New York

Fred Sandback, Untitled (Sculptural Study, Four-Part Mikado Construction), ca. 1991/2011, acrylic yarn, dimensions variable.

Fred Sandback, Untitled (Sculptural Study, Four-Part Mikado Construction), ca. 1991/2011, acrylic yarn, dimensions variable.

Fred Sandback

David Zwirner | 519 West 19th Street

Fred Sandback, Untitled (Sculptural Study, Four-Part Mikado Construction), ca. 1991/2011, acrylic yarn, dimensions variable.

An elegantly daunting obstacle course for oafs and claustrophobes alike, this spare, cerebral selection of works drawn from more than four decades of the late Fred Sandback’s career served to burnish the artist’s already substantial reputation as a master of subtle spatial drama. It will, of course, be no mystery to anyone who’s encountered Sandback’s work why klutzes would do well to steer clear: His delicate strands of colored yarn—magically anchored to various points on the floor, ceiling, or wall and cutting across the intervening air like fuzzy laser beams crisscrossing a high-security vault—are wonders of both fragility and force, simultaneously enticing and denying the haptic (go ahead, try not to touch one). It’s this same materio-spatial ambiguity that makes the environments they occupy so vexing for those wary of close quarters: The thin lines of what the artist thought of as “habitable” drawings divide and conquer space—their outsize effects reorient the body to its surroundings in ways that, at their most effective, can make the former swoon and the latter swim.

The show comprises a modest eleven works, and is built around an intriguing conceit: namely a re-creation, in one of the Zwirner complex’s large spaces, of the rooms of the small Munich gallery where in 1973 Heiner Friedrich exhibited one of the yarn pieces on view here, the two-part 16 Variations of 2 Diagonal Lines, 1972. Occupying two of a series of modestly scaled galleries that recapitulate the Friedrich layout, 16 Variations is an important inclusion for those viewers unaware of Sandback’s engagement with temporality, change, and seriality. As suggested by Untitled, 1972, a related pencil drawing in which an architectural schematic is punctuated by yellow dots in the corners of the pair of rooms it depicts, the work is designed—as were several of the artist’s in the late 1960s and early ’70s—to change over the course of the exhibition according to a specific permutational plan, one that the current show, like its predecessor, followed during its run. Repeat visitors thus have the opportunity to see one of the central fascinations of Sandback’s practice—the way in which the motion of the viewer in space produces constantly shifting perspectives on the works, both in isolation and in concert with each other—instantiated on a larger, structural level.

For all its thoughtfulness and historical heft, the show does tend toward a certain scholarly aridity, valorizing examples of logistical ephemera such as Untitled or a rough sketch on notebook paper of another set of permutations, this one for a 1974 show at New York’s John Weber Gallery, and emphasizing examples of Sandback’s tastefully simple process-based drawings. In addition to 16 Variations, only three other of the artist’s signature yarn constructions are included—and none of the more dramatically illusionistic “planar” forms exhibited in the gallery’s memorable 2009 survey—but they remain the undeniable stars of the show. The most expansive, Untitled (Sculptural Study, Four-Part Mikado Construction), ca. 1991/2011, which derives its title and form from the European name for the game known more familiarly in the US as pick-up sticks, orchestrates a quartet of aqua lines connecting wall, floor, and ceiling into a structure that inhabits and effectively cordons off one half of the largest gallery. The anomalous Untitled (Sculptural Study, Three-part Wall Construction), ca. 1986–87/2012, which features three relatively short spans of yarn in blue, red, and yellow mounted flat on a single wall, proposes most explicitly the relationship between Sandback’s 2- and 3-D practices. Perhaps the most dramatic of the group, Untitled (Sculptural Study, Twelve-Part Vertical Construction), ca. 1987/2012, is an array of multistrand floor-to-ceiling lines in three colors—black, blue, and light yellow—that dissolve and reassemble themselves into an almost infinite series of relationships as the viewer changes his or her location with respect to them. As with all the yarn sculptures here, the dimensions of this last work are listed as “situational,” with the spatial relationships established by Sandback but the actual scale and position of the piece determined by the environment’s parameters. It’s a logistical subtlety with profound conceptual resonance, one that foregrounds the artist’s consistent engagement with not just the universal but also the local nuances of phenomenological experience.

Jeffrey Kastner