‘Fred Sandback’s work is an art of objects without shadows,’ Andrea Fraser said of the artist’s acrylic yarn sculptures in a 2004 lecture at Dia Beacon. She was right – at least until towards the end of Sandback’s life when, in 2002, the artist had an epiphany in the presence of a shadow. It was cast on the wall of a convent church in Mexico designed by the iconic postwar architect Luis Barragán. El Convento de Tlalpan, completed in 1960, is a spiritually moving place even to the most agnostic of aesthetes. Using screen-like yellow walls of windows, Barragán sanctified the grid – a ubiquitous modernist motif – by highlighting its cruciform structure. In the chapel, floor-to-ceiling glass casts stippled rays of natural light onto a large wooden cross whose shadow stretches across an opposing wall. Sandback was not a religious man (Barragán was), but he was struck by how the cross’s material form was superseded by its ghostly impression.
‘Los propriedades de la luz’ (The Properties of Light), organized by Proyectos Monclova in partnership with the Fred Sandback Estate, is a posthumous collaboration between these two creative minds, who differed greatly in visual vocabulary but shared many ideas about perception, light and space. In addition to six sculptures shown in a traditional gallery setting, several Sandback works installed in three Barragán-designed houses in Mexico City are perceptible only by their shadows. At Casa Gilardi, a private residence Barragán completed in 1976 and the only house open to the public, the blue yarn of Sandback’s Untitled (Sculptural Study, Two-part Cornered Construction) (1982–2006), strung across a blue corner above a reflecting pool in the dining room, appears to vanish as soon as you see it, giving dimension to a dead space while simultaneously flattening the corner into a colourfield painting. Along the hallway, lengths of yellow yarn joining the wall and floor in acute angles (Untitled [Six-part Leaning Construction], 2002) dissolve in the tawny light that pours through onyx windows.
Light assumes a greater presence in Barragán’s architecture than does paint or plaster. Diffuse sunlight, channelled through carefully measured windows, bounces off brightly painted walls, endowing whitewashed hallways, reception areas and dining rooms with the luminous, chromatic intensity of a multi-room James Turrell installation. The houses crack natural light into the component colours of its spectrum, each hue’s changing vibrancy reflecting the arc of the sun. At Casa Gilardi, cerulean meets fiery-red in crisp contrast, their reflected tones comingling on a dimly lit wall across the hall. In the foyer of Barragán’s personal residence, a wall painted in the architect’s signature pink meets a floor of black volcanic rock, and the adjacent white plaster pulses with both shades. At every possible turn, the eye is directed – towards a window ofunusual height or a doorframe that opens parallel to a roof beam – to maintain a sense of visual consistency and order in a house where no two spaces are alike.
Such was Barragán’s singular genius: finding symmetry in difference. His precise orchestration of linear geometries and sightlines might be an architectural analogue to Sandback’s favourite forms. Like yarn, which is soft but strong enough to cut clay when taut, Sandback’s sculptures have dual natures: at once flat and volumetric, interior and exterior, forceful yet barely there. Their long strings float like the materialization of a stray mark on a draftsman’s sketch, tracing volumes in space. In the domestic environment of Barragán’s houses, they fully reflect the artist’s desire to make an art ‘anchored in everyday, pedestrian space’.
There is a touching similarity, too, between both men’s relationships to material. Both architect and artist disavowed monolithic materialism; they didn’t need to erect skyscrapers or a concrete Stonehenge in Marfa to interrogate the body’s relationship to objects in space. They did so with house paint, wood, plaster and string – elegant and striking in their simplicity.
As I departed Casa Gilardi, the midday sun began to stream through the skylights, stretching the patterned shape of the windows along the dining room wall. For just a moment, they seemed to merge with Sandback’s strings, glowing in unison as a single beam of light. ‘By removing himself to the extent that he did,’ said Fraser, ‘[Sandback] made a place for me.’ I stoodin that place and wished I didn’t have to leave. Its beauty was far from pedestrian.
First published in Issue 178