He has said that this was his art college training, where he learned about mass, and developed his interest in breaking down monumental forms into definable chunks.

The reason Andre upsets so many people is because they think he's a fraud, in the same way that Marcel Duchamp and his followers are considered to be frauds. Remember the fuss when the Tate Gallery showed Equivalent VIII in the 1970s.

A load of bricks? Can't anyone dump a load of bricks in a gallery and call it art? This misunderstanding is mainly due to a different 'take' on what constitutes beauty and art.Traditionally, sculpture is only deemed to be sculpture if the artist has carved into the material in some way, or shaped it into something else. Instead, Andre's sculpture is about the relationships between bits of raw material and the space created around them.

On the upper floor of the Whitechapel exhibition, in the small first room, there's a piece which exemplifies this point beautifully: Glarus Copper Galaxy, 1995. It is a coiled sheaf of metal, 220cm in diameter, which Andre has laid out on the floor.

But the work is not so much this glistening shape itself as the space which weaves its way around the coil, the space which is cut and defined by the curving copper. The work almost becomes everything else in the gallery which isn't the sculpture. It makes you tingle with a heightened sense of physical awareness.

Which brings us to the most widely held misunderstanding about Andre's work: that he is a conceptual artist. In the accompany ing documentary film showing at the Whitechapel, Andre says no less than four times that he is not one.

Although there are moments when I think he 'doth protest too much', it's clear that he is dealing with a very different set of parameters from those defining much sculpture of the last 30 years.According to Andre, conceptual art is primarily a function of ideas which instrumentalise the materials, whereas Andre himself is explicitly concerned with the materiality of the sculpture; the 'thingness' of the art itself.

This exhibition also gives us the rare opportunity to see Andre's sculpture in relation to his poetry. Behind a screen to the left of the ground floor gallery is a row of impeccably displayed typewritten works on plain A4 paper. Using an old-fashioned typewriter with its instantly identifiable black and red ribbon type, Andre makes sculpture out of words. The works themselves comprise arrays of single words or letters (FLIP ROCK SOUND and eeeeeeRRRRRRoooooo) or brief, opaque narratives. In the same way that he uses wood and metal, Andre forms shapes from words which draw attention to the space around them.

If the ground floor seems a little cramped and dark, the large gallery on the upper floor is breathtakingly beautiful. The room is completely bare with no subdivisions. Placed on the floor are five exquisitely installed works comprising quadrilaterals of weathered metal - copper, steel, tin - lying flush on the parquet flooring. Now that, I thought, is art.

Jes Fernie, a freelance art consultant and writer, runs the RSA Art for Architecture award scheme

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