Sculptor Gregory Steel: Putting Ideas into Practice

Born and raised in Detroit, Gregory Steel has been a working

artist long before receiving his advanced academic degrees in art.

He also has a doctorate in philosophy, making him a man of ideas

as much as a master of construction. We are living in theoretical

times, which sometimes dominate and erode art’s capacity for

visual pleasure. But Steel, despite forty years of study of both

Western and Asian philosophy, knows that the primary impact of

art is visual. One of his most striking sculptures is called Iki

(2018), a Japanese term meaning stylishness. It consists of two

sets of rods, steel blue in color, set on the edge of a thin limestone

slab, nearly white in hue. The elegance of the sculpture cannot be

denied, and this, it seems, is what Steel is after: a pronounced

poise created from the virtuous use of materials, along with an

intellectual orientation informing the solid construction of simpler


The tradition of steel sculpture is highly evident in Steel’s art. On

seeing his work, one often thinks of the precedent structures of

David Smith and Anthony Caro. But the Japanese elegance of Iki

also informs Steel’s work. Steel’s formalist abstractions often

seem to chart philosophical concepts which make him an artist of

greater import than if he were just describing visual structures. In

Spirit Path (2018), also made of steel and limestone, a circle

consisting of steel rods is attached to two flat panels of steel which

in turn, suggest two ascending paths. The panels, in turn, are

joined to a roughly contoured boulder, indicating a living presence

outside the one we know. At the base of the panels are two

circular disks--such shapes have often signified unlimitedness.

Binary ideas permeate this work, as well as Steel’s other

sculptures, pointing the way to visual choices that ultimately

support one another and lead to the same conclusion.

Still (2020) might be described as an abstract still life. It consists

of two groups of steel rods, wrapped tightly by metal bands. These

two groups are supported by vertical ovals of steel; one set rises

above the ovals while the other goes no further than the oval’s

highest point. Everything is colored a rust-red. The title might just

as easily be directed toward the mind’s stillness in contemplation.

But with Still we are not reading philosophy- we are experiencing

a state of being. In Still Standing (2020), Steel has set up two

dark, vertical steel beams, with another, shorter beam crossing

both near the top of the work. The title refers to the angle

downward of the two verticals, which makes them seem as if they

were about to tip over creating a delicate balancing act.

Yuugen (2018), a Japanese term meaning a deep awareness of

the universe, is indicated in Steel’s welded-steel work, which is

composed of slightly curving steel-blue planks with

rims rising on both edges of the steel planes. It is another beautiful

piece about balance. The artwork consists of a curving piece of steel, 

and another curving beam steel beam crosses it toward the top. 

At the bottom of the sculpture is another beam, very near which a couple of

steel disks occur. The color of all the components is an exquisite

gray-blue. The notion of balance and equanimity, achieved by

long stays in meditation is central to Zen Buddhism.Yuugen

embraces the awareness that comes from the contemplative

mind. Like most of Steel’s works, it embodies a quiet that is as

much Asian as it is Western, although the language of Western

abstract sculpture is predominant. Ultimately, Steel is a master of

sculpture that describes the delicate balance between space and


Jonathan Goodman


Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery, and the Brooklyn Rail, among other publications.