There they lie in a room on 72nd Street and York, defying you to contemplate their rough surfaces, the uneven gaps, the way they crush the pile of the carpet . . . 'A seminal work,' says Anthony Grant of Sotheby's in New York. 'Seminal. One of the key, key pieces in the development of minimalist art.'

Two layers of 60 firebricks each, arranged lengthways in a rectangle five across and 12 long. Seminal.

They are being sold by Charles Saatchi. We are not supposed to know this. But anything accompanied by lugubrious critical expositions in the catalogue tends to come from Saatchi. It's his sales patter and a dead giveaway in the trade. The bricks are only one item in a big, heavily hyped sale of contemporary art: Warhol, Judd, Still, Rothko. New York is alight with anticipation. Sort of.

Grant is conducting a press tour of the works. His critical vocabulary is strictly sui generis. 'Lot of positive activity on that drawing . . . a Warhol for people interested in disasters . . . a great institutional picture . . . happy, hangable . . .'

This last, coincidentally, had been my own private description of Grant.

But I am just here for the bricks - Carl Andre's Equivalent VI, to give them their correct title - a work so seminal that Sotheby's had estimated it at dollars 300,000 to dollars 350,000 ( pounds 195,000 to pounds 228,000). We wanted a picture of the big moment, so I had asked Matthew Weigman, the press officer, if the bricks would be there in the saleroom for the auction.


'I suppose it would be absurd.'

'It would not be absurd,' the phone flounces violently in my hand, 'to show a work of art at a sale] What is it with you English journalists and these bricks?'

Bad start. Determined to make amends and fighting my worst instincts, I try not to offend Lucy Mitchell-Innes, the English director of the Contemporary Department. I flaunt my encyclopaedic knowledge of art history: Rodin, Brancusi, Andre.

'Oh,' she says, hope dawning, 'so you're going to write quite a serious piece about the bricks.'

'But, Lucy, of course . . .'

Damn right, I am. There's nothing trivial about three hundred gees for 120 firebricks. Me and the African- American security guard were agreed on that. Apart from anything else, it meant the Tate Gallery would have turned a pretty stunning profit on Equivalent VIII, an identical - well, the bricks were different bricks - work that the gallery picked up for pounds 4,000 in 1972. The guard likes that, but he still thinks the bricks need a little something - a model lying on them, maybe.

It was the Tate's similarly seminal work that inspired the most flawlessly exemplary confrontation between high art and low scepticism in post- war Britain. The problem for the taxpayer was that Equivalent VIII seemed a little low on the intervention side for a work of, you know, art. Let's face it, these were just any old firebricks, and all Andre had done was to arrange them into rows. He had not painted them, stuck them together or, in fact, done anything to them at all. On the bright side, there was no danger of their burning down.

The British did not react with the generous, curious tolerance for which they are so famous. The general tenor of the ensuing frenzy was that the bricks might be Equivalent VIII to Andre, they might be art to the Tate, but to anybody with eyes to see they were bricks tout court.

Thin men with glasses from the Tate tried to explain, but it did no good. Leading articles, columns, Fyfe Robertson and the whole shooting match of outraged Anglo-empiricism fell on Equivalent VIII like a ton of, er, bricks.

Andre, with a certain suave narcissism made an art-work out of the abuse: quotations from the British press were arranged in a brick-like grid. 'Bricks are bricks,' said Keith Waterhouse. 'I call it a pile of bricks,' said Bernard Levin, 'and that is what it is.' 'We do not know much about art, perhaps,' said the Cambridge Evening News, 'but we know what we do not like.'

At Sotheby's they insist that this sort of art row does not happen in the States. There are art rows but they are usually moral, as when the religious right took on Robert Mapplethorpe's homo-erotica. But there was nothing objectionable about bricks; that's just what art was like these days. Odd, maybe, but harmless enough.

Andre himself, a gnome-like individual in blue dungarees, creeps into the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York's SoHo to explain himself. The most shocking thing about the man is not the work, nor is it the high-profile court case in which he was acquitted of a charge of killing his wife by pushing her out of a window. No, the truly astounding thing about Carl Andre is that he is the nephew of our own Raymond Baxter, former Spitfire pilot, sports commentator and Tomorrow's World presenter.

It is impossible to imagine a more improbable cross-cultural connection. Even more strangely, it was Baxter who took Andre on a tour of England in the Fifties, showing him Stonehenge, from which, of course, it is but a short step to the bricks. Baxter likes the work, though he admits he does not fully understand it.

Andre will not be tape-recorded, for reasons I do not quite follow, though they involve precision. But when he feels particularly strongly about the answer to a question, he says he will write it in my notebook.

'Ha, ha,' I say, 'then I shall auction it at Sotheby's'

'Ha, ha,' he says, thinking I am joking.

'Anyone today can write E=mc2 on a blackboard,' he writes for my first piece of notebook art, 'but no one is going to win a Nobel Prize for doing it.'

This is his not entirely satisfactory answer to the difficult question of why, just because he arranged the bricks, that made them art. I think he means it's a question of doing it first. But the apparent simplicity of Einstein's formula is rather different from the real simplicity of bricks.

I then press him on the question of the highly specialised nature of his audience, surely no more than a cosy elite. 'The New York art audience,' he writes, 'is the worst art audience

in the world: they are a herd of snorting, stomping, frightened cattle, hoping only to all stampede in the same direction.'

In between writing these statements, Andre talks softly and fluently until interrupted by the conviction that something must be written down, at which point he grabs the increasingly valuable notebook.

He is, he insists, a rather conservative practitioner within the mainstream sculptural tradition. His work is about materials; it is not 'conceptual' in needing words to complete its meaning, nor is it polemical. The pleasure it provides is the traditional one of contemplation.

'Art,' he writes, 'is finally subject to the judgement of history and, because the span of that judgement is much longer than a human life, no artist ever knows the true value of her (sic) own work.'

This is followed, seconds later, by another written apercu. 'I am a great despiser of fashion. The worst fate for my work I could imagine in 100 years would be to have it thought only one of the hemlines of our time.'

But what about the passivity of his role, as mere assembler? 'I do not cut into my materials. I use my materials to cut into space.'

Elsewhere he has said: 'The experience of a work of art is as hard a job as to make a work of art.'

The bricks don't come to you; you have to come to the bricks.

He is, it becomes clear, perfect. He has an answer to everything, and they are all good answers.

Occasionally he lapses into the straightforwardly portentous - 'Truth lies in contradiction' or 'The secret of the infallibility of predestination is that it only works backwards' - but most of the time his conversation is a process of taking you gently by the hand and leading you to the inescapable conclusion: a pile of bricks, why not? What, in the last analysis, is wrong with bricks? Is it not just typical English snobbery to dislike bricks?

Andre says the rows made him remember it was not bricks that the English really disliked; it was the Irish (I think he meant the builders).

I left him, not exactly feeling the bricks were vindicated, but somehow not caring any more.

But outside it was still New York, lovely and scary, and that struck me as a problem. The city is the post-war capital of art. It overthrew Paris in the Forties and Fifties, and invented, in the process, a tradition of art that finally allowed America to look Europe in the face. But it was a tradition on the edge. Every development from Jackson Pollock onwards seemed hell- bent on twisting the idea of art until it broke.

As the poet John Ashbery pointed out, when Pollock began his dribbling, art history held its breath. He was either the greatest painter in America or merely a dumb dauber. Pollock, thanks to the warm embrace of New York City, won: the future was being made and it was being made in America.

After that, New York became art heaven, spawning cohorts of international names and annexing swathes of the Manhattan grid in the name of art. But always there was this puritanical extremity, a drive to strip the business down to its essentials: all- black paintings, all-blue paintings, almost all-white paintings and, of course, bricks.

It was a kind of psychosis, a frenzy driven by the potent, seductive idea of art. Being an artist was what counted because that meant that what you did was art.

This, of course, meant that, however extreme the work, it could never be avant-garde. The New York artists needed an art establishment and the sacredness of art itself far too much to be able to stand outside. The resulting grim alliance of big money and edgy art was comical and frequently pathetic, but great work was undoubtedly produced. The final topple over the edge, however, was inevitable.

Pioneering discipline of a curious kind may have held back Warhol and De Kooning, Rothko and Pollock. But now New York art has aged and toppled. Smart mediocrities such as Julian Schnabel are feted by the collectors. The fun has moved from the studio to the auction room.

The wreckage is appalling. The Whitney Museum is holding its biennial. It is a monstrous, hysterical mountain of screaming political correctness. Probably dismayed by the aesthetic refinement of the old New Yorkers, the new ones have taken to reducing art to a series of pointlessly encoded slogans about race wars, sex wars or just wars.

Listening to the Whitney guides' fabulously mindless explanations of this sad trash is only marginally less depressing than reading the captions that the artists feel obliged to attach to their work. 'I have come to think of history as dysfunctional,' writes one Jimmie Durham. 'We have to think more complexly than to think we can know the past because we can't'

Others produce glib installations about women's eating disorders.

This is the cream of the United States, selected and displayed by one of its primary institutions. Be worried about America, be very worried.

Andre's bricks are at the opposite extremity. Where the Whitney dumps history in favour of sloganeering, Andre embraces history as the justification for silence and inertia. But they share the same puritan extremity, a joint refusal merely to carve in marble or paint on canvas, because they believe that here and now it cannot be done. And they share New York, the city that defines, endorses and bankrolls the modern.

New York may, however, be tiring of its role. They turn out for the sale, of course. Sotheby's on Monday night was the place to be. Rich, shiny and curiously stiff, as if frightened of breaking something, they pour into the saleroom. I stumble into Diana Ross who grins fixedly. I just stop myself saying, 'Hi.'

'How was Vietnam?' The question sails across the crowd, startling, apparently, only me.

'Wonderful,' comes the reply, 'hot, friendly, exciting.'

America can domesticate anything.

Two bald performance artists are there in the usual pink, plastic suits. It is crowded, but not crowded enough. Sotheby's has taken out some chairs to make it look like more of a crush than it is. The bad word is out on the Warhols that are supposedly the stars of the show: third rankers, unimpressive. The signs are bad.

The auction swings into action. It is breathtakingly quick. The numbers on the currency conversion board flutter with a lovely shimmer like a flapper's dress. But the experts are sighing and gasping. Numbers are called by the auctioneer, but no hands are going up. Reserves are not being reached, pieces are being unsold.

Lot 44. The bricks. The auctioneer starts at dollars 150,000 . . . dollars 160,000 . . . dollars 200,000. But he is just prodding the crowd with empty sums. There are no hands. The hammer falls, the bricks are unsold.

The sale realises dollars 9m against a minimum estimate of dollars 18m. Only 52 out of 77 lots are sold. 'We have had,' Sotheby's tells the press afterwards, 'more successful sales than tonight.'

The recession has come storming back, just when the New York art market thought it had it licked. And the bricks are still in Saatchi's hands. Perhaps Andre had been too fatefully rude about the New York art audience. Or perhaps he was simply right, and the snorting, stomping, frightened herd had galloped off in the opposite direction.

'Maybe,' Andre has said, 'the whole art experience is disappearing.'

Maybe, in New York, he is right. The days of the city's glory may be over. Its unarguable authority has begun to look like petulant assertion. The metaphysical substance known as art has always been fugitive, fragile, and perhaps New York leant just a little too hard, achieving as a city what its people had aspired to as artists: the breakage of art.

And the bricks? Well, it is obvious really. They were not art. They were an encoded critical commentary on the history of art, a last word, a pay-off line, a hugely specialised insight that partook of the metaphysics only by virtue of its historic proximity to a great, vibrant phase in a great, vibrant city. They were in the end and in the beginning what we always thought they were: just bricks.

(Photograph omitted)