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Tom Sachs’ Entire Life Is Art

  • Words: Nathan Taylor Pemberton
  • Photography: Alessandro Simonetti

FRONTPAGE is Highsnobiety’s weekly online cover story exploring the people, moments, and ideas shaping culture today. For the fifth edition of our series, Nathan Taylor Pemberton visits Tom Sachs at his New York City studio to learn about his life’s work, currently on display at Schauwerk Sindelfingen.

At a modestly-sized museum in the south of Germany, the artist Tom Sachs is currently exhibiting a collection of his life’s work, organized in chronological order. The show, called Timeline, is a rare solo outing of his art. It spans a distance that begins with his childhood and ends in the present day, where he’s currently sitting in his Soho studio, some 4,000 miles away from the Schauwerk Sindelfingen.

The studio itself is a permanent collection of Sachs’ life – a vast inventory of art supplies, shop tools for every industrial need, handwritten labels (on every surface), and a spectrum of works-in-progress. It is a shrine to functionality, the most inviting mechanics shop you’ll ever visit. Every room is stocked with a telephone-book-sized McMaster-Carr parts catalogue, even the bathroom. When I first arrive, though, the artist is busy adding the final touches to a painting of Krusty the Clown while Future’s Purple Reign plays on the stereo.

Before sitting down at a marble table in the studio kitchen (ringed by Sachs’ $2,000 plywood shop chairs), the artist vigorously wipes it down with disinfectant, saying: “I think this is just my job sometimes, cleaning tables.” Wearing a faded, navy blue chore coat and cut-off shorts, his legs gently bounce when he finally sits. His Mars Yard Nikes, scuffed and paint-flecked, absorb the repeated impact of his energy, not so much nervous as wired.

I’m in Sachs’ studio to talk about the sculptures in the exhibit, his life’s work. Laying on the table between us is a paper print-out of the pieces in Timeline, which are really replicas of his memories – memories constructed of cardboard, clay, paint, duct tape, foam core, bronze, and hot glue. They are bright, loud memories in technicolor coatings of red or orange, like his Nutsy’s McDonalds Trash Bin (2001) or Hermes Hand-Grenade (1995). Or they’re a scuffed-up white, worn-out in a welcoming way, like Miffy (2013), his mischievous bronze bunny, or Flag (2014), his resin-coated tribute to Jasper Johns.

Highsnobiety / Alessandro Simonetti

It would be impossible to write this article and omit the many tangents the artist pulls out of his mind throughout our conversations, like a mysterious cord of red twine. It would be dishonest in a way that Sachs’ work never is. Looking at a piece by Tom Sachs is to see how the thing itself was made – to see red twine, to hide nothing about the distractions that made it possible.

Some of those distractions are assignments, references, the logic that orders Sachs’ world. As we circle the idea of his exhibit, new ideas tumble out like YouTube autoplay, and I’m jotting down my homework assignments for the life I left outside of the studio. Take “The Dematerialization of Art,” a 1968 manifesto on conceptual art by a writer named Lucy Lippard. “Do you know that one?” Sachs asks. “You should get it. It’s sort of like the anthology of the conceptual art period from 1968 to 1974, and it’s all about the time where sculptors did everything they could, and they didn’t know what to do next, so they just started making experiences.” There’s The Filth and the Fury, a Sex Pistols documentary from 2000 (“Mandatory viewing,” Sachs instructs). There’s his favorite YouTube channel about tools, by a man called AvE, who recently sent Sachs an engraved crescent wrench. Or Hennessy Youngman’s Art Thoughtz videos, viral material circa 2012 (Sachs and I watch all seven minutes of a video of Youngman explaining “the sublime” in the woods).

We quickly cover other types of distance: Nakamichi soundbars (the kind Sachs installs in his boomboxes), Sony VX-1000 camcorders, Krink K-70 permanent markers (his pen of choice), Casio SK-1 sampling keyboards, the architects Edward Tuttle and Minoru Yamasaki, the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe homes in Cleveland, the Oceania section at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Neil Young’s failed MP3 service Pono, and Polaroid’s SX-70 camera (“If you ask scientists and chemists, I think they will agree that camera, and the film, is the most sophisticated thing that man’s ever built,” Sachs says). He refers to things as “Chomsky-like,” and quotes Eazy-E to explain how his studio settles on projects (“Too busy sayin’, ‘Yeah!’”).

World Trade Center, 2019
© Tom Sachs; Photo by Frank Kleinbach

To give you a better idea of what’s at one end of Sachs’ personal timeline, there’s the lumpy, clay sculpture of a camera he made in 1974 for his dad. Painted black, with two oblong cylinders that read “Kodak,” it stands to scale. It was, Sachs says, “made for love.” Thirty-two years opposite of that memory stands World Trade Center (2019), a towering 35-foot model of Yamasaki’s haunted architecture, created for the Schauwerk show. It looks serious; a perfect political statement made from plywood, in 1:13 scale. But it’s just another memory in Sachs’ mind. One that was first made in his studio, from which he stared down Broadway and watched the Twin Towers collapse, and fabricated in the same studio two decades later. To Sachs, that memory is about the people walking north, up that same street, bodies coated in the same kind of worn-out white he uses now.

World Trade Center is also about man’s ambition, be it in the shadow of a great structure or in the hole of a former one. At the time, as the dust was still in the air, Sachs recalled how three of his assistants nearly ran out the door to enlist in the army. He convinced them to stay. Maybe, he suggested, they could help out in other ways. “We went down there and got to be sort of a part of that community for a moment. It was really well organized, but there was nothing to do,” Sachs says.

Right as I pop a stock question about how his creative growth has changed between these two pieces, Sachs’ two-year-old son stomps in. Like everyone else in the studio, he’s wearing a pair of (baby) Mars Yard sneakers, released just that week. “There’s my first-born!” the artist announces, before running over to scoop up Guy Louis Armstrong Sachs. His long-time publicist (and friend) of three decades, who has been sitting at the table with us, smiles.

It seems appropriate, then, that this is the part of the story where someone else attempts to answer the stock question. Written on Sachs’ hand, in inch-thick permanent marker, are the words: “Call Dakin.” This would be Dakin Hart, senior curator of the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, which first hosted Sachs’ Tea Ceremony back in 2016. So, while you imagine Sachs playing with Guy (rolling across the studio floor on moving casters and flying a perfect model of a wooden C-130 military transport plane through the studio’s airspace), I phoned Hart, who explained that Sachs is creating in a space that is really in-between everything, a bit like the sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Somewhere between craft and technology, the archaic and the modern, the past and the future, you’ll find whatever it is Sachs is working on. “There’s an essay that Noguchi wrote back in 1942,” Hart tells me over the phone. “The first line of it is: ‘To be hybrid anticipates the future.’ It’s hard to think of a line that connects better to what Tom is about than that.”

Highsnobiety / Alessandro Simonetti
Highsnobiety / Alessandro Simonetti

Tea Ceremony, which was recently shipped across the world from Tokyo to southern Germany for the Schauwerk show, is Sachs’ interpretation of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, or chanoyu. It’s another piece of red twine that Sachs pulled on, researched, and obsessed over, until it was fabricated into a small village, made of full-sized huts lined with red reflective tape, and cross-referenced with pieces from the Space Program. It includes dozens of hand-made ceramic bowls, a ceremonial tea set, and a koi pond (which he considered filling with piranhas). For its debut, every last piece was integrated amongst Noguchi’s smooth stone sculptures in the museum’s cold industrial space. It was a kind of hybridity Noguchi likely never anticipated. “The premise of the installation was to go, ‘Hey, let’s see if we can turn the museum into a real rock garden, with a real mountain temple, and put a tea house in it, and perform tea ceremonies in a completely newfangled, slightly bonkers way, and see how that fits,’” Hart says.

It may not be clear to some, how a Japanese tea ceremony fits into the creative universe of a guy who once put a vase filled with bullets in the Mary Boone Gallery, or who fabricated a full-sized atomic bomb, or who designed a pair Nikes that have become one of the most sought-after resale sneakers on the internet – someone the art critic Roberta Smith once called an “exemplar of artistic machismo.” But the curator suggests that these jagged pieces make up a cohesive whole. “Tom has a natural interest in rituals that have entire cultures surrounding them, especially ones that have really great paraphernalia,” Hart explains. “He’s very empirical, but I don’t think he knew that when he started making tea bowls or the pieces of a tea garden, that it would end up in a complete culture of tea.”

Genevieve Hanson. ©INFGM / ARS

The cultures that Sachs designs, builds, and then enforces, are just as much art as the physical products that his team of 12 studio assistants fabricates every day. After he finishes playing with Guy, an intermission for which he apologizes profusely, Sachs informs me that both myself and everyone reading this story are now a part of the Tom Sachs community. “If you’ve read this far into what I do, if you give a shit enough to read about what I do, you’re indoctrinated into the idea,” he says.

Indoctrination is a core ritual in the culture of Tom Sachs and is best embodied by his short film Ten Bullets, made in 2010. It watches like an HR onboarding presentation into Sachs’ studio and has reached lore-like proportions. All who enter the space are required to view first. The stipulation feels quirky at best, and sort of fascistic at worse. But Sachs’ logic for it is pragmatic. “No one is free of management, so like everything else, why not make it art? Why not do it with care and style and grace? Because you’ve got to do it anyway.”

While I haven’t heard Sachs refer to himself as a bureaucrat, bureaucracy might be the modern ritual he’s most fascinated with. One critic, in a review of Sachs’ elaborate Space Program installation at the Park Avenue Armory in 2012, wrote that it felt like a display of “authoritarian whimsy.” One could argue that there is whimsy to everything Sachs does, the kind I imagine model U.N. participants proudly flaunting. However, sitting with Sachs and following him through his byzantine studio and the wide egresses of his thought process, this authoritarian approach seems like a self-defense mechanism – one that would allow him to be productive in spite of the quicksands of distraction and self-doubt that tend to swallow up lesser creative minds. “There are many ways of being an artist, sure, but for me, the biggest one is building my life. Eating, sleeping, fucking, working out, getting my teeth cleaned, my hair cut, sharpening my chisels, and making sure that I have red paint for when the moment strikes. It’s about preparing for that moment,” Sachs says, adding his own emphasis. “Because it’s elusive, and it’s very, very small.”

But what if Sachs’ elaborate whims are a larger style of self-defense, like a conceptual missile shield lined up outside his Broadway bunker? Toward the end of our conversation, I ask Sachs how he responds to the criticism that has been lobbed his way over the years: that he’s too stylized, too pop, too culturally appropriative, too hype, too twee, too goofy – that, in sum, he is a mere dilettante dabbling in the affairs of, well, just about anything. For a moment, Sachs goes slack, legs finally still, and stares at the 20-foot wall covered in his paintings, across from us. “People who think that I’m not serious are probably not looking close enough,” he says tentatively. “And they can pay me now, or they can pay me later, with their understanding of what I’m doing.”

Sachs continues, without distraction this time, and launches into a rationale of the rigor behind Space Program, and the warm reception of Tea Ceremony in Tokyo (he was even asked to sign a kimono, by someone he claims was a tea ceremony expert). And while it is a defense, his tone brightens, growing more playful and invigorated as he mounts arguments in support of his entire way of being. “God, I feel like I’m being defensive,” he says, smiling. “I love that question. I love that you asked that question. Why did you ask that?”

I tell him that I asked the question because it’s the hardest one I can ask an artist in his position. Also, we’re running out of time. “What do you know that I don’t?” he jokes.

Highsnobiety / Alessandro Simonetti

By now, the sun has set. The photographer has left. I have watched Sachs work on a painting of Krusty the Clown, play dead for his toddler, and solder the word “CD player” in his carefree cursive onto a white CD player. During our time together, he has held no less than three different tools in his hands. I have burned through half a notebook and have already forgotten many of his recommendations and many of my promises to him. There will always be more, anyways – more red twine pulled from his busy mind, new rituals, new obsessions. There might even be a new Nike on the horizon, though my attempts to confirm this on the record were officially met with a grin.

One way this story can end goes something like this: Why stand in the way of complex ideas? Why wrap them in art speak, or art theory? As Sachs puts it, “You can find the sublime in a pile of dirt.” But it can also end a little more off-balance, more honest to the entire nature of the thing Sachs is doing, and the thing I’m doing. Something more hybrid, as Noguchi himself would put it. I would note that Sachs did appear a bit defensive, but also unconcerned with the entire premise, as if the question is a problem he could solve with his team. After all, this is a leader whose mission would be complete had he indoctrinated just one mind in his career. Instead, he’s been given the chance to indoctrinate the masses. “For so many years, I was always frustrated that people didn’t take this work seriously,” he says. “I can’t imagine being any more serious than we are. But I would remind the haters that no one ever got laid by boring someone to death.”

  • Words: Nathan Taylor Pemberton
  • Photography: Alessandro Simonetti
Words by Nathan Taylor Pemberton