144 Magnesium Square 1969 is composed of 144 thin magnesium plates, each measuring 12 by 12 inches, arranged into a square on the gallery floor. It is one of six works composed in an identical arrangement but in different metals by the American sculptor Carl Andre. The first three works in the series, made of aluminium, steel and zinc, were initially shown at the Dwan Gallery, New York, in 1967, while the other three, composed of magnesium, copper and lead, were produced for his 1969 exhibition at the same gallery. The materials used in the series are presented in their raw state, without physical alteration by the artist. Visitors are allowed to walk over this and the other sculptures in this series.
Comparing 144 Magnesium Square with 144 Lead Square 1969 (now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York), Nicholas Serota, then Director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, wrote in 1978:
Comparison of two squares of differing metals focuses attention on the properties of the material. The 144 lead and magnesium squares look the ‘same’ but the lead square weighs nearly 3,300 lbs while the magnesium square weighs only 500 lbs. Colour is quite different and before oxidization the magnesium square reflected and diffused light, while lead absorbed all the light that played on it. Walking on them one hears different sounds and can feel different textures and on close examination the resilience of the magnesium with its sharp edge contrasts with the soft and increasingly rounded edges of the lead.
(Nicholas Serota, ‘Matter’, in Whitechapel Art Gallery 1978, unpaginated).
The attention to the properties and uses of industrial elements demonstrated by 144 Magnesium Square and the rest of the series may be seen as an aspect of Andre’s wider political outlook and commitment to Marxism, which led him to participate in artists’ strikes and other industrial actions in the late 1960s. Rather than shaping his materials like a traditional craftsman, Andre simply arranged the plates, an activity not unlike the labour of a factory worker on a production line. In a 1970 interview he claimed:
The forms of my work have never particularly interested me. What has been my search really is for a material, a particle of a material. It’s finding a material or a unit of material like a brick of the right size and the right shade and density and so forth – from finding this particle, I would combine it with others to make a work.
(Carl Andre, Cuts: Texts 1959–2004, ed. James Meyer, Cambridge, MA 2005, p.99.)
With its emphasis on geometrical forms and industrial materials, Andre’s work may also be assessed within the broader context of minimalist art, which gained prominence in New York in the early 1960s. Andre’s work was included alongside that of other exponents of minimalism, such as Donald Judd and Dan Flavin, in the influential group show Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculptors at the Jewish Museum, New York, in 1966.
After its initial display at the Dwan Gallery in 1969, this work was shown as 144 Magnesium Plates (and dated spring 1969) in Andre’s solo exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1970 (Diane Waldman, Carl Andre, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1970, reproduced p.50). It was purchased by Tate in 1973, and a certificate written by the artist at the time refers to the work as ‘Magnesium Piece’ and ‘144 Magnesium Plates’. In 1975 Tate referred to the work as 144 Magnesium Plates, Spring – the word ‘spring’ having originated in the Guggenheim catalogue (The Tate Gallery 1972–4: Biennial Report and Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1975, pp.74–5). The title of the work appears to have been formalised between 1975 and 1978, when the work was shown as 144 Magnesium Square at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London.
Carl Andre: Sculpture 1959–78, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1978, reproduced plate 11.
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art Other than Works by British Artists, London 1981, pp.13–14, reproduced p.13.
Alistair Rider, Carl Andre: Things in Their Elements, London 2011, pp.79–89.
Supported by Christie’s.