The first time I was aware in any sense about this thing called ‘Modern Art’ was in the late 70s when the media furore over Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII erupted…having done some research I can now date this to 1976 when a piece appeared in The Sunday Times newspaper called The Tate drops a costly Brick by Colin Simpson. Now we didn’t take The Sunday Times, my parents were strictly Daily and Sunday Express people, but I remember clearly it being on the news and the subject of a piece on the now (thankfully) defunct current affairs program Nationwide alongside the skateboarding ducks. In this piece a variety of presenters produced various heaps of bricks and then spouted made up jargon about what they’d done..and how we were all invited to laugh along with them. Like most of Nationwide it was pretty much content light. Okay, I’m the first to admit we were, as a family, classic members of the Nationwide demographic. We didn’t have ‘the arts’; we didn’t have classical music, we had Mantovani and James Last; we didn’t have radical thoughts, we didn’t have modernism. So we sat in our living room every evening watching situation comedies and programs like Horizon, getting our news from the Express, and watching Nationwide. I was a very non-alternative teenager, easy-listening rather than popular music, Top of the Pops rather than Whistle Test, Blue Peter rather than Magpie, reading not very challenging books. Actually, I did have an older sister who did the whole summer of love thing (TM, the maharishi, etc etc) who had a lot of very bohemian friends. I sometimes wonder how much pot I may have passively inhaled growing up with her and her friends around! But she died when I was 13 so she wasn’t around during this part of my life. I often wonder if things might have been different if she’d been around for my teenage years, but hey. So I laughed along with the rest, didn’t do art or music at school, had a shit time, failed my exams, and went out to work at 16.
Okay, so now we fast-forward a few years and my world did a shift, as it often does. I had money to buy books, and started reading a lot of (fun but not very good) science fiction, discovered Hawkwind and Rush, and met a very strange bloke a few years older called Pete who was hugely alternative. Thanks to him I read Richard Brautigan, and Jack Kerouac, and Tom Robbins, and found that The Guardian was so much better than The Express, and because he said it was worth visiting I went to the Tate Gallery for the first time. This was the old Tate Gallery, what is now Tate Britain, before all the modern art went off to Bankside. So there I am, intellectually totally unequipped for modern art, but curious. I wandered around looking at pictures I could identify now but couldn’t then, and not sure what to make of it all. Then, all of a sudden, there I am looking at The Bricks. Equivalent VIII by Carl Andre – not that at the time I could have told you what it was called or who it was by – and thought ‘hey, these are what all that fuss was about years ago, these are stupid’…only it wasn’t. Actually it had something, I couldn’t pin down what it was, but it was definitely something. Yes, it was 120 bricks, arranged in two layers, it was everything that Nationwide had said it was. Though it was more than it’s substance, it had….something. If you were to ask me what it is now, I’d say it was things like balance, and a sense of physical presence, satisfying colour and texture, the way it fills the space, stuff like that. But at the time all I knew was that I liked it. It wasn’t rubbish. It wasn’t silly. It wasn’t remotely like the piles of bricks the clowns on Nationwide had produced, it was more than that.
So I suppose, if you had to ask me to pin down my art gallery moment, that would be it. I still don’t know very much about Andre, though I do like the work 144 Magnesium Square a lot (also in the Tate collection), and perhaps I ought to find out more about him.
Tate Gallery Page on Equivalent VIII