Denver

Fred Sandback, Untitled (Four-Part Construction), 1981/2011, blue, orange, yellow, and black acrylic yarn, dimensions variable.

Fred Sandback, Untitled (Four-Part Construction), 1981/2011, blue, orange, yellow, and black acrylic yarn, dimensions variable.

Fred Sandback

Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver (MCA DENVER)

Fred Sandback, Untitled (Four-Part Construction), 1981/2011, blue, orange, yellow, and black acrylic yarn, dimensions variable.

Perhaps no artist took more to heart Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s famous dictum “Less is more” than Fred Sandback, who died in 2003 at age fifty-nine. Working with the humblest and most unlikely of materials, ordinary acrylic yarn, he upended conventional notions of sculptural space and substance. MCA Denver paid homage to the American Minimalist with a stunning career survey this fall, featuring twenty of his near-immaterial sculptures as well as four drawings, a painting, and a set of five serigraphs. This is the first time since the institution moved in 2007 to its permanent home—a 27,000-square-foot building designed by London architect David Adjaye—that it has dedicated the entirety of its space to a single artist.

Though early on, Sandback employed various other materials, such as wire and cord (examples of each were included in this show), he quickly settled on yarn as his material of choice, using it to outline shapes or to partition rooms. He learned that by merely suggesting dimensional form he could, in a sense, transfer the act of shaping that space directly to viewers, as their eyes and minds would perceptually fill in the blanks. First presenting his linear sculptures in 1967, Sandback continued to explore the ramifications of this simple yet conceptually fertile idea for the rest of his career.

Sandback’s works can exist only in symbiotic relation to the spaces in which they are presented. Thus, in each venue his sculptural interventions appear (and indeed, often physically are) site-specifically distinct—that is, they necessarily transform and are transformed by the architecture that they intersect. At the MCA, it was therefore impossible not to perceive Adjaye’s airy, light-infused building anew—to experience the space in a corporeally different way and to recalibrate how the building’s features interrelate. On view were many pieces whose forms were keyed to the particular dynamics of the spaces in which they were shown, Untitled (Four-Part Construction), 1981/2011, installed ceiling-to-floor in the museum’s three-story atrium, being a striking example. Consisting of just four monochromatic strands of acrylic yarn (in blue, orange, yellow, and black), the sculpture, like a tall, flowing waterfall, magnetically attracted the viewer’s eye up and down the forty-seven feet of empty vertical space.

Other works in the show assumed a form not contingent on site. However, the predetermined specifications of these pieces did not mean they were any less active. For example, in Untitled (Sculptural Study, Five-Part Stainless Wire Construction), 1969/2008, five identical squares were aligned along a first-floor atrium wall not normally designated as exhibition space. And with The First of Four Ultramarine Diagonals, 1974, a seventy-eight-inch-long strand of ultramarine blue acrylic yarn that had been tucked into an unexpected nook provided a delightful surprise as one turned the corner from a second-floor gallery. Such thoughtful installation is attributable to the artist’s long-term installer, Amavong Panya, and to the care of Amy Baker Sandback (the artist’s widow), who, after touring the new building in March, selected the works for this exhibition (all drawn from the artist’s estate), in consultation with MCA associate curator Nora Burnett Abrams.

Sandback’s sculpture lends itself to profuse dualities—it is at once tangible and barely there, ongoing yet existing in a particular form only for the duration of a given exhibition—but at the MCA, perhaps the most strikingly fused binary was that of the art object and the architecture, the sculpture’s presence dramatically grand despite the artist’s use of the slightest materials. Artist Andrea Fraser maybe put it best when she wrote, “Sandback’s work is not something I experience as an act of withholding but rather as an act of extraordinary generosity. By removing himself to the extent that he does, he makes a place for me.”

Kyle MacMillan