Inside the Mind of Tom Sachs
From March 29 to May 3, American artist Tom Sachs is showing his new works at Thaddaeus Ropac’s Marais gallery in Paris under the title American Hand Made Paintings. Most of these pieces were made using media such as marquetry, pyrography and polymer painting.
It is hard to introduce the work of Tom Sachs in just a handful of lines. The first impression is that he is an artist who rejects neat finish in favor of a do- it- yourself, handmade aesthetic that deliberately contrasts with the smooth industrial products that have contaminated contemporary art. Big companies produce objects that are “perfect”—smooth and glossy in terms of finish—but certainly not beautiful. Have you ever wondered why cars were so ugly nowadays? What Sachs is looking for, above all, whether in an object or a work of art, is the ingenuity or the personality of its maker, which are things that once helped define a work of art. In the brilliant bricolage done by the artist and his assistants as they invent technical solutions using poor materials (adhesive tape, lightweight cardboard and, above all, plywood), there is something of those American pioneers who were constantly pushing the frontier westward. Sachs is an explorer, and it comes as no surprise to learn that he has made a model of an English ship from the eighteenth century ( Barbie Slave Ship, 2013), as well as a maquette of the Challenger shuttle. He has also set up some wacky space missions. In 2007 the astronauts and young ladies on board his totally handmade replica of a moon capsule (wearing paper space suits) complete with the computers in the control room, landed in the Gagosian Gallery, and on the way did a bit of damage in the name of science. In 2012 Sachs and his acolytes spent a month in a Mars base set up in a big space on Armory Park Avenue in New York. Despite their rough-and-ready feel, however, these works are all about myriad tiny details, often comical features in which we can lose ourselves and, in so doing, appreciate the philosophical underpinnings of Sachs’s art. The Barbie Slave Ship is not just a boat full of blondes enchained by their desire to look like each other, it is also a giant toolkit. The tools are kept in compartments designed for their specific dimensions—just as they are in the artist’s studio. What’s more, at the back you’ll find all you need to make an excellent whiskey on the rocks. There are not many artists around nowadays making such polysemous work, based on a culture that connects History with more marginal concerns, replete with real erudition about the history of forms, architecture and design, but also such fun activities as surfing and skateboarding. It was long thought that Sachs was a neo-Pop artist—his oversize Hello Kitty pieces and remakes of famous brands (Prada, Chanel) might be read in these terms—but the opposite is actually the case. He does not offer an image of the world as a target for virulent critique, but recreates it based on his own aesthetic, and with a richly acerbic sense of humor. R. L.
Would you agree if I said that you have an ambivalent relation to a l ot of things, especially to American culture, and that this is the “motor” of your work? I am critical of the kinds of spiritual demands the market puts on our souls yet I am a willing but partially aware participant. This gives my work the authority by being complicit and speaks from the inside of the issue. Advertising is a disgusting coercive art that I appreciate. I despise how advertising encourages body dysmorphia but I love how those heels make her ass look.
Much of your work is about the idea of conquest “in the name of civilization”: you developed space programs to the Moon and Mars. You rebuilt part of the USS Enterprise and made a version of the Fat Man bomb which devastated Nagasaki. For the last Lyon Biennale you created the Barbie Slave Ship, an eighteenth-century British ship exhibited in a church. All these vehicles are military weapons, but there are some cozy shelters too, where you can make cocktails, watch DVDs…
In the eighteenth century we controlled human bodies and their value as extracted through slave labor. Punishment was limited to the body and inflicting pain. When the style of torture moved toward the mind, in the twentieth century, so did profit. In a consumer-driven economy, advertising and its resulting decisionbased value, values of identity are controlled to maximize the profit. Blond hair, blue eyes and big tits open doors. We want to be Barbie or we want to fuck Barbie. I’m not saying it's right or wrong but it’s the way it is and no one is exempt.
What did Larry Gagosian say when your astronauts destroyed the beautiful floor of his Beverly Hills gallery, when they collected some rocks from the Moon? It’s always easier to beg for forgiveness than ask permission. That said we were very professional with the excavation and restoration. The fine moon rock dust (regolith) that was harvested during our lunar mission is the rarest of the rare. Which he enjoyed snorting with me.
You’ve been on the Moon and on Mars. What could be farther? What’s the next step? The icy moon of Jupiter known as Europa has six times the amount of water of Earth. In our Solar System it is the most likely place to find extraterrestrial life. We are hoping to find intelligent life or at least horrible monsters that we can kill and barbeque.
Let’s talk about your studio, which is a work of art in itself. Everything has its place. There are strong rules in your studio, but it seems that you have a lot of fun too. All the people who work with you, like Pat McCarthy, the Neistat brothers, they are more like family than colleagues, no? Can you tell us a few words about the Nautical Challenge? For more information about that race, watch the movie: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CnuRfPjYXc0. And buy the book: http://tomsachs.com/item/nautical-challenge.
You’re a famous artist. You have a lot of responsibilities, many people work for you, but your work claims that you’re still a kid looking for fun, adventure and great experiences. How do you deal with this—one more—ambiguity. What’s the secret of freedom? The studio is a teaching hospital. The best part of my job is I get to be a student my whole life. People ask this question often so my answer is to watch our indoctrination film www.tenbullets.com.
You studied at the Architectural Association in London. You worked in Frank Gehry’s studio in California. You’ve built so many models, like the ones with the Cité Radieuse and la Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier… Why didn’t you become an architect? Is architecture finally too “serious”? Architecture school is like marine boot camp to weed out the non- hackers. I thought it would be easier than being an artist. I thought you had to be a genius to be an artist. But everyone is an artist, architects and cops included. Architecture school helped give me the confidence to follow my intuition. It was also a good thing to study while I was becoming an artist and my grown-up self. Art school is an idiotic place to learn to make art, but a great place to make friends. To be an ar- tist you must learn valuable trades like martial arts, foreign languages and document forging. This is Werner Herzog’s philosophy, as well as mine.
Where does your “Do It Yourself” culture come from? Why is it so important that a sculpture of a car, or of a plane water closet, works. Why can’t it just be a sculpture? There is a jihad against functionality in contemporary art. And in a sense I agree with it because functionality in art robs its mystery and spirituality. When my sculptures function it’s a way of generating authentic details and deepening the experience of making them. It’s not important that they work perfectly, I’ll leave that to industry. But the quality and physical characteristics are the result of the ritual of work and use within a community.
SCARS OF LABOR
Your works have to show how they were made. Everything has to be visible, even the blood splashed during the accidents. Is that a kind of modernist heritage? Scars of labor. But also, the advantage the artist has over industry is his fingerprints. I could never make an iPhone, but Apple could never make a product that tells the story of how something is made with the transparency of one of my sculptures. The glue drips, screw holes, cum stains and fingerprints all declare that this thing was MADE and not hatched. The hypocrisy of the Bauhaus: in an attempt to embrace the machine age every piece of Mies furniture had to be (and continues to be) very hand made.
You’ve made pictures since the mid-nineties. Originally, you made some Mondrian replicas
with duct tape, now you use much more pyrography or polymer paint. Are these paintings a kind of pause when your big projects take months to be completed? Are they a kind of personal “homage” to certain figures? To your grandfather who spent a lot of time fighting termites. To Marlon Brando in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now… and to some very important icons: the American dollar, the McDonalds logo, the sticky tape you use every day at the studio. This exhibition at Thaddaeus Ropac is a kind of portrait exhibition, isn’t it?
American Handmade Paintings opens at Ropac on March 29 in the Marais. The works are an expression of my love for my country mixed with a melancholy for its glory days. In some ways its also an expression of my own feelings of mortality. In 1974, the year Louis Armstrong died, the USA gross national product shifted from a production to a consumption bias. In other words we shifted from being the world’s largest producer to the world’s largest consumer. Every empire has its peak and decline. Some imagine that computers will change this and the USA will return to its former glory but if you visit Detroit, or even Soho-Mall, its hard to imagine. But that’s just how I see America. And my job as an artist is to make the world the way it ought to be. I employ sympathetic magic to build the America I want to live in. To create the kind of economy that can support innovation where it’s needed and provide jobs for those who understand that the work is the reward. And that the reward for good work is more work. Goodwill (2013) is a marquetry painting in plywood. In the studio the plywood is always painted before it is cut so the cut line becomes evident. In the 1980s I used Goodwill Industries (a charity based thriftstore chain) as a primary source of art supplies (used furniture) but the Goodwill of the 1980s was selling discarded things from the post war Nazi-defeating 1950s. The Goodwill of today sells junk from the 1980s. The original logo was designed by Joseph Selame in 1968. When modernist heroes like Ray and Charles Eames, Raymond Loewy, and Henry Dreyfuss were still out there kicking ass by making things like Polaroid’s SX-70. The inspiration for this show is the following movie (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jaiq_ZZ_eM), a vintage ad for the Polaroid SX-70. UNITED STATES (2014) was taken at full scale from the side of a NASA Moon Rocket. Its pencil lines represent the back of the frame and larger panels for future graphic imperialism. The font is USAF Amarillo which is used by the United States Air Force and the United Federation of Planets. It is similar to Ed Ruscha’s font Boys Scout Utility Modern in that they both express the simplicity and austerity of a get-the-job-done style of peacekeeping or art-making. Maybe this is why Americans are ranked as the fifth worst lovers (France is ranked fourth best). Untitled (Spiderweb) [2013-2014] took over 2,000 man hours to create and was built at wartime production speed. It is maybe the greatest reflection of the stu- dio’s commitment to the honor of labor. There are some other paintings in the basement gallery. They are from the basement of my mind. All are synthetic polymer on found panels. If the large plywood paintings upstairs are the expression of my focused and expressed ideas, these paintings are like the inside of my mind. I don't totally understand them but sometimes an artist’s best work lies just beyond his ability to understand them.
« Scotch ». 2011. Peinture polymère sur contreplaqué. 81 x 81 cm. (Court. galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris). Synthetic polymer paint and hardware on plywood
« United States ». 2013. Polymère sur contreplaqué 120 x 225 cm. (Court. Tom Sachs et Gagosian Gallery Ph. G Hanson). Synthetic polymer paint and hardware on plywood
« Barbie Slave Ship ». 2013. Technique mixte. 532 x 215 x 690 cm. (Court. Tom Sachs, galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris / Salzbourg, Sperone Westwater Gallery, New York et Biennale de Lyon; Ph. P. Fuzeau). Mixed media Page de gauche / page left: « Barbie Slave Ship » (détail). (Ph. G. Hanson)