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Frederick Lane Sandback

Died: June 23, 2003

Frederick Lane Sandback, a sculptor internationally known for his Minimalist works made from lengths of colored yarn, suffered from depression and committed suicide at 59 in 2003, according to his wife, Amy Baker Sandback.

For almost 40 years, Sandback used the simplest means to create subtly complex perceptual effects. His most characteristic works were composed of store-bought acrylic yarns in various colors, which he would stretch between different points on the walls, ceilings and floors of exhibition spaces. In response to the architecture of a particular interior, he might produce floor-to-ceiling verticals or he might outline closed forms like parallelograms, rhombuses or triangles.

To the viewer’s eye, the thin, slightly fuzzy yarn would seem to lose its physical presence and turn into dematerialized lines of color. His compositions also had another uncanny illusionistic effect: the colored lines seemed like the edges of transparent, glasslike planes.

This paradoxical play with material fact and perceptual illusion had philosophical implications. Like other Minimalists, Mr. Sandback wanted to focus the viewer’s awareness on the here and now, to avoid directing the imagination toward anything not immediately present. Without any solid object or symbolic reference, his works heightened one’s sensitivity to the experience of being and moving about in space and to ways that perceptions can alter bare facts.

Fred installed his works at galleries and museums, carrying all his materials in a single bag.

Born in Bronxville, NY in 1943, he attended Williston Academy, Easthampton MA, and Theodor Heuss Gymnasium, Heilbronn, Germany. After a philosophy major at Yale, he went to the Yale School of Art and Architecture, earning an M.F.A. degree in sculpture in 1969. Decisively influenced as a student by the visiting instructors Donald Judd and Robert Morris, founders of the Minimalist movement, he started creating simple, linear structures by bending and welding lengths of thin steel rod.

In 1967 Fred set the pattern for his mature work. Using string and wire he outlined the shape of a 20-foot-long 2-by-4 board lying on the floor. Though in fact they contained nothing but air, the lines read as the edges of an almost visible object. From that piece it was a short but significant step to the manipulation of space itself.

Success came early. In 1968, while still a student at Yale, he had two solo exhibitions, in Germany, one at the Munich gallery of Heiner Friedrich, who helped create the Dia Art Foundation in New York in 1974. Fred belonged to a small group of avant garde artists sponsored by the Dia Center for the Arts. He opened a Dia-financed institution dedicated to his own work, the Fred Sandback Museum. Housed in a former bank building in Winchendon, MA, not far from his studio in Rindge, NH, the museum operated from 1981 until 1996, when Fred decided to close it.

Fred is listed in the Artist’s Bluebook, Who’s Who in American Art, Contemporary Art, the Dictionary of Contemporary Artists, and the Dictionary of American Sculptors. His works are exhibited in the Dia Center for the Arts and Beacon Riggio Galleries in New York, the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Fred’s work was mentioned or reviewed in many art journals and other periodicals, including Artforum, ARTnews, and Art in America.

Patrick Ogle remembers:

Fred was a surpassingly brilliant and talented man who lived across the hall from me in the Lawrance (yes, that’s how it’s spelled) Hall entryway jammed cheek by jowl with Phelps Hall. While Fred moved off campus when he married Peg Bovey after freshman year, we stayed in touch as much as possible, and took a number of courses together in art, art history, and anthropology. He well merited the Scholar of the House status (in studio art and philosophy) he occupied during senior year. It was desolating to read in the NYT obits that he’d killed himself. Fred and I seem to have shared depression as a trait that ran (hell, galloped) through both sides of both our families. I wish I could have done something to help, but we’d been out of touch since the late ’60s. I suspect I could have achieved little. While I’ve managed to carry on for the past quarter century through a regimen of fluoxetine, psychotherapy, and grimly keeping on keeping on, I believe Fred was almost too perfect and talented a mind and soul to submit to the side effects of such an approach. But it’s a great privilege to remember him as he was, back in the day.