Andrew Lacon

Equivalent VIII: the way it looks, Alistair Rider

Equivalent VIII: the way it looks, Alistair Rider

After Carl publication
2015

It is a deep irony that no object can seem more ephemeral than the commodities that make up the fabric of our everyday world. It always comes as a shock to discover that a perfectly good product (a particular brand of pen, say, or a favourite type of coffee maker) is no longer manufactured, and so simply cannot be had, however much we are prepared to pay. A household staple might be available to buy everywhere right now, but this is no guarantee that it will continue to be available in the stores forever.

The reason for this, of course, is economics. Manufacturers need to generate a surplus from their products, and if demand dips below a certain threshold, then they stop producing it and search for more fruitful markets. But even if the market in a certain field is buoyant, then commodities might well change anyway, in spite of the fact that there may be no functional demand for a modification. This is because profits can be maximized if consumers can be encouraged to purchase new products before the old ones are used up. As long as certain standards are maintained, it makes less financial sense for a supplier to ensure long-term product consistency than it does to entice potential customers with seemingly improved models at frequent intervals. The general outcome is a culture in which relentless change comes to be seen as the norm.

By 1966 Carl Andre was making sculpture from materials sourced from the construction industry — a sector that is notoriously susceptible to the machinations of the economy. That he was using building products for purposes that were at variance with those for which they were intended is a point almost too obvious to mention. He was drawn towards specific brands of bricks because of their shape, their texture, their weight and their colour, and although he might have been interested in their various structural properties, he had no interest in putting them to the test. Andre laid his bricks directly on the ground; never did he construct anything that might resemble a wall. Building contractors, in contrast, might select a material on the basis of its functionality and be willing to tolerate a certain amount of variation in appearance. But for Andre the look of the object was everything. If you are manufacturing paints for artists, then you ensure that your brand of burnt umber (for instance) remains as consistent as possible, because you know that your fine art customers are nothing but exacting in their demand for uniformity from the material. Yet Andre was relying on non-art suppliers who had significantly less concern for his requirements. This made his sculptural practice even more vulnerable to the instabilities of the market. Recreating lost works became practically impossible.

Andre hardly sold any of his larger sculptures until the late 1960s. No visitor to his solo exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York in April 1966 was willing to go so far as actually to purchase one of his eight stacks of sand-lime bricks that he had arranged across the dark parquet floor of the main gallery. Nor was the director of the de Nagy prepared to fill precious storage space with a consignment of a thousand unaltered, regular bricks, in the notional hope that a customer might one day materialise. So they simply went back to the factory from which they had been purchased.

It is therefore entirely possible that those same bricks are now buried in the walls of an apartment block somewhere in Manhattan or in the surrounding boroughs, and, like millions of others, are fulfilling the purpose for which they were intended.

However, Andre did manage to retain a small batch of two hundred, and eventually these were turned into a sculpture and sold. 120 of them now make up Equivalent VII, which is currently in a collection in Switzerland. The bricks are a bright creamy white, and still look remarkably pristine.

By 1969, Andre’s standing as a sculptor had improved considerably. Critics had come up with new categories and definitions to describe the kind of work that he and other New York artists were producing, and gradually collectors were beginning to display an interest in his work. It seemed the right time to recreate the seven lost sculptures, and put them back on the market.

Andre duly went back to the factory to repurchase a small consignment of bricks, but to his astonishment it seemed to him that the entire plant had vanished. He had noticed when he had visited it three years earlier that the plant had looked brand new, but now it was gone. There simply were no sand lime bricks to be had. Instead, he was obliged to find another supplier, but none suitable was to be found. So, as the next best alternative he opted for the range of firebricks that were produced by the long-established, Pennsylvania-based company, General Refractories. He had already used their bricks for his sculpture Lever, which had been much admired at the group exhibition ‘Primary Structures’ at the New York Jewish Museum in April 1966. But if you were to hold a firebrick in one hand and a sand-lime brick in the other, then the differences would be startlingly apparent. Firebricks are specialist insulation products. They are made for lining ovens and furnaces and so they are designed to retain heat, without spalling or warping. Consequently, they feel dry and rough to the touch, and the fireclay from which they are constituted gives them a buff colour, which is quite different from the milky white hue of the sand lime bricks. These, in contrast, are not made from fired clay. Instead they are chemically set. The procedure involves mixing together sand and hydraulic lime, which is then compacted in a mould and subjected to pressurized steam in a hardening cylinder. It is an efficient way of mass-producing a lightweight, regularly proportioned construction brick from readily available resources. Manufacturers found that by inserting different sands into the mix they could generate a brick with a greatly expanded colour range — a factor frequently exploited in their marketing strategies. It so happened that Andre preferred the white ones. He explained that seeing one lying on a sidewalk in Manhattan had inspired him to use the product. Indeed, in the late 1950s and early 1960s there was a short-term fad for these white bricks, and to this day chalky-coloured apartment blocks dating from this era can be seen scattered throughout the city.

How predictable, though, that it was the cheap, general-purpose commodity that would vanish, leaving Andre with no choice than to substitute them with a more expensive, specialist product. The reasons why this brick manufacturing plant went out of business are likely to be equally familiar. Building in brick was becoming less fashionable, thanks in part to the high labour costs that its construction entailed. Increasingly, meanwhile, heavy industry was abandoning the area, in favour of sites further inland where transportation was easier to facilitate. But finding out the precise causes for the closure is an exceptionally hard undertaking. It is an issue that has haunted me for well over a decade, ever since the early 2000s when I wrote my art history PhD on Andre’s sculptures. The question is one that I have discussed with local historians from Queens and Brooklyn. It has also taken me to a number of municipal archives across the New York area, yet still the exact causes of the closure elude me. The quest might seem pointless, but I continue to persist because it sets Andre’s sculpture in a context that is profoundly unfamiliar to the art world audiences who profess to know the work.

Even the precise name of the original supplier is shrouded in uncertainty. In an interview in 1972, the artist told curators at the Tate Gallery in London, who recently had acquired one of his sculptures (Equivalent VIII) that he believed he had obtained the bricks from ‘The Long Island City Brickworks’. Tate has reiterated this ever since in their official literature on the sculpture. But since there are no records of any business operating under that exact name in the state of New York at any point during the 1960s, it seems likely that Andre was not actually naming a particular company but was only speaking in general terms.

There were not many brick manufacturing plants left in Long Island during the 1960s, and practically none were newly erected. Only one factory defied the general trend and matches Andre’s description. This was the National Cincrete Corporation, a subsidiary of U.S. Plywood. The plant had been built in 1963 on a fourteen-acre site that extended down to the shoreline, directly overlooking the United Nations Headquarters on the other side of the East River. (Some 1960s photographs of the UN General Assembly Building, taken from First Avenue with the East River in the background, occasionally include glimpses of the factory’s gleaming facilities on the distant bank.) It was an ambitious project. Local newspaper articles from 1963 report that the venture had cost three and a half million dollars, had involved reclaiming several acres of land from the water, and that the site even included new deep-water docks — not to mention the storage facilities, garages and offices that one might expect. Many of these accounts repeat the fact that the fully automated plant had the capacity to produce four and a half million sand lime bricks annually. Given the scale of the business, one would assume that hundreds of workers would have been on the payroll, although precise statistics are hard to come by.

Annual industrial directories covering the area list the National Cincrete Corporation as operational between 1963 and 1968. It is included in a register of members of the Queens Chamber of Commerce from 1963 until 1966, and it is listed in the State Industrial Directory for a further two years. After 1968, it vanishes. It is possible that the business never managed to redeem the costs of its construction, and was in financial difficulties from the very beginning. It is also plausible that, despite appearances, the factory was already being wound down when Andre made his purchase in 1966. In any case, most of the evidence confirms that it had ceased trading by the time he made his second visit, which fits with his account. Unfortunately it is less easy to substantiate his claim that the entire factory had been razed to the ground. Street photographs of Long Island City, collated by local historians, indicate that there might well have been facilities relating to brick and concrete manufacturing at the site for some considerable time. All the same, for many years it languished as an abandoned brown-field site, and it was only in August 2013 when the entire Hunter’s Point area was repurposed into a recreational park, accompanied by new affordable housing units. Visitors to this part of Long Island City now have to look hard to find vestiges of the area’s industrial heritage.

The fate of Andre’s supplier of his sand-lime bricks matters, because is one of the reasons why Tate’s sculpture Equivalent VIII assumes the appearance that it does. Had the factory remained in business and been able to provide the artist with a replacement batch, then the work now in London would not only be different in colour but it would also be constituted from a different material.

One day in the second half of the 1960s, the owners of this brick-making facility in Long Island City must have concluded that they had no other option than to lay off their staff and abandon their recently-constructed plant. The various factors that led to this inevitability are therefore also those that shaped Equivalent VIII and the way it now looks.