Revealed: secrets of the Tate bricks

Newly released documents uncover a heated argument and the search for spares


The Tate “bricks” affair of 1976 was the major post-war row over contemporary art in Britain, but what was not realised at the time was the scale of the dispute it led to behind-the-scenes, between the Tate and the Burlington Magazine. The gallery was shocked by the hostility of the mainstream press to the purchase of Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII, 1966. But, it had not expected to be attacked by the leading art history journal.

The Tate’s files have remained closed for 35 years, but were opened under the Freedom of Information Act. Among the papers is a memo on “The Burlington & the Bricks”.

The controversy was sparked by an article in The Sunday Times on 15 February, 1976, headlined “The Tate Drops a Costly Brick”. Journalist Colin Simpson asked why the gallery had bought what appeared to be a set of 120 bricks. The rest of the press jumped on the bandwagon, resulting in more than 1,000 articles. Although not disclosed at the time, the Tate had paid £2,297 for Equivalent VIII (a similar work sold for $1.1m at Sotheby’s in 2008).

Six weeks after “The Sunday Times” article, a strongly worded editorial in the April issue of the Burlington deplored the Tate’s record of buying “showy work which may well be regarded in a few decades as trash”. The Tate’s curators were furious and wanted the magazine to publish a rebuttal.

In “The Burlington & the Bricks” memo, curator Richard Morphet reported back to Tate director Sir Norman Reid on a lunch with the Burlington editor on 7 July, 1976. Benedict Nicolson had said there was no space for a full article, although he would carry a letter.

Reid sent Nicolson a stiff note two days later, saying that he was “more than somewhat surprised to be told that you fear you may be unable to publish this article because of extreme pressure on your space”. He concluded: “We have put up with many ill-informed attacks from the daily press which have not been worth the trouble of a serious reply. With the Burlington the situation is different and we expect to be treated with the seriousness and courtesy with which we regard your own writing.”

On 19 July Nicolson caved in, agreeing to publish Morphet’s article, although he was “rather appalled by the length”. The Tate curator was asked to cut it, but he stood firm, and his article (just under four pages of text) appeared in the November 1976 issue. Morphet concluded in his published article that “in the Tate’s view the Andre will, in time, be generally accepted as among the most important art of its period”.

Nairne’s quest

Meanwhile, outside the learned pages of the Burlington, others had taken matters into their own hands. On 23 February, 1976, a visitor threw blue liquid onto Equivalent VIII. It was vegetable dye, and was easily washed off, but the Tate realised that it would be prudent to purchase some extra bricks (it had only five spares).

Sandy Nairne, a young research assistant (now director of the National Portrait Gallery) was asked to acquire more bricks. This proved complicated, because Andre had used fire bricks, which do not have a frog (the indentation which holds the mortar). The Tate’s papers show that in July 1977 Nairne contacted General Refractories, the original New Jersey supplier, but it was no longer making them. Nairne failed to track down any extra bricks.

“The colour and type had to be what the artist specified—they were not just ‘any old bricks’, as the press had been suggesting,” Nairne told us last month.

The Tate has since had to make do with the five spares it acquired from Andre.