As the Crow Flies: Fred Sandback

Fred Sandback, Untitled (One of Four Diagonals), 1970, black elastic cord,

Fred Sandback, Untitled (One of Four Diagonals), 1970, black elastic cord; situational: spatial relationships established by the artist, dimensions variable. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Fred Sandback Archive Photo: NGC

Untitled (One of Four Diagonals) by American conceptual artist Fred Sandback is an example of sculptural minimalism at its best. If one can say that a line is the beginning of many creative journeys, then this sculpture is one of the most direct manifestations of that idea. A line is a fundamental element in art. In Sandback’s Untitled (One of Four Diagonals), what occurs in or around the line is what gives the work its meaning.

Displayed on its own, this lengthy thread hovers in space without any adjacent works of art or distractions. Its trajectory is taut, giving the appearance of a wire. It is in fact a woven, elastic cord stretched out like an axis on a three-dimensional graph. With no conventional staging apparatus, the raw ends are anchored to the corners of the room, dividing the area and revealing an abundance of negative space. The jet-black line emerges stealthily from one corner and, in stark contrast, cuts across the white room, suggesting a bold, aggressive stance and giving the illusion that the interior space has been sliced on a sharp slant. The barrier sends a message that is both uncomfortable and provocative, as though suggesting that the wire is a warning or a threat. Viewers walk into a setting where they are resolutely confronted by an obstacle. They cannot circumnavigate the sculpture, merely pass under or over it.

Fred Sandback, Untitled (One of Four Diagonals), 1970, Installation view at National Gallery of Canada, 1970s

Fred Sandback, Untitled (One of Four Diagonals), 1970. Installation view at National Gallery of Canada, 1970s. © Fred Sandback Archive Photo: NGC Library and Archives

The sculpture is unusual, given that the core also functions as the finished product – there is no sculptural armature. This is deliberate, and in his Remarks on My Sculpture, 1966–68, Sandback indicated that his intention was “to make sculpture that didn’t have an inside.” Being originally specific to a site but not fixed to that space, Sandback's sculptures have “always been conceived with at least a generalized sort of place in mind." Signalling his commitment to the display of his works, the artist was present for the installation of Untitled (One of Four Diagonals), when it was acquired by the Gallery in 1970.

Unlike most traditional sculptural works, Untitled (One of Four Diagonals) does not require the force of gravity. It is instead dependent on its parameters, thus making the isolated indoor setting critical to the piece. Sandback doesn’t alter the given surroundings; instead, he uses the plain, white drywall to contrast with the focal point. According to the artist, this is “a pedestrian space,” an ordinary, utilitarian space replicated in a variety of locations.

Born in 1943 in Bronxville, New York, and a graduate of the Yale University School of Art and Architecture, Sandback is best known for using acrylic yarn, elastic cord and steel wire in his work. His creations encourage and challenge the viewer to think about sculpture in an abstract manner, rather than simply categorizing a piece by its techniques or creation methods. The effect is both austere and conservative, because Sandback streamlined a basic concept into a hard line with abstract planes that leave us guessing as to his purpose. The artist encourages this play of interpretations, and the possibilities are limitless. This work could easily be a haiku about distance; or it could be a dialogue on fibre optics, telecommunications, nanotechnology, the stock market, string instruments or ziplines; or could it be that the artist is making a statement as a catalyst for an old-fashioned discussion about perspective?

This conceptual sculpture highlights the aesthetic and societal concerns of the post-war period. Absent is the decorative beauty usually found in historical art; also missing is the humour sometimes associated with conceptual art. Here, the focus is centred on ideas rather than objects. The preparatory planning and logistics are as essential as the finished product, if not even more so.


Fred Sandback's Untitled (One of Four Diagonals) is on view in Room B207 at the National Gallery of Canada. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.

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