The Man Who Carried His Art in His Pocket
A tribute to Fred Sandback
Having written about Minimal and Conceptual art over the years, I became aware, shortly after discovering the news of Fred Sandback’s recent passing, that I had never actually written about his work. There are certain artists who are highly respected and whose art has an original and persistent quality, yet who miss the critical attention they deserve. We just expect them to be there. Their work is fixed conceptually in our minds. But then suddenly they are gone, and we are left with the realization of a loss that cannot be easily filled. Sandback’s exhibition a few years ago at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York was a revelation. It was the first occasion for many of us to see a relatively good selection of his remarkable string pieces shown together. They were perfectly attuned and placed, fully considered in every detail, up to the millimeter. Sandback not only considered the physical details, the angle of vision, and the natural lighting of the architecture as components in his nearly invisible work, but he also regarded the ambulatory experiences that people have while walking through a space as part of his intention.
It was only within the past three years that I was introduced to Fred and his wife, Amy Baker Sandback, at the home of some mutual friends. Several months went by until I decided to call Sandback. We arranged a meeting the following week. During the course of our visit in his studio, I became aware of how much planning and thinking went into everything he did. I don’t recall the conversation as having much to do with theory. Rather it was about his approach to physical space and to the nature of conflict between reality and illusion. I was reminded of a notion that I had entertained some years earlier—that space is something we create, not something that is given to us. In the course of our conversation, he remarked on a related notion respective of his own work. At that moment, I understood his position as being a kind of visual phenomenology. By focusing on a linear means of reduced construction, the articulation of planes raises questions in regard to the spatial perception of the viewing subject.
But there is another point that is worth mentioning. If ever there was an artist who hit the in-betweenness of Minimal and Conceptual art, it was Fred Sandback. He could create a spatial plane, an illusion of another reality, by pulling string from his pocket and attaching it to the wall, ceiling, and floor. There was no weight, no mass—only the potential illusion that the viewer could recognize as a kind of magical transformation. There is something intensely private, nearly hermetic, about his way of working, something ingenious and perhaps mystical. He was not conforming to anyone else’s strategy or idea. His art was a lonely endeavor—and to keep pushing it forward was a daily challenge, a conundrum that filled the hours he worked each day in the studio. As a reductivist whose work represents a pragmatic American counterpart to European phenomenology, Fred Sandback was the one—a supremely elegant artist who carried the internal structure of his art with him.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.