Magazine article The Spectator

Time to Stop the Brickbats

Magazine article The Spectator

Time to Stop the Brickbats

Article excerpt


Last week I happened to be looking at a piece of furniture by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in The Hill House, near Glasgow. In function, it was an occasional table. In form, however, it was a three-dimensional grid of ebonised struts. Effectively, it struck me, it was a superb piece of abstract sculpture occupying an aesthetic world not too different from that of Carl Andre, whose work is on show in an admirable small exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery until 27 August.

Of course, art historically Mackintosh and Andre belong in entirely different universes. For one thing, Mackintosh is now, although he was not during his lifetime, a reliable crowd-pleaser. So popular is The Hill House that the National Trust for Scotland forbears to advertise it. Any more visitors, apparently, and it would be saturated. Andre, on the other hand, was the modern artist who for many years we loved to hate.

Before the Turner Prize, Damien's `Shark' or Tracey's `Bed' there were the Tate bricks. When it was discovered by the press two-and-a-half years after the event - that public money had been spent on a stack of building materials, unaltered in any way by the artist except in their arrangement, there was a truly memorable fulmination of columnists and coruscation of headlines.

So much ink was spilt, in fact, that rather as some superannuated television personalities and .figures in minor scandals are never quite forgotten - the bricks (real title `Equivalent VIII') are still famous all these years later. And Andre remains more of a name hereabouts than other members of the minimalist group, such as Dan Flavin or Sol LeWitt. These days, however, such ancient notoriety has simply translated into the claim that Andre's bricks, along with sundry Matisses and whatnot, are among the most celebrated works in Tate Modern.

A quarter of a century after the controversy, and 35 years after the work was originally made, it is perfectly obvious that all those irate leaders and outbursts on the letters page were wrong, and the Tate and Andre were right. It has taken us a long time to catch up. In fact, I'd better make that more personal: it has taken me a long time to catch up. As a matter of fact, I still struggle a bit with `Equivalent VIII' (`Equivalents I-VII' consist of the same number of bricks, 120, stacked in different permutations). The absolute regularity of surface, the dull, pale colour of the firebricks - exactly the qualities that made Andre select them - make them hard to love. Call me a sensual romantic, but I find it much easier to enjoy the materials - cedarwood, various metals - that Andre uses in the works on show at the Whitechapel.

Additionally, of course, his failure, or refusal, to do anything further to his materials - mark them or fashion them by hand - is challenging. The bricks were simply ordered from a supplier; as are the squares of metal and blocks of wood in his other works. But it is a challenge of the refreshing, enlightening variety that art periodically issues. In the 19th century, art was supposed to be highly finished, but the Impressionists demonstrated that it needn't be. In the early 20th century, it was thought that art should at least represent something. Along came abstraction. …

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