Art to stumble over

THERE he is at the front door again, the Kleeneze Man, with his ``shining morning face.'' It wears, as usual, a rosy smile which aptly mirrors his wares. His company hawks things like ``new tools for flawless floors'' and ``everything for washday.'' He's visited us quite a few times before. But only this time do I find out that he's an Art Lover. Up to a point, anyway.

``I like your sculpture,'' he says.

The Andreae Collection does, in fact, include one or two modest sculptures, but they are indoors.

``Sculpture...?''

He looks back over his shoulder, toward the gate.

``Ah,'' I laugh, ``you mean the pebbles?''

``Yes, the piles of pebbles! V-e-r-y beautiful!'' I suspect him of teasing me. ``Mind you, they're much better than The Bricks I saw in the Gallery of Modern Art!'' Yes, he's teasing.

I should explain. About both the bricks and the pebbles (or The Pebble Predicament, as it is known round here.)

First, The Bricks.

The Bricks are something of a cause c'el`ebre in Britain. They have come to symbolize, in the eyes of almost everyone, the derisory absurdity, the expensive pointlessness, of ``modern art.'' They belong to the Tate Gallery in London. The gallery bought them - and they were not cheap, and it was public money - some years ago when ``minimal art'' as considered a vital force in the art world.

The Bricks are the work of American sculpture Carl Andre - though it is the lack of evident work that constitutes one of the piece's main affronts to the general sensibility: Surely a ``work of art'' should not just claim to be art, it should also show quite clearly how much ``work'' the artist has put into it.

So The Bricks very soon became infamous. A TV personality named Fyfe Robertson, who had a rich Scottish accent and a down-to-earth way of latching on to popular issues, stood on camera beside The Bricks and, nationwide, gave them the benefit of his ironical, indignant mockery. Whatever else Carl Andre had or had not achieved with his bricks, he had succeeded beyond the dreams of most artists in gaining public attention. Robertson had served him brilliantly....

The Bricks have joined Picasso in the majority British imagination as self-evident proof that modern art is rubbish. A snobbish or intellectual joke. A con.

Now this puts people like me in a somewhat awkward situation. I am a modern art buff. I think of Picasso as a quite astonishing giant of an artist. I actually like The Bricks. I firmly believe that anything that can engage the imagination, can stir or alter our vision of the surrounding world, can stamp its afterimage on your mind, or can, above all, make you want to paint or sculpt or even pile bricks, is art and not trickery. A blank, stuffy, unresponding suspicion of it simply deprives people of all kinds of new experiences. An open mind does not make a fool of you - what, after all, have you got to lose?

But even so, I find it almost impossible not to laugh along with Fyfe and the Kleeneze man when they pour scorn on The Bricks and/or Picasso. There is something inherently daft about a national museum spending a ton of money for a neat rectangle of unassuming bricks.

There is something obviously eccentric about painting both eyes in a face on the same side of the nose. So what is the point of even trying to persuade these chuckling philistines that there are good reasons, even profound reasons, for such peculiar manifestations of the ``art spirit''?

So-called ``minimal art'' was and is a special test for disbelievers. A row of metal boxes on the floor, or a bright red, smooth, and featureless plank propped against the wall, seemed on the face of it to be negative objects deprived of virtually all art interest. There was no complexity, no composition, no intriguing asymmetry, no balancing act, and no apparent human touch. Piling or stacking or ordering became sculptural methods instead of carving, modeling, constructing, or joining. There was a lot less sweat and a good deal more thought.

I haven't really given the Minimalists much attention lately. But the Kleeneze man set me going again. It seems that Minimalism continues to make an impact on his imagination.

I have on my shelves a book called ``Minimal Art, A Critical Anthology'' published 20 years ago. In it is an article about Andre's bricks by David Bourbon. Two things in this essay particularly intrigue me. One is an explanation from Andre himself:

``My work,'' he said, ``is atheistic, materialistic, and communistic. It's atheistic because it's without transcendent form, without spiritual or intellectual quality. Materialistic because it's made out of its own materials without pretension to other materials. And communistic because the form is equally accessible to all men.'' I happen to think that there's a fair bit of wordplay going on here, though I can see what he means.

Th author Bourbon, however, wrote that the ``deployment'' of Andre's bricks ``suggested an orderly Japanese rock garden, conducive to contemplation. Andre had wanted to drive the spectator back to his own sensibility...'' - an assessment which, if true, denies any conventional understanding of the three words the artist himself chose to describe his work. Which brings me to the pebbles.

The thing is, there's something wonderfully enticing about pebbles. I find it impossible to stroll along a beach, for instance, without concentrating like a child on the pebbles. The perfect pebble (and I hope that I'll never actually find it) is the result of a peculiarly harmonious agreement between it and the ocean, a conversation. ``Mmm, just rub me a little more on this side, please,'' the pebble murmurs. ``Ah, more ... yes, more ... roar, roar ... more, more,'' answers the big-hearted sea (an exchange that takes a century or so, you understand).

The chosen few pebbles may find their way onto a windowsill or dressing table; a home is not a home without several pebbles artfully positioned.

The consummate example of this in my experience is the home (now museum) of J.S. Ede in Cambridge (England), called Kettle's Yard. The Edes not only welcomed you but showed you all their treasures - paintings by Christopher Wood and Ben Nicholson, sculpture by Gaudier-Brzeska ... and pebbles. Pebbles arranged on tables in spiral patterns, uncoiling like a watch spring, getting progressively smaller, pebbles of lovely smoothness, there for no other reason than their natural beauty. In their own unassuming way they upstaged the other art.

It strikes me that these pebbles are really what came later to be called ``minimal art.'' But here they were not weightily underpinned with aesthetic theory. What sculptor has even approached a re-creation, an appreciation in his art, of the consummate simplicity of a fine pebble?

The extraordinary thing, of course, is that there is one sculptor who did just that - the Romanian-born Constantin Brancusi. In ``The Newborn,'' carved out of white marble, Brancusi dared an unpretentiousness of form as childlike as a pebble. He went even further with his ``Beginning of the World.'' The audacity of reducing sculpture to such simplicity is astonishing, the skill to achieve it far more remarkable. Only the ocean and the pebble, talking to each other, have ever managed it without thinking.

And that may partly explain why I have three enormous piles of pebbles on the sidewalk by our front gate. They are splendid pebbles, gathered from the northern Scottish beach at Lossiemouth. They have spent half this year decorating a pond in the Glasgow Garden Festival. When the Festival ended, I asked if I could buy some of them. I wanted only a few bags to put along the edge of the duck-pond and around a Chinese pot by the back door. But it had to be a truckload or nothing the supplier said. Being a pebble buff, I ordered a truckload. Twelve tons arrived one morning. It was rather more than I had anticipated.

But perhaps, after all, the Kleeneze man is right. They're good enough just where they are, dumped at the roadside. They are - unwittingly - sculpture. They are Art. They are The Pebbles.

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