The Pleasures of Pragmatism
Pragmatism, especially the American variety, is not a discourse known to give a high value to pleasure. It is a utilitarian philosophy rightly associated with the 19th and early 20th centuries, the birth of industrialism in America and the philosophical projects of Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey. Very roughly, American pragmatism emphasizes a practical and useful approach to the world, to existence and to the solution of problems. The figure of the classical pragmatist par excellence is William James's "tough-minded" empiricist, who works only with the facts and who acts only on the basis of their own experience.
I won't get into the nitty-gritty of pragmatist philosophy–I couldn't in any case– but what I will say is that when it comes to art, especially in New York in the 1950s and 1960s, what really begins to matter for the tradition of American pragmatism is the way in which facts and experience are handled in the gallery context. Little surprise that experience is highlighted and made special. In the greatest works of the 1950s and 1960s, experience hums with the supererogatory intensity. Everyone will already have their favourite artists on the tip of their tongues. I side with Clement Greenberg when he chooses Jackson Pollock in 1950, but in the 1960s I also side with Donald Judd, undoubtedly the most significant artist working in the American pragmatist tradition. Minimalism might be pragmatism's high moment in the art field and Judd is the embodiment of "tough-minded" empiricism int eh 1960s. After all, who else with a commitment to painting dared move the practice into the real of objects so early on, and with a rigorous method keyed to the facts and experience of his own work alone! In a representative quotation from 1984 Judd writes: "What is in front of you is what exists, and what is given. This fundamental rock in the road is what must be described and analyzed. The rock is a philosophical problem and a structure must be built to deal with it and beyond that a philosophical structure must be built to deal with the fact that there is more than one rock, even a lot."
I mention all this because I once thought Judd was the end of the line for gallery-based pragmatism. I liked the odd work by Fred Sandback that I happened to see, but had no idea that he might be the most significant inheritor of that tradition. At least not until I saw "Fred Sandback: A Sampling of Works" at Plug in ICA this past winter, and not until I leaned that Sandback had been a student of philosophy and that Judd was his advisor at Yale in the late 1960s. Of course, the latter details are entirely incidental, or at least as incidental to Sandback's pragmatism as learning that the artist was also obsessed with string instruments or that he had a keen interest in archery. We needn't let biographical facts narrate the work for us, since Sandback's work is entirely capable of telling its own story. Indeed, the crucial fact about a Sandback exhibition is that every work hums with the tautness of experience. You see crisp primary colours, the white cube at its purest without shadows and elastic cord (in the late 1960s) or string (in the 1970s) stretched across a gap without the hint of a sag or trace of the tensions involved–invariably dry, frayed, fuzzed yet sharp, and in the larger works twinned for a "denser line," Sandback's installer Amavong Panya noted. As Yves Alain Bois put it in "Artforum" in 2003, "Sandback's material facts are almost nothing, which makes one's actual experience of his work all the more phenomenal."
"Fred Sandback: A Sampling of Works," then, is a complex show. The well-known and highly illusionistic planes delineated by elastic cord and set at a diagonal in a corner are not in evidence here, The sampling is conceptual, at times poetic, concerned with space and its prohibitions and, in the most representative works, aimed at bending architecture. This being the case, I cannot overemphasize how important it is to resist a crude materialism that would hypostatize string or site specifically alone. It is necessary to be pragmatic, or at least as pragmatic as Sandback himself, especially during his storied years in Germany at the height of his career, when he lived the itinerant life of an artist on the road, traveling from exhibition to exhibition with his balls of yarn to make works expressly for the galleries in which he was to show. Pragmatism demands of us a more complex understanding of materiality than the literal support of string or institution alone. Indeed, it would suggest that experience itself is the material to be analyzed, that illusion is the very stuff of experience and that it is on this foundation that the pragmatist moves–an emphasis that orients us toward materiality proper. This corrective is not unrelated to the problem of approaching Sandback as a minimalist,a term he resisted as much as Judd. And I say this in hopes that most of us are over Michael Fried's reading of minimalism, or "literalism," as he famously called it in "Art and Objecthood." With Sandback in mind, forget Fried's notion that the literalist object is only object: i.e., inert matter. Sandback's version of minimalism (whether he liked the term or not) is as strong a riposte to Fried as the critic would receive, for his works are never without illusion. In fact, Sandback's work stages the facts of experience more acutely than most other artists of his generation. But again, to realist this you must be absolutely pragmatic in your response to Sandback's works. To respond to works on a case-by-case basis is the only philosophical method; to recognize the unique figural economies put into action in, and as, perceptual experience–Judd's "fundamental rock in the road"–as the basic tack.
I start in this way because this is where the pleasures of pragmatism–or indeed the pleasures of the text, image or objects–reveal their greatest charms. For in Sandback's work you encounter a kind of object whose effects were clearly intended by the viewer and hence rigorously analyzed and verified for their efficacy. Your own perception of things, always tangible or deeply felt, is the important thing, and demands critical pressure. In this sense Sandback's works require viewers to occupy the gallery like natural scientists of old.
Take "Untitled," 1972, an elegant corner piece composed of two yellow elasticized cords spanning an eight-foot gap, and installed at the average person's chest height. The strangs run parallel to one another at a distance of approximately six inches. Looking down at the piece from two or three feet away, you might imagine the parallel structure creates the illusion of a floating plane with the approximate dimensions of two by six feet, but this is not quite true. To know precisely what to look for here, we have to remember Sandback's early works–his very first signature work, which was effectively a depiction of a two by four-foot piece lying on the floor, and his highly illusionistic corner pieces, which showcase a single rectangular plane tilted at an angle to the viewer. The diagonal address of the latter works resembles the experience of looking into a floor-mounted Sullivan vanity mirror. You square up to the pictorial plane by looking slightly down. The effect of "Untitled," 1972, is a far cry from any confrontation with the invisible force fields circumscribed by these faux mirrors or with the three-dimensional effects of his earliest diagrammatic work, yet these experiences are foundational. The "illusions" created "are just as real as facts," as Robert Linsley underscores in his account of Sandback's "drawing in space" in "Beyond Resemblance" (2016). Unlike the fairly stable fictive illusions of these early works, none of which is affected by viewing distance or angle of perspective, "Untitled," 1972, comes off merely as a range of somewhat dull perspectival distortions that can be written off as a function of viewing distance + height, and none of which musters the incredibly contained and animated force fields of the early classics.
This failure to live up to the semblance of three-dimensional mass or a tangible planar effect is a motor of sorts, for "Untitled," 1972, is a thoroughly durational piece. As viewers we move about the space directly in front of the work (not to mention that the corner behind operates silently as a vanishing point) in order to find what I would describe as an ideal viewing position. It is the sequence of "almost" right perspectives on the piece that tells the story. This pragmatic manoeuvring reveals that if from two feet away the work is merely an unconvincing six-inch gap between the strands, from six to eight feet away the relative position of the strands lends this literal six inches the figural effect of two inches of depth. But from 20 feet away the gap closes or flattens out completely; the apparent disparity in height between the two lines is lost and they become a single strand. It is as if you shrink in height as you back away from the piece–or, more to the point of Sandback's late works, it is as if the flat gallery floor slopes away from the corner. These are subtle effects that are additive and experienced durationally.
What's more, they are effects reproduced and confirmed in at least two other works in the exhibition. In "Untitled," 1992, the vertically oriented strands of yarn plunge into the floor, somehow taking the floor down with them. And in "Untitled," 2001/2007, described as a broken triangle, and which looks like a Sol Lewitt wall drawing, the viewer imaginatively finishes or traces out the unfinished triangle at the bottom edge of the wall, a protective act that makes the floor lower than it actually is. Furthermore, at the upper limit of this same work an end point predetermined by its distance from the edge of the wall turns the flat wall upon which the work sits into a corner. More specifically, because the line ends at a specific point on the wall, we read the black-graphite-like string at that point as entering the wall at a 45-degree angle, on the model of a classic corner piece. These are all ways in which Sandback's late works bust out of the contained illusions pursued in the early work and fictively transform the concrete space of the gallery. It is a poetic form of institutional, but no less compelling for its subtly wrought distortions of institutional space.
One last issue about "Untitiled," 1972, is that is has both a front and a back. For instance, you know intuitively that you should not really duck underneath the yellow cord and enter the inside corner, though perhaps some will in any case. More curiously still, your hesitation to duck under and literally enter the roped-off area is partly a function of the fact that the space beneath the yellow strands seems to demarcate some kind of extension of the object. Merely compare this underneath with the space above the work. Solidity does no cohere above the strand quite so easily. What prevents us from jumping over is only gravity.
In this sense the object's world is earthbound, like our own bipedal one. In contrast, to pass through a few of the vertical strings that make up "Untitled," 1992, is a breeze, while negotiation the red, laser beam-like threads of "Untitled (Variation of 4 Rooms, 4 Horizontal Lines)," 1969/1997, is something I only contemplated–though I also encouraged a kid without boundaries to breach the sequence of perimeters. In Sandback's logic these various temptations, invitations and prohibitions are related to what he described in an interview with Ingrid Rein in Du Magazine in 1975 as a way to free up the "restricted aesthetic situation" of painting, which typically permits only a frontal address. Contrary to the temple of modernism's idea that gets bandied about in reference to Sandback's work, and the pristine white cube it demands, these various allowances afforded the viewer are pragmatic through and through; about a kind of "usership" as opposed to strictly "viewership," as Steven Wright would frame it. They make manifest the artist's attempt to literalize what he called in 1975 "everyday, pedestrian space." In so doing they also demolish the sculptural legacy of Judd's version of the "rock in the road," for in this work we encounter such as incredibly threadbare version of sculpture that the solidity or objecthood of the art object is pushed to a breaking point.
Which raises a final point about Sandback's language. If push comes to shove, the poetician in me is tempted to discern a grammar of sorts hinging on elemental geometries: verticality, horizontality and diagonality. Each of these orientations comes with its own field of use insofar as they all speak to the problem of accessibility, which is of course a pragmatic question. Thus, which is of course a pragmatic question. Thus, if the horizontally strung works are a provocation to sneak around or behind, then the early diagonal works are only to be looked at and the works strung flush to the wall are to be looked at with an eye to deforming the enframing architecture itself. The vertical works are an open invitation to thread the needle. Of course, "Untitled (Four-part Vertical Construction)," 1992, prompts other things as well: it is a poetic suggesting of falling water, an opening up of space to sky above and ground below and, perhaps most puzzlingly, an open-ended series of questions about how precisely to confront the work. This is where the cynical phenomenologist in me (i.e., the person in me who asks how the works make me , or how I use them to be me) finds a voice and becomes acutely aware of how elastic and adaptable are the body's use of worldly resources.
"Untitled," 1992, certainly coheres as a work, but its occupation of space–a traditional capacity of sculpture–happens primarily as a temporal dynamic. So, for instance, I do not find an ontological mirror in the double strange of vertical yellow string that punctuates "Untitled," 1992–it barely makes a dent in the space, much less affects me. Rather, the body in motion that is the vehicle for my curiosity seems most attentive to the little gaps in the work that are too narrow for me to pass through. You can identify many of these narrow spaces as you circle the work. With each new perspective some tighten up, others open and further thresholds are crossed. These limned spaces are the solids of this threadbare sculpture: they are a function of the durational experience of the work, and where the problem of allegory as a temporary problematic is sharpest. Barnett Newman's zips, which were obviously important for Sandback, are only a distance memory, for here the constitution of the subject has nothing to do with confronting a vertically oriented body, but with the temporal process that goes into building these less than solid rocks.
To draw the first of two conclusions: no wonder Sandback's work is enshrined in the Dia Art Foundation and the pages of October–the whole trajectory of New York's new-avant-garde project is distilled in these fragments, a work Sandback himself used.