Fred Sandback’s radical innovation in the field of contemporary art is defined by his astonishing economy of means. Wielding yarn in much the same way a draughtsman would a pencil, the artist transforms space into something tangible and mysterious, crafting sculpture out of thin air. By subverting the viewer’s most elementary preconceived notions of sculpture as a literal and massive object, Sandback gestures with authoritative ease at a completely new understanding of the art form.
When Sandback first began making sculpture in the early 1960s, he was far from alone in his quest to challenge tradition. Young artists of the time had already begun to turn away from the bombast and individualistic ferocity of Abstract Expressionism in order to embrace a more elemental approach to art, one that would champion notions of aesthetic refinement, distillation and simplicity. However, rather than restrain expression, Minimalism and Color Field painting provided elegant new means for artists to contemplate and convey complex ideas about human experience. Sandback’s contemporary, Donald Judd was one of the first artists to apply these new principles to making sculpture with non-traditional, industrial materials. Judd’s sculpture was beguilingly simple and simultaneously alien to his audience: simple geometric shapes often fabricated per the artist’s exacting instructions, rather than crafted by hand. The result was a seeming rejection of the monumental and heroic attitudes that traditional sculpture had so often aspired to convey. Subsequently, Dan Flavin began to incorporate even more ephemeral materials in his sculptural practice – most famously, light – in order to create works that expanded well beyond their physical manifestations, further testing the boundaries of what could be formally considered sculpture.
Sandback’s predisposition to string as a material harkens back to his time as a student of philosophy and art at Yale. During his undergraduate studies, Sandback learned to make dulcimers, a fretted string instrument of the zither family. Inspired by string’s musical capabilities, he began to use wire and later yarn in his art practice, exploring the fascinating relationship between line of sight and space. Sandback’s use of yarn or string as a sculptural material is also notable for two intriguing associations: firstly, its use in children’s games, such as cat’s cradle, and weaving or knitting, practices culturally considered feminine – and by extension, completely disruptive to the heretofore almost exclusively masculine tradition of sculpture; secondly, its role in the myth of Daedalus, who devised Theseus’s escape from the Minotaur’s labyrinth by means of a ball of twine. In the same way that Daedalus proposed using string to make manifest the twists and turns of the Minotaur’s maze, Sandback uses string to convey the invisible machinations and labyrinthine nature of space itself.
The present lot, Untitled was originally shown in Houston at the Contemporary Arts Museum as part of the artist’s 1989 exhibition of sculpture. Comprised of burgundy hued yarn, an enormous trapezoid is delicately delineated across a diagonal plane connecting the height of the wall to the floor. The receding upper edge of the shape is dramatically emphasized by the angle at which it ascends the wall. The resulting visual experience, playfully vertiginous and scintillatingly disorienting, simply cannot be described with justice here. The work is activated as the viewer engages with it, regarding the changing shape from different angles in the environment. In this way, the space which the work inhabits is implicitly part of the work, or what Sandback calls “pedestrian space.” As the artist explains, “a pedestrian space was literal and flat-footed and everyday. The idea was to have the work right along with everything else in the world, not upon a spatial pedestal. The term also involves the idea of utility–that a sculpture was there to be engaged actively, and it had utopian glimmerings of art and life happily co-habiting” (F. Sandback, Some Remarks on My Sculpture 1966-1986, Mannheim, 1986, p. 24).
The shift of focus from material to the experience of material is perhaps the most ingenious aspect of Sandback’s art. In the same way that the strings of the dulcimer are only conduits for the mathematics of music, so are Sandback’s sculptures for the analytic interpretation of space. Using means invisible to the roving eye, the artist invites the viewer to consider the subtle mechanics of experiencing the physical world. His works are at once fugitive and fixed, fleeting and perpetual.