Steel-Lead Alloy Square is an iconic, early and large scale work by Minimalist sculptor Carl Andre. Created in 1969, the year leading up to Andre's first major solo exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, it employs a unique combination of one hundred steel and lead squares in an elegant, checkerboard grid. Referred to by the artist as 'post-studio sculpture', the work was originally conceived for the Galerie Konrad Fischer in Düsseldorf. With fifty plates of each metal arranged in a regularly alternating pattern across the floor, the sculpture appears both light and dark in equal measure, the surface reflecting the natural properties of its materials. The lead is bright, starkly contrasting the varied, deep grey and shadowy tones of its accompanying steel alloy. Each element is arranged in a nonhierarchical and un-joined manner, with no single piece greater in size, shape or relevance than any other. The materials themselves reflect Andre's interest in the elements of the periodic table, particularly those that are abundant and regularly employed in industrial practice. As the artist explained,'my particles are all more or less standards of the economy, because I believe in using materials of society in the form the society does not use them' (D. Bourdon, 'A Redefinition of Sculpture', D. Bourdon (ed.), Carl Andre: Sculpture 1959-1977, New York, 1978, p. 14). The surface of Steel-Lead Alloy Square rests less than a centimeter above the ground, smooth and 'level as water' (Ibid., p. 19). An unprecedented approach to sculpture, Andre sought to create a virtually two-dimensional work, removing any allusion to meaning or anthropomorphism. As he later recounted, 'my ambition as an artist isto be the 'Turner' of matter as Turner severed colour from depiction, I attempt to sever matter from depiction' (C. Andre quoted in A. Rider (ed.), Carl Andre: Things in Their Elements, London, 2011, p. 86).
In reducing the volume of his work to a bare minimum, Andre invites viewers to experience the materials' physical properties in a directly tactile way, walking over the work in 'stocking feet' to observe each square's differing thermal conductivity, density and durability. As the artist explained, 'my idea of a piece of sculpture is a road. That is, a road doesn't reveal itself at any particular or from any particular point. Roads appear and disappear. We either have to travel on them or beside them. Most of my works - certainly the successful ones - have been ones that are in a way causeways - they cause you to make your way along them or around them or to move the spectator over them' (C. Andre interview with P. Tuchman, E. Meyer Hermann (ed.), Carl Andre Sculptor 1996, Stuttgart, 1996, p. 47). Encountering the work up close, new characteristics and qualities become visible, each square being marked with traces of previous visitors and various discrepancies in color and surface texture. As such, Steel-Lead Alloy Square takes on an almost autobiographic quality, commemorating its past and presence in time and space. This is exactly as the artist intended: 'my works are in [a] constant state of change. I'm not interested in reaching an ideal state with my works. As people walk on them, as the steel rusts, as the brick crumbles, as the materials weather, the work becomes its own record of everything that's happened to it' (C. Andre quoted in D. Bourdon, 'A Redefinition of Sculpture', Carl Andre: Sculpture 1959-1977, New York, 1978, p. 32).
The planar surface of Steel-Lead Alloy Square, by no means diminishes the work's presence. Indeed as David Bourdon has described, the effect of the work is remarkably disorientating: 'if we stand on the piece it tends to slip away in our peripheral vision, while the disconcerting way in which the tiles sway under our feet persuades us that the sculpture is not as stark and inflexible as we may have first imagined' (D. Bourdon, 'A Redefinition of Sculpture', D. Bourdon (ed.), Carl Andre: Sculpture 1959-1977, New York, 1978, p. 14). These sensations were deliberately promoted in Andre's thirty-six foot square sculpture, 37th Piece of Work created the following year. Exhibited in the central atrium of the Guggenheim Museum, the work was made up of thirty-six smaller sculptures including a six by six Steel-Lead Plain arrangement, located amongst the myriad squares of metal.
Whilst Steel-Lead Alloy Square closely traces the floor, Andre does not regard his sculptures as strictly flat. As he has explained, 'I think, in a sense, that each piece supports a column of air that extends to the top of the atmosphere. They're zones. I hardly think of them as flat, any more than one would consider a country flat, just because if you look at it on the map it appears flat' (C. Andre interview with P. Tuchman, Carl Andre Sculptor 1996, E. Meyer Hermann (ed.), Stuttgart, 1996, p. 49).
In this respect, Andre recognises the influence of the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi on his art and in particular the strong affinities with his modular, vertical, Endless Columns. As Andre's close friend Hollis Frampton observed, 'I think Carl, is in a sense, Brancusi's truest heir [Brancusi] stressed direct cutting in metal, wood and stone the young American makes direct cuts in gravity, mass, volume, density: the most fundamental properties of all sculpture, as of all matter' (H. Frampton, 'Letter to Enno Develing 24 May 1969', Carl Andre Sculptor 1996. E. Meyer Hermann (ed.), Stuttgart, 1996, p. 49).
Each of Andre's floor sculptures has a unique impact on its surrounding environment. For Andre, sculpture is no longer about 'form' or 'structure' but about the definition of 'place'. As Anne Rorimer has observed, Steel-Lead Alloy Square shares its own space with the space of the observer around or above it and, instead of containing or protruding into empty space, makes an incisive indentation into the surrounding environment' (A. Rorimer, 'Minimal Art, Arte Povera, Conceptual Art: Reflections on the Herbert Collection', Public Space/Two Audiences: Works and Documents from the Herbert Collection, Barcelona, 1996, p. 20). The implications of this pioneering approach are abundantly clear in the Land Art and Conceptual Art that followed, and which established their own unique connection to the surrounding environment.
Andre first moved to New York in 1957 where he became reunited with his former classmate Frank Stella. It was in Stella's studio in 1959 that Andre produced his first sculpture, at the same time encountering his contemporary's austere Black andAluminium Paintings created on shaped and unconventional canvases. As Andre later recalled, 'it was not basically the appearance of Stella's paintings that influenced me, but his practice' (C. Andre quoted in J. Meyer, 'Survey', Minimalism, London, 2006, p. 23). His methodical and reductive style of painting stripes resonating with Andre's own ambitions for sculpture. During this period Andre was also employed on the Pennsylvania Railroad in New Jersey. It is perhaps easy to draw certain parallels between the regular and modular components of Steel-Lead Alloy Square and the interchangeable freight cars and regular train lines of the railway he was working on.
For Andre and Stella, as well as fellow Minimalists, Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin and Donald Judd, the simplification of format and technique was essential to the work of art. Instead of the emotive or intuitive decision-making processes employed by the generation of Abstract Expressionists in the 1940s and 1950s, the artists privileged refined geometry, serialisation, and precisely sized and shaped units of construction. As Andre extolled, 'what the idea of 'minimal art' means to me is that the person has drained and rid himself of the burden, the cultural over-burden that stands shadowing and eclipsing art. I think art is quite apart from that and you have to really rid yourself of those securities and certainties and assumptions and get down to something, which is closer and resembles some kind of blankness. Then one must construct again out of this reduced circumstance' (C. Andre quoted in A. Rider (ed.), Carl Andre: Things in Their Elements, London 2011, p. 249).