Conversation with Fred Sandback

Michael Govan, Fred Sandback, Marianne Stockebrand, and Gianfranco Verna

Marianne Stockebrand
I would like to welcome everyone to the sunny portion of the weekend and introduce Fred Sandback and congratulate him on the wonderful exhibition that heís mounted here at the Chinati Foundation. I would also like to introduce Michael Govan, the director of the Dia Center for the Arts where he curated an impressive show by Fred Sandback five years ago. To my right is Gianfranco Verna who, together with his wife Annemarie, owns a gallery in ZŁrich where theyíve regularly shown Fredís work since 1971. We will conduct a conversation among the four of us for a little while and then give the audience the opportunity to ask questions.

Stockebrand
Fred, you use a very specific material for your sculptural work, acrylic thread. When did you start to use this material?

Fred Sandback
Well, I compared it at one point to a number-two pencil line. As a material itís pretty mundane, but it seemed to do the job. I began using it in í71 or so. Before that, my sculptures werenít made like that, although they were linearóthey were made of elastic cord. The problem with the elastic cord is that it always wants to sag, and this doesnítóit was fortuitous.

Stockebrand
And you use it in various colors.

Sandback
Well, you canít avoid color. And as any colorist might, I plumb the depths of my local Wal-Mart [laughter]. Sometimes I paint them but mostly theyíre colors off the shelf because when you are working on this kind of scale, with the line being so small, thereís plenty of color.

Gianfranco Verna
Would you ever see your material as a limitation or a kind of rule imposed through your selection of material? You continue to develop many different issues and forms through this material.

Sandback
Itís neutral but obedient up to a certain point.

Verna
One issue you donít serve, you donít use it as a textile-related material.

Sandback
It may be coming.

Verna
Yes?

Sandback
I am tickled by the anecdotal. My studio up in New Hampshire was raided by mice. And the mice found a hole in the floor so all of these various lines of color went to the hole in the floor and disappeared. So one winter, every time I took an armload of wood, I would find a nest in the woodpile and of course, all of this color stuff looked very intentional. There was a Bauhaus mouse and there was a Miami mouse, and I got a real kick out of that. My color means more to me than I think it meant to the mouse, but I appreciated theirs.

Michael Govan
I wanted to ask you a little bit about origins. Here we are in Marfa, Texas, the land of Donald Judd, and I was thinking about your work in this context. You have a number two pencil, and you draw a line, but it represents a line in space. The lines are nearly always in relation to space. In fact, the line is an edge of something else. Rarely is it ever just that and I was wondering if you could talk a little about the origin of the line in relation to a plane or box or space. Maybe address the fact that your work emerged at a time when Juddís work was developing as well.

Sandback
Oh, his work was immensely attractive to me and my fellow students. Thatís not to be deniedóit was in the air. But I donít think it was direct contact with Donís work alone. For instance, from the time I started looking at Giacometti there was already a big issue there, albeit a slightly different one. I have to go back to another anecdote. My mom told me about this Charlie Chaplin filmóif some of you know something about this film maybe you could inform me. She said she enjoyed a clip of Charlie Chaplin eating an artichoke. Finding himself befuddled at a fancy dinner, he took one leaf off, looked at it, and threw it over his shoulder. And so on through the meal until he got to the lovely heart, he looked at it, and regarded it a little longer and threw it over his shoulder. And at that age when mom told it to me it was still already a potent image of moving on beyond Immanuel Kant and the thing itself and leaving that borderline with Platonism behind in the dust somehow. All right, so much for that.

Govan
I donít think we need to talk about anything else [laughter]. Pretty much we can all go home.

Sandback
Does anybody know that film clip? Is that known? OK . . . gotta research that.

Govan
To push it a little bit further, youíre talking about the early sixties, a moment when space is a big issue, right? While you were in school, a lot of artists were working with small objects; even Judd was still working with small objects. One thing that became clear in your work is that it immediately took over vast quantities of space.

Sandback
Easily, yeah.

Govan
Was that an ambition?

Sandback
In a way, yes. But from the beginning there was also this notion of a European concrete artist friend stating it more clearly, ďIím working with space.Ē Whereas, Iíll see a denser space here, an emptier space there around me. And the architecture presents another kind of space, and so my line is more complicated than this simple figure/ground issue. I think that kind of complexity motivated me to want to get rid of ďthe middle.Ē

Verna
But there was a moment at the beginning when you were more involved in creating an illusion or an object with your sculpture. And after a while this lead to another idea about space. So, the sculptures had existed on a much smaller scale.

Sandback
They were enclosed spatially although they were still made with various linear devices. The space was enclosed and the reference was clearly to an object. In some cases with the repeating modules the reference to Donís progressions was certainly very clear. Over the thirty-odd years, I drifted away from that kind of object-related format to things that are more like what you see now.

Verna
Where would you see this idea of illusion and reality in your work now?

Sandback
Itís kind of the same, and I donít think it needs too much scrutiny. Illusions are real and reality is allusive. I wouldnít like to parse it out to one side or another. If I were just peddling illusion I would feel like a snake-oil salesman.

Verna
But the material makes it very clear that an illusion is created through a very simple process.

Sandback
Which is inevitable. As soon as you look at the edge of your sheet of paper, you have a sort of field of image projected by your perception onto this situation, so thereís an inherent illusion as soon as any kind of figure exists. Is it like paint drips? Are these illusions which people sometimes refer to as panes of glass, like paint drips? An adult human might regard them that way on a first confrontation. Kids certainly donít. They immediately want to jump through that pane of glass, which was never an issue for me really. I didnít want to make a pane of glassóthatís one of the side effects.

Govan
To prepare Fredís exhibition at Dia, we had something like forty-some works in Diaís collection, and with few exceptions they reside in storage in a file cabinet. You have given each work a diagram or certificate of kind. And when you came to our space, we asked you to work with some of the pieces in the collection. But then you also directly responded to the space. I wonder if you could talk a little about that process. You come here to Chinati with some work that already existed, work that youíve made before, but youíre also responding to and working with the space.

Sandback
Well, thatís all about boundaries. And I didnít even bother to ask you about this . . . but, uh . . . the burgundy colored piece in hereó

Govan
Right.

Sandback
You noticed [laughter]? The piece is reallyóI appropriated it without conferring with Michael because I knew that he would be agreeable. The piece is owned by Dia as part of a series of ten vertical constructions that actually sprang into existence around 1977. The color shift, which is the only thing that differentiates this from the Dia piece, isnít significant enough in my mind to call it some other work of art. So, this is the Dia sculptureóbut itís blushing [laughter].

Stockebrand
Was it the same size at Dia? How does a piece change from being installed at the Dia space, which is higher and larger, to a room here at Chinati?

Sandback
Just one commentóthis piece was never built at Dia. One or two of its relatives from that series of ten were in the Dia show. Two of its closer relatives were built from that same series in Winchendon, Massachusetts at a place that I conspired with Dia to run as a sort of museum for fifteen years. And yes, itís always a question. Itís inevitable that you will run into thatóthe mood, the tones, the figures, and the proportions of a new space. And because Iíve let the cat out of the bag . . . I canít conceive of these things just in and of themselves but I think of them in relation to proportion and scale, and in harmony with a sense of various options in architecture. Itís just part of the soupóitís unavoidable.

Verna
So the question is: how much are you interested in an exact definition of a specific work?

Sandback
I donít think a work can reach anything like what Iíd want to call a full definition without a specific place in time. In the drawer it has to exist in some form as a very well specified schema and I donít think that my aesthetics are necessarily preferred to anyone elseís in terms of interpreting this. Itís like a piece of sheet music.

Verna
But this is not to be confused with installation art, in the sense that itís practiced now by many artists. I donít think of you as an installation artist.

Sandback
No. And I believe the root of that term is in German, the Installateuróthe guy that does the plumbing, and that just burns me up. So I really didnít like that word [laughter]. Maybe I was doing the wiring, but not the plumbing. But no, itís not like installation. I would jitter to think of myself as an installation artist.

Verna
But thatís why itís very important that the work has an internal and external structure.

Sandback
Yes.

Stockebrand
Which can then be adapted to a specific situation. Fred, could you talk about the process of conceiving an exhibition like this one, where the architecture obviously provides a framework for your art and remains visible. Could you elaborate on that?

Sandback
There are both ups and downs to it. Iím sure thatís why I could never be an architect. I had two pieces that I really wanted to see down here, I just loved them. My process follows a very familiar sequence of events. I got here and the specifics that I hadnít paid enough attention to before (when I was here for a couple of days in mid-summer) made it utterly impossible to do what I planned. I had to throw those ideas right out, but thatís part of the process. I was very disappointed. But it was also pointless to cling to ideas that were loony in this context. I always run up against that. What can I do, what can I not do here? I bring my little kit bag of that which I know and have done. Sometimes work repeats itself, like the use of the Dia piece. Sometimes I get something like this four-part horizontal blue piece, which is unlike anything Iíve ever done.

Govan
Can you talk a little about that piece, because when I saw it, I knew it was done specifically for this space. The horizontal line seemed to make a lot of sense here in West Texas. Can you talk a little about how that came about in relation to the windows, landscape, and architecture?

Sandback
I canít say I wasnít looking out the window. But what I didnít do was just sit down and say, ďOK, Iím gonna do a landscape piece out here in West Texas.Ē So undoubtedly it bubbled up in some way, but I was so pleased to be riding along on this event that I took it by the tail. And so it was sort of irresistible to say, ďFred, look out the window.Ē I canít say that I didnít look out the window, but also I didnít pursue some kind of commentary or homage to the landscape. It was just part of the soup, part of the surroundings that one canít help but be aware of every day.

Stockebrand
I actually donít see it so much as a landscape pieceóif you want to call it thatóbut more architecturally related. Itís such a surprising situation because the end of the U is open to both sides and what youíve done is to tie those open ends together visually in the most minimal way, which to me was entirely surprising and a new interpretation of the space. Iím thrilled by it.

Sandback
But if you want to look for historical reference, which isnít landscape at all really, you could look at Matisseís swimming pool.

Verna
Would you say the exhibition space becomes part of the work?

Sandback
Absolutely. Itís my good fortune and my bad fortune to have the boundaries not stop there.

Stockebrand
Do you interpret the space?

Sandback
Not in a conceptually guided way. Itís not a narrative device about space; itís just how you share the space. Youíve got to compromise.

Verna
In many instances, I have seen you use spaces for your drawings, spaces where you have worked, even if you had no project to do there again. But you worked on that space and made paper installations or sculptures. I think itís very important to call these pieces sculpture.

Sandback
Yes, I do, too. Even the skinny little blue line lying on the wall . . . it doesnít stop at the wallóthe wall is behind it, too. Itís absolutely a sculptural presence.

Verna
And not as a paradox, but as a reality.

Sandback
Yes.

Govan
And can you talk a little about the small reliefsóthe wooden piecesóbecause they seem like the inverse of the other works that youíve created. A solid form obviously, which takes up very little space. Can you talk a little about how those came about?

Sandback
They were just such a good trick. Again, itís like going fishing: you donít know if youíll find something. But to get something that could occupy this much space and engage you from across the room or from down the hall in this kind of format was so liberating. It was a trip and it was also something solid.

Verna
There as well, the material is not that importantóitís not a relief in a traditional sense.

Sandback
No. Last summer I thought I should make some of these in bronze or in plasteróreal sculptural materialsóbut that was a wash; it didnít seem appropriate.

Stockebrand
What kind of role do drawings play in your work? Do you sketch out a work before you mount it three-dimensionally, or do the drawings have a completely different place?

Sandback
There are two general manners of working for me. One is on the fantasy sort of level, which usually precedes making a sculpture like the pieces that I brought with me that I liked so much but threw out. The fantasy can crash and burn when it confronts having to go on stage. So thereís this one kind of daydreaming that I do all the time, but the other method is more reasoned and after-the-fact and dryer. It follows a little vibration I get once Iíve made a shape. Then I can play with the shape and maybe that goes somewhere in terms of leading to something else I might want to make as a sculpture. Approximately two parts fantasy and one part structure.

Stockebrand
So there is no sketching before building a piece?

Sandback
No, not at all.

Govan
Itís nice how it exists as fantasy and document. You did a piece for the Lannan Foundation and you did six drawings, which were alternative pieces you could have done in the space that gave you the chance to have your cake and eat it, too. You made drawings of all the other possibilities.

Sandback
Uh huh, itís nice to have them around when youíre thinking about what you will do.

Govan
Iíve wanted to ask youóyouíve been here for a week and a half, and you traveled here last year. I know you were involved with Dia at a time when Dia was very ambitious in thinking about the idea of permanence and site-specific projects for individual artistsóto keep bodies of work together. So you know something about that from history. I wonder if you could talk a little about that time, that ambition to create something like this, and what it means to the artists and to the public.

Sandback
That concern of Diaís, for example, was at that same moment when Don was realizing his need to control the situation because his work here was meant to be continuous with this environment. There was no stop between sculpture and architecture and design or placement. He had the voice to make these things be so. And he was right not to trust them to vehicles that didnít respond to his intentions. If the project is going to get screwed up because someone has to hang one of these, and one of those . . . well, then just do something else. He did what he wanted to do, which is a wonderful thing. There was a feeling about permanence around Dia in the earlier days and that was exciting to me in a limited way. I didnít particularly want to see my piece of string hang forever, but I did want to have control over how I could play one sculpture against the other and learn from that. So the project with Dia that lasted for fifteen years in Winchendon, Massachusetts left me with about ten thousand square feet to think in. Things could recede; they could go away over slower periods of time. That was tremendously useful to me, but I had a little skepticism about Heiner Friedrichís need to think about forever. Itís just too long [laughter].

Govan
That was Don Judd, too, though, wasnít it?

Sandback
I donít think this is about forever.

Verna
You are not an artist that can produce pieces in the studio forever, you need spaces. So whenever this is possible to get to real spaces, it is an important issue. . . .

Sandback
Itís a liberating issue, yes. It very much limits what I can do because Iím bound to produce the whole thing here or there. I certainly cannot send them off into the world willy-nilly. But I wouldnít want to. It would lose its flavor for me completely. *

Govan
Maybe there are questions from the audience for Fred?

Audience
Is there any way you can work without architecture? Could you work outdoors?

Sandback
I think about that all the time. Particularly when Iím in such a vast wonderful landscape. I never haveómaybe Iíll figure it out, which would be lovely.

Audience
Do you ever use assistants?

Sandback
I donít. Since I can still climb the ladder, I donít. I would waste too much time and feel embarrassed by saying, ďNo, not there, there, go back a sixty-fourth of an inch, no, hold it there for about a half an hour.Ē I donít think I would like that.

Audience
Can you talk a little more about your work here in the context of Judd and Flavin?

Sandback
Both men are no longer here and they are, relatively speaking, great oaks under which I might feel like the acorn. I donít know, it didnít concern me that much. I was really interested in what would happen to me in this highly charged atmosphere. And without having to parse that out in terms of depth psychology, it was a cakewalk. I just had a great time.

Audience
How do you choose your colors?

Sandback
Well, Iím more selective than the mouse [laughter]. It starts somewhere and it ends somewhere. In this case, there was the blue of these four horizontal lines, which just leapt out and grabbed me and so it was a one-color building block that I didnít want to lose. And then the colors kind of built and played off each other in a way that doesnít have to do with anybodyís notion of color theory. Thereís no this way or that way to it, but itís very intentional. Youíve got to get the color just right and you push and you pull and you play with it and something hops out at you, and you find another color.

Audience
How do you make a piece of string under tension stop at a piece of concrete?

Sandback
Oh, you mean technically, how does it go? Oh . . . Minimal snake-oil. Itís just a little piece of brass tubing that is glued onto the end of the piece of string that enables you to tension the line and put it into the wall or floor. Not as sophisticated as a spider, but very handy.

Audience
When youíre daydreaming, do you actually envision all the different things that could be on the inside and outside of your strings?

Sandback
The things that could be on the inside or outside of it. . . . You know, I never think about whatís inside my string, because the string is a contradiction. It seems to suggest that there is a line there. Well, is this a Platonic line that has no dimension? Not at all, itís a sculptural line that has a diminished but very fuzzyóadmittedly kind of painterlyóbut definitely three-dimensional existence. But then when you cut one of those reliefs with a table saw, you have a funny kind of ďno line.Ē Itís the space where the yarn might have been which is a step out of that kind of paradox. But I donít know whatís inside [laughter].

Audience
Well, when I first saw the photograph of it, I didnít know your work and I thought it was a piece of plate glassó

Sandback
Yeah.

Audience
So imagine my delight when I came here and I just walked through it.

Sandback
Right.

Audience
How do you sign your work [laughter]?

Sandback
Itís a little microfiche. . . . But to answer directly, I makeóin the event that these things also function as movable substantial artworks in a conventional senseóa certificate that accompanies them which gives the form of the piece, the material, and often some issue of the intention of how I have worked with it. It has a little stamp and a signature, which defines that thing after it has left my domain. So the signature is on the certificate.

Audience
When you make a certificate and it has instructionsóafter youíre gone somebody who gets ready to put this piece together will be kind of like an assistant. Is this going to change the piece?

Sandback
Inevitably, after a certain point, it canít be my problem and thatís fine. I donít think itís popular because then it will seem like weíve lost the hand of the artist, which doesnít drive me crazy. I donít think weíve lost the hand of the artistóitís just someone else that will be regarding that sixty-fourth of an inch, which is fine.

Audience
Would you see it at that point as being a collaboration?

Sandback
With an interpreter down the line? I guess you could.

Audience
Were you going to say anything more about Giacometti and his work?

Sandback
I mentioned his name as someone who was very stimulating to me at a certain point, before I thought about really engaging myself with art. It certainly had to do with the way it anecdotally is described as a space eroded away or stripped down to its essential, if there is an essential core to it. You can also look at the story of Charlie Chaplin and the artichoke and ask at that point, ďAm I like Charlie who was confounded by the heart of the artichoke?Ē So it was very stimulating.

Audience
Building off this thought in terms of Giacomettiís figures referentially, his work seems to have struck the perfect cord between too little and too much. Maybe this is a process question in terms of your work. Is that appropriate to how youíre dealing with these additions to spaces, and your thinking about whatís too much and whatís too little? This piece thatís appropriated apparently from Diaóyou didnít chose to demarcate that form across the ceiling structure . . . do you think thatís appropriate to your work?

Sandback
The question of too little versus too much?

Audience
Yes.

Sandback
Absolutely. From a more prosaic point of view, and over the initial years of working, I thought, ďWell, I better deliver the goods, this is not enough.Ē So thereís the tendency to think that four pancakes are better than three. But Iíve gotten a little more at ease with that. But yeah, itís always the issue of how much is enough and which way do you go, you know, when you go off the endótoo little or too much? Thatís one of the continua, which Iím well aware of when Iím working.

Audience
Thinking about the piece you installed at Lannanówe got a chance to watch you quite a lot as you walked around and spent time in the space. Is there anything to do with revision or editing in the work?

Sandback
At that moment, during its execution? Oh yeah, all the time. Itís a funny little choreography that doesnít have words, and doesnít have a script. Itís a matter of conjuring something upólike taking a block of stone and knocking away all the parts that donít look like an elephant. It takes a matter of conjuring up a form and then getting comfortable with it and see where it may take you.

Audience
Do you ever edit it after itís been in the file drawer for example?

Sandback
The Dia piece here is indeed blushing. Itís not major, itís not the kind of editing that is so significant that you would say itís no longer an orange, itís an apple. Itís a non-essential editing.

Audience
In the way that Giacometti influenced you by cutting through space with the line, would you say that Flavin would have influenced you in the way that he filled a space with a single fluorescent tube?

Sandback
That could well be, although I donít really have words or thoughts for that. Thatís not the way I regard Flavinís work. It may well be there for me on some level but not in how I chose to regard it.

Audience
Do you make or buy the string?

Sandback
I buy itóitís the cheapest stuff. I canít use wool because the fibers are too short. You know, if you have an old wool sweater after a while itís just blah, and thatís because the fibers are too short. The acrylic yarn just goes ping and stays there, more or less.

Stockebrand
Well, thank you very much Fred, Michael, and Gianfranco.

Sandback
Thank you very much for coming and paying attention.


This conversation took place on October 6, 2001, at the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas, on the occasion of the opening of Fred Sandback: Sculpture. It was first published in English and Spanish in Chinati Foundation Newsletter (Marfa, Texas) 7 (October 2002), pp. 26Ė32.