COMMENTARY: The Great Tate Bricks Controversy of 1976


It’s a pile of something all right:

A vintage photo of Carl Andre’s “Equivalent VIII”


“The sensation of these pieces was that they come above your ankles…”
-Carl Andre

“Art that has to be in a gallery to be art isn’t art.”

I imagine the tour conversation depicted above probably went something like this:
CURATOR: “Behold, a three-dimensional manifestation of essential modular forms; a configuration of material purity actualized in an industrial aesthetic.”
PUBLIC: “But that’s just a stack of bricks on the floor.”
CURATOR: “You obviously do not understand art.”
In 1976 London there was some tabloid excitement about the Tate Museum’s tax-payer funded purchase and display of Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII-a group of 120 bricks arranged in a rectangle.
The piece was originally part of an installation in New York in 1966. When no one bought the work at the time, the artist returned the bricks to the supplier. He had to obtain new bricks for the Tate. It reportedly cost the tax payers about $12,000.00, the equivalent of about $50,000.00 today.  A real bargain, considering the seven figure boondoggles the art market currently traffics in.
This piece has since been vandalized with paint, mocked in editorial cartoons, and met with general bewilderment. This hostility is seen as a badge of honor by elitist cultural types.
But the limitations of material as message render the piece itself as dull and inert. Without lots of art blather to support it, the piece is simply a stack of bricks out of its normal context, without any inherent interest of its own.
Museums have only gotten worse since then. The poor judgement and self-serving cronyism of the arts establishment has made the modern museum into a void of overpriced. repackaged Dada. Sadly, Equivalent VIII and the way it was handled  was a harbinger, not of the direction of art, but of the power games and corruption of our compromised cultural institutions.
Carl Andre went on to be put on trial for the murder of his wife, artist Ana Mendieta,  who somehow fell out of a 34 story window during a domestic dispute over art career jealousy. Andre was cleared on the charges due to reasonable doubt.
The piece itself is still providing a trip hazard at the Tate Modern Museum.
“Art is the exclusion of the unnecessary.” – Carl Andre
That’s a great perspective. Let’s start by excluding misplaced stacks of bricks cluttering up what could be useful museum space.