Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (1966) is an intriguing example of Minimalist sculpture. What it is, as one observer put it when it was exhibited in the 70s, was “a pile of bricks”. I agree with this simple observation, as it is a collection of firebricks arranged into a tidy structure, but remains as a mere pile of bricks. The origin of the work, particularly its name, Equivalent VIII, came from a larger work of the same name. The pile of bricks was a part of a collection of eight piles of bricks (all of which were sent back to the brick yard after the works first exhibition), that only gained a level of acceptability as art because something had been done to them. The material, while ‘unartistic’, was manipulated to become something. So, Andre’s Equivalent VIII that was shown at the Tate in 1976, a small part of a larger realized idea, which didn’t even use the same bricks.
To better understand the Equivalent VIII, we need to look at Minimalism closer. According to the Tate via their website:
“Minimalism or minimalist art can be seen as extending the abstract idea that art should have its own reality and not be an imitation of some other thing. We usually think of art as representing an aspect of the real world (a landscape, a person, or even a tin of soup!); or reflecting an experience such as an emotion or feeling. With minimalism, no attempt is made to represent an outside reality, the artist wants the viewer to respond only to what is in front of them. The medium, (or material) from which it is made, and the form of the work is the reality. Minimalist painter Frank Stella famously said about his paintings ‘What you see is what you see’”
This idea that Minimalist art highlights reality, in its most truthful form, and request a viewer’s response to an otherwise overlooked aspects of our reality. I’m curious as to what type of response is expected from the observer, as the controversy around the Equivalent VIII in the 70s suggests that people recognise what they are seeing, and wonder as to what reason it belongs in a gallery for contemplation. When the piece was seen by the public in 1976, they saw something they were already aware of as the display looked like something a person might recognise from a building site. They recognised it as material to be ‘used’ but was unused. The original work of eight piles of bricks from the earlier exhibition discussed the simplicity of work by appearing to do something, to have meaning.
Andre himself would disagree with both of these interpretations. In an interview with the Tate in 2014 he agreed that his work emphasized the material but not that they have any meaning. Andre said:
“When kids start learning to read, they stop making art, because something has to mean something, and works of art don’t mean anything. They are realities, what does reality mean – it’s there. Because our culture tends to turn everything into language, we lose site of the actual being of things.”
Andre is saying that no art has this fabled ‘meaning’, and that it is the fault of culture trying to rationalize and romanticize everything, we can’t appreciate simplicity.
It was this reverence of simplicity that ignited the Minimalist movement in the early 60s as a response to the Abstract Expressionist movement. Where artists assigned emotion into everything they created, expressing an indirect meaning to their work. Minimalism responded to an art world saturated by meaning, by providing the opposite. A meaningless experience.