Thomas Crow. (essay)
An essay included in the front of the book published on the occasion of Spaceships.
“After returning to finish at Bennington Sachs first pursued the architectural side of his student formation, securing a job in Los Angeles as an assistant in the studio of Frank Gehry.”
“He ruefully remembers an early act of do-it-yourself initiative when he painted the logo of a top brand of skis over the ones on his inferior pair.”
An assembly of space-themed objects by Tom Sachs may look somewhat naked to those familiar with the full panoply of a public Sachs offering. Animated by the conviction that all art objects entail a ritual dimension, he has mounted large-scale installations designed to draw visitors into active scenarios of space exploration. Whether in the cavernous volume of the Park Avenue Armory or in virtual space certified by NFT tokens, to engage with his work in these circumstances has been to surrender one’s customary stance of passive spectatorship directed toward this or that self-contained object of art.
Sachs’s tendency toward expansiveness and multiplication of events can obscure the conscious roots of his practice within a lineage of twentieth-century sculpture. The physical configuration of his pieces affirms the genealogies he frequently evokes in conversation, that is. his reverence for figures like Constantin Brancusi, Julio Gonzáles, Isamu Noguchi, and David Smith. The way he expresses this fealty can carry a disarmingly comic twist, as with the 2020 Leaf Blower where a vertical, cardboard-and-epoxy replica of a leaf blower, one of our era’s most despised implements. surmounts a double pedestal on the end of a steel rod. The outline of the sculpture carries a patent homage to Brancusi’s Bird in Space, various versions of which were fashioned between 1923 and 1940. In Sachs’s hands, the soaring, immaculately polished finial of the prototype gives way to the gnarled replicant power tool, made to rest with a certain unlikely poise on the opening of its narrow nozzle.
Does that make the work little more than a cleverly irreverent parody? It might, were it not for its ramified place within Sachs’s own aesthetic and symbolic preoccupations one being the central place that hand-held power tools occupy in both his life and imag-ination, these extensions of the body that confer greater reach and strength on the unaided human anatomy. This allusion would be at the scale of Sachs the driven builder, the artist who has fashioned his entire working environment with his own hands and craft acumen. On a pedestal. however. the implement leaves literal size and function behind for the space of fiction, wherein it can assume any implied scale or magnitude of referent. In the company of multiple overt references to space exploration, this complicated vertical tube engineered to expel gases from its tail conjures both Brancusi and a rocket poised to lift a payload beyond the grip of Earth’s gravity.
Beyond the homology of shape, then, Brancusi’s condensation of flight into a surrogate solid volume bears an even closer correspondence to Sachs pressing a mock leaf blower into service for the same purpose. In perhaps its best-known version, the top piece finished in gleaming bronze, Bird in Space found itself in the middle of a landmark American legal case as to whether abstract sculpture merited the honorific designation of art at all. Dispatched by Marcel Duchamp from Paris in 1926 to be received by Edward Steichen which is to say, transmitted through the upper echelon of the international avant-garde the work was classified by customs officials in New York as a “manufacture of metal,” under “Kitchen Utensils and Hospital Supplies” and thus subject to a tariff, when importers of fine art paid none.
While this philistine misrecognition provoked high indignation on the part of the artist and his supporters (who successfully appealed), it might agreeably accord with the ambiguities sought by Sachs, where the marks of modest manufacturing are as integral to his aesthetic ambitions as fine-art finish had been to Brancusi. Indeed a levelling of the hierarchy between modes of fabrication provides the baseline for Sachs’s rescuing his admired predecessors from captivity within the confines of the museum, so that their signature devices might again possess some salience for art in the present.
The itinerary that Sachs has followed through his schooling and the early steps in his career manifested this mobility between diverging vocational expectations and levels of customary prestige. During his college years, he spent time at both Bennington College in bucolic, small-town Vermont and at the Architectural Association amid the bustling intensity of central London. From the former he absorbed the deep artistic legacy of that locale, going back to the 1960s when a changing roster of advanced artists distinguished the faculty, among them the color-field painter Jules Olitski and the English abstract sculptor Anthony Caro, who criss-crossed the Atlantic to be artist-in-residence between 1963 and 1965. Equally influential in many ways was the older sculptor David Smith, whose country studio lay just across the New York state line from Vermont in the village of Bolton Landing. Though Smith had died in 1965, the aura of the place and his legacy endured within Bennington’s artistic life. The fact that Smith worked in iron and performed his own welding, often at a breakneck pace, had inspired one young iron-working adept who became Sachs’s first college love interest. From her Sachs acquired his own commitment to this blue-collar proficiency, one of many manual skills in the artist’s impressive repertoire.
Before graduating from this famously free-form liberal arts school, Sachs went abroad to attend the Architectural Association school in London. There the curriculum rested much less on individual inclination and more on teamwork, though was no less experimental for that. The AA stands out in the state-administered landscape of British higher education by being private and essentially cooperative (and for its cramped but salubrious location in a Bedford Square townhouse). Students enroll in year-long Units under the tutelage of one or two tutors. Together the group explores some problem or situation of wide scope, addressing its manifold aspects beyond issues of design per se: they might travel together in order to absorb circumstances on the ground, so that study would be immersive rather than abstract. After returning to finish at Bennington Sachs first pursued the architectural side of his student formation, securing a job in Los Angeles as an assistant in the studio of Frank Gehry.
The Gehry of the late 1980s was not yet the starchitecht creator of high-profile glamour projects like The Walt Disney Concert Hall. His body of work, often at domestic scale, emphasized disjunctive combinations of disparate geometric solids in varied colors, exploiting vernacular California features like stuccoed walls and exposed timber. His best-known work remained his Own modest house in inland Santa Monica, a builders generic Dutch Colonial that he had disrupted through rough interventions with industrial materials like chain. link fence and corrugated metal sheets. That defiance of conventional decorum, along with friendliness to the vernacular in both materials and design, immensely appealed to Sachs, though he found his duties in the studio lay in a more circumscribed sphere. By his own testimony, he spent two years bending plywood. Over the years when commissions were scarce, Gehry had developed his own line of furniture, with unpainted plywood providing its signature material and overall look. An assistant with Sachs’s combination of aesthetic understanding and proactive manual capabilities must have been a godsend for the enterprise.
That practical orientation continued after Sachs made his permanent move to New York, his initial four years there being devoted to conceiving and executing window displays for Barneys, the landmark clothing emporium. There had existed before him a distinguished legacy of artists creating window displays on the streets of New York. Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns did so early in their careers, as did Andy Warhol, but their circumstances differed markedly from those of the young Sachs. The former pair disguised their efforts under the collective pseudonym Matson Jones out of apprehension that commercial pursuits would sully their fine-art credibility, while Warhol’s professional identity still lay largely in the fashion realm. For none of them, moreover, did the endeavor amount to a day-job of anonymous toil. Warhol might have used the window of the Bonwit Teller department store to showcase some of his first Pop canvases, but the gesture made little immediate impact. Sachs, on the other hand, had settled in among his fellow display designers while working as an independent artist at the same time. He recalls the positive reinforcement provided by those colleagues. who strengthened his inclination, in the face of license elsewhere, to maintain a tight standard of craft and formal coherence in his sculpture. But such qualities came to be overshadowed 1994, when he inserted one of his itreverent sculptural installations to a Barneys holiday window, only to find himself and his work suddenly catapulted into the public eve.
Sachs professes to have felt a visceral antipathy toward the trappings of consumerism while growing up amid the status competition among families in affluent Westport, Connecticut. He ruefully remembers an early act of do-it-yourself initiative when he painted the logo of a top brand of skis over the ones on his inferior pair. A couple of decades later, his attitude remained much the same, but defiant rather than acquiescent. Fashioning his sculpture for the Barneys window, to be auctioned in aid of a local school, he reconceived his Nativity scene as a gathering of Pop icons, real and imagined, convened under a McDonald’s sign: the singer Madonna (“Like a Virgin”) as Mary, Bart Simpson as a shepherd, and the “cute” Japanese import Hello Kitty as the Christ Child. The story has often been told that Sachs’s well-meaning if intentionally caustic comment on the commercialization of Christmas drew the public ire of the New York archdiocese, with personal threats and abuse following. Not only did the manufactured outrage (which anticipated the choleric official reaction to Chris Ofili’s Black Holy Virgin when shown at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999) have the opposite of its intended effect on the artist’s personal fortunes, the offending sculpture further cemented its key motifs as enduring elements in his repertoire.
Hello Kitty emerged with particular force (the word is not misplaced), serving Sachs as a prime token of purified emptiness: in his words from 2001, “an icon that doesn’t stand for anything at all…. The branding thing is completely out of control, but it started as nothing and maintains its nothingness.” The Sanrio Corporation may well intend the character to be as empty a cypher as possible, but making Hello Kitty stand for the vacuity of brand culture in general paradoxically makes her burst with social significance. In 2007 Sachs implicitly acknowledged the magnitude of this social critique by having his cardboard mock-up of a Hello Kitty doll enlarged to gigantic proportions to be positioned in public like a looming idol.
Sachs’s subsequent preoccupation with brands, from the haute likes of Chanel and Prada to the mass-market basement of Budweiser and 7Eleven, has filled what he once denounced as a soul-sucking vacuum with an audience-friendly universe of his own creation, one to which, in the case of Nike for one, he is prepared to contribute his own measure of practical authenticity. Hello Kitty came along for the ride, as her figure, already in 1998, surmounts the intake of H. K. F-1 Motor as mascot or zero-gravity flag, the K symbol on her sweater sported like a cheerleader. Despite the impressively intricate character of the bronze casting, the childlike personage accords with the roughly inconsistent drawing of textural detail on the chalky white surface, worn away in places to reveal the metallic substrate.
Presentation of a space vehicle as distressed from use turns from the immaculate public-relations image of the US space program toward the condition of Han Solo’s battered Millennium Falcon in George Lucas’s 1977 Star Wars. Lucas lifted the Hollywood imagination of interplanetary travel (Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 not-withstanding) out of the B-movie, drive-in scrapheap to the plane of top-tier cinema and mass adoration. And Sachs has paid his respects to Lucas and his art direction with works like the 2018 Sandcrawler, a plywood replica of the immense mining vehicles repurposed by the sinister Jawas as mobile fortresses, traversing the deserts on great caterpillar treads, kidnapping errant droids and scavenging scrap metal to be melted down inside. But to lift the door on the side of Sachs’s version is to abruptly miniaturize the cinematic scale of the vehicle, as a pantry of fruit and mezcal bottles adorned with 1970s period pinups takes the place of the gothic fictional machinery.
Sandcrawler adroitly condenses to satirical effect the grandiose immensity of Lucas’s “long ago and faraway” into the quotidian moment of the film’s actual historical moment as a mass-cultural artifact. But embracing the unalloyed actuality of the American government’s space program led Sachs to a more profound paradox, a staple of science-fiction before Lucas, of “primitive” social forms coexisting with hyper-advanced technology. The massively redundant, tested-to-destruction apparatus evolved by the space agency enables its astronauts to perform no more than the most basic activities of locomotion and manipulation of their environment, indeed simply to breathe, ingest, climinate, and survive. The word would not be primitive so much as rudimentary, a forced regression through time toward a hunter-gatherer or neolithic level of human endeavor, as heavy suits and breathing equipment constrain movement in ways that preclude most subtleties of interaction with off-Earth environments.
In this respect, Sachs’s rough and ready plywood aesthetic acquires its deep congruence with the paradoxical limits to effective action that follow from the most advanced technological capabilities available to human beings. By attempting to leave the Earth, where the greatest complexities of culture flourish in the face of every environmental and social obstacle, human beings must sacrifice the greater part of what makes them human. Sachs brings that deeper truth to the surface by representing space vehicles via the trial-and-error concatenation of preexisting functional modules. The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss saw this kind of assembly as fundamental to preliterate systems of thought, admiringly labeling the process bricolage after the French term for improvised household handicraft and repair, a designation that Sachs has proudly adopted to characterize his own work.
One habit of the bricoleur is to repurpose and recombine off-the-shelf components, as Sachs conspicuously does in his 2019-2022 Generation Ship by placing a large double battery charger atop the vehicle (the body being a rolling mop bucket), emblazoned with the prized global brand of power tools, Japan-based Makita. While that component radiates power and capability, the four splayed feet are each nested into a tennis ball sliced in half: the makeshift cushions habitually deployed on the walkers (Zimmer frames) used for support by the elderly and infirm. That juxtaposition of opposites restates the basic paradox of human space travel, whereby extreme efficiency in engineering carries as its complement the spectacle of hyper-fit astronauts reduced to a condition of halting weakness by the hulking survival apparatus each is obliged to inhabit, items that Sachs likewise replicates in homely materials. Another mode of bricolage lies in making do with whatever might be at hand, a evidenced in the mighty charger and battery packs being joined to the mop bucket by a couple of cheap metal fasteners, perhaps swiftly attached by means of handy Makita power drill with screwdriver bit.
The body of the vessel opens, in a rare touch for Sachs, to reveal an illusionistic woodland tableau graced by a waterfall in digital video. The explorer of barren surfaces carries this continual reminder of the Romantic harmony, real or imagined, that prevails between human aesthetic sensibility and terrestrial nature. The belief that our full humanity resides in these corners of unspoilt landscape, an ancient conceit in both poetry and visual art, falls under the generic heading of the pastoral. Roman patricians and Renaissance courtiers liked to imagine a better, simpler life lived by country herdsmen, one that accorded more with their notion of an authentic inner life than did the artificially complex cultivation that governed the lives of the powerful. The premier interpreter of this tradition, critic William Empson, brought the phenomenon up to date during the 1930s when the political adherents of the Popular Front sought the creative voices of the underclass. Empson insisted that the question of social class in literature would always be relational, with cultivated and rustic modes of expression necessarily interdependent. Speaking from the former point of view, he speaks of a “tone of humility normal to pastoral,” which he ventriloquizes as: “I now abandon my specialized feelings because I am trying to find better ones, so I must balance myself for a moment by imagining the feelings of the simple person…. I must imagine his way of feeling because the refined thing must be judged by the fundamental thing, because strength must be learnt in weakness.”
Such sensibility extends to the persona of the creator implied by the pastoral work of art. Sachs the bricoleur enacts the practitioner of limited technical means whose impatient enthusiasm impels him to rival the NASA engineers: Is the space program still far from being able to extract minerals from the surface of Mars? We can do it now! The projected voyage to Europa, the moon of Jupiter possessing both water and atmosphere? Let’s go now! No matter if the miniaturized realization of these missions entails a Cub-Scout level of play-acting. that being the simple thing by which the refined thing must be judged. Details of fabrication participate in this conversation: exposed bolts and screw heads, filer and epoxy adhesive sanded down but left exposed, the layers of plywood incorporated as visual incident. The honesty of what Sachs refers to as “showing his work” crosses over into a species of sympathetic. mimetic magic, subjectively controlling the great, powerful thing by a homebrewed surrogate charged with paradoxical power of its own.
Sachs being an enthusiast for film. particularly the offbeat and underappreciated, Dennis Hopper’s eccentric magnum opus, the Last Movie of 1971, offers a rich analogy: After an American movie crew wraps a quasi-Western set in the Peruvian highlands, the star of the film, played by Hopper, remains behind, to witness the local extras concocting cameras, lights, and booms out of openwork reeds. Deploying these sculptural surrogates, they enact the scenes they had recently observed, drawing the Hopper character into reprising his role for their benefit. As the fate of that character is to die at the end of the story, the Indigenous locals take their mimicry to the logical conclusion and kill the actor. In the original instance, the equipment and its operation had all been real, while the death had been fiction; its reprise reversed those terms, as artful representations confer the fatal power to consummate the plot in actual space and time.
Hopper’s parable of the peril implicit in representation distills something of the power-reversal principle present in Sachs’s sculpture of spacecraft. Violent death, after all, has shadowed the NASA program since the launchpad fire of Apollo 1 in 1967, through the Apollo 13, Challenger, and space shuttle Columbia disasters to follow. As such mortality constitutes an inescapable element of the saga, Sachs introduces the specter of death into this cycle of sculpture via a tributary route: Titanic, a wooden replica of the famous doomed ocean liner began, Sachs explains. as a demonstration toy for his son, the spigot on the foredeck allowing the vessel to fill with water and sink. While the ship replica plays up its makeshift manufacture, its sculptural presentation lifts it from bathtub into poised gallery presentation. The rhythm and intervals in its support, resting on a signature Sachs plywood box, exemplifies his devotion to Brancusi’s egalitarian treatment of pedestal and what rests upon it as equivalently important. The stacked geometric solids that prop up the replica leaf blower in Leaf Blower manifest the same principle, likewise evident in its precursor of 2011, Saturn V Rocket, an even more overt homage to Bird in Space. But there is more than mimicry occurring here; rather, as noted above, Sachs has set himself the ambitious goal of making such canonical sculptural devices into living resources rather than museum pieces from a bygone era.
In this key respect, Sachs’s handyman aesthetic and multiple Pop motif’s become crucial. It is a curious feature of opinion-formation in the art world that major, game-changing innovations from the past are deemed to have been effectively exhausted as soon as their original creators move on or leave the scene. To emulate these examples in any way that overly resembles them is to invite dismissal as derivative, second-generation, or redundant. The unstated and insupportable assumption bound up with this reflex is that the possibilities of landmark innovations are automatically exhausted by their initial exemplars. As that is rarely if ever the case, whole avenues of artistic exploration are unnecessarily closed off; an artificial scarcity of possibilities follows; and younger artists find themselves with too few niches left to occupy. Sachs understands that difficulty, consciously or implicitly, and has adroitly sidestepped the derivativeness police in ways that both serve his projects and revive prematurely mummified sculptural precedents.
Sachs indeed has a way of reaching back to moments now nearly forgotten or given up as obsolete dead ends. The very recent Litter Robot adapts, in an inspired act of bricolage, a remarkable vernacular object: a walk-in, motorized litter box for cats, where a spherical upper chamber accommodates the animal, then rotates to dump and sift the used litter into its base, waste neatly deposited into a tray for disposal all of this activity reenvisioned as an analogue for the mineral extraction that Sachs envisions beyond Earth. Propped up on its spindly legs and taken as a work of sculpture, however, the piece evokes the sort of rotund, cast bronze masses supported on attenuated limbs characteristic of postwar British artists like Kenneth Armitage or Lynn Chadwick. Such exaggerated contrasts heightened dramatic contrast within their agonized human analogues, and Sachs channels parallel devices in aid of the anthropomorphism that attends so much futuristic technology, real or imagined (he has fashioned his own version of R2-D2).
An analogue to the open ironwork of David Smith, Sachs’s youthful inspiration, entered his work via the ready-made transposition of a true bricoleur’s standby, the Black and Decker branded Workmate, a portable bench with vice but only in its earlier form with elegant folding platform of cast aluminum rather than stamped steel, a superior variant with a cult following to this day. Witness as well the way he reanimates his most parsimoniously balanced Brancusi emulation in Sprinter from 2020: the base composed from two interpenetrating pyramids resting on a cube, all faced in elegantly pale plywood. But what lifts the exercise is a decidedly terrestrial means of moving people and things: the angular, slab-sided bodywork of the Sprinter transit van in its early 2000s incarnation, complete with a fitted interior and working doors. Too pedestrian, even invisible, to be exactly Pop, this model now comes with a Mercedes badge, but has also once carried the down-market insignia of Freightliner and Dodge over the two decades of its existence. Sachs. however, includes it among his spacecraft along their shared vector of parsimony, that is, everything you need and nothing you don’t. More than that, the fine-art base elevates the earthbound into flight (Bird in Space once again), while cheekily dignifying the pun implicit in the motif: a Sprinter is a space craft because it contains a lot of space. His apparent irreverence nonetheless yields a sincere gesture of reverence toward Brancusi’s unexhausted powers and toward the survivability of modern sculpture in its entirety.