It's hard to get through an article or even a conversation about Fred Sandback's work without hearing it described as "drawing in space." This is hardly surprising, given that for over three decades he used thin strands of acrylic yarn (and occasionally wire, string, or elastic cord) to create three-dimensional configurations composed from that most basic element of drawing: the line. Yet while the notion of drawing in space had already featured prominently in Clement Greenberg's writing about midcentury expressionist sculpture, Sandback's drawing is hardly so subjective; his lines look less like traces of the artist’s hand than like vectors laid out with a parallel rule or a T square. Indeed, although the description is much less poetic, Sandback's work might be more accurately characterized as "drafting in space."
This shift in terminology highlights a paradox implicit in Sandback's work. Drawing in general, and architectural drafting in particular, is a system of translating three-dimensional space into a two-dimensional depiction. As such, it is inherently representational and, arguably, inherently illusionistic. But why deploy such a system in three dimensions, where space is of course already present and presumably does not need to be represented?
Such questions are particularly puzzling in the case of Sandback, who, as a student of Donald Judd at Yale, was deeply influenced by the Minimalist shift from the pictorial to the literal. In fact, he made his first works in 1967, only two years after Judd's triumphal pronouncement in "Specific Objects" that "three dimensions are real space. That gets rid of the problem of illusionism. . . ." Yet the real problem, as Sandback quickly realized, was that the binary between illusion and reality isn't quite so straightforward. Three-dimensional space, after all, only becomes "real" through our perceptual experience. And we perceive space, particularly depth, largely by interpreting visual cues—lines converging in the distance, near objects occluding those far away, and so on—in a process that is ultimately not so different from reading a conventional representation of space on a two-dimensional surface. Thus, as Sandback put it, when it comes to three-dimensional reality, "illusions are just as real as facts, and facts just as ephemeral as illusions."
This observation is an apt description of much of Sandback's work, but applies with particular force to the series of "Vertical Constructions" recently on view at David Zwirner. While many of Sandback's early pieces retained a ghostly sculptural quality by tracing the contours of simple geometric figures, these works have decomposed into clusters of pure vertical projections. Scattered throughout the gallery's interior were works made up of anywhere from four strands of yarn, as in Untitled (Four-Part Vertical Construction in Two Colors), 1987, to, most dramatically, twenty-two, as in Untitled (Sculptural Study, Twenty-Two-Part Vertical Construction), ca. 1991/2016, which entirely filled one gallery. Although in each of these pieces the shafts of yarn are all of identical height (stretching from floor to ceiling) and evenly spaced in relation to each other, they appeared to differ wildly thanks to the vagaries of perspective, steadfastly refusing to cohere into a stable configuration, let alone the outline of an implied plane or object. Particularly within the denser configurations, the parallax produced by moving through the gallery space created a startlingly visceral effect of animation, with the individual strands of yarn appearing to dance back and forth, continually shifting their position relative to each other and the viewer.
Architects have long shared Sandback's knowledge that there is no distinction between illusory and actual space. But for them, this has always been something of a dirty secret, to be suppressed by their own version of drawing in space, which mobilizes optical cues to render volumes as legible as possible. David Zwirner's own architecture provides an obvious example in the so-called reveal created by a narrow gap between the galleries' white walls and their concrete floor, which creates a sharp contour emphasizing the boundaries of the room. Visually, this architectural detail functions very similarly to one of Sandback's strands of yarn. Experientially, however, the effect is diametrically opposed. Architects draw in space in order to bring it under control, shaping it so that we may better orient ourselves in relation to our surroundings—Sandback, by contrast, wove his lines through space to activate it, and to remind us of our own role in helping bring it to life.