During the Spring of 1976, a nation-wide controversy came to boil – over a pile of bricks. For a grand sum of £ 2,297, the Tate Gallery bought American artist Carl Andre’s 1966 late-Modernist piece, Equivalent VIII. The sculpture is made of 2 layers of 120 grey bricks, laid out in a symmetrical rectangular shape. Interestingly, the piece was bought by the gallery for this sum in 1972 without cause for debate. Only in 1976, when The Burlington Magazine art history journal challenged the gallery’s choice to buy and exhibit the work did heated debate arise.
The general criticism of the British press inferred that the Tate Gallery – one of the only large galleries dominated by the public – had been conned into buying Equivalent VIII. One Sunday Times author, Colin Simpson, referred to the piece as a ‘sudden’ decision to lay out 120 bricks, ‘put a price tag of $12,000 on them and wait for customers.’ The Daily Mirror notoriously had the bricks on its front page, stating ‘whichever way you look at Britain’s latest work of art…what a load of rubbish.’ This media storm led to irritation amongst readers, and a general outlook toward the piece that it simply should not even be considered art at all. Many felt that anybody could have made Equivalent VIII, your average working-class builder or bricklayer, for instance. During a period of economic troubles where the concept of a welfare state was relatively new, the words ‘taxpayer’s money’, ‘duped’, and ‘art’ were not ones eager to be heard in one sentence.
In a furious response, Tate’s director Sir Norman Reid insisted on writing a response piece for the Burlington for which was continually fought for until its November 1976 issue, which states that ‘in Tate’s view the Andre will, in time, be generally accepted as among the most important art of its period.’
Indeed, from a retrospective 2017 viewpoint, Reid was right in passionately defending the gallery’s decision in buying the sculpture which provoked such anger and controversy from the press, art critics, and the public alike. By being pulled out of context as one of an eight-piece exhibition when bought by Tate, Equivalent VIII serves as a reflection of 1970s British attitudes and general ‘mood’ of the nation. It was first displayed at the Tate during a time of change in attitude and style, change in lifestyle and economy. The ‘pile of bricks’ still serve as one the most famous modern art pieces, and is still being exhibited 40 years on as a more relevant than ever stony reminder of the so-called ‘decade of discord.’