What It Is Like to See a Sacks

by Louis Menand

Peter Sacks’s recent work raises important questions about cultural history, about painting, and about the place of art in contemporary life. But we can’t make sense of the way Sacks addresses these questions unless we begin as naïve readers with the simple experience of seeing a Sacks. The text is the best path into the context.

Someone recently said that a work of art has the greatest impact when it makes the feeling part of the brain talk to the thinking part (1). Feeling and thinking are not, of course, terribly discrete. Thoughts are always furry with feelings. The brain fires up in many places at once. But the observation does get at something that is so central to the experience of looking at an interesting painting (or listening to an interesting piece of music, or reading an interesting poem) that stating it sounds simplistic—which might be why it is not stated often enough. There is, in experiences like these, a click of apprehension, a moment when the hook snaps into the eyelet, or the boomerang comes back to the hand, a point at which you say to yourself, “Oh yeah.”

“Oh yeah” is not quite the same as “I get it.” Some artworks present themselves as a rebus you need to solve. “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”: “I get it.” But some works present themselves as a language you might (or might not) wish to understand. The Red Studio: “Oh yeah.” And the awareness that you are understanding does seem to be lodged somewhere between a sensation and a cognition. It’s supersensible but subarticulate. The phenomenology is difficult to transpose. Trying to explain what it is like to be affected by a certain painting or musical composition is like trying to explain what it is like to speak French.

The analogy to language is helpful only so far. For one thing, the language of a work of art is more like an idiolect. You rarely respond to simply a painting; you respond to a painting by someone. It’s not that art speaks a private language. A painting is not a diary written in code; if it does seem like that, it is not likely to hold your attention. You are interested that the painting is by someone; you are usually not very interested in the particular someone the painting is by. The sensibility matters; the personality does not. And the language of an artwork is not a foreign one. It’s not even an unfamiliar one. A work of art is a thing you have never encountered before that is made out of things—forms and materials—you encounter every day. The uniqueness is essential to the attraction. The familiarity is essential to the effect.

So what is it like to see a painting by Peter Sacks? In art theory, the place of the spectator can be a matter of contention. (2) The issue descends from an eighteenth-century distinction between the kind of art that is present all-at-once (sculpture and painting) and the kind of art that is experienced over time (poetry and theatre). Like every critical distinction, including the distinction between “Oh yeah” artworks and “I get it” artworks, this is a distinction that is useful only if you are prepared, at a certain point, to abandon it. A Jackson Pollock drip painting partakes of the quality of a stand-alone, luminous object—an “all-at-once” experience. A Pollock seems to be lit from within; indifference to the spectator is part of its aura. You are in the presence of presence. An Andy Warhol silkscreen, on the other hand, or a work made from found materials, such as a Robert Rauschenberg combine, seems to solicit a different type of attention. You expect to stand contemplatively in front of a drip painting; you would feel silly standing contemplatively in front of a painting of a Campbell’s soup can. A friend was once gazing at a Rothko in a museum when a guard came over to her and whispered, “Don’t fall in.” You don’t fall into a Warhol.

But you don’t simply fall into a Pollock, either. Seeing a Pollock from far away makes you want to see it close up, and your impression changes as your distance from the canvas changes. (And if the painting appears lit from within, it is because it has been well lit.) Nothing in this world, sadly, is all-at-once. You are in time; things are in time; and, as things, paintings are in time. Let’s accept, for heuristic purposes, a distinction between an art of presence and an art of spectatorship (or, at least, an art that puts the concept of presence into question). And let’s associate the first kind of art with the Abstract Expressionists—Pollock, Rothko, Kline, Newman, Still—and the second kind with Pop Art, Minimalism, Conceptual Art, mixed-media, and the eclectic production of post-Sixties, postmodernist, post-historical art. Then we might say, following this schema, that Sacks’s paintings are luminous objects that take seriously the fact that they are experienced in time.

So the place to begin accounting for what it is like to see a Sacks is the place, in real time and space, where you begin to see a Sacks. This is (normally) from some across-the-room distance, and the initial impression has to do largely with scale and color. These are imposing, highly saturated canvases. There is, at first sight, something fierce about them. There is also something battered or worn about them, which is part of their fierceness, like a person whose age has become impossible to guess. They appear crusted, scarred, deciduous. They seem somehow to be recovered pieces, fresco-like, artifacts excavated from some ruined place—old walls mounted on new walls.

This first stage of seeing a Sacks is a stage to be supplemented, but it is not a stage to be transcended. At the end of Balzac’s story “The Unknown Masterpiece,” a legendary artist is persuaded by two younger artists to display a painting on which he has been working in secret for ten years. His subject is a beautiful woman, but when he shows the painting to his visitors, all they can see is an inchoate mass of colors and shapes— “une muraille de peinture.”(3) The painter’s friends conclude that he is mad, a reasonable judgment under the circumstances. Seeing the image of a woman where everyone else sees a wall of paint counts as evidence of delusion. But the lesson is more complicated; for, materially speaking, any painting, even a portrait, just is a wall of paint. If you don’t see it first as that, then you are seeing it too quickly.

In its wall-of-paint aspect, a Sacks is a luminous object. The recent paintings are, sometimes spectacularly (and with the right lighting), color bombs. Some of them read as predominantly monochromatic — cumulus-cloud or onion-skin white, cardinal or blood red, nitrous or ocean-water blue. More usually, the pieces are mostly white overall with black and gray, or mostly blue overall with black and white, though there are often dirty red, orange, yellow, or brown accents. And they take up a lot of wall. Some works are triptychs; many are in iron frames.

As a colorist, Sacks is closer to Still than to Rothko. His palette has beautified somewhat, but it remains on the edge of garishness, as the scale of the work is somewhere on the edge of forbidding. The colors are not ugly, but it is important that they are not afraid to be ugly. A Sacks does not want to seduce you with blandishments. For although the paintings themselves are not violent, a sort of violence was involved in their making, and violence is one of their preoccupations.

The paint in a Sacks painting is not transparent. Like the canvas and the frame, paint is both part of the surface and one of the materials from which the object is constructed, as skin is both a surface of the body and one of the organs of which the body is composed. The impasto is heavy. It projects, even at a distance, an impression of roughness, layering, and texture. That impression compels you to move closer to the canvas, and as you do so, the surface changes its aspect. It begins to reveal itself to be topographically dense and uneven, as though there were something underneath, as though a painting were trying to push its way out through the paint. This sense that there is something “in there” is part of the effect, and it cuts against the all-at-once character of the initial reading. You need time to work these works out. You can’t take them in all at once. The paintings are like doors — some actually are configured like doorways, with the shadow of an applied arch and a rough illusion of interior spaces—and they are not merely decorative. They are large doors that open onto very large rooms.

 At a normal viewing range for painting, two or three feet, you are inside the room. The original apprehension of something brute and monolithic is replaced by an apprehension of variety and profusion and even delicacy— of colors, of textures, and of materials. It is like looking at the bark on a tree. The canvas has been treated as a board for mounting matter— corrugated cardboard, rope, found objects, and, most notably, fabric. There are remnants of lace and cloth; there is scorched clothing; there is fabric that has had words typed onto it. The materials cash out the architectural allusions: you have entered a place of human fabrication. You are looking at clothes that people have worn and at words that people have written.

The objects are not paintings with stuff stuck onto them. They are paintings first and last. Everything applied to the surface has then been painted over. Sometimes, in the case of the texts especially, the paint almost obliterates every trace of the attached material. The palimpsest sometimes goes opaque. The intricacy of the close-up surface is, consequently, intense, a Petri dish of shapes. Formally, the lace, the folds of the cloth, the printed words, and the layers of paint and visible brushstrokes produce multiple local effects. A Pollock drip painting has the same macro integrity and micro higgledy-piggledy. It is like putting a drop of water under a microscope, or zooming down to street level on Google Earth. There is life on these surfaces.

Shapes have their own kind of legibility, and, in any case, Sacks’s are not purely abstract. (Perhaps no shapes are.) They adumbrate, besides doorways, human bodies, totemic figures, continents. But the texts and the textures have another sort of content. Why these fabrics? Why these texts? That stuff is part of the idiolect of the work, and it is not a purely formal language. The materials remind you that this is a painting by someone, and so it is good to know something about who that someone is.

Sacks is an expatriate. He was born, in 1950, in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and grew up in Durban. Educated at Princeton, Oxford, and Yale, he has taught at Johns Hopkins and at Harvard. He is the author of the standard critical study of the elegy(4) and of five books of poems.(5) And he has traveled extensively. The South African background helps to explain some of the characteristics of the art. The somewhat overpowering qualities of scale and color are, on some level, painterly recollections of the Indian Ocean, the African jungle, and the Drakensberg Mountains, places near where he grew up. The political situation in South Africa when Sacks lived there and his expatriation help to explain motifs of loss, damage, and violence recognizable in many of the paintings, as well as the prevalence of black and white. The South African influences are much more explicit in Sacks’s earlier work, though—as the titles suggest for pieces such as Cell Block and Truth and Reconciliation, and in series with figures of elephants (Botswana 1, Botswana 2) or outlines of the African continent (Childhood, Animal Kingdom). The more recent work is less Africa-referenced, and the titles are more abstract, though the thematic interests are consistent.

Sacks made art from the start. In the beginning, he used it as a system of record making, a way of taking notes on his encounters with landscape or with works of art in a gallery or museum. “The first images I made were on the pages of a bound notebook,” he said in an interview in 2006. “They were entirely private. They were both mementos on the move and distortions of those mementos in the direction of certain kinds of emotions which I couldn’t name. Many were of landscape and architectural details.”(6) He has maintained this practice of notebook keeping for more than thirty years.

The entries in the notebooks are both verbal and visual. Sacks also copies out the works of certain writers by hand, accompanying the text with abstract imagery or applying marks directly on top of the text. Sometimes he makes what he calls “private anthologies,” for example, a selection of poems by Emily Dickinson, “written, drawn, and painted in a palm-sized 19th-century French prayer book,” or notebooks of lines from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, of Whitman’s Drumtaps, of Wittgenstein’s Notebooks 1914-1916, of Albert Camus’ last novel. He has typed out almost all of Kafka’s The Trial.(7) For all the impress of the natural world that his paintings exhibit, Sacks’s visual imagination has always been intertwined with writing and with the act of writing. Painting and writing are both modes of referring, ways of bearing witness, of rendering an account.

Sacks has done most of his recent painting in Normandy, in a farmhouse near Omaha Beach, a former site of the D-Day landings. Some of the materials on the canvases are objects he found along the beaches; the clothing and lace he purchased, used, in local shops. Many of the clothes are burial garments, and most date from the nineteenth century. Sacks sometimes burns the fabric when he affixes it to the picture surface. The texts in the paintings are typed out on rolls of cloth using a manual typewriter, a laborious (also noisy) physical process. The texts are not clipped from a book; they are made, in the same sense that the fabric on the paintings is “made” by being cut or burned.

A well-known contemporary artist once asked Sacks why he didn’t use assistants to type out the texts. One answer might be that this would be to treat the texts as qualitatively separable from everything else on the canvas — shapes that anyone could type, even though not anyone could do the brushwork. But it is important that the words are not produced by independent means. The words in the paintings are, so to speak, run through the body of the artist before they go onto the canvas.

“Writing is the purest of art forms,” Maya Lin has written. “When your thoughts and intentions are conveyed as directly as possible to another person, no need exists for a translation. Words can be the most direct means of sharing our thoughts.”(8) Not many writers would agree with her. For most writers who care about writing as a form, language is cursed by reference. A word cannot not mean. It is pre-eminently a sign, and where there are signs, there is ambiguity, polysemy, deconstruction. Writers dream of a text that has the implacable in-the-worldness of a work of landscape art or a melody, an object that does not only refer, a thing whose thereness is immediate and whole. But this desire for escape from ambiguity, whether it is the artist’s dream or the writer’s, is a version of the old distinction between an art of presence and an art of interpretation. And this is the distinction that Sacks’s paintings always undo.

The way the texts are handled in Sacks’s art has partly to do with degrees of scrutability. From the initial, across-the-room viewpoint, the texts can often read as columns, or highway markers, or cenotaphs. And from the in-close perspective, the print can be indistinguishable from the lace. The words’ status as legible signs is a function of the observer’s position. But the same variations of scrutability apply to all the elements of the painting: they reveal themselves variably according to distance and perspective. There is no one place from which to see a Sacks.

But the content of the texts is also significant. There are a number of roles that words can have in the visual arts. Often, they are primarily design elements with (ordinarily) minimal referential significance, as in Cubist painting or collage. Or they are handled ironically, as in Pop Art and most postmodern artwork. Conceptual Art, in which language performs a documentary function, raises its own issues about the relation of words to images. In Sacks’s text paintings, the words are not strictly design elements or visual/verbal puns, and they are not documentary or ironic. (There is no irony, in the postmodern sense, in Sacks’s work.) The words are not torn from a newspaper or a book, and the texts are not fragments. They are dutiful copies—private printings, so to speak, of published works that are interesting to the painter in their own right.

Generically, the texts are diverse, but they cluster around a certain historical moment and a certain type of experience. The experience is of mental or physical extremity. One painting—one of Sacks’s continent pieces, in this case, Antarctica—incorporates Robert Scott’s journals from the fatal South Pole expedition of 1912.(9 Another uses a lecture on the serpent ritual of the Pueblo Indians delivered by the art historian Aby Warburg in 1923, in a Swiss asylum where he had spent five years as a patient.(10) The text in another work is taken from the memoirs of Daniel Paul Schreber, published in 1903(11) —a paranoid’s cosmology that Freud later used as the basis for a famous case study.(12) Sacks includes, in one work, all of Rilke’s “Duino Elegies,” in another, the “Time Passes” section of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927).

The historical moment informing all these texts, sometimes retrospectively and sometimes proleptically, is the First World War, although the connections are oblique. It was the outbreak of the war that sent Warburg into an asylum; his lecture on the serpent ritual was intended to demonstrate to his doctors that he could be released. (“The images and words,” Warburg wrote on the draft of his lecture, “are the confessions of an [incurable] schizoid, deposited in the archives of mental healers.”(13)) The war is what takes place in the “Time Passes” section of Woolf’s novel, though most of the text is a description of a dilapidating country house. Rilke began the “Duino Elegies” in 1912 but abandoned them, and was finally able to complete them, after disruptions caused by the war, in 1922, four years before his death. Schreber, a distinguished jurist who, like Warburg, was committed to an asylum, died in 1911, the year Freud (who never met him) published his case history. Scott died in Antarctica. But their texts are forebodings of a world coming apart, or a world gone strange. “Great God! This is an awful place,”(14) Scott wrote at the South Pole after learning that Roald Amundsen had beaten him there by five weeks.

The First World War was the opening act in the suicide of a civilization. The suicide took thirty years to be done, but there were people who, even at the moment the war began, intuited the full measure of the catastrophe. “It has all come as by the leap of some awful monster out of his lair,” Henry James wrote four days after war broke out. “It fills me with anguish & dismay & makes me ask myself if this then is what I have grown old for, if this is what all the ostensibly or comparatively serene, all the supposedly bettering past, of our century, has meant & led up to. It gives away everything one has believed in & lived for.”(15) The texts that Sacks incorporates into his paintings were written in circumstances of despair, but they are not despairing, and neither are the paintings. This might be something that distinguishes Sacks’s work from that of certain contemporary figures—Anselm Kiefer or W. G. Sebald—with whom he otherwise shares a preoccupation with the damage of history. The luminosity of his paintings is not the luminescence of decay. The works are efforts, in the face of loss, breakdown, and impending ruin, to record and to recuperate. This connects them with a strain, formally various, of modernist art after the First World War—with Dada, surrealism, Kurt Schwitters’ Merz works, and New York School painting of the 1940s. Making a record from lost and damaged things is what Sacks’s art represents. There is no transcendence in Sacks’s work, but there is no pure loss, either. Everything decays, but everything can be recovered, though in a different form. The materials are familiar. The object is something we have never seen before.

Of course, Sacks’s paintings do not effect real recuperation in the world. They accomplish something else: they model recuperation. There may be another South African influence at work here. Julian Beinart is an architect, now living in the United States, who was born in South Africa. One day in the 1960s, he remembers, “walking down a street in the middle of Durban, South Africa’s most racially mixed city, I passed a boy carrying a wooden transistor radio. It was about six inches long and two inches wide, with a wooden handle and a hinged wooden dowel antenna about two feet long tapered to a small knob at its end. On the top of its body, one of three square wooden buttons was pressed down. A slit of broken glass covered a rectangular dial behind which was a piece of old paper calendar numbered one to twelve. A red pointer was stuck on three; it could never move. Although it looked like a Braun transistor radio, this object never produced sound. I asked the boy about it and he said, ‘It can’t play music, but I sing when I carry it. One day I’ll have a real one.’”(16) After this, Beinart began seeing objects like the wooden transistor radio all over South Africa—bicycles and cars made from scraps of metal, motor- cycles made from discarded beer cans.

This is one of the ways a certain type of art works—not as something useful, but as a prototype of usefulness, a machine for imagining possible worlds built from pieces of this one. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,”(17) runs the famous line in another First World War text in which the war is unmentioned. T. S. Eliot did not imagine that writing poems could save him, or anyone, from whatever monsters waited around history’s bend. “It is like saying that the wallpaper will save us when the walls have crumbled,” he once said.(18) Civilizations don’t survive by gratuitous acts of making. But a civilization in which there are no gratuitous acts of making is in a dangerous condition.

What is Sacks trying to recuperate with his gratuitous forms? One answer, though certainly not the only one, is: painting. We might grasp that thought as the returning boomerang, and let it allow us to run our phenomenological experience of a Sacks painting backwards, out from the surface to the initial impression. “Modernism is our antiquity,” says T. J. Clark.(19) He means that modern art, from Manet to Pollock, was the art of a transitional moment, and that it is now over. It is an elegiac thought, though much of modernism — certainly “The Waste Land” — is itself elegiac. But considering modernist painting as the art of a vanished world, we can begin to see the “excavated” appearances of Sacks’s canvases in a more immediate context. If they are like frescoes, they are frescoes recovered from a twentieth-century postwar city, from Paris in the 1920s or New York in the 1940s or after September 11th. Black and white are colors that have political resonance for a South African, but they also may recall the black and white paintings of Franz Kline, as Sacks’s all-but-monochromes may recall Newman and Still, and as his lace-and-rope surfaces may recall Pollock. New objects. Familiar materials.

It would be a mistake to construe Sacks’s work, in this respect, as a return to art before the postmodern divide. “One does not escape the constraints of history by entering the post-historical period,” says Arthur Danto. (20) Modernism is now part of the history of forms, and so is postmodernism. If contemporary art is post-modernist, it is also post-post-modernist. We connect with Sacks’s art differently from the way people connected with modernist art— because it is a different kind of painting, a painting that puts the historical and the referential back inside the frame, but also because we connect with all art differently, and this is a change that Sacks’s work acknowledges. His painting is a fully contemporary art that proposes a reinterpretation of the possibilities of modernism for these times.

1 Kristen Ward, quoted in Don Thompson, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 6.
2 Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum 5(June 1967): 12-23. Fried revives his argument against what he calls “theatricality” in Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). Fried says that his critique is derived from Diderot; the distinction between the synchronic and diachronic
arts dates from Lessing’s Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry (1766).
3 Honoré de Balzac, “Le Chef d’Oeuvre Inconnu” (1832), La Comédie Humaine (Paris: Gallimard, 1978), vol. 10, 436.
4 The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spenser to Yeats (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985).
5 In These Mountains (New York: Macmillan, 1986); Promised Lands (New York: Penguin, 1991); Natal Command (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997); O Wheel: Poems (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000); and Necessity (New York: W. W. Norton, 2002).
6 Peter Sacks: Works/Oeuvres 2003-2006 ([Paris]: Galerie Piece Unique, 2006), 40.
7 Peter Sacks, 42-43.
8 Maya Lin, Boundaries (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 2:05.
9 Robert Falcon Scott, Scott’s Last Expedition: Volume One: Being the Journals of Captain R. F. Scott, ed. Leonard Huxley (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1913).
10 Aby Warburg, “A Lecture on Serpent Ritual,” Journal of the Warburg Institute, 2 (1938): 277-92.
11 Daniel Paul Schreber, Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken (1903); Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, trans. Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter London: Wm. Dawson & Sons, 1955).
12 Sigmund Freud, “Psycho-Analytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides)” (1911), The Standard
Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press, 1958), vol. 12, 9-82.
13 Quoted in Ron Chernow, The Warburgs: The Twentieth-Century Odyssey of a Remarkable Jewish Family (New York: Random House, 1993), 262.
14 Scott’s Last Expedition, 543-44.
15 Henry James to Edward Emerson, August 4, 1914, Henry James: A Life in Letters, ed. Philip Horne (London: Allen Lane, 1999), 542.
16 Julian Beinart, “The Radio,” in Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, ed. Sherry Turkle (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007), 108.
17 T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land,” Complete Poems and Plays of T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1969), 75.
18 T. S. Eliot, “Literature, Science, and Dogma,” The Dial 82 (1927): 243.
19 T. J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 3.
20 Arthur Danto, After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 198

copyright © 2009 Louis Menand

Peter Sacks is represented by Sperone Westwater.


Instagram: @petersacksstudio