Abstraction takes a variety of forms; one is hard-edged and geometric as exemplified by much of Josef Albers’ work, the other dynamically expressive and conceptual, as favored by Johanna (Jo) Chaie Sandman. Even though Albers had departed Black Mountain College in western North Carolina by the time she attended in the summer of 1951, his legacy was ongoing. She was joined by fellow students Dan Rice, Robert Rauschenberg, and Cy Twombly. Although her time at BMC was short-lived, Sandman’s forays into abstraction extended beyond the realms of painting and included materials as myriad as found natural objects, medical x-rays, smoke, photography, and industrial materials. Her continued use of experimental media is in keeping with the fluid and exploratory nature of BMC.

Born in  Boston, Sandman received her undergraduate degree in 1952 from nearby Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, and the following summer she was in Provincetown, Massachusetts at the Hans Hofmann School of Painting. Moving to New York City she continued her studies with Hofmann at his New York School, where she took a job working as the school’s registrar, and also studied with Robert Motherwell at Hunter College. She, along with Elaine de Kooning, was a member of ‘The Club,’ a vague grouping of artists and intellectuals that was originally limited to men. The year 1954 found her at the University of California Berkeley where she earned her Master of Fine Arts degree. Returning to Boston, she entered a teaching certification program at Radcliffe College, earning a master’s degree in education in 1956. While there she met Walter Gropius who had designed a building at Black Mountain College and taught on the faculty prior to her arrival. He hired her as a mural designer and color consultant for his firm, The Architects Collaborative, and she proceeded to design tiles and murals for local buildings.

Sandman taught at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts from 1956–1961, and again in 1976. She married Robert Asher in 1958 and continued working until the birth of their first child in 1961. Children did not keep her from her studio: throughout the 60s, she stayed committed to abstract painting. But by the end of that decade, surrounded by a boom of new media in the art world, she began to explore alternative, “non-art” materials. Joining the Boston Visual Artist Union in 1971, she, together with colleagues, mounted a protest against the Museum of Fine Arts Boston for its lack of interest in contemporary art. While in Boston, Sandman experimented with folded canvas, insulation silver foil compositions sometimes in collage-like configurations under glass and created installations. In 1981 she returned to teaching at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and later that decade she developed a series called Artifacts of Air in which she used commercial caulk on sandpaper. These have been described by one critic as “A record of ephemeral dust motes floating in the air, their biomorphic forms, placed inside square units of black sandpaper, [that] suggest a humorous version of ancient hieroglyphic forms from another civilization.”

Sandman turned to photography, but not in a conventional way; she did photograms described as “somewhere between painting and photography of found objects, and then turned to x-rays. A body of work entitled Thermal Drawings from 2007 involved incense and smoke on fax paper which she then photographically scanned and reprinted on etching paper, resulting in images of black and white abstract, organic shapes. In addition to two-dimensional work, Sandman has also created installations such as Continuity (1993–1995; new configuration in 2008) consisting of small units of plaster of Paris and pieces of automotive hose crawling up the wall and over pedestals for a length of approximately 40 feet.

During her long life Sandman has explored multiple materials and approaches. She began her career as an abstract expressionist under the tutelage of Hofmann and Motherwell, eventually gravitating more toward conceptual work like that of John Cage. Explaining her shift(s) in art-making, she declared, “each new generation kicks the previous generation in the shins.”