Fred Sandback, “Untitled (Four-part Vertical Construction in Two Colors)” (1987), ochre and blue-gray acrylic yarn, ceiling height x 248 inches, The Menil Collection, Houston, purchased in loving memory of Marion Barthelme with funds provided by The Brown Foundation, Inc., Louisa Stude Sarofim, Franci and Jim Crane, Nina and Michael Zilkha, Janet and Paul Hobby, William F. Stern, David and Anne Kirkland, Janie C. Lee and David B. Warren, and Tom and Marcy Taub Wessel (all images © 2016 Fred Sandback Archive and courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London)

There is a small catalogue that accompanied an exhibition of Fred Sandback’s sculptures and drawings held in April 2004, almost a year after he died. The catalogue, published by the Upper East Side gallery Zwirner & Wirth, includes two pages of notes written by the artist in the 1970s, which read like a crash course in the paradoxes woven into his incorporeal realm of three-dimensional lines drawn in space:

There’s only a certain amount of control you can have over a situation. I’m interested in working in that area in which the mind can no longer hold on to things. The point at which all ideas fall apart.

The inherent mysticism resides […] in wanting to make something as factual as possible and having it turn out just the other way […] the realization that the simplest and most comfortable of perceptions are shadows.

A piece made with just a few lines at first appears very purist and geometrical. My work isn’t either one of these things.

That last statement would seem, for anyone familiar with the artist’s work, surprising to say the least, since Sandback (1943–2003) could be considered, and not without reason, as the purest and most unsparingly geometric member of a rigorously formalist generation, a cohort that included Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Richard Serra, and Sol LeWitt.

Like LeWitt and his meticulous instructions for creating his works, Sandback didn’t so much make things (at least not the things he eventually exhibited) as plan them. His sculptures, when they left the studio, consisted of configurations, measurements, and ratios, along with specifications for the type and color of the yarn or elastic that would make up the physical incarnation of the work.

And like LeWitt’s wall drawings, Sandback’s artworks went up for an exhibition and then came down, the materials discarded. The actual piece of yarn or elastic didn’t matter. Posthumously, this process is carried out by a trained cadre of installers who travel the globe to re-create the works.

If Sandback’s sculptures aren’t purist or geometrical, then what are they? Later in the same passage he writes:

[…] the lines aren’t distillations of anything, but simple facts, products of my activity which don’t represent anything beyond themselves. They are not instances of a system or order larger than themselves, in contrast to Constructivist line, which takes natural science as its model. Awareness of existing local order is my interest, as opposed to the creation of a different order.

There could be no better argument for this distinction than Fred Sandback: Vertical Constructions, the radiant exhibition currently on display at David Zwirner’s West 20th Street location, where the gallery’s three large rooms perfectly encapsulate three very different aspects of Sandback’s art.

Fred Sandback, “Untitled (Seven-part Vertical Construction)” (1987), yellow, red, blue, and black acrylic yarn, ceiling height x 74 x 76 inches

If you know his sculpture from the several pieces on permanent exhibition at Dia:Beacon, the outpost for Minimalist and Conceptual art in Beacon, New York, and if you feel, as I do, that the dimensions of the space and the presence of other large-scale art distracts from the razor-like focus of the work, this show offers an escape into a world entirely of Sandback’s creation.

(This observation is not to detract from the Dia Art Foundation’s unstinting support of Sandback during his lifetime, including the creation of his own museum in Winchendon, Massachusetts, which was in operation from 1981 through 1996, but to acknowledge that his work is best absorbed on its own terms, in silence and solitude.)

All of Sandback’s works are untitled, presumably to underscore the premise that they “don’t represent anything beyond themselves.” The first piece you encounter, a cluster of thin, purple elastic cords stretching from floor to ceiling, was made while he was a graduate student at Yale, and before he settled on yarn as his material of choice.

As the curator Kristine Bell explained during an informative tour of the exhibition, Sandback likened elastic to a pen line slicing through the air, while yarn, with its fuzzy exterior, behaved more like a pencil, softer and more inclusive of the surrounding space.

The purple piece from 1967, though stunning, was made before the artist had fully formed his ideas on how to go about creating a sculpture “without an interior.” His eventual goal was to use his tautly stretched lines not to suggest an independent entity, as the close proximity of the elastic cords in this work invariably do, but to mold the viewer’s experience of space.

A few steps away, in the large north gallery, a rapturous selection of six yarn sculptures — a re-creation of the artist’s1987 solo exhibition at the Westfälischer Kunstverein in Münster, Germany — presents just that kind of experience, with each work carving the room into discrete sectors of constructed space. There are U-shapes running from the ceiling to the floor and back; a red L that travels down the wall and extends perpendicularly across the floor; and vertical lines interacting with the corners of the room or glowing in primary colors.

The magical thing about each work, regardless of configuration, is the planar illusion that appears between the lines — the invisible connections that shimmer like sheets of energy shooting from one vertical to the other. In the catalogue essay for the current exhibition, James Lawrence quotes Sandback as stating, “My work is full of illusions, but they don’t refer to anything. Fact and illusion are equivalents.”

That may sound like art-speak double-talk, but it isn’t. “Illusion,” Lawrence writes, “marks the gap between visual and spatial awareness,” and it is this occurrence that Sandback regards as a fact, swapping Frank Stella’s Minimalist mini-manifesto, “What you see is what you see,” for the Conceptualist rejoinder, “What you see is what you think you see,” an insight that digs more deeply into the eye-brain connection and the phenomenology he studied as an undergraduate.

The gallery’s third room, an untitled installation that carries the parenthetical subtitle “(Sculptural Study, Twenty-two-part Vertical Construction)” (c. 1991/2016), offers a fully immersive experience, with lengths of black and red yarn dividing the floor into parallel pathways and reaching high into to the skylight’s canted ceiling. The configuration creates a nave-like, quasi-sacred space recalling Sandback’s invocation of the “inherent mysticism” that results from “wanting to make something as factual as possible and having it turn out just the other way.”

Fred Sandback, “Untitled (Four-part Vertical Construction)” (1987), off-white and black acrylic yarn, ceiling height x 20 1/2 x 17 3/4 inches (click to enlarge)

The placement of the lines agitate the air into what our minds perceive as solid planes, yet the visual buzz — in marked contrast to the blinding vibrations set off by the black and white stripes of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings (currently part of a sumptuous exhibition at Paula Cooper one block north) — has an inverse effect on the nervous system, transforming optical turbulence into architectural tranquility.

Before my second visit to the Sandback exhibition, I stopped briefly at the LeWitt show, where the extreme oscillation between the black and white stripes seemed to have washed out my eyes, because when I got to Zwirner minutes later, Sandback’s illusions were suddenly non-existent, or virtually so. The optical stimulation was gone, but the tranquility remained, especially in “(Sculptural Study, Twenty-two-part Vertical Construction).”

Looking at the vertical spans of back and red yarn, which now appeared simply as lines and not the edges of invisible planes, I felt an overwhelming sense of “there-ness,” that each string — attached to the floor and ceiling by tiny, unnoticeable anchors — was exactly where it was supposed to be.

Wedded to reality — the physical interplay of the materials against the dimensions of the room — the installation’s aura, if you want to use a charged term — isn’t exactly mystical, but as a transporting visual experience, one that reaches for the “point at which all ideas fall apart,” it’s as close as we’re likely to get.

Fred Sandback: Vertical Constructions continues at David Zwirner Gallery (537 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 22.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.

2 replies on ““The Point at Which All Ideas Fall Apart”: Fred Sandback’s Grand Illusions”

  1. This is a beautiful read of Sandback’s super fine visionary work, Thomas. Thank you. I just want to add something a bit intimate and personal – that Fred was the nicest, warmest person you could hope to meet (at least to me). He was the first well established artist that embraced what I was trying to do in the late 70s, and he made me feel accepted into the grade A art world when I was still a kid. He was a very gracious and elegant bear of a man. And yes, Winchendon was wonderful.

  2. Thanks for the write up Thomas. Very informative. Gave me plenty to think about when I get to see his work next time. Who knows if I’ll get to visit before this is taken down and becomes just another exhibition of his floating about in my head….imagined.

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