For Achim Borchardt-Hume, curator of the show of Fred Sandback’s work currently at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, ‘the most engaging art works contain their opposite.’ For all its apparent simplicity, Sandback’s work is replete with contradictions. Three of the five pieces in the one-room Whitechapel show play hide and seek with the visitor to the space, in contrast to the never before exhibited central ‘Triangle’ piece, yet the small works, once discovered, assert their presence without coyness.
His chosen components are among the most banal materials, elastic cord, acrylic yarn, string and in the early corner pieces, lacquered wire, strung tautly between ceiling and floor or wall to wall or bent 90o to echo a structural corner, Yet, fixed in what Sandback terms ‘pedestrian space, the works created by such materials seem monumental. With mere string, Sandback creates volume without mass, and form without boundaries, what Sandback terms ‘figures with no insides.’ His yarn lines contain what seem to be invisible ‘panes,’ inhibiting an attempt at penetration, yet the work consists only of what is, in Sandback’s words, ‘edge and air.’ Each piece exists in space, and, in the case of the Whitechapel installation, even orders it, but becomes volume only according to our movement and perception in relation to the configuration of the string. The dimensions of each Sandback work are fluid, but the work then relies for its resolution within a space on meticulous attention to scale and proportion.
Sandback’s work plays with our perceptions of what is ‘real.’ It dissolves depth, yet maintains a sense of perspective, melts form, but intervenes in space. It treats air as matter and matter as nothing. It thus becomes a mirror of reality, more real than a solid object because it flows from nothing to something to nothing just as reality does, and as science now understands life itself to do. It isn’t surprising then that Sandback studied philosophy at university, before responding to an interest in the creative potential of string, developed as a teenager when stringing banjos and dulcimers. In 1966 he took himself to Yale’s prestigious School of Art and Architecture, where he had the good fortune to study with two leading minimalists of the time, Robert Morris and Donald Judd.
Because Sandback’s work seems so much more demanding and difficult than that of Judd and Morris and other fellow minimalists Martin, Ryman, Andre and Flavin, most of whom had the greatest respect for him, he never achieved the fame and fortune that accrued to them. Sandback died in 2003. As recently as the 2006 exhibition that originated in Europe and travelled to Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery, he was known to only a few minimalist aficionados. Borchardt-Hume says that he was ‘aware of Sandback’s work’ for many years but only engaged with it recently when he visited the DIA Collection in Beacon NY.
I first lived with a piece by Fred Sandback in the late ’70′s and liked it well enough, but no more than I liked the work of other American minimalist artists. Then, like Borchardt-Hume, I saw several enormous works by Sandback in DIA’s lofty galleries and felt I was seeing abstract art in its most perfect state.
Like James Turrell’s choice of light as his medium, Sandback’s preoccupation with air resonates in our internal world, provoking an intense meeting of sense and reason that demands attention. I now once again share the space in which I live with a recently acquired 1976 work by Fred Sandback that pleases my eyes and teases my brain each time I pass by. Just as life does, but more insistently, Sandback’s work compels me to define and integrate what I am looking at and what I see.
The Sandback Exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery runs until August 14.