Fred Sandback Thin Lines
Once again, Frédérique Joseph-Lowery has a story of threads to tell. Not of threads
tied, woven and twisted, but of threads that are stretched, tensed to form volumes and planes that visitors can explore. Between tension and lightness, five “minimalist” sculptures by Fred Sandback have been recreated in the space of the Fondation Bernar Venet at Le Muy (Var), where they resonate with the architecture
(June 15-September 30).
Fred Sandback is not well-known in France, although he enjoyed almost immediate success in the United States when Virginia Dwann showed his works in her gallery in 1969. Donald Judd, his teacher, encouraged Sandback to show his work in his own studio, when the artist was still a student at Yale school of art and architecture. Heiner Friedrich then exhibited him in his gallery in Germany, in 1968 and later, thanks to the patronage of the Dia Art Foundation, which opened the Sandback Museum in Winchendon, where the artist was constantly creating new works from 1981 to 1996, he enabled him to create a number of larger works. When the museum closed, a considerable number of sculptures entered the Dia’s permanent collection, an hour and a half from New York. The David Zwirner gallery, which manages his estate, regularly shows his work. In Sandback’s lifetime there were only five exhibitions of his pieces in France: the first at Galerie Yvon Lambert in 1970, the second at the Consortium de Dijon in 1984, the third at Galerie Liliane & Michel Durand-Dessert in 1988, which was covered in artpress,( 1) the fourth at the L.A.C. in Sigean (1992), and the last at Artconnexion in Lille (1998). In 2007, four years after Sandback’s death, the Musée de Grenoble organized a major exhibition over five floors, which was followed a year later by a show at the Parisian Nelson-Freeman gallery (in a secondary space). It is therefore a very good thing that Bernar Venet’s foundation at the Domaine de Muy is hosting the work of this major representative of American Minimalism, even if that is an affiliation that the artist himself always rejected. “Why minimalist? You might just as well say maximalist.” What he was in fact dealing with was something quite considerable: “Space, light, facts are in play here.”(2) He was called minimalist because his material was minimal: acrylic thread whose quality is poor if your aim is to weave, but excellent if all you are going to do is stretch it so that it holds rigid, has hardness, and is transformed into a force, a vector. HARD AND SOFT THREAD Thread is, by its nature, limp. To harden it, either you intertwine it, you twist it, or you stretch it. Sandback stretched it. The thread can be simple or double. He chose a few, very long threads and stretched them between the walls, or from the floor to the ceiling, sometimes just along the floor. He thus sliced through the space by sculpting volumes or planes that were reduced to their edges. The particularity of his volumes is that the sides are empty, immaterial, even if, in Sandback’s eyes, they were not.(3) Only the edges are concrete: as thread. The artist created sculptures “without mass,” “without interior,” and without a pedestal.(4) Stretched thread is the ideal material, for by nature it is very fine. That is why the works that most influenced Sandback were the wiry figures of Alberto Giacometti.(5) The curator of the exhibition, Alexandre Devals, points out that the works chosen could have been “even less visible.” His aim is to present the sculptures while maintaining their “discreet” and “gentle” presence. The tensions, he adds, are “not aggressive.” When you come close to the threads, you see that their extreme tension causes lots of little fibers to sit up. Sandback compared them to the lines of charcoal.(6) In the early days Sandback used steel rope or elastic rope, exemplified by a work from 1970 shown here. Using steel, he created U-shaped forms emerging from the walls, which were impossible to make in thread. Elastic rope grew slack.(7) Stretched thread combines the qualities of the hard and the soft. Sandback’s works occupy space discreetly, especially the ones chosen for the foundation in Le Muy.(8) Out of five sculptures presented, two are in a corner, and a third is in a setback. We recognize a pyramidal volume: three threads, two black and one orange, fixed on the two walls of the corner, raise up its edges. They continue along the floor, delimiting the base of the deconstructed pyramid (1999). In the opposite corner, two elastic ropes, white and double, are stretched between two white walls, rather like a shelf in rectangular glass (1970). From afar, given the white ground of the walls, the work is almost invisible. The third sculpture is behind a picture wall where twenty-two of his Construction Drawings from 1980 hang. In this corner, three double white spreads striate the tight space. This work, a variation that Sandback never made, has never been seen before. It consists of two Us, one burgundy colored, the other pink (1990). Each U is formed by threads tensed from the floor to the ceiling and joined on the floor. This kind of sculpture always gives visitors the impression they are walking through a glass panel. For the artist, though, such illusionistic effects were secondary. No sculpture occupies the central space of the gallery. Instead, we walk around there.(9) This is what Sandback called the “pedestrian space.”(10) From there, we look at the oblique wall that shatters the rectangular design of the gallery, which consequently lacks a corner. This wall supports a relief in the form of a large A, the vowel that is repeated in the name Sandback; the threads run along the wall and form lines in suspense: they stop before they can touch any of the edges of the picture wall or floor. The trajectories of this relief direct the eye towards a gallery whose bay windows give onto a lawn where Bernar Venet’s arcs are installed. Eight threads stretched from the floor to the ceiling, green like the grass, are distributed in groups of two. At each end of this row of four “poles” that are diaphanous and without mass, in contrast to the solid black armature that rhythmically occupies the glass wall, a single thread is stretched, reminding us that what we are seeing is thread and nothing else.
« Untitled (Sculptural study, Ten-part Vertical Construction) » (détail). ca. 1983-2017. Laine acrylique verte (Court. Venet Foundation ; Ph. Xinyi Yu). Grenn wool À droite / right: Vue de l’installation à la Dia: Beacon, New York. 2003. (Photo: court. Fred Sandback Archive) Installation at Dia:Beacon, New York
I stress the role of the sculptures, for they are site-specific. Visitors will note the harmonious, complex relation between the orientation of the threads, their proportions and those of the inclination of the ceiling and glass roofs. The gaze is constantly drawn upwards. Of course, not all the sculptures exhibited here were conceived for this gallery, but thanks to the theoretical work done before the event with the architects of the Sandback Foundation, and with the help of the artist’s widow, Amy Baker Sandback, the works chosen by Alexandre Devals were recreated in the space at Le Muy according to the instructions and diagrams left by the artist. The installation expert from Chicago then came to stretch the threads and turn them into the walls, the ceiling or the floor, leaving no attachment visible. The wool is sheathed in a little copper tube, itself sunk into the support. THE CHARLIE CHAPLIN MODEL Among the anecdotes repeated by the critics, there is a memory of a film that Sandback’s mother told him about: Charlie Chaplin is eating an artichoke. He is at a smart dinner. He copies everyone else and throws the leaves over his shoulder, one by one. When he gets to the heart, he does the same thing. Sandback did not look for the heart of things, any more than Warhol, that adorer of surfaces. He often said that his sculptures dialogue with architecture. That is their strength. His works are not simply material and immaterial; the whole space is “contaminated.” For the edges of the works enter into resonance with those of the architecture. Virginia Dwann has explained what we may feel when experiencing Sandback’s works: “[he] showed volumes that were absolutely not there, but at the same time they were so there, psychologically, that you would not dream of walking in that space. […] If you did not enter it, this was not just out of politeness. One had the impression that in reality one could not enter it, that it was a volume, with a density and everything else.” My own impression is the opposite. I am drawn in by the threads and overcome with an incredible lightness as I approach them, as if I was melting where I stood.” When he was admitted to Yale, Sandback spoke to his teachers about the objects he used to make when he was a teenager—banjos and dulcimers—and did archery. The tension of the strings is essential in both these practices. He was surprised that his teachers paid so little attention to that first creative gesture, heralding the work to come: getting space to vibrate and resonate.
(1) artpress 124, April 1988. (2) Quoted in Flash Art, no. 40 (March–May 1973). (3) The Art of Fred Sandback: A Survey, ChampaignUrbana, Illinois: Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois, 1985. (4) Ibid. (5) Chinati Foundation Newsletter (Marfa, Texas), October 7, 2002, p. 26-32. (6) Or the irregular edges of Newman’s zip. (7) Ibid. (8) “My intrusions are usually modest,” says Sandback: Fred Sandback, Sculpture, 1966-1986, Munich: Fred Jahn, 1986, p. 12-19. In Children’s Guide to
Seeing. Fred Sandback: Sculpture, Houston: Contemporary Arts Museum, 1989. Sandback relates his work to the ancient game with string known as cat’s cradle. (9) And that is how Sandback worked, as Thierry Davila explained in detail in an article published in art
press 319, January 2006: “Fred Sandback. L’intensité dans la sculpture.” (10) “Fussgängerische Skulpturen. Ein Interview von Ingrid Rein mit dem Minimal-Art-Künstler Fred Sandback.” November 1975. The article is translated into English on the site of the Sandback archives. (11) Fred Sandback. Munich, Kunstraum, 1975. I was not able to find the title of the Chaplin film or to confirm the authenticity of this recollection.
Frédérique Joseph-Lowery is an art critic based in New York. She is currently working on a book on the subject of threads and textiles in art.