Conversation with Fred Sandback
Michael Govan, Fred Sandback, Marianne Stockebrand, and Gianfranco Verna
I would like to welcome everyone to the sunny portion of the weekend and
introduce Fred Sandback and congratulate him on the wonderful
exhibition that he’s mounted here at the Chinati Foundation. I would
also like to introduce Michael Govan, the director of the Dia Center for
the Arts where he curated an impressive show by Fred Sandback five
years ago. To my right is Gianfranco Verna who, together with his wife
Annemarie, owns a gallery in Zürich where they’ve regularly shown Fred’s
work since 1971. We will conduct a conversation among the four of us
for a little while and then give the audience the opportunity to ask
Fred, you use a very specific material for your sculptural work, acrylic thread. When did you start to use this material?
Well, I compared it at one point to a number-two pencil line. As a
material it’s pretty mundane, but it seemed to do the job. I began using
it in ’71 or so. Before that, my sculptures weren’t made like that,
although they were linear—they were made of elastic cord. The problem
with the elastic cord is that it always wants to sag, and this
doesn’t—it was fortuitous.
And you use it in various colors.
Well, you can’t avoid color. And as any colorist might, I plumb the depths of my local Wal-Mart [laughter].
Sometimes I paint them but mostly they’re colors off the shelf because
when you are working on this kind of scale, with the line being so
small, there’s plenty of color.
Would you ever see your material as a limitation or a kind of rule
imposed through your selection of material? You continue to develop many
different issues and forms through this material.
It’s neutral but obedient up to a certain point.
One issue you don’t serve, you don’t use it as a textile-related material.
It may be coming.
I am tickled by the anecdotal. My studio up in New Hampshire was raided
by mice. And the mice found a hole in the floor so all of these various
lines of color went to the hole in the floor and disappeared. So one
winter, every time I took an armload of wood, I would find a nest in the
woodpile and of course, all of this color stuff looked very
intentional. There was a Bauhaus mouse and there was a Miami mouse, and I
got a real kick out of that. My color means more to me than I think it
meant to the mouse, but I appreciated theirs.
I wanted to ask you a little bit about origins. Here we are in Marfa,
Texas, the land of Donald Judd, and I was thinking about your work in
this context. You have a number two pencil, and you draw a line, but it
represents a line in space. The lines are nearly always in relation to
space. In fact, the line is an edge of something else. Rarely is it ever
just that and I was wondering if you could talk a little about the
origin of the line in relation to a plane or box or space. Maybe address
the fact that your work emerged at a time when Judd’s work was
developing as well.
Oh, his work was immensely attractive to me and my fellow students.
That’s not to be denied—it was in the air. But I don’t think it was
direct contact with Don’s work alone. For instance, from the time I
started looking at Giacometti there was already a big issue there,
albeit a slightly different one. I have to go back to another anecdote.
My mom told me about this Charlie Chaplin film—if some of you know
something about this film maybe you could inform me. She said she
enjoyed a clip of Charlie Chaplin eating an artichoke. Finding himself
befuddled at a fancy dinner, he took one leaf off, looked at it, and
threw it over his shoulder. And so on through the meal until he got to
the lovely heart, he looked at it, and regarded it a little longer and
threw it over his shoulder. And at that age when mom told it to
me it was still already a potent image of moving on beyond Immanuel Kant
and the thing itself and leaving that borderline with Platonism behind in the dust somehow. All right, so much for that.
I don’t think we need to talk about anything else [laughter]. Pretty much we can all go home.
Does anybody know that film clip? Is that known? OK . . . gotta research that.
To push it a little bit further, you’re talking about the early sixties,
a moment when space is a big issue, right? While you were in school, a
lot of artists were working with small objects; even Judd was still
working with small objects. One thing that became clear in your work is
that it immediately took over vast quantities of space.
Was that an ambition?
In a way, yes. But from the beginning there was also this notion of a
European concrete artist friend stating it more clearly, “I’m working
with space.” Whereas, I’ll see a denser space here, an emptier space
there around me. And the architecture presents another kind of space,
and so my line is more complicated than this simple figure/ground issue.
I think that kind of complexity motivated me to want to get rid of “the
But there was a moment at the beginning when you were more involved in
creating an illusion or an object with your sculpture. And after a while
this lead to another idea about space. So, the sculptures had existed
on a much smaller scale.
They were enclosed spatially although they were still made with various
linear devices. The space was enclosed and the reference was clearly to
an object. In some cases with the repeating modules the reference to
Don’s progressions was certainly very clear. Over the thirty-odd years, I
drifted away from that kind of object-related format to things that are
more like what you see now.
Where would you see this idea of illusion and reality in your work now?
It’s kind of the same, and I don’t think it needs too much scrutiny.
Illusions are real and reality is allusive. I wouldn’t like to parse it
out to one side or another. If I were just peddling illusion I would
feel like a snake-oil salesman.
But the material makes it very clear that an illusion is created through a very simple process.
Which is inevitable. As soon as you look at the edge of your sheet of
paper, you have a sort of field of image projected by your perception
onto this situation, so there’s an inherent illusion as soon as any kind
of figure exists. Is it like paint drips? Are these illusions which
people sometimes refer to as panes of glass, like paint drips? An adult
human might regard them that way on a first confrontation. Kids
certainly don’t. They immediately want to jump through that pane of
glass, which was never an issue for me really. I didn’t want to make a
pane of glass—that’s one of the side effects.
To prepare Fred’s exhibition at Dia, we had something like forty-some
works in Dia’s collection, and with few exceptions they reside in
storage in a file cabinet. You have given each work a diagram or
certificate of kind. And when you came to our space, we asked you to
work with some of the pieces in the collection. But then you also
directly responded to the space. I wonder if you could talk a little
about that process. You come here to Chinati with some work that already
existed, work that you’ve made before, but you’re also responding to
and working with the space.
Well, that’s all about boundaries. And I didn’t even bother to ask you
about this . . . but, uh . . . the burgundy colored piece in here—
You noticed [laughter]? The piece is really—I appropriated it
without conferring with Michael because I knew that he would be
agreeable. The piece is owned by Dia as part of a series of ten vertical
constructions that actually sprang into existence around 1977. The
color shift, which is the only thing that differentiates this from the
Dia piece, isn’t significant enough in my mind to call it some other
work of art. So, this is the Dia sculpture—but it’s blushing [laughter].
Was it the same size at Dia? How does a piece change from being
installed at the Dia space, which is higher and larger, to a room here
Just one comment—this piece was never built at Dia. One or two of its
relatives from that series of ten were in the Dia show. Two of its
closer relatives were built from that same series in Winchendon,
Massachusetts at a place that I conspired with Dia to run as a sort of
museum for fifteen years. And yes, it’s always a question. It’s
inevitable that you will run into that—the mood, the tones, the figures,
and the proportions of a new space. And because I’ve let the cat out of
the bag . . . I can’t conceive of these things just in and of
themselves but I think of them in relation to proportion and scale, and
in harmony with a sense of various options in architecture. It’s just
part of the soup—it’s unavoidable.
So the question is: how much are you interested in an exact definition of a specific work?
I don’t think a work can reach anything like what I’d want to call a
full definition without a specific place in time. In the drawer it has
to exist in some form as a very well specified schema and I don’t think
that my aesthetics are necessarily preferred to anyone else’s in terms
of interpreting this. It’s like a piece of sheet music.
But this is not to be confused with installation art, in the sense that
it’s practiced now by many artists. I don’t think of you as an
No. And I believe the root of that term is in German, the Installateur—the guy that does the plumbing, and that just burns me up. So I really didn’t like that word [laughter].
Maybe I was doing the wiring, but not the plumbing. But no, it’s not
like installation. I would jitter to think of myself as an installation
But that’s why it’s very important that the work has an internal and external structure.
Which can then be adapted to a specific situation.
Fred, could you talk about the process of conceiving an exhibition like
this one, where the architecture obviously provides a framework for your
art and remains visible. Could you elaborate on that?
There are both ups and downs to it. I’m sure that’s why I could never be
an architect. I had two pieces that I really wanted to see down here, I
just loved them. My process follows a very familiar sequence of events.
I got here and the specifics that I hadn’t paid enough attention to
before (when I was here for a couple of days in mid-summer) made it
utterly impossible to do what I planned. I had to throw those ideas
right out, but that’s part of the process. I was very disappointed. But
it was also pointless to cling to ideas that were loony in this context.
I always run up against that. What can I do, what can I not do here? I
bring my little kit bag of that which I know and have done. Sometimes
work repeats itself, like the use of the Dia piece. Sometimes I get
something like this four-part horizontal blue piece, which is unlike
anything I’ve ever done.
Can you talk a little about that piece, because when I saw it, I knew it
was done specifically for this space. The horizontal line seemed to
make a lot of sense here in West Texas. Can you talk a little about how
that came about in relation to the windows, landscape, and architecture?
I can’t say I wasn’t looking out the window. But what I didn’t do
was just sit down and say, “OK, I’m gonna do a landscape piece out here
in West Texas.” So undoubtedly it bubbled up in some way, but I was so
pleased to be riding along on this event that I took it by the tail. And
so it was sort of irresistible to say, “Fred, look out the window.” I
can’t say that I didn’t look out the window, but also I didn’t pursue
some kind of commentary or homage to the landscape. It was just part of
the soup, part of the surroundings that one can’t help but be aware of
I actually don’t see it so much as a landscape piece—if you want to call
it that—but more architecturally related. It’s such a surprising
situation because the end of the U is open to both sides and what you’ve
done is to tie those open ends together visually in the most minimal
way, which to me was entirely surprising and a new interpretation of the
space. I’m thrilled by it.
But if you want to look for historical reference, which isn’t landscape
at all really, you could look at Matisse’s swimming pool.
Would you say the exhibition space becomes part of the work?
Absolutely. It’s my good fortune and my bad fortune to have the boundaries not stop there.
Do you interpret the space?
Not in a conceptually guided way. It’s not a narrative device about
space; it’s just how you share the space. You’ve got to compromise.
In many instances, I have seen you use spaces for your drawings, spaces
where you have worked, even if you had no project to do there again. But
you worked on that space and made paper installations or sculptures. I
think it’s very important to call these pieces sculpture.
Yes, I do, too. Even the skinny little blue line lying on the wall . . .
it doesn’t stop at the wall—the wall is behind it, too. It’s absolutely
a sculptural presence.
And not as a paradox, but as a reality.
And can you talk a little about the small reliefs—the wooden
pieces—because they seem like the inverse of the other works that you’ve
created. A solid form obviously, which takes up very little space. Can
you talk a little about how those came about?
They were just such a good trick. Again, it’s like going fishing: you
don’t know if you’ll find something. But to get something that could
occupy this much space and engage you from across the room or from down
the hall in this kind of format was so liberating. It was a trip and it
was also something solid.
There as well, the material is not that important—it’s not a relief in a traditional sense.
No. Last summer I thought I should make some of these in bronze or in
plaster—real sculptural materials—but that was a wash; it didn’t seem
What kind of role do drawings play in your work? Do you sketch out a
work before you mount it three-dimensionally, or do the drawings have a
completely different place?
There are two general manners of working for me. One is on the fantasy
sort of level, which usually precedes making a sculpture like the pieces
that I brought with me that I liked so much but threw out. The fantasy
can crash and burn when it confronts having to go on stage. So there’s
this one kind of daydreaming that I do all the time, but the other
method is more reasoned and after-the-fact and dryer. It follows a
little vibration I get once I’ve made a shape. Then I can play with the
shape and maybe that goes somewhere in terms of leading to something
else I might want to make as a sculpture. Approximately two parts
fantasy and one part structure.
So there is no sketching before building a piece?
No, not at all.
It’s nice how it exists as fantasy and document. You did a piece for the
Lannan Foundation and you did six drawings, which were alternative
pieces you could have done in the space that gave you the chance to have
your cake and eat it, too. You made drawings of all the other
Uh huh, it’s nice to have them around when you’re thinking about what you will do.
I’ve wanted to ask you—you’ve been here for a week and a half, and you
traveled here last year. I know you were involved with Dia at a time
when Dia was very ambitious in thinking about the idea of permanence and
site-specific projects for individual artists—to keep bodies of work
together. So you know something about that from history. I wonder if you
could talk a little about that time, that ambition to create something
like this, and what it means to the artists and to the public.
That concern of Dia’s, for example, was at that same moment when Don was
realizing his need to control the situation because his work here was
meant to be continuous with this environment. There was no stop between
sculpture and architecture and design or placement. He had the voice to
make these things be so. And he was right not to trust them to vehicles
that didn’t respond to his intentions. If the project is going to get
screwed up because someone has to hang one of these, and one of those . .
. well, then just do something else. He did what he wanted to do, which
is a wonderful thing. There was a feeling about permanence around Dia
in the earlier days and that was exciting to me in a limited way. I
didn’t particularly want to see my piece of string hang forever, but I
did want to have control over how I could play one sculpture against the
other and learn from that. So the project with Dia that lasted for
fifteen years in Winchendon, Massachusetts left me with about ten
thousand square feet to think in. Things could recede; they could go
away over slower periods of time. That was tremendously useful to me,
but I had a little skepticism about Heiner Friedrich’s need to think
about forever. It’s just too long [laughter].
That was Don Judd, too, though, wasn’t it?
I don’t think this is about forever.
You are not an artist that can produce pieces in the studio forever, you
need spaces. So whenever this is possible to get to real spaces, it is
an important issue. . . .
It’s a liberating issue, yes. It very much limits what I can do because
I’m bound to produce the whole thing here or there. I certainly cannot
send them off into the world willy-nilly. But I wouldn’t want to. It
would lose its flavor for me completely.
Maybe there are questions from the audience for Fred?
Is there any way you can work without architecture? Could you work outdoors?
I think about that all the time. Particularly when I’m in such a vast
wonderful landscape. I never have—maybe I’ll figure it out, which would
Do you ever use assistants?
I don’t. Since I can still climb the ladder, I don’t. I would waste too
much time and feel embarrassed by saying, “No, not there, there, go back a sixty-fourth of an inch, no, hold it there for about a half an hour.” I don’t think I would like that.
Can you talk a little more about your work here in the context of Judd and Flavin?
Both men are no longer here and they are, relatively speaking, great
oaks under which I might feel like the acorn. I don’t know, it didn’t
concern me that much. I was really interested in what would happen to me
in this highly charged atmosphere. And without having to parse that out
in terms of depth psychology, it was a cakewalk. I just had a great
How do you choose your colors?
Well, I’m more selective than the mouse [laughter]. It starts
somewhere and it ends somewhere. In this case, there was the blue of
these four horizontal lines, which just leapt out and grabbed me and so
it was a one-color building block that I didn’t want to lose. And then
the colors kind of built and played off each other in a way that doesn’t
have to do with anybody’s notion of color theory. There’s no this way
or that way to it, but it’s very intentional. You’ve got to get the
color just right and you push and you pull and you play with it and
something hops out at you, and you find another color.
How do you make a piece of string under tension stop at a piece of concrete?
Oh, you mean technically, how does it go? Oh . . . Minimal snake-oil.
It’s just a little piece of brass tubing that is glued onto the end of
the piece of string that enables you to tension the line and put it into
the wall or floor. Not as sophisticated as a spider, but very handy.
When you’re daydreaming, do you actually envision all the different
things that could be on the inside and outside of your strings?
The things that could be on the inside or outside of it. . . . You know,
I never think about what’s inside my string, because the string is a
contradiction. It seems to suggest that there is a line there. Well, is
this a Platonic line that has no dimension? Not at all, it’s a
sculptural line that has a diminished but very fuzzy—admittedly kind of
painterly—but definitely three-dimensional existence. But then when you
cut one of those reliefs with a table saw, you have a funny kind of “no
line.” It’s the space where the yarn might have been which is a step out
of that kind of paradox. But I don’t know what’s inside [laughter].
Well, when I first saw the photograph of it, I didn’t know your work and I thought it was a piece of plate glass—
So imagine my delight when I came here and I just walked through it.
How do you sign your work [laughter]?
It’s a little microfiche. . . . But to answer directly, I make—in the
event that these things also function as movable substantial artworks in
a conventional sense—a certificate that accompanies them which gives
the form of the piece, the material, and often some issue of the
intention of how I have worked with it. It has a little stamp and a
signature, which defines that thing after it has left my domain. So the
signature is on the certificate.
When you make a certificate and it has instructions—after you’re gone
somebody who gets ready to put this piece together will be kind of like
an assistant. Is this going to change the piece?
Inevitably, after a certain point, it can’t be my problem and that’s
fine. I don’t think it’s popular because then it will seem like we’ve
lost the hand of the artist, which doesn’t drive me crazy. I don’t think
we’ve lost the hand of the artist—it’s just someone else that will be
regarding that sixty-fourth of an inch, which is fine.
Would you see it at that point as being a collaboration?
With an interpreter down the line? I guess you could.
Were you going to say anything more about Giacometti and his work?
I mentioned his name as someone who was very stimulating to me at a
certain point, before I thought about really engaging myself with art.
It certainly had to do with the way it anecdotally is described as a
space eroded away or stripped down to its essential, if there is
an essential core to it. You can also look at the story of Charlie
Chaplin and the artichoke and ask at that point, “Am I like Charlie who
was confounded by the heart of the artichoke?” So it was very
Building off this thought in terms of Giacometti’s figures
referentially, his work seems to have struck the perfect cord between
too little and too much. Maybe this is a process question in terms of
your work. Is that appropriate to how you’re dealing with these
additions to spaces, and your thinking about what’s too much and what’s
too little? This piece that’s appropriated apparently from Dia—you
didn’t chose to demarcate that form across the ceiling structure . . .
do you think that’s appropriate to your work?
The question of too little versus too much?
Absolutely. From a more prosaic point of view, and over the initial
years of working, I thought, “Well, I better deliver the goods, this is
not enough.” So there’s the tendency to think that four pancakes are
better than three. But I’ve gotten a little more at ease with that. But
yeah, it’s always the issue of how much is enough and which way do you
go, you know, when you go off the end—too little or too much? That’s one
of the continua, which I’m well aware of when I’m working.
Thinking about the piece you installed at Lannan—we got a chance to
watch you quite a lot as you walked around and spent time in the space.
Is there anything to do with revision or editing in the work?
At that moment, during its execution? Oh yeah, all the time. It’s a
funny little choreography that doesn’t have words, and doesn’t have a
script. It’s a matter of conjuring something up—like taking a block of
stone and knocking away all the parts that don’t look like an elephant.
It takes a matter of conjuring up a form and then getting comfortable
with it and see where it may take you.
Do you ever edit it after it’s been in the file drawer for example?
The Dia piece here is indeed blushing. It’s not major, it’s not the kind
of editing that is so significant that you would say it’s no longer an
orange, it’s an apple. It’s a non-essential editing.
In the way that Giacometti influenced you by cutting through space with
the line, would you say that Flavin would have influenced you in the way
that he filled a space with a single fluorescent tube?
That could well be, although I don’t really have words or thoughts for
that. That’s not the way I regard Flavin’s work. It may well be there
for me on some level but not in how I chose to regard it.
Do you make or buy the string?
I buy it—it’s the cheapest stuff. I can’t use wool because the fibers
are too short. You know, if you have an old wool sweater after a while
it’s just blah, and that’s because the fibers are too short. The acrylic
yarn just goes ping and stays there, more or less.
Well, thank you very much Fred, Michael, and Gianfranco.
Thank you very much for coming and paying attention.
This conversation took place on October 6, 2001, at the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas, on the occasion of the opening of Fred Sandback: Sculpture. It was first published in English and Spanish in Chinati Foundation Newsletter (Marfa, Texas) 7 (October 2002), pp. 26–32.