Integrationist Aesthetics : On Peter Sacks

By Robert Boyers
“These aren’t particularly healthy times.”
Zadie Smith, 2008
It took my academic colleague only about five minutes or so to note that in the new exhibition of work by Peter Sacks we have a species of “appropriation.” The colleague began, just outside my office door, to assure me that he’d taken my advice and “stopped in” at the Marlborough Gallery on 57th street, and had even bought the slender catalogue, with its compact, two-page introduction. And yes, he agreed, it was all “pretty sumptuous,” a skillful “orchestration” of disparate materials drawn from “exotic” sources. Okay, he went on, Sacks was obviously smart, gifted, learned. As a native of South Africa—though long resident in the United States—he clearly knew all about “that history” and probably “every other kind of history.” Maybe his heart was “in the right place.” But he had to know—surely this was obvious to me?—that his work was bound to seem “problematic” to anyone alert to his “pillaging” of images, texts, materials, histories belonging not to him but to others. Was there, my colleague asked, any expression of misgiving or “anxiety” in Sacks’s work—any sign that he grasped the nature of the “illegitimate exercise of power” entailed in what he had made “from the patrimony of others”?
Of course I knew it was hopeless to remind my ardent colleague that there was, come to think of it, no trace of misgiving or anxiety in the way he himself complacently deployed what had by now become an arsenal of clichés, from “appropriation” to “patrimony” and “illegitimate exercise of power,” while managing to miss entirely what is most obvious and important in Sacks’s project.
To be sure, Sacks’s work is aptly describable as compaction and collage. If he is a painter, he may be said to “paint” by means of assemblage—layering, combining, juxtaposing, so that things radically diverse in origin and texture are somehow musicalized, harmonically interwoven. Even from across a room his works often appear to be more than a painted or continuous surface. The wonder of it, in fact, is that the assemblage can seem, even at first blush, perfectly integrated. Close up, the eye registers more or less rapidly what has gone into the mix, taking in an expanse of linen, a block or scrap of African fabric, the trace of a map, or a skein of lace, a twisted length of fishing net, or a collocation of buttons. Clearly Sacks is invested in these disparate materials because he regards them as potentially precious in themselves, but also because he believes in what, as a sort of palimpsest, they may conceivably reveal. The works are at once legible and elusive, haunted by secrets and half-exposed connections. They speak of things largely buried though not yet forgotten. When they allude to some loss or devastation—by way of burnt objects, shrouds, prison shirts—they intimate a narrative untold and mainly out of reach. They are not about Africa, or slavery, or the holocaust, or injustice. They impart ravage and the irrecoverable without yielding to a message or a formula.
Of course much of the art of the last century has aspired to withhold nothing. This was as true of the Duchampian avant-garde as it is of many of the obviously polemical works currently in favor at contemporary biennales. The demand, then as now, has mostly been for work that robustly and unequivocally declares itself, announcing its radical newness or its relevance, its defiant departure from “the tradition” or its determination to confirm the advanced sentiments of its enlightened audience. My colleague’s unease with the work of Peter Sacks has much to do with Sacks’s refusal to wear the prescribed (and by now familiar) anxieties on his sleeve or to tell us exactly what we think we want to hear. 
Consider, in this regard, the fragments of text—sometimes barely visible or legible—typed onto strips of linen and interspersed with other fragmentary materials in each of Sacks’s works. No instructions are provided for the handling of these texts. As with everything else in Sacks, the texts are selected and dispersed intuitively. Though we may discern some plausible connection between some lines by Dante and a passage torn from a newspaper account of a refugee crisis we are aware that no obvious program informs our “reading.” Perhaps a wildly various pattern of rectilinear squares in one work is best understood by focusing on a small, embedded black and white photograph of the Polish writer Zbigniew Herbert. Perhaps not. The experience afforded to us by these works is such that they always seem exploratory, meditative. Though Sacks has no special fondness for dissonance, everything he makes is informed by a dramatic uncertainty and unpredictability. You feel, in each move he makes, a combination of surprise and deliberation. Nothing random or casual. He trusts himself enough to believe that his intuition will not lead him into formal or conceptual incoherence. For Sacks, the refusal to declare exactly what he’s up to is not a reflection of modesty but of a determination not to betray his feeling for suggestion and irresolution.
Of course it is not surprising that Sacks would be drawn to literary texts, or that his paintings over the course of the last decade have made use of passages lifted from writers as various as Franz Kafka and Primo Levi, Elizabeth Bishop and Seamus Heaney. The paintings themselves bear witness to a remarkable catholicity of interest and taste. For many years a Professor at Harvard, Sacks is the author of five books of poems and an important book on the English elegy. His paintings embody what feels like a lifetime of thinking and feeling, listening and responding, digesting and adapting, each of the works a record of diverse encounters—with literature, obviously, but also with a great many other things.  
To be sure, whatever Sacks touches is alchemically transformed. The scrap of a news dispatch is not the text we might once have read in a newspaper, its status altered by virtue of its having been placed in a matrix of other particulars and made an improbable piece of something strangely beautiful. A remnant or square of African or Indian cloth participates in a wordless but clearly pregnant conversation with diverse fragments torn from the American or Mediterranean world. Nothing in this artist’s appropriations seems at all complacent or mechanical. Sacks represents what it feels like to be a singular person in whom all things meet, from texts to historical memories, from textures to foreshadowings. Each of his paintings is the intricate space where he enacts his sense of an identity that is complex and permeable. The maker haunting these works is, like the artifacts he fashions, clearly a work in perpetual progress.
Though the vision underwriting this art is personal and subjective, Sacks is clearly invested in the public displacements and upheavals that mark our common history. The titles of his most recent works—Kyoto Protocols, Migrations, The Township Series, No Refuge, Letters From The Twentieth Century—tell at least a part of the story. But then so do the titles and allusions in his previous works signal a range of public contexts, from the first to the second world wars, from the case histories of Sigmund Freud to the Book of Job and the “Time Passes” section of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. “Making a record from lost and damaged things is what Sacks’s art represents,” wrote Luke Menand in a catalogue of a 2009 exhibition, and though it would be presumptuous to pretend that such works can “effect real recuperation in the world,” or accomplish some sort of “transcendence,” they are, in Menand’s words, “a machine for imagining possible worlds built from pieces of this one.”
Of course Sacks has no claim to “ownership” of any specific history, nor to the dissident poetry of a Polish or French writer, or the traditions of African textile design. And yet the notion that such an artist should be forbidden to employ what he cannot be said to own denies what Katha Pollitt calls “the very ground on which art rests, the communicability and permeability of human experience,” not to mention the fact “that culture is always mixed, never pure.” Jed Perl refers, in an essay on African art, to “an uncompromisingly integrationist aesthetic,” and it’s compelling to ask what that entails in the case of an artist like Sacks. Surely it entails a refusal, or inability, to think of disparate things as irremediably separate. But it  also entails acceptance of a simple fact, namely, that if he is to honor his materials—the impressions, assumptions, intuitions, conventions and associations drawn from far flung sources—the artist is forbidden to betray them by arrogant dismissal or coercion. Sacks uses what he appropriates not to extend dominion but to ask, in ever so many ways, what it means for each of us to live in history. The words he incorporates, like everything else he includes, may be said, as Menand suggestively writes, to “run through the body of the artist before they go onto the canvas.” In spite of their sometimes monumental size and totemic power, Sacks’s works seduce us in the way of works conceived on an intimate scale, inviting us to take things in, to feel our way into them, with no expectation that we’ll ever quite get to the bottom of them.

Boyers, Robert. 2017. “Integrationist Aesthetics: On Peter Sacks.” Salmagundi (Issue 195/196). (December 18, 2017).