"The first sculpture I made with a piece of string and a little wire was the outline of a rectangular solid . . . lying on the floor. It was a casual act, but it seemed to open up a lot of possibilities for me," Fred Sandback wrote in 1986, looking back over twenty years of activity to a seminal sculpture he had executed in 1966.1 The key implications of that determining impulse remain at the heart of his practice today. In wanting to create sculpture that did not have an inside, he found through this seemingly "casual act" the means to "assert a certain place or volume in its full materiality without occupying and obscuring it."2
For more than three decades, Sandback has pursued these governing insights with remarkable consistency and inventiveness, creating a body of work that is informed by a signature style and yet, as a result of the close interdependence of each piece with the architectural site in which it is realized, ever different in its manifestations. Arguably still the best commentator on his own work, he has elucidated his abiding wish "to be in some sort of constituting material relationship with my environment" in limpid forthright terms: "My feeling persists," he avowed, in that same article from 1986, "that all my sculpture is part of a continuing attitude and relationship to things. . . . The sculptures address themselves to the particular space and time that they're in, but it may be that the more complete situation I'm after is only constructed in time slowly, with the individual sculptures as its constituent parts."3
For his presentation at Dia:Beacon, Sandback has seamlessly integrated older pieces with newer ones to orient and ground the viewer in a particular place, a specific situation. A rigorous selection from his deliberately circumscribed lexicon, each sculpture is newly parsed for the site: "I don't feel that once a piece is made, then it's done with," he explained. "I continue to work with older schemata and formats, and often begin to get what I want out of them only after many reworkings. Though the same substructure may be used many times, it appears each time in a new light. It is the measure of the relative success of a piece, not necessarily that a new structure emerges, but that a familiar one attains, in its present manifestation, a particular vibrancy or actuality."4
The character of any particular work is relative to its site, its proportions and form subtly calibrated in response to the architectonics of the area it inhabits. Thus not only the specific measurements and proportions but also the tone or hue of the yarn may be adapted or altered as the artist intuitively adjusts a work to both its neighbors and its new location. In these sculptures, space is both defined and imbued with an incorporeal palpability, so that often the spectator concentrates less on the edges, on the yarn demarcating the forms, than on the planar or volumetric components contained within. Whether transparent geometries, as in Untitled (1977)—a two-part vertical construction—and Untitled (1996)—two triangles—or simple linear trajectories, as in Untitled (1996)—a six-part vertical construction—Sandback's sculptures unequivocally occupy the same physical site as the viewer. Inhabiting what the artist has dubbed "pedestrian space"—the ordinary matter-of-fact space coextensive with that of the spectator and of the site—they reveal themselves over time, from different vantages, and according to different perspectives.5 While any apprehension of his works involves a process of kinesthetic viewing, a phenomenological experiencing of each piece in situ, Sandback has been careful to distinguish his sculpture from so-called Installation art, from the creation of a holistic place, set apart, in and of itself, sui generis. His work is never environmental, if that implies transforming the context. On the contrary, as he states, "It incorporates specific parts of the environment, but it's always coexistent with that environment, as opposed to overwhelming or destroying that environment in favor of a different one."6
In a low gallery that opens off an installation of Donald Judd's plywood boxes aligned in strictly serried rows, two works have been introduced that are initially glimpsed from afar, as brightly colored vectors skimming through the air. When confronted directly they radically reorient the spectator's relation to the dominant axial configuration of the architecture, dramatically skewing one's circuit away from the strongly accented horizontal and vertical sight lines that elsewhere prevail. The vivid terracotta contours of the two-part vertical construction limn two planes positioned at right angles to each other, creating dynamic diagonal vectors on the west side of the gallery. To the east, a vibrant ocher triangle tilting out from the wall ventures beyond its half of the space to invade the transitional passage linking this gallery to the adjacent one. As the viewer passes into this room, a second triangle, angled almost parallel to the back side of the dividing wall, is revealed. Although canted more modestly off the vertical, and more subdued in hue, it deftly counters and stabilizes the bold thrust of its more monumental partner. By actively incorporating the wall as a pivot that balances in delicate equilibrium a pair of contending components (rather than treating it simply, and conventionally, as a passive element whose function is to separate the two spaces), the artist in characteristically adroit fashion engages the viewer actively in the immediate context—in the world at hand.
Like the other works on view here, these two sculptures are made from acrylic yarn, a material that for Sandback carries no significant connotations. He prefers it over other materials because its soft, slightly fuzzy contours conjure a less crisp, less rigid line than that produced by metal, and its matte surface absorbs rather than reflects light. When required, a more strongly accentuated edge can easily be made by doubling or trebling the strings. Taken together these qualities permit the yarn works to coexist more subtly and diversely with their ambience than did their predecessors made from wire or metal rods.
Emerging during the heyday of Minimalism, Sandback's art has distinguished and differentiated itself from that of his immediate forebears by its eschewal of the reductively literal and of the material as its primary modes of being.7 In his exploration of physical relationships via the incorporeal rather than through concrete matter—via the interplay of vacancy and volume— he recognizes that the illusory and the factual are inextricably intertwined. "Fact and illusion are equivalents," he asserts; "Trying to weed one out in favor of the other is dealing with an incomplete situation."8 Nevertheless, he stresses that "in no way is my work illusionistic. Illusionistic art refers you away from its factual existence towards something else. My work is full of illusions, but they don't refer to anything."9
1. Fred Sandback, "Remarks on My Sculpture 1966–1986," in Fred Sandback Sculpture 1966–1986 (Mannheim: Kunsthalle, 1986), p. 12.
3. Ibid., pp. 12–13.
4. Ibid., p. 13.
5. Sandback and a friend coined the term pedestrian space to define space that was "literal, flatfooted, and everyday. The idea was to have the work right there along with everything else in the world, not up on a spatial pedestal. The term also involved the idea of utility—that a sculpture was there to be actively engaged, and it had utopian glimmerings of art and life happily cohabitating." Ibid.
6. Sandback, quoted in 74 Front Street: The Fred Sandback Museum, Winchendon, Massachusetts (New York: Dia Art Foundation, 1982), p. 4.
7. I thank Amy Baker Sandback for unpublished information on these paintings from her forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Ryman's work.
8. Sandback, quoted in 74 Front Street, p. 4.