The strands of thought re­vealed in Sand­back

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY PHILIP KEN­NI­COTT

The word min­i­mal­ism, of­ten ap­plied, doesn’t re­ally fit the work of artist Fred Sand­back. His sculp­tures, mere out­lines of ba­sic geo­met­ric forms made with acrylic yarn, are ma­te­ri­ally as min­i­mal as any­thing pro­duced in the past half-cen­tury. They are roughedged, with­out the smooth­ness and pol­ish of other min­i­mal­ist artists. Nor are they neatly self­con­tained ob­jects, and no cu­ra­tor will ever take out the Win­dex to keep them buffed to a high shine.

The Glenstone Mu­seum in Po­tomac, an emerg­ing pow­er­house in the na­tional arts scene founded by lo­cal phi­lan­thropists Mitchell and Emily Wei Rales, has opened a new ex­hi­bi­tion of works by Sand­back, the first show there since an ex­hi­bi­tion de­voted to the Swiss artis­tic duo Peter Fis­chli and David Weiss opened in May 2013.

Near the 23,000-square-foot Gallery Build­ing, which is dis­play­ing “Fred Sand­back: Light, Space, Facts,” are con­struc­tion fences, hid­ing from view the rapid progress be­ing made on the 170,000-square-foot Thomas Phifer-de­signed new mu­seum build­ing, dubbed the Pavil­ions. When fin­ished, some­time in 2017, Glenstone will rank in the top tier of pri­vately en­dowed con­tem­po­rary art in­sti­tu­tions.

Mean­while, it has de­voted its en­tire 9,000 square feet of ex­ist­ing gallery space to an artist who used the most in­signif­i­cant ma­te­ri­als to cre­ate dizzy­ing ef­fects of space and ge­om­e­try. The tall, wide-open and oth­er­wise empty gal­leries are filled with the artist’s string sculp­tures and other works, in­clud­ing some made of me­tal and wood and oth­ers on pa­per. In one gallery, yarn de­fines a trape­zoid that seems to be lean­ing against a wall; in another, six planes limned by yarn shot from floor to ceil­ing, ar­ranged in a se­ries of right an­gles; in yet another, 17 L-shaped forms in red are ar­rayed par­al­lel to one another, like guil­lo­tine blades slot­ted into the floor with ma­chine­made pre­ci­sion.

The work rat­tles what might be called the high and low ex­tremes of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence. It makes you keenly aware of the body as you move through the mu­seum space, ex­plor­ing an­gles, and how pat­terns change depend­ing on one’s van­tage point. The 17 red­yarn par­al­lel L-forms will push you to­ward the line on the wall where they ver­ti­cally touch one wall of the gallery, and as you look down the line of right an­gles, a suc­ces­sion of rec­tan­gu­lar forms is cre­ated by the over­lap­ping string. They grow larger as they ap­proach you, and it’s ir­re­sistible to set these forms in mo­tion by mov­ing up and down the spine of the work.

But they are ideal forms as well with the tautly stretched yarn (some­times triple or quadru­ple thick­ness) serv­ing more as a sug­ges­tion of their pres­ence than a def­i­ni­tion of their bound­aries. With­out the string, we would be un­aware of the forms at all, but as you con­tem­plate them, the string seems in­creas­ingly su­per­flu­ous. This is the won­der­ful para­dox of the work: It is in­sis­tently tri­fling and in­sis­tently per­fect. Math­e­mat­ics, nat­u­rally, comes to mind, es­pe­cially the con­trast be­tween the sim­plic­ity of the for­mula that de­fines lines and planes, and the in­fin­ity of the re­sults. A child who can think in three di­men­sions can de­fine a plane, say z=3, and with that rudi­men­tary equa­tion he has cre­ated some­thing that slices through plan­ets and gal­ax­ies to the un­known lim­its of ex­is­tence.

Sand­back’s sculp­tural forms are of­ten open-ended on one side, ei­ther where they meet the ceil­ing, or in­ten­tion­ally left open, as in “Un­ti­tled (Scup­tural Study, Cor­ner Con­struc­tion),” 1981/ 2009, in which two squared-off U-shaped forms in a cor­ner look like re­cessed pic­ture frames miss­ing their top arms. The miss­ing top lines aren’t, in fact, missed at all; rather, one senses the im­press of the edge of an in­fi­nite form, with the brain fill­ing in what isn’t ex­plic­itly present.

Sand­back, an Amer­i­can artist who died in 2003, was in­ter­ested in phi­los­o­phy and mu­sic and had a pas­sion for dul­cimers, archery and mak­ing bows. A sin­gle taut string — in mu­sic re­ferred to as a mono­chord — can be used to de­fine the en­tire mu­si­cal scale, and a tight string, drawn back with great force, can pro­pel ob­jects with deadly speed. The aus­ter­ity and pre­ci­sion of Sand­back’s art will sug­gest mu­si­cal cues, per­haps more An­ton We­bern than Philip Glass, as well as a sense of rar­efied vi­o­lence. An un­ti­tled 2000 work made from fiber­board looks as if it bears the marks of a ra­dial-arm saw drawn re­peat­edly over a block of wood at dif­fer­ent an­gles. Even the most mys­ti­cally evanes­cent of his string sculp­tures sug­gests blade­like sharp­ness, a slice through the ma­te­rial stuff of the world, as if to lay out an in­finites­i­mally thin cross sec­tion un­der the ce­les­tial mi­cro­scope.

But the anal­ogy with mu­sic is also a mat­ter of high­light­ing the gulf be­tween ideal and ac­tual per­cep­tion. If you stand at one end of an axis of Sand­back’s string lines, you might think that all the strings would merge into a sin­gle string when per­fectly aligned. And so they do if you shut one eye. If you keep both eyes open, you’ll have dou­ble vi­sion and the strings will be a blur.

Few artists are bet­ter at de­mon­strat­ing the amount of work that the brain does un­con­sciously, even in the sim­plest acts of look­ing. The three-di­men­sion­al­ity of Sand­back’s forms de­pends in part on our hav­ing two eyes and depth per­cep­tion and the abil­ity to fin­ish the form in the mind.

And once you’ve fin­ished them, once the rather crude string has sug­gested the ideal form, youmay find your­self im­pa­tient with the phys­i­cal­ity of the yarn. The ideal en­counter, per­haps, would al­low the visi­tor to re­move the cords en­tirely once the form is per­ceived, so that af­ter walk­ing through the gal­leries you would have in your hand a small clump of cheap thread, and in your thoughts an ideal world of pure ge­om­e­try. Plato would smile be­nig­nantly on your progress, from the par­tic­u­lars of some­thing sketched in the real world to the tran­scen­dence of pure form.

But it took a lot of mov­ing about, look­ing through, pass­ing in be­tween, to get there. And when you leave the gal­leries, the mean­ing­ful­ness of the ex­pe­ri­ence be­gins to evap­o­rate — rather like our plea­sure in mu­sic is bound up with mem­ory, but that mem­ory re­quires con­stant re­fresh­ing. We are locked in the world, and there are no purely ab­stract, per­fect plea­sures.

The ex­hi­bi­tion is an ab­sorb­ing and smart suc­ces­sor to the pre­vi­ous Glenstone show, de­voted to the Swiss duo Fis­chli and Weiss. The Fis­chli andWeiss sur­vey was full of raw clay, small, al­most hand-size sculp­tures, hu­mor­ous, provoca­tive and Ra­belasian in their earth­i­ness. Sand­back has his own sense of hu­mor, but it’s hard to imag­ine a stronger aes­thetic con­trast be­tween the two shows. Taken to­gether, their jux­ta­po­si­tion sug­gests a wry and strate­gic cu­ra­to­rial sen­si­bil­ity.



Sand­back’s 2003 work “‘Black Piet’ Af­ter P.M.: ‘Com­po­si­tion With Red, Yel­low, Blue.’ 1930,” is dis­played near the main en­trance gallery with “Broad­way Boo­gieWoo­gie (Sculp­tural Study, Twen­tyEight Part Ver­ti­cal Con­struc­tion,” another nod to Piet Mon­drian in red, yel­low and blue yarn.

TOP: Fred Sand­back’s “Un­ti­tled (Sculp­tural Study, Sev­en­teen-Part Right-An­gled Con­struc­tion).” ABOVE: Sand­back in 2000.

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