After Doug Wheeler’s impressive but overhyped “Infinity Room,” Fred Sandback’s humble installation in the same space at David Zwirner is almost a relief. You’d never guess it was the same space, though, if you didn’t know: for Sandback’s show, the earlier seemingly endless expanse has been replaced by a series of small, enclosed rooms. Both Wheeler and Sandback began working in the 1960s and 1970s in the context of widespread discussions and experiments with phenomenology, the ghost of which permeates the sometimes overbearing whiteness of both shows. However, the artists’ aims as well as methods are opposite, if not at odds. Wheeler went to painstaking lengths to explode space and the viewer’s perception of it. Sandback, in contrast, seeks to define space with the most minimal of means. Taut strands of colored yarn traverse the gallery space in a multitude of directions, calling attention to its dimensions only to carve it up in their own interest.
While we’re comparing Sandback to his contemporaries, the 1974 series of sixteen pastel drawings at the back of the show reminded me of another Minimalist artist, Richard Serra. The exhibition of his drawings which made it, among other places, to the Met last summer, included a set of eighteen charcoal drawings called Drawings After Circuit (1972), which Serra made as he explored his sculptural installation at that year’s documenta. Certainly the two sets of drawings are noticeably distinct—Sandback’s lines are ruled and horizontal where Serra’s are hand-drawn and vertical—but they still possess a remarkable similarity that becomes even more fascinating in light of the monumental differences between the two artists’ sculptural works. Serra’s Circuit is a massive structure of four plates of hot-rolled steel. Sandback’s Untitled (Vertical Two-part Corner Piece) (1968) may also involve steel, but it uses the material for an entirely different purpose and to an entirely different effect. By illustrating just how mammoth the gap between these two artists is, the comparison productively points to the wide breadth of practices that fall under the seemingly descriptive heading of Minimalism.
The rooms in Sandback’s exhibition that best represent his output are the two at the center, which contain 16 Variations of 2 Diagonal Lines (1972), first shown at Galerie Heiner Friedrich, Munich in 1973. The work consists solely of two pieces of yarn, one running diagonally across each of the rooms. Each yellow strand is like a single ray of sunlight made visible; more specifically, it is like a child’s imagination of a ray of sunlight, its material fuzziness standing in for its imagined warmth. As the positions of the lines change with each installation, each permutation suggests an individual instance of refraction, with the sixteen possible options just sixteen of the infinite possibilities. As Will Brand at Art Fag City has pointed out, the cold, concrete floors of Zwirner unfortunately prevent the room from feeling too cozy, although gauzy sheet stretched over the ceiling help to bolster the feeling by diffusing the gallery’s fluorescents into a good-natured glow. Thus, while the rooms look sparse, they reveal themselves to be suffused with atmosphere: more precisely, full of space. As a whole, “Decades” reveals that Sandback’s ouevre, while undoubtedly simple, is not as austere as it might initially appear—or perhaps, as the artist’s work initially was when he started out using metal wire and elastic cord. In fact, it comes as close as Minimalism might ever to being whimsical. Sandback’s art-historical significance is not simply that he did so little, but instead, that he was able to do so much with it.
“Decades” was open at David Zwirner from March 9 to April 21, 2012. All images courtesy the artist and David Zwirner unless otherwise noted.