In 1972 the Tate bought 120 bricks that Carl Andre had arranged into a rectangle of 10 long by 6 wide by 2 deep and put the resulting sculpture, called ‘Equivalent VIII’ into a number of displays without attracting much opprobrium. That was until 1976 when the media realised the bricks were there and launched an attack. On the 15 February 1976 the Sunday Times went with the headline “The Tate Drops a Costly Brick” and declared ‘the Bricks’, as they are more popularly known, as an institutional waste of taxpayers’ money. The Daily Mirror said “Whichever way you look at Britain’s latest work of art… What a Load of Rubbish”. The Daily Mail may have had something to say about it at the time, they certainly did in 2012 when Julian Spalding had a pop at ‘the Bricks’, in an article about a Damien Hirst retrospective. The Daily Mail headline for that piece was “It stinks! Art critic Julian Spalding was banned from Damien Hirst’s Tate exhibition after calling him a talentless conman… but we smuggled him in – and here’s his verdict”. I think when they say “we smuggled him in” they mean he had to queue like everyone else.
The Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art or ‘mima’ has a number of Carl Andre’s works on show in an exhibition called ‘Mass & Matter’.
Carl Andre is an American born sculptor, sometimes known as the ‘Master of Matter’, whose work often uses everyday or industrial materials arranged in a simple minimalist pattern. The reasons behind his approach may be because his youth was spent in towns and cities with heavy industry and shipbuilding. It may also be because his father was a draughtsman and his grandfather a bricklayer. He himself worked for some time on the railroads, a world of flat lines, iron and wood. He may have also been influenced by Constantin Brancusi whose work marries together the changes he needs to apply to the material to create representational art with the materials natural forms.
Carl Andre is also a writer and much of what he writes is typed into shapes on the paper in the style of Concrete Poetry where the shape on the paper is as important as the words. This love of poetry it is said he received from his parents.
The ‘mima’ exhibition has fifteen Carl Andre pieces in brick, wood, metal and paper.
The sculpture that you can most closely associate with his most controversial work, ‘Equivalent VIII’ or ‘the Bricks’ is the sculpture ’60 x 1 Range Work’. This sculpture is made up of a series of brown triangular bricks stood on end to form a long prism, and yes it does look like a Toblerone. There is a very large nod to ‘the Bricks’ in another piece called ‘The Bricks Abstract’. This is a collection of comments and criticisms from February 1976 arranged into a grid like structure.
In wood the exhibition has ‘Timber Piece (Well)’ which is made of 28 identically sized blocks of red cedar put together into a 213 cm high by 122 cm wide sculpture, and yes it does look like a giant Jenga. In wood it also has ‘Phalanx’ which is made up of 14 cedar blocks formed into an arrowhead. It is understood that this may be a reference to Stonehenge which Carl Andre visited in his youth.
While pieces such as ‘Phalanx’ stand erect and tall much of his sculpture is flat. The sculpture ‘Weathering Piece’ is certainly flat. It is made up of six square plates of six different types of metal, 36 square plates in all. These have been left to weather and then laid flat on the gallery floor into a square. In other similar Carl Andre works the visitor is allowed to step on to the tiles to feel what appears to be very solid move slightly under their feet. There is no restraining rope around the ‘Weathering Piece’ to stop the visitor from stepping on but I couldn’t see a sign that said ‘Go on step on it… You know you want to!’ so I didn’t. Probably best to ask the curator first anyway.
Viewing all the pieces in the exhibition you start to feel a little bit of the love for the materials that Carl Andre, the ‘Master of Matter’ must have had for them when he was creating the sculptures. The work feels honest and earthy and simple, it almost makes you feel nostalgic for the heavy industry that some of the materials came from. And although Carl Andre is known as the leading ‘minimalist’ the changes in the materials brought on by the natural processes of weather and ageing seem to add quite a bit of beautiful complexity and not minimalist at all.
In 2013 Carl Andre has pretty much won over his critics of the 70s… well maybe not the Daily Mail.
Alex Katz has an exhibition at the ‘mima’ titled ‘Beneath the Surface’ which contains many of his stylised paintings. The painting in the advert for the exhibition is ‘4.30pm’ which with three strips of colour, one for the sky, one for the horizon, one for land and sea, some strips of clouds and a number of small white boats make the perfect coastline captured forever in the late afternoon. It seems so simply done yet so perfect. Many of the paintings are huge, covering a wall in some cases but some of his smaller works, some in ink or charcoal are just as interesting. The exhibition has many wonderful paintings, collages, watercolours and a fine collection of 36 of his drawings never seen before in the UK.
Alex Katz was born in America in 1927 and has through a long career became one of the most prolific of artists and one of the most influential in not only the visual arts world but also within the fashion and style worlds. His iconic stylised paintings can be seen reflected in commercial art. Perhaps that should not be surprising when he has said that style is the content of his painting. It is generally agreed that his work sits comfortably within Pop Art and there are similarities between his work and say Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Drowning Girl’ or David Hockney’s ‘A Bigger Splash’.
Alex Katz paintings are representational, you can see people and places and things in them. But to make representational art during a time when the American art world was championing abstract expressionism must have been tough, especially with critics as big as Clement Greenberg the champion of abstract expressionism. But Alex Katz appears to have rode out any criticism and seems to have been very confident in what he does despite criticism that could be have been so career damaging.
The exhibition has much to recommend it but apart from the wonderful images two things stand out. One is the prose that adorns the walls as comments to and additions to the work and the second is the number of times Ada, his wife and muse of over 50 years, beautiful with her dark hair, dark eyes and full red lips, is included in his work over and over again. With regard to the prose around the walls at the entrance to the gallery there is a note book where ‘mima’ have asked people to write a comment in poem form on the exhibition.
Amongst many wonderful contributions of which many are from children, there is one which I assume is from a woman which reads:
‘Come and paint my face
Bright red lips
Turn me into a beauty
Long black hair
Oh Mr Katz
What you could do for me’
I think I know how she feels.
Juan Pablo Echeverri
Colombian artist Juan Pablo Echeverri as part of Vamos, that’s Spanish so I think that is supposed to be bracketed with exclamation marks but I can’t find the upside down ! on my typewriter, has created through hundreds of photos taken in a ‘photo booth’ a piece of art called ‘Miss Fotojapòn’. Echeverri through sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle changes in clothing or hair has created an immense set of images which asks questions of identity and gender.
He has also created a video of the people of Middlesbrough called ‘Around the World – Video Portrait of Middlesbrough’ and that is what the image at top of this post is from. In the video people dress up and sing and dance. The video is so happy and uplifting that it’s nice to think that every town and every city has people willing to dress up, sing and dance in the name of art or fun or silly. There are so many beautiful faces around here, some full of character some that conform to more traditional lines of beauty, that maybe we should ask Juan Pablo Echeverri to do a video of us and get our own all singing, all dancing, all silly, all fun ‘Around the World – Video Portrait of Wherever You Are Now’.