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Tom Sachs, 2001


Tom Sachs has been known to stir up trouble. He's been targeted by the Christian right for exhibiting a nativity scene that featured Bart Simpson as all three of the Wise Men. Another time, art dealer Mary Boone spent a well-documented night in jail after the police confiscated a bowl of live bullets he'd displayed on her desk. So it would be easy to say that Tom's success owes much to media hype. However, Tom's work is both media-friendly and substantive; it is headline-making precisely because it addresses ideas about consumption, social mores, and fashion hysteria in a cogent, visceral way.
Tom constructs models of pop, fashion, and design icons — from Reitzvelt chairs to the McDonald's arches. He employs foam core, Sharpie markers, duct tape and hot glue. His objects are intentionally rough-shod, as if he were spontaneously working out his obsessions, of which there are quite a few. They include: weaponry, Hello Kitty, high-fashion logos, the Simpsons, toilets, and high-modernist furniture.
Tom is a connoisseur of both mass and haute culture. You can't help but be drawn in by the mix.

PETER: I think a lot of people feel confused by your work because of its sensational character. I mean, you've made a lot of guns.
TOM: The guns started because there was this police program in New York to get guns off the streets. So some friends and I made a few guns and brought them into the police department. We got seventy-five dollars for each one. Then, we went to the gun store and bought Glocks — real handguns — with the money that we'd made from turning in our guns.

PETER: The police thought your homemade guns were real?
TOM: Well, our guns were real enough for the cops to want them off the street. The guns that we bought legally with that money were just better made, in Austria.

PETER: So the guns you made actually worked.
TOM: Yeah, but making them functional was a real pain in the ass. It looks easy when you read the chapter in The Anarchist's Cookbook telling you how to make a shotgun. But you have to file down a couple of things here and there that the book doesn't really tell you about. It's difficult to make them reliable and safe, which is always a concern. All the weaponry came out of a desire to learn how to make a shotgun using eight dollars worth of materials from the hardware store.

PETER: Do you see your work as sculpture?
TOM: It is sculpture, because it's talked about, sold, and shown as such. But to me it's really bricolage, which is the French term for do-it-yourself repair. Bricolage comes from a culture that repairs rather than replaces — American culture just replaces. The other main activity that happens in my studio is model-making. A lot of my work synthesizes model-making with my experience growing up in suburban Fairfield County, in Connecticut.

PETER: How do you mean?
TOM: I grew up in a really competitive environment — it was consumer mania. For instance, our ski equipment wasn't as good as our neighbor's, so I wound up painting a better brand's logo on my skis.

PETER: So that's how you got started with the fashion material? Using the Chanel logo and so forth?
TOM: Yeah. I'd make a Nikon camera out of clay because my dad really wanted one but had to settle for a cheaper Olympus. I etched Nikon into the front of it and made little strips of film that fit in the back. As an adult maybe I want a Glock or an HKMP 5 or a hand grenade or a Hermes Kelly bag — they're all symbols of status and power. But I'm not really able to spend fourteen thousand dollars for an alligator Kelly bag. The work has been a way to create satisfaction.

PETER: I've noticed that you like to learn about things by making them. I was in here a few months ago and you had done a big foam-core sculpture of the McDonald's arches.
TOM: There's been a lot of McDonald's work in here in the past couple of years. I made a McDonald's Value Meal, constructed out of Tiffany packaging. I've done drawings about McDonald's. Now I'm actually reading this great book, Behind the Arches, about the development of the company. Building the giant arch at full-scale in the studio was a bit of a challenge technically.

PETER: You have an amazing ability to make things. Does that come from someone in your family?
TOM: For a couple of generations, everyone in my family has been in medicine. I was supposed to be the great talented doctor. I think it would have been fun to be an orthopedic surgeon and then, with all that extra money, to buy art and furniture.

PETER: Instead, you build your own. But medicine does require a very high degree of spatial apprehension, and a comfort with technical things.
TOM: Well, my father's father was a dentist. He was president of the American Orthodontics Association. He also held some patents for braces that, in severe cases, could move someone's teeth from one side of their mouth to the other. He had a darkroom in the basement where he developed photographs that documented his cases. He also had a potter's wheel, a painting studio, and the first four-track drum machine that I ever saw. He was a dilettante tinkerer, an artist-in-the-basement.

PETER: You talked about European culture as a culture of fixing things. But all the great tinkerer artists are really American. Have you looked at that tradition?
TOM: Sure — Calder and H.C. Westerman. But I think there's a big tradition in Europe too, like Tinguely and Picasso.

PETER: Tinguely did all those machines that fall apart?
TOM: I don't think they were meant to fall apart. He was ambitious but unskilled, so his machines tended to fall apart. He spent the last half of his life traveling around fixing them. But there's definitely an American sense of ingenuity and purpose that I identify with. There's an irreverence towards craftsmanship that is very American.

PETER: Irreverence?
TOM: Yeah, you know, duct tape comes in every color so it can match the thing you're repairing. But on the other hand, we build the best quality weapons systems, and there's nothing more sophisticated than a military weapons system. Like the SR71 — the Blackbird spy plane — which is parked on the Intrepid aircraft carrier here in New York. It was built in the late '50s, and it's still the world's fastest plane.

PETER: Besides weapons, what other American products do you appreciate for their craft?
TOM: You have to choose weapons because they're the best. Like the Stealth bomber. It breaks the laws of nature. It's so rigid in its geometry that it becomes almost organic. Everything that's interesting technologically nowadays is the result of all the money we spend on military systems. Whether it's carbon fiber used in a tennis racket, or Velcro that came from the space program. Even the development of the digital world was a result of military funding.

PETER: It's interesting to hear you talk so much about military systems, because in your personal life you're really pretty normal. You grew up in the liberal Northeast. You went to Bennington and took gender studies. And yet in a lot of your work, there's an unabashed embrace of stuff that boys like — from guns, to toilets, to all kinds of machinery. Do critics give you a hard time about that?
TOM: I don't know. Someone came up to me at an opening and said, "Don't you make anything that isn't about killing and destruction?" And I said, "Well, I just made a model of every object in my Hello Kitty collection — one hundred and fifty pieces." And I made them painstakingly. I included all the price tags and every other detail that I could perceive. My powers of observation have been finely tuned as a result of twenty-five years of constantly making things. I don't know if that makes it not-boy art. I'm just doing what's interesting to me.

PETER: So you don't really care if you're looked at in that way?
TOM: Well, a curator who I really like once told me that I make "bad-boy art." And I just felt like he was missing the point. Did Calder make bad-boy art? Do you dismiss David Smith as a macho steel sculptor because his persona was about driving a truck and getting decapitated by one of his sculptures in a drunken auto race with Kenneth Noland?

PETER: Well, perhaps one shouldn't. There've been a couple of scandals involving the exhibition of your work, too. I'm thinking of the time Mary Boone got arrested for having a bowl of your bullets on her desk.
TOM: I think the most interesting and terrifying situation was the reaction to my Hello Kitty nativity scene, which was part of a holiday window display at Barneys in 1994. It was meant to be auctioned off to benefit The Little Red Schoolhouse. I was pretty much unknown at that point.

PETER: It was a nativity with all the figures made out of colored duct tape. Instead of the baby Jesus, there was a Hello Kitty with a halo.
TOM: Right. There were three Bart Simpsons as the Wise Men. Madonna was the Virgin Mary — with six breasts, a Chanel outfit, Air Jordans, and a headset.

PETER: So what happened?
TOM: The Catholic League said it defamed Christianity. They organized a protest, hate mail, and a whole radio campaign until Barneys agreed to remove the piece. I received a series of death threats and a hundred-fifty hate mail letters. It was pretty scary. I was making a commentary on the commercialism of Christmas, and all of a sudden I was like this enemy of the state.

PETER: It doesn't seem like your work is meant to offend, yet you manage to get people riled up pretty regularly. That in turn has made you quite a public figure as a transgressive artist. Was that just an accident, or is that how you like to be perceived?
TOM: I can't imagine doing anything like that on purpose. I'm interested in these transgressive themes, not for their shock value, but as a way to look at societal boundaries. It's those kinds of explorations that result in situations like the Barneys window, or Mary going to jail.

PETER: Do you think somehow the pieces get attention because they're also nice to look at? There's a clarity to your work. The guns are kind of graphic. Your work is legible.
TOM: Yeah. There's a duality to my work. Some of it may seem transgressive, but the craft is pretty traditional. In general, I think an artist can either have a new idea, or a new way of expressing ideas that are already out there. It's really hard to have a new idea and a new way of delivering it. Only a real genius can do both at the same time, but I'm not that kind of person.

PETER: Who is?
TOM: Someone like Bob Marley or James Brown.

PETER: A new message and a new medium. What about Picasso?
TOM: I still don't know what Picasso's message was. In fact, I can't think of anybody in the art world who's accomplished that.

PETER: Jackson Pollock.
TOM: I guess. But Jackson Pollock is so relatively uninteresting compared to Lenny Bruce or John DeLorean.
PETER: [laughs] Absolutely.
TOM: I have a group of people who inspire me, like DeLorean, Bruce, Malcolm X, and Artaud. They're all people who pushed the limits of their work, and it destroyed their lives. On the other hand, I'm trying to live my life rather than create a life that people will talk about after I'm gone.

PETER: I really love that about you. You do take time with friends. You're a workaholic but you're not a career-aholic. Almost all of your heroes were, in one sense or another, populist artists. Musicians sell records, Lenny Bruce sold tickets. And yet artists have a much more high-end, privileged audience.
TOM: The elitism issue is a drag. I've always made sure that you can buy something from Tom Sachs for twenty-five dollars. You can go to A/D Gallery and buy a quarterscrew for twenty-five dollars, handmade by the studio in U.S.A. You can buy a t-shirt for twelve dollars at Liquid Sky.

PETER: Would you be happier if, say, you made most of your living on t-shirts and just a little bit on sculpture? Or wouldn't you care?
TOM: I don't care, as long as I get to keep doing what I'm doing — investigating and learning about new things. It doesn't really matter where the money comes from. I feel privileged because I enjoy the ultimate luxury — I get to be a student my whole life.

PETER: Most of your work is sold at art galleries, to art collectors. Does it bother you that your pieces are expensive?
TOM: No, it's great because it gives me freedom to spend a lot of time on the things I build. I'm the only one who makes things exactly like this. I think what I do is very specific — that's why it's expensive. We don't use industrial techniques here, so there's no other system or environment that my work could originate from.

PETER: The first time I walked into your studio, I was struck by how well it's organized. I guess you're a little obsessive. The person who came to mind was Joseph Cornell, who had a basement studio with rows of boxes for things like doll's hair and silver glitter. It was like an elf's workshop, with lots of odd items he stored in little compartments. Is that how you are?
TOM: No, I think if I had a bigger studio I wouldn't keep it this organized. It's just a matter of survival. And everything in the studio is sturdy and well-maintained. One of my pet peeves is buying something twice. I always get the best thing the first time.

PETER: You should do your own version of Consumer Reports.
TOM: I always buy the thing that has the least amount of compromises. But then I wind up customizing anyway.

PETER: So how did you choose the microwave here in the kitchen?
TOM: I got that because it has the shallowest depth of any microwave available. But the design discussion is so vast and has been such an obsession of mine for so long that if we get into it we might never get out. I'm frustrated by the fact that every time I buy a new computer, it's not as good as my old one. Every time I take that three thousand dollar plunge, things just keep getting worse and worse.

PETER: Right, right.
TOM: The problem is, you can't get good quality stuff from American designers anymore because all these self-indulgent kids who go to design school are building crap. Let's hunker down and do some real work, and then we'll get some good product — from art to music to automobiles.

PETER: Now, I want to talk about the car that you're customizing out in front of your studio. If I remember correctly, some of the alterations are not quite legal.
TOM: All of it's legal. But they're the kinds of features that probably won't be legal in a couple of years. You can have a scanner, but you can't transmit on that frequency. You can have police lights, but you can't use them. You can have an engine that will accelerate to one hundred sixty — it's got a Corvette motor — but you can't go that fast.

PETER: It came with that engine?
TOM: Yeah. It's a police package — police suspension, tires, shocks. Everything's heavy-duty.

PETER: Can you explain the full range of the customizing?
TOM: I made the whole back seat into a speaker. The inside of the trunk's going to feature, along with emergency equipment and jumper cables, forced entry tools, first-aid stuff, and equipment for adventuring. It's got the red dome light so you can read in the dark. But the one feature on this whole car that explains everything is the little mini-light on the dash. It's on a gooseneck stem that swivels any way you want to aim it. That's where DJ culture and cop culture meet. It's the best light for illuminating a small work area, and it's also the best light for turntables.

PETER: Did you make the car for yourself or for an exhibition?
TOM: It's my car. It's not an art project, it's not for money, it's just for me.

© index magazinegelatin1
Tom Sachs by Leeta Harding, 2001
Copyright © 2008 index Magazine and index Worldwide. All rights reserved.
All photos by index photographers: Leeta Harding, Richard Kern, David Ortega, Ryan McGinley, Terry Richardson, and Juergen Teller