‘Any way artist stacks them, bricks are bricks to British.’ So declared a Chicago Sunday Times headline in February 1976, at the height of public criticism over the Tate’s purchase of New York-based Carl Andre’s Equivalent III (1966), an ultra-Minimalist arrangement of 120 firebricks on the floor.
Conceptualism and Minimalism had been firm fixtures on the US art scene for over a decade, but the UK, as had been the case for most of the century, tended to be slow on the uptake when it came to avant-garde art.
Carl Andre, 'Mass & Matter', installation view at Turner Contemporary. Photo David Grandorge
So it’s interesting for us to revisit Andre in 2012, in the form a survey show of his sculpture and texts at Turner Contemporary that opened last week. Since the mid-1990s, and thanks to the YBAs, a boost in arts funding and grand projects like Tate Modern, Britain has become far more easygoing when it comes to art works that are different to oil on canvas. What will people today make of seminal works like such as 4 x 25 Altstadt Rectangle (1967), a twelve-metre-long rectangle made up of 100 steel plates? ‘People expect art to be mystifying,’ said Andre. ‘Mine isn’t.’
Carl Andre, 'Mass & Matter', installation view at Turner Contemporary. Photo David Grandorge.
By that he meant that both the industrial materials he used in his sculptures and their sparse linear arrangements had no metaphorical content. Instead they were what they were, and should be experienced and enjoyed directly as ‘things in themselves’, as phenomenologists were apt to say. Andre, for example, wanted his metal floor pieces to be walked on. An Andre quote Turner Contemporary has picked up on is as good a guide as to what to expect as any: ‘my ambition as an artist is to be the “Turner of matter”. As Turner severed colour from depiction, so I attempt to sever matter from depiction.’
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine