Visual arts: Carl Andre, “Steel-Aluminum Plain,” Art Institute of Chicago

By Adam Noreen

Carl Andre’s Steel-Aluminum Plain at the Art Institute Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Avenue, is one of the most basic yet inviting pieces of visual art you will encounter. Rarely do you get a chance to do more than look at a piece. However, with Steel-Aluminum Plain the viewer is expected not only to look at the art, but to walk all over it. This plain is something that you must physically experience to fully appreciate.

When you walk into an art museum, you’ll often see old paintings, cracked sculptures, and ancient pottery — things you likely have experienced a hundred times. Maybe you even deliberately ignore the “do not touch” signs until security scolds you. These pieces of art only allow you to do one thing though, and that is look with your eyes. But how fun is more than one minute of blank staring? Sure, other classic art might be interesting. But it only can access one sense — maybe two, if you can get close enough and are weird enough to smell it.

Steel-Aluminum Plain lies flat on the ground and is accompanied by four other pieces of art in a tiny room. Because it’s the only thing you can touch in the room, it’s easy to ignore the other four works. Made up of 36 alternating panels — 18 steel and 18 aluminum, as the title implies — you will notice its familiar checkerboard pattern. What is unfamiliar about this, though, will be when you walk on the alternating pieces. There is a welcoming smoothness to the steel and an interesting opaque reflection in the aluminum.

You have the opportunity to stand in the center of this piece or to view it as an outsider looking in. You can stomp on the panels, you can attempt to scratch them with your nails, and you can even jump up and down screaming, “This is the coolest shit since the Mona Lisa!” and no one will stop you because this is what the artist wanted you to do. All of these options add endless depth to a simple-looking structure.

By not rising up, Andre’s Steel-Aluminum Plain has more of a sensory impact than many other works of art you might  observe. This piece allows the viewer to have a full experience rather than the typical procedure of, “Stand behind a rope and abide by 20 accompanying ‘Do Not Touch’ signs.” The plain is a work of art that needs to be seen and touched, and it will make a trip to The Art Institute of Chicago more than worthwhile.