New York

Fred Sandback

David Nolan Gallery

Affirming the virtues of consistency, Fred Sandback has found unlimited resources in an austerely restricted idiom. Though for more than a quarter of a century he has made what could inelegantly be called string art, the geometric shapes he defines by stretching lengths of yarn from floor to wall to ceiling have all the conceptual weight of Platonic forms. Line that defines volume, volume that exists without opaque mass, forms that occupy space and behave like material bodies yet are imagined rather than actual—these sound like concerns of the ’60s, and in the hands of a lesser artist they would exist as nothing more than inert throwbacks to a once critical formalism, yet Sandback’s economical art transcends the stigma of an idea whose time has passed and points without reservation to the enduring relevance of a practice that questions the phenomenological nature of sculpture in search of nonmaterial reality.

Visual comprehension of the three black acrylic filaments installed here is virtually instantaneous. A horizontal 28-foot-long piece of yarn cuts across the length of the narrow front room at ground level, and two taut diagonal vectors that intersect at an apex on the ceiling outline the diaphanous plane of an obtuse triangle. Once we accept this schema as a sculptural proposal (and not as drawing in space) quick assimilation is brought to a screeching halt. Imagined in its ideal condition as a three-dimensional solid form, the reference lines of which suggest an axial tilt rather than a strict perpendicular orientation, the effect is that of a massive gravity-defying object crammed into a space barely large enough to contain it. Much of the gallery, in back of the transparent triangular face, is reserved as the volumetric property of the idealized geometrical form, leaving only a compressed passage from front door to desk to back room as unencumbered pedestrian space. As the experience of an imaginary sculpture unfolds—walking through its surface into its interior, obeying or disobeying the boundaries it imposes, observing the dissolution of architectural constraints—an amalgam of formal, social, and metaphysical relations emerges.

On the announcement for this exhibition, Sandback reprinted a 1951 photograph by Robert Doisneau entitled Poitiers Tradition, depicting a wedding party walking down a country road. Midway between the group and the photographer, a cord tied to the backs of two chairs positioned on opposite sides of the road, creates a boundary. Like the cord at Poitiers, Sandback’s stretched filaments designate boundaries—not just those, for example, that categorize space as exterior or interior, or demarcate here and there, but also those that symbolize a dialectic in which a series of premises is continually subjected to counterargument. The most far-reaching question provoked is whether actual things or ideas are more real.

Sandback probes this dichotomy by making his sculptures site-specific yet independent of place. With some exceptions (such as the works at the Fred Sandback Museum in Winchendon, Massachusetts) their physical existence is brief and informed by a sense of disrupted permanence. This installation, though conceived for the David Nolan Gallery, could also be realized elsewhere and thus, in anticipation of a completely new configuration, has no fixed dimensions. As for the immaterial forms suggested by linear coordinates, they can hardly be site-specific; they exist apart from the acrylic filaments that we see. Like all ideas, they persist even though the visible elements come and go. If the question of their location comes up naturally (the implication is that these forms, being something, must exist in space), it may be that nothing more can be said about their location than the fact that the immaterial forms have an independent existence.

Compared with the highly ephemeral nature of Sandback’s string components, the ideas or immaterial forms they delineate seem timeless, suggesting that what is real is not what is visible but what is intelligible. Sandback, however, doesn’t foreclose on the possibility that the proverbial shadows on the wall of the cave have as much substance as the real thing. Several drawings also included in this exhibition are testament to the euphorics of vision. These delicate, chromatic notations for sculptures reiterate the thematics of chameleon lines and forms that warp the dimensions of time and space. Sandback’s work teases the eye and delights the mind with such consistency that it is to his credit that he never let go of a good thing.