When it comes down to it, one pile of bricks is pretty much like another. At least, that’s the way things work in Carl Andre’s Equivalent series. Each of the eight sculptures in the series consists of 120 bricks laid out on the floor two layers deep. Though each is laid out in a different arrangement, as each contains the same number of the same type of bricks, each occupies the same volume of space and can therefore be seen as equivalent.
Equivalent VIII, bought by the Tate in 1972, is described as 2 high x 6 header x 10 stretcher; in other words the bricks are in two layers each six bricks wide by ten bricks long. The work is probably more commonly known as the bricks, or perhaps the pile of bricks, and has long been one of the most controversial artworks held by a British art museum.
It wasn’t ever thus. At first Equivalent VIII didn’t attract much in the way of negative attention. It had been in the Tate collection for over three years and had been on display twice before an article in the Sunday Times about acquisitions to the collection was illustrated with a picture of the work. The media storm that ensued – in which the Tate was widely mocked for having paid thousands for a pile of bricks – made the work one of the most widely known works in the collection. The degree to which this helped bring contemporary art into public consciousness is impossible to pin down, but the widespread publicity did bring visitors into the museum to see the work, so it’s reasonably safe to assume that it is likely to have played some role in this respect.
Equivalent V (2 high x 5 stretcher x 12 header)
Like Donald Judd’s work, the series is driven by concerns that can be seen as minimalist and by following a mathematical approach to its logical conclusion. Andre’s key decisions about his work at this stage were about making sculpture that was very low and flat. A couple of other works in the Tate collection takes this even further.
Works such as 144 Magnesium Square and Venus Forge are floor-based sculptures that are intended to be walked on. The usual rules about not touching art in gallery spaces are trampled under foot here, opening up questions about our perception of what might count as sculpture. Andre’s work inevitably opens itself up to criticism of the “I could have done that” and “how is that art?” nature, but it is challenging work that managed to reach a very wide audience. And while it’s also true that some of those who went out of their way to see Andre’s work did so to mock it and question its validity, it might also be argued that it provided a useful – and rigorous – stepping stone from earlier modernist sculptures such as Marcel Duchamp’s readymades – still an unusually challenging work – to more recent approaches to sculpture.