Fred Sandback at Whitechapel, London

by Echo Hopkins

June 2011

Using only acrylic yarn and an occasional bit of wire, the Fred Sandback retrospective at Whitechapel Gallery transforms the room where it’s housed into a geometric minimalist landscape. The collection of work showcased spans almost four decades, and is comprised of two large works, specifically remade to fit the space, along with a smattering of smaller pieces that are so subtly worked into the Victorian architecture of the room that they would easily be missed if one was not careful. The contrast between the pieces and the setting in which they’ve been installed accounts for a striking discord. Roughly hewn stone walls hide neon wire constructions. The weighty white pillars that divide the otherwise open plan of the gallery disappear as Sanback’s delicate constructions in yarn dominate the room.

Upon entering, the only pieces that become immediately apparent are Untitled (Sculptural Study, Seven-part Triangular Construction) and Broadway Boogie Woogie (Sculptural Study Twenty-part Vertical Construction). The first takes up the majority of the room and divides the space into seven long pathways. Made of black yarn, it becomes the main focal point of the entire show. This piece is an example of how Sandback wished to create sculptures that were a part of their environment, something encompassed in his term “pedestrian space”—an idea that his work would be alongside everything else in the world. His are not pieces that the viewer merely regards on a pedestal. Rather,the works envelope the viewer, inviting us to walk through them. Sandback has managed to create sculpture that is teetering on the edge of being completely volumeless, yet makes the viewer feel small and in the middle of something much more dense than its reality.

Most commanding is Broadway Boogie Woogie, which takes its name and inspiration from Mondrian’s 1942 painting. The piece has been suspended from a skylight in the gallery, adding to the sense we get walking around the show that each shape and line is floating—there are no visible wires or hanging apparatus. Going straight from skylight to floor, the primary colors of the yarn take on a different quality from each different angle you choose to look at it. Contrasted with the much larger Triangular Construction, this work is a refreshing exercise in Sandback’s experimentation with color.

The other three works that make up the exhibit are much more discreetly exhibited than the first two. Tucked amongst the pillars, the smaller Corner Pieces make the viewer go on something of a treasure hunt, trying to make sure nothing is missed. Created specifically to fit into the corners of the room, they are DayGlo orange, violet and blue, made of spring steel and elastic cord. With only the use of very thin cord, Sandback creates a sense of solid shapes and architectural forms, as the pieces seem to elevate the corners that they inhabit to much more than the simple joining together of walls and pillars. As something that could so easily be missed, these smaller pieces complete and round-out the show, giving us a look at a range of works in Sandback’s oeuvre beyond the larger sculptures for which he has become so famous.

Thoughtfully curated by Achim Borchardt-Hume, the five-piece show captures the nuances of both the small and large works by Sandback and arranges them in a space that seems to house them perfectly. We closely explore the balance between the delicate nature of the materials used and the monumental sizes of some of the pieces. The result matches Sandback’s intention: creating works that become interactive planes where the viewer can see his fascination with line and volumeless structures. Sandback so eloquently explained in a statement from 1999: “Whatever philosophical, historical or literary artillery I bring to the workplace, it is of no assistance in the art of trying to stretch a line between two points. In that I am alone and voiceless.” And it is this stretching of a line between two points that becomes alive and inhabitable at Whitechapel Gallery exhibit.

Fred Sandback
25 May—14 August 2011
Whitechapel Gallery
77-82 Whitechapel High Street, London