Although Fred Sandback's first exhibition in Britain was in Leeds in 1999, just four years before he died aged 60, his work has not benefited from the recent revival of interest in Minimalism. His yarn sculptures are delicate responses to gallery interiors, and they could never be a source of spectacle, like Judd and Serra, or of spiritual drama, like Flavin and Turrell (although they seem formally close to the latter pair).
This new show is modest compared with the vast spaces Sandback occupies at Dia:
Beacon (AJ 12.6.03), but with work spanning 30 years of his career, seven installations, wall reliefs and extensive drawings, it gives a strong sense of Sandback's practice, and just how quietist it was.
Shapes and volumes are suggested or defined with just lengths of coloured yarn:
sometimes they cross the space in front of you;
sometimes they reach to the ceiling; sometimes they describe designs on a wall; and in one work the yarn juts surprisingly into the floor-space right in front of your feet.
Their physical delicacy is matched by a charming intellectual playfulness. One stumbles at first to find the six parts in Untitled (Sculptural Study, Six-part Cornered Construction) until one sees that four of the eight strings that run from floor to ceiling are joined into pairs on the floor. And so Sandback suggests that the whole construction is a rectangular design somehow severed in the middle by the ceiling. Meanwhile, the lengths of yarn in Untitled (Variation of Four Exhibition Rooms/Four Horizontal Lines) are arranged at intervals to confuse one's sense of their placement, with the yarn that appears lowest to the ground being not the lowest at all.
Sandback liked to describe these works as sculptures, and while that might seem perversely traditionalist given their radicalism, it expresses their distance from the non-art character of Judd's 'specific objects'. Sandback was more interested in phenomenology - something which is borne out by Untitled (Seven-part Vertical Construction), with its coloured yarns stretching up to the gallery's highest ceilings. Stand in the middle of them and the eye is constantly surprised, and forced to refocus, as the glowing, fuzzy lengths of yarn come into view. And one notices what a beautiful, resonant material this yarn is - certainly not just the cheapest option.
The subtlety of all this feels like art in a way Judd's mature robustness sometimes does not, yet Sandback's work is never introverted and remains very responsive to the idiosyncracies of a gallery's environment.
Even when the double yellow lines outside the window seemed to get tangled with the red yarns of his Variation of Four Exhibition Rooms, it feels like a spot of intentional comedy. And when I headed for the exit and nearly missed a lovely, small, late, multicoloured yarn attached discreetly near a window, I wasn't disappointed by its hidden placement, just happily amused.
Morgan Falconer is a writer in London