When I was eight, my mum took me to the National Gallery, stood me in front of Paolo Ucello’s Battle of San Romano and asked me what I thought. Apparently I stood there for a second before announcing that it looked like painting by numbers. The memory is long lost to me now, but I can imagine the stifled sniggers of other gallery goers and my mum’s embarrassment at having raised a mini-philistine (to be fair to her ,in reality, she probably sniggered too.)
Of course these days when I look at the painting, I’m thinking of far higher things – of the techniques and commissioning practices of Medieval Tuscan panel painting, of the politics of 15th century Florence and Siena, of all ranges of viewing positions and theoretical mumbo jumbo, and yet right at the back of my head somewhere, nagging away is the voice of an eight year old boy saying “painting-by-numbers”
The things is though, now when I look at it I can see what I meant, there’s a consistency and precision to the great big flat patches of colour that make up the figures and landscape that do almost suggest to the facetious and fanciful part of my mind that Ucello and his workshop apprentices were slaving away matching paint to numbers:
“Oi! Paolo – what colour’s number 7?”
“Ultramarine Giorgio – and make sure you stay inside the lines”.
With hindsight I don’t think my eight year old self was denigrating the painting, in fact I think it was a compliment, I knew how hard it was to stay inside the lines. (Come to think of it I still do, as the sometimes wobbly outlining in my own work will attest.)
Years later when I was beginning my studies of art history, and was crowing at the high grade that my first essay had achieved, Mum sent me a postcard of that painting with the story of my first attempt at art criticism written on the back. I think the maternal intention here was twofold – first to remind me never to get too big for my boots, and second, and more relevant to today’s little artblurt, to remind me not to forget one of my first encounters with a work of art.
So what’s all this got to do with a pile of bricks – or more specifically Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII? Stay with me – all will become clear…
There are some pieces of work which I wish I could somehow induce a state of temporary amnesia about so I could relive the innocence and excitement of that first encounter, especially those encounters that occurred when I was a child One of those works is Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (more commonly known as ‘the pile of bricks’).
Andre was one of a loose group of artists, writers and curators that emerged in the USA in the 1960s, who have come to be classed together by art historians as the Minimalists. The art was simple, but to make up for it the theory wasn’t – a lengthy and heated correspondence was entered into, battle lines were formed and a debate raged back and forth in the pages of high minded art journals. Now I love the game of Minimalist art theory – it’s the kind of navel gazing mental gymnastics I’ve talked about before. A few years back I was at a session on Minimalism at a summer school and the tutor was asking us all to talk about a particular work to show how much we knew. When it came to my turn I was asked to talk about Equivalent VIII and I was overjoyed. I babbled garrulously about form and function, about objects and phenomenology, about modernism and postmodernism until, when I finally stopped to draw breath, the tutor said “Good grief Howard, if you can talk so much about so very little you’re already an art historian”.
This was all very well and good, and I got a kick out of the gold star from teacher – even if it was a fairly double-edged compliment. But something nagged at me, I remembered loving Minimalism from a quite early age before I knew any of that theory or history and no amount of Artforum articles could explain what it was that attracted me to that kind of work in the first place. I wrestled with this problem for a while – this is the kind of thing that keeps me awake at night, well that and a few other odd little things (Chaos theory, why my aubergines have stopped growing, the next episode of Doctor Who) that prompt Pete to say “For God’s sake stop it – I can hear you thinking. Some of us need to get some sleep.”
Then one day I hit on the solution – to head to the Minimalism room at the Tate Modern on a Saturday afternoon and watch children react to the art.
It wasn’t particularly busy in the gallery that day, but I stationed myself near the bricks and waited. Soon a boy, of about a similar age to me in front of the Ucello all those years previously walked in accompanied by a frazzled and cynical looking Dad. The boy made a beeline for the bricks and studied them with the intense seriousness that only and eight year old can muster.
“See Toby,” huffed the dad “Told you there was a load of old rubbish in here – look at that. A pile of bricks!”(Okay I’m not sure if the boy was called Toby, but it just fits)
“I like that.” said Toby seriously.
“Don’t be daft” replied dad “You could have done that.”
“And that’s why I like it.”
Game, set and match Toby.
Exit wannabe art historian stage left stifling giggles.
It’s a cute anecdote, but the point is this – Toby got it! Without recourse to piles of textbooks, without hours spent in seminars, without a working knowledge of the ideological debates around art in the sixties, this eight year old had instinctively recognised something so central to Carl Andre’s project ‘art that anyone could make’.
Art is a wonderful thing and of course a head full of knowledge and experience can make us appreciate it all the more, but sometimes we just need to chuck the books out of the window and look at work like we did when we were children, sometimes our childlike instincts can prove to be just as insightful as our jaded adult eyes and minds.
It’s me being fanciful again, but I’d love to think that in a couple of decades time somewhere a yawning art history student will turn over a postcard of a pile of bricks to read..”Do you remember when you were eight and I took you to Tate Modern…”