Fred Sandback

It is this capacity to trigger a new way of looking that makes these works valuable

Feature by Jay Shukla | 16 Apr 2006

Would you like some string to make a cat's cradle with? – it's not the kind of line you hear from gallery assistants very often, and yet the folks down at the Fruitmarket have decided that this as good a way as any to open us up to the art of Fred Sandback (1943-2003).

It's an appropriate gesture really, for Sandback's art doesn't really square with the austere and elitist conception that many hold of his Minimalist contemporaries such as Donald Judd and Carl Andre. Sandback's pieces do not seek visual impact, rather they actively discourage the viewer to dwell for too long on their corporeality. The very material he chooses to work with – predominantly acrylic yarn – is chosen for its ubiquity, its un-remarkableness; the fact that its imperfect, fuzzy edges do not catch the light.

It could almost be said of Sandback that he is a wolf in Minimalist's clothing; the lines he draws through the gallery space are pure illusion, creating phantasms of weight and tension; coercing us into abstract considerations of volume and materiality by artfully avoiding the issue of their own sculptural physicality. In Untitled (Vertical Construction in Two Planes) Sandback maps out two adjacent rectangles with his yarn; placed at 90 degrees to one another and each stretching to the ceiling. It's a ruthlessly simple intervention, yet one which throws up some compelling spatial and emotional questions. These rectangles serve as portals, and by changing how we perceive space on either side of the divide, he forces us to think about the nature of space itself.

The line is Sandback's tool; the cipher through which he strives to understand the essence of a particular place; its atmosphere and ambience, the relationship we feel towards it. His Square Floor Piece from 1979 is one work which engages with the space of the Fruitmarket in a particularly interesting way. Another rectangular piece, this time the sides rise up from the floor at a shallow angle to meet with the wall of the gallery. The incline of this invisible plane seems to reflect our gaze up until we notice the triangular window some way above; its wedge shape seeming to echo the 'negative' space beneath the sculpture. Sandback's sculpture heightens our spatial awareness by amplifying the rhythms already present in the room; in essence we see our whole environment in new terms – a paradigm shift of perception brought about through the sparest of means.

It is this capacity to trigger a new way of looking that makes these works valuable, and in Untitled (1971) the artist achieves this using only two lines of cord. Sectioning off a triangular corner of the upstairs gallery, Sandback places one line directly behind the other at approximately eye level, the most proximate cord seeming to shield the farther one from the viewer. The effect is almost confrontational. Not only are we denied access to this corner of the gallery, we are forced to shift position and bob our head in order to get a visual handle on Sandback's delineation. More than a mere optical trick, this work has a strong emotional vibration, and its execution is both playful and challenging.

In seeking to shift the focus away from literal, material concerns and engage in an open and lively dialogue with both the viewer and the viewer's environment, Sandback has guaranteed himself a unique position in the history of Minimalism.

Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh Until May 14, free.