Executed at Konrad Fischer’s Düsseldorf gallery in 1969, Copper-Steel Alloy Square is a vision of elemental splendour from Carl Andre’s seminal early series of metal floor sculptures. Comprising 100 alternating copper and steel squares, it belongs to the third group of works within this cycle, in which the artist combined two different types of metal to create what he referred to as ‘Alloy Squares’. Based on Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, Andre’s early metal floor sculptures represent the crucible of his aesthetic outlook, and a cornerstone of Minimalist practice. In these works, he sought to isolate matter in its purest, most non-referential state. ‘The periodic table of elements is for me what the colour spectrum is for a painter’, he explained. ‘My ambition as an artist is to be the “Turner of matter”. As Turner severed colour from depiction, I attempt to sever matter from depiction’ (C. Andre, quoted in P. Sutenin, ‘Carl Andre: The Turner of Matter?’, Willamette Week’s Fresh Weekly, 12-18 August 1980, p. 9). In the fifteen ‘Alloy Squares’ – one of which now resides in The Broad, Los Angeles – Andre created different alternating combinations of aluminium, steel, zinc, copper, magnesium and lead, relishing the ways in which their various natural properties were enhanced through juxtaposition. This trajectory would reach its climax in his legendary installation 37th Piece of Work the following year: a composite of 36 six-by-six-square floor sculptures, all in different metals, which was unveiled as part of his first American museum exhibition at the Guggenheim. The present work was acquired by the Matthys-Colles from Wide White Space shortly afterwards in 1971, and has remained largely unseen in public since that time.
Andre’s early metal floor sculptures have their roots in a fantasy that the artist concocted with his friend Hollis Frampton. Both had a long-standing fascination with metals and natural elements: Andre had frequently watched his father – a plumbing designer – in his workshop, whilst Frampton was the son of a chemist. During the early 1960s, they dreamt of building a ‘Museum of the Elements’, structured like the Periodic Table, with each element presented in its own compartment as a solid, a liquid and a gas. It was, writes Alistair Rider, a ‘dream of totality, one in which the essence of all substance is exposed and visible: all distilled, all ordered and entirely compartmentalised’ (A. Rider, Carl Andre: Things in Their Elements, New York 2011, p. 83). Andre’s metal floor sculptures represented an extension of this idea. The first group of works, created between 1967 and 1969 at Dwan Gallery in New York, comprised six 144-square sculptures in aluminium, steel, magnesium, copper, zinc and lead: all are now held in major museums worldwide, including Tate, London and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The second group, created at Wide White Space in 1968, comprised four 100-square works in copper, lead, aluminium and zinc. Following the ‘Alloy Squares’, created at Konrad Fischer’s gallery the following year, Andre produced his fourth group: the 36-square sculptures – or ‘Plains’, as they came to be known – that collectively made up the Guggenheim installation. Interestingly – and perhaps somewhat prophetically – Andre and Frampton had playfully identified Frank Lloyd Wright’s new design for the Guggenheim as an imaginary model for their Museum of the Elements.
Though Andre would later go on to experiment with other elements, including tin, nickel, carbon and iron, he was particularly entranced by the six that defined his early oeuvre. ‘[They] are called the construction metals’, he explained. ‘They are the common metals of everyday economic life and the ones we see around us and we employ all the time. We do have them around all the time but we almost always paint over them and cover them up’ (C. Andre, 1972, quoted in P. Cummings, Artists in Their Own Words, New York 1979, pp. 40-41). Part of his project, he later reflected, was to reclaim the ‘innocence’ of matter: to remove it from its cultural, political and technological associations, to rescue it from ubiquity and to make it visible in all its natural glory. Visitors to his exhibitions were invited to walk across the sculptures without shoes, as if to commune directly with the materials themselves. The combined media of the ‘Alloy Squares’ enhanced this perceptual game, allowing viewers to understand – as Andre himself had always believed – that, for example, ‘copper is more profoundly different from aluminum than green is from red’ (C. Andre, quoted in P. Sutenin, ibid.). Indeed, when experienced in person, the present work seems to throw its quotidian materials into almost transcendental relief, counterbalancing the rigour of its conception with the shifting, subtle beauty of its dual surface. ‘Sculpture, you might say, is matter mattering’, Andre would later explain. ‘… My vocation is to be a matterist’ (C. Andre, quoted in T. Marlow, ‘Interview with Carl Andre’, Tate Magazine, Vol. 9, Summer 1996, p. 38).