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Fred Sandback - 'A drawing that is habitable’

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A recent addition to our collection, Untitled, 1971 is a sculpture by the American artist Fred Sandback (1943–2003), which is now on display as part of our New Arrivals exhibition at The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Modern One.  

This work might seem confusing for many viewers, even now – exactly fifty years after its creation. It’s fair to say that this is one of the more intriguing sculptures to find a home in the National Galleries of Scotland. It’s intriguing because it asks us to consider what the most essential and straightforward aspects of sculpture might be. It appears reduced to almost nothing, to be on the verge of disappearance, and yet this sculpture also challenges many of our assumptions about the spaces we inhabit.  

Let’s remember that ‘sculpture’ as a category can simply mean visual art that occupies three dimensions, rather than the flatness of drawing or painting. Sandback was insistent that his work was sculpture and nothing else; certainly not any of the new labels applied to art in the 1960s, such as minimalismconceptual art or installation art.  

Untitled, 1971 demonstrates a favoured format of the artist’s work of the early 1970s: two horizontal lines in painted elastic cord, stretched across the corner of a room, employing one or two colours; in this case beige and blue. Beginning in the late 1960s, Sandback concerned himself with extending single strands of material (like steel and elastic cord, later acrylic yarn) point-to-point within interior rooms to create shapes that fluctuate between lines and structures. His works need the walls, floor or ceiling simply to exist. The lines of Untitled, 1971 terminate where they are anchored to two walls in four places. The sculpture inhabits the room, just as we do when we enter it. Some principal characteristics of sculpture, such as weight and mass, are displaced entirely. Instead, we have lines in space, materialised as pure colour, that manage to redraw our relationship to the room we’re standing in. 

‘Over the years I have preferred the title “sculptor.” I like the groundedness of it, referring back to my early love for the sculpture of Michelangelo, Rodin, and Henry Moore, for example. Early on, though, I left the model of such discrete sculptural volumes for a sculpture which became less of a thing-in-itself, more of a diffuse interface between myself, my environment, and others peopling that environment, built of thin lines that left enough room to move through and around. Still sculpture, though less dense, with an ambivalence between exterior and interior. A drawing that is habitable.’
Fred Sandback

Sandback’s compelling notion to create ‘a drawing that is habitable’ had exciting implications for his development of an art without definite boundaries – an art that could dissolve the distance between the object and its viewer. This is frustratingly hard to capture in photographs, which are often downright misleading when it comes to this artist’s practice. A still photograph offers a single, fixed perspective on an artwork: the complete opposite of Sandback’s invitation ‘to move through and around’ his work. This is something that must be done in person.  

The artist’s works can be installed permanently (as happened at the Fred Sandback Museum, which occupied a former bank building in Winchendon, Massachusetts from 1981 to 1996), but most often they are prepared for temporary exhibitions, appearing over time in different locations but never in two places at once. As a Sandback sculpture, the material components of Untitled take form only when the work is ready to be seen by visitors in one of our gallery spaces: once it has been prepared by National Galleries of Scotland conservators and art handlers according to the precise instructions provided by the artist’s archive, which are referenced for every installation.  

During his lifetime, the artist travelled to install his work around the world. He did not delegate the making or exhibiting of his work to others, in contrast to many other artists of the 1960s and 1970s who effectively outsourced that labour. Sandback was also surprisingly matter of fact in his language. He once said of his sculptures that they exist ‘right there along with everything else in the world, not up on a spatial pedestal.’ It’s fitting to remember this humble way in which the artist wanted us to encounter his art: not at a rarefied distance, but as a physical experience in ‘pedestrian space.’ With the barest of means, Fred Sandback invites us to see the world around us with fresh eyes.  

This work was gifted by a close friend of the artist, Professor Charles Raab, on behalf of himself and his wife, Professor Gillian Raab, through the UK Government’s Cultural Gifts Scheme. The generosity of this gift means that Untitled, 1971 has become the first sculpture by Fred Sandback to enter a UK public collection.

Published on 8 December 2021