PRINT October 2003


Fred Sandback

IN 1986 FRED SANDBACK concluded one of his rare written statements with the words: “Perhaps indeed, I have nomadicized my existence.” He was speaking about his unexpected disaffection for the museum dedicated to his work in Winchendon, Massachusetts, which he had opened five years earlier with the financial help of the Dia Art Foundation. The idea of the museum had been “quirky,” he readily admitted, but his work, not “easily acquired or preserved,” had gradually become invisible. “I did feel that the work ought to exist somewhere in a reasonably dense and permanent grouping, outside of the ‘three week stands’ that were the approximate limit in galleries. . . . Designing the interior space and the work was a source of great pleasure. But it was a surprise to see how quickly it became something on its own, not necessarily connected to me. Once the work was done, it was done, whereas I had a continuing need to disrupt that permanence that I had wanted.” (Ten years later, the Fred Sandback Museum closed for good.) There is something harrowing in these lines, in view of Sandback’s recent death, at age fifty-nine. One never really knows why anyone commits suicide, but the near coincidence of the opening of Dia:Beacon, where a vast space is dedicated to his work, and the tragic end of his life suggests that the reemerging specter of permanence did little, if anything, to lift his spirits.

Even though he would probably have dismissed this as anecdotal, the dizzying pleasure of apprehending Sandback’s work was greatly enhanced by its nomadic mode of production. One imagines the artist arriving in some far-off place (he showed frequently in Europe) with just a few drawings and a ball of acrylic rope in his backpack: That’s all he needed, really, to create a work in situ or to adjust a piece to the space at his disposal and thus activate it. Josef Albers used to say that art inhabits the gap between the factual and the actual: Although by the time Sandback was enrolled at Yale the old Bauhausmeister had retired, no artist of his generation proved Albers’s point better, and none did more to widen the gap between means and effect. Sandback’s material facts are almost nothing, which makes one’s actual experience of his work all the more phenomenal.

And this efficiency has an immediacy about it—it is as brutal as the reversal of one’s perceptive choice when looking at the famous duck/rabbit image. Rare are those people unable to feel the brief, sudden vertigo of that very moment when what one sees is suddenly reconfigured by one’s mind into something wholly different: Sandback’s art needs no explanation, it is not an acquired taste. Seeing a bunch of schoolchildren go out of their way not to cross the various thresholds that Sandback had laid out for his survey at Dia (in Chelsea) a few years ago, all behaving as though the virtual transparent planes delimited by the roped edges might electrocute them, I was convinced that the kids’ caution had nothing to do with the “do not touch” warnings they had heard again and again during their cultural field trips. I vividly remembered my initial shock in seeing Sandback’s work at Dwan’s more than three decades ago, during my first trip to New York. Like the children, I was dumbfounded, but the effect that 1970 exhibition had on my understanding of Miminal art would be lasting.

To put it briefly, although Sandback shared with his (senior) Minimalist colleagues an anti-illusionist desire to break down the barrier between sculptural and real space (which he astutely called “pedestrian space”), he seems to have been taken aback both by the overwhelming rhetoric of their spatial occupation and by the recurrence of anthropocentrism in their work. Right from the beginning—around 1966–67, just before Minimalism reached its peak and became the object of criticism by “anti-form,” “Process art,” and all that would be loosely labeled under post-Minimalism—Sandback determined that mass was the problem. No matter what their authors said, a Judd ladder piece or a Morris volume would always have pride of place in a room, and the “pedestrian space” would still be downplayed, perceived as a container. The solution was not only to abandon the enclosed volume (both Judd and Morris had done that in some of their work), not only to directly involve the architectural space as Flavin and Andre had done with gusto, but to find a way of shaping space such that there would be no material difference between the object and its surroundings. Only this would ensure the success of the perceptual investigation of space, which was so important for the Minimalist program. Entering a room where Sandback has tensed his discreet—but all the more effective—ropes, one has to mentally construct the volumes these ropes demarcate, and in so doing one is immediately plunged into a fluctuating universe whose coordinates are constantly shifting. The effect is not so different from that of Serra’s 1974–75 Delineator, with its rectangular plate of steel fixed onto the ceiling and forming a cross in space with the plate of the same dimension lying on the ground. The difference is that Sandback’s critique of Minimalism was carried out without the connotation of danger that long distracted Serra’s beholders.

It would be wrong, however, to measure Sandback’s art solely against that of his immediate context. To transform space into a sculptural material has been a modernist obsession ever since Picasso created a virtual plane, by sheer structural opposition between void and full, in his 1912 Guitar (MoMA). The concept of “drawing in space” elaborated by Gonzalez and adopted by so many sculptors in the immediate postwar era is the logical extension of this early experiment. But how many artists could carry on the task? The reason it is so difficult—as diagnosed by the brilliant Constructivist sculptor Katarzyna Kobro—is that space is unlimited, and if one wants to shape space as such (and not an ersatz space) one must retain this unlimited quality. Or, to follow Kobro’s analysis again, as long as one places a figure within space, space is absorbed by the centripetal force of the figure, which acts like a black hole. Sandback intuitively understood this dilemma, which is why he conceived of his rectangles, trapezes, squares, etc., as evanescent, intangible slices of space whose limits are only to be mentally completed: As soon as these geometrical figures coalesce in front of our eyes, they disappear again at our slightest motion. We dare to pass through the thresholds, but this leaves us panting, and we immediately busy ourselves reconstructing the dissolved rectangles or trapezes. For a generation of sculptors so concerned with the intensity and forming power of one’s perception, none exacerbated that intensity with such economy, efficaciousness, or elegance.

Yve-Alain Bois is a contributing editor of Artforum.