Sacks was born in 1950 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and grew up in Durban. His father was a physician, and for a time Peter expected to follow in his footsteps. He attended Princeton University (B.A. 1973), Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar (M.Phil. 1976), and Yale University (PhD 1980). Sacks taught English at Johns Hopkins University between 1980 and 1996, being promoted to full professor in 1989. Since 1996, he has been a professor of English and American literature and language at Harvard University.
Peter Sacks : “Partout”
Peter Sacks est un poète de grande réputation qui enseigne la littérature anglaise à l'université de Harvard. Sa carrière est ce à quoi aspire tout intellectuel et dont on ne change pas le cours, mais c'est exactement ce que Sacks a fait : tout en continuant à enseigner, il s'est transformé, vers quarante ans, en peintre. En se pliant à une urgence qui s'est exprimée, dès son plus jeune âge, dans le dessin – pour son plaisir et pour garder une trace visuelle de ses voyages et pensées –, Sacks a découvert des réserves inexploitées de mémoire et d'imagination : en résultent d'audacieux tableaux de grand format, à la fois abstraits et figuratifs, intrépides dans leur volonté de risquer la constatation et de dramatiser. Il ne s'agit pas de l'œuvre d'un poète qui est devenu graduellement un peintre, mais celle d'un être saisi par une puissante vague de sentiment. C'est l'équivalent visuel de son vers: “Nul monde plus réel, car j'étais partout.”
Pour Sacks, partout commence en Afrique du Sud où il est né en 1950. Il a réalisé de grandes œuvres murales abstraites dans lesquelles les rouges, brillants, chaleureux, clairs, les verts et les noirs, couleurs africaines, révèlent un paysage intérieur – ce que nous portons en nous et nous fait sentir “chez nous” et qui y ressemble. Il est d'ailleurs revenu récemment, comme hanté, à une image de l'Afrique : le continent lui-même qui est à la fois carte géographique et mémoire.
Migration est une Afrique noire envahie par le blanc et étayée ou tenue en place par un échafaudage ou une cage et ressemble, comme toutes les Afriques de Sacks, à un cœur déformé et à un bouclier. Dans No Forgiveness, deux Afriques blanches jumelles découpées dans du carton ondulé suggèrent la blancheur de l'Apartheid, le régime sous lequel Sacks a grandi. C'est une réalité fausse et cruelle celle qui veut qu'en Afrique du Sud le continent noir ait été blanc, une histoire qui ne peut être pardonnée même si la réconciliation est en cours.
L'effet de sa peinture est similaire à ce que Jasper Johns a réalisé avec ses drapeaux américains : nous voyons qu'un symbole que nous croyions connaître cache autant qu'il révèle. Il y a quelque chose qui se cache sous l'évidence, une idée qui fascine Sacks.
On peut le voir dans ses collages. Il aime que leurs surfaces soient élaborées et brutes à la fois par l'usage de matériaux aussi familiers que le carton ou la dentelle. Il aime aussi coller des images ou des textes sur une surface comme si c'était un mur. Ses surfaces attrapent l'œil de telle manière que ce qui est en dessous, mais disparaissant, ou apparaissant à travers la peinture, retient le regard. Ses peintures rendent évident ce qui reste en fragments, ce qui persiste alors que le temps efface tout et les images de la réalité désordonnée de nos identité et histoire. Certaines sont comme des murs sur lesquels des affiches déchirées pendent depuis des années. Tout ce qui est ici et maintenant – semblent-ils dire – a été marqué par le temps. Pour la plupart, mais les exceptions sont étonnantes, ses couleurs se limitent à un noir de bitume, un blanc éblouissant et des accents de rouge, vert et céruléen. La couleur est un monde en soi, un monde que Sacks, qui en a clairement conscience, explorera en son temps.
Le blanc et le noir dominent ses récentes peintures, le noir implicite et le blanc de la race en Afrique et le blanc et le noir de ses œuvres sur papier. Ses peintures Ancestor sont des palettes du caractère, le Je comme texte, imprimé sur la toile comme les thèses de Martin Luther clouées sur la porte de l'église. Paul Celan, Franz Kafka et des transcriptions du procès de Vérité et Réconciliation en Afrique du Sud témoignent en ce sens. Deux portraits de Osip Mandelstam – essentiel dans la série des Prisoner – porte cette troupe d'ancêtres et de témoins un peu plus loin. Le beau, jeune et confiant Mandelstam est juxtaposé à la photo de criminel du Mandelstam prisonnier du Goulag. Vieux avant le temps, Mandelstam qui sera bientôt assassiné, est sans ses fausses dents. Son visage se dissout en lui- même. Sacks a travaillé sur et autour de ces photographies comme pour les encadrer ainsi que des icônes, mais ses traits sont furieux et les peintures prennent la taille de panneaux d'affichage. Elles livrent un témoignage : le regard fixe et les mots desquels on peut se cacher mais qui demeureront. Mieux encore, ce qui est clair à la surface, en texte et image, vibre en dessous. Ces peintures sont autant méditation que message. Il y a toujours plus à voir, connaître, sentir et penser, mais nous étions bousculés par le siècle de fureur qui a vu mourir Mandelstam. Que faire alors si ce n'est d'agiter les pages en lambeaux de Mandelstam, Celan ou Kafka à la face de notre nouveau monde assoiffé de sang et de publicité. Sacks sait que les artistes sont de grands remémorateurs. Ses images situent le passé dans le présent, ce que fait tout remémorateur.[...]
Some questions for Peter Sacks
Q: Tell me a bit about your childhood and young adulthood in South Africa? Can you describe the physical circumstances of your life then? I'm sure it has changed. Has something not changed about it?
PS: I grew up mostly in Durban, on the Indian Ocean. Still quite wild in parts, coastal jungle, empty stretches of beach with heavy surf, rolling midlands north-west to the Drakensberg Mountains. Staggeringly beautiful, huge in scale. A serious chunk of the planet earth, whose forces felt very present, mysterious, primal, even as it collided with a political situation which even to a child felt horribly warped, the cruel opposite of everything that might have felt natural. Of course,as a child I was effortlessly, even ecstatically open to the outside world. Still am. But the sense of possible encagement is that a word? – seems to have been no less a part of me. Caged in, caged out. Caged.
Q: How did you live in the social order of apartheid? Were you conscious of this from early childhood?
PS: Everything in the human world struck me as being upside-down and inside-out. I knew as a mammal that there were really no differences between any of us as creatures – especially in Africa, for god's sake, where one's sense of being the merest sub-particle on a colossal continent should have been not just obvious but primary.
Q: How did you see yourself?
PS: Well, sight was pretty damn immediate: in the fifties, before the Group Areas Act moved large portions of the population into outlying “locations”, later called “townships”, the city held a lot of people whose outside appearances, all categorized by racist laws, were immediately vivid.
Not just skin color, but customary dress. On an average half-hour walk to school I'd see Zulu people then still wearing what I was told were “tribal” blankets, or elaborate beadwork, men carrying shields and knob-kerry sticks, women quite often topless, most barefoot, many bearing loads on their heads, or I'd see gangs of black men in overalls or sometimes in striped prison- wear laboring on the road with pick-axes, chanting, just as I'd see men and women from India, both Muslims and Hindus, wearing dhotis, saris, or “western dress”, even as I walked past in my little school uniform (safari suit and sandals in my weirdly white skin).
To be white was inseparable for me from being small.
Q: You were obviously in an “all-white” school?
PS: Look, I was waking up always too late in a ravishingly beautiful garden mostly run by thugs, and guess what, I was one of them.
I remember being driven home from the beach once by my aunt, this was down the south coast in a small village where my uncle was the local doctor.
I must have been about eight at the time. We were flagged down by a group of Xhosa sugarcane workers a few miles out of town.
One of them, a young man, had a very badly crushed, near-amputated left hand, he held it against the side window while my aunt was winding down the glass. There was blood everywhere, he sat with us with a beach-towel wrapped round the bottom of his arm while we headed to the hospital. I realized there was no way to get his hand back, the blood back inside him. In a way it's still on the window glass.
It comes before what I see outside. My own hands still feel strange to me.
Q: Does Africa feel like home still? Are you everywhere, as William Corbett's essay suggests – can one be anywhere but in Africa once one is of the place? Could you address your idea of place and its hold on one? Is that an illusion?
PS: It's no illusion, the hold. Clearly I'm still psychically and emotionally very attached to Africa. Its force, scale, complexity, residual expanses of wildness.
I have traveled quite a lot, often on foot, several continents, and I suppose I've felt occasionally as if I might be engaged in some attempt to have migrated everywhere as a way of proving the degree to which I can only be from one place, a few square miles along the Indian Ocean.
When I think of the map of Africa, changing “colors” all through my childhood as it gained independence, getting out from under the imperial reds, greens, yellows, I realize how bizarre it felt that any actual terrain could be mapped as property, though they also used words like “protectorates”. Of course this was on colored maps. More dramatic were the black and white maps in the newspaper. The morning of each new country's independence – and there were many during the sixties – The Congos, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia several each year – you'd find this map of Africa in which the independent state had gone literally from white to black on the page.
Soon, South Africa and Rhodesia started looking pretty insane down there. That sense of estrangement, of a sort of political extremity even, was coupled with a physical sense of being literally at the bottom of the world as mapped. I could practically feel the weight of everything between me and the North Pole as if it were pressing down on my head and shoulders. Maybe I try to paint bits of Africa, not map it, but capture actual pieces of it.
Q: How were you educated? Did you receive religious training? What languages did you speak in – different languages to different people?
PS: Well, I mentioned walking to school. Education started right there of course.
School itself was quite British in feel. Schools were segregated by gender as well as race. Discipline was strict. Punishment was very much a full body experience: bend over, x many “cuts” or “strokes” of the cane, layered into you with the whole kinetic energy of what felt like a large man. That's apart from the less formal violence of slaps, punches, imposed physical ordeals (from measuring large distances with a matchstick – a punishment my dad used to recall from even his schooldays – to writing out hundreds of “lines” in alternating colored inks so you had to change pens every word). Why do I start with discipline?
Q: And high school?
PS: A government school, long pants even in summer, tie and jacket, hard straw hat (not to wear it – even to wear it at the wrong angle while walking home, or miles from school – was punishable).
To my joy, I later learned that the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa had been there. I think he won a prize for his English essay on Shakespeare.
As for languages, it was an English-medium school, but Afrikaans was compulsory, along with Latin (there's a weird combination – one of the oldest, and one of the youngest languages around, one built on universals, the other on what felt to me like doom-laden particulars and the horrible tone of nationalist decrees).
PS: Religion? How complicated do we need to get here? Yes I was osmotically downloading a worship of the natural world, and yes there were the sounds of mosque, Hindu temple, outdoor Zulu religious drumming; and there was school prayers, sort of Anglican.
But my family was Jewish. My grandparents spoke Yiddish, and a heavily accented inaccurate English. My paternal grandfather was very observant, very orthodox, morning and evening prayers with full tefillin, prayer shawl, the works. I did have to learn Hebrew, although I wasn't genuinely interested, and as a twelve-year-old, I couldn't get anywhere near the God of the Old Testament – transcendent guarantor of so much flat-out unfairness, it seemed, from stolen birthrights to stolen “promised Lands”, even if you believed in him.
And what was “He” doing at the bottom of Africa?
Anyway, I'm no more of a believer now than I was in 1963, but I certainly have a larger sense of anguish and bafflement than I did then.
Q: Do you think of yourself as a person who is part of a group – a religion, a people, a race, a culture, a geography?
What defines one once one is in a state of exile from one's home?
PS: Being white in South Africa for me at that time meant feeling illegitimate, ashamed.
Being Jewish meant being a minority within a minority. I'm not comfortably part of any “group” at all.
Having traveled, having lived in several countries, living in two right now, the U.S. and France, I feel hopelessly “global”.
Milosz said “after many years in exile one tries to imagine what it is like not living in exile.”
Q: Was it hard to leave? Has it continued to be a sensation you feel – that of being in exile?
PS: It was hard to leave because I had become politically involved and felt that by leaving I was abandoning the situation. Also, I felt a physical grief. So sadness as well as guilt. Even to leave meant that one was free to leave.
I still have the physical sensation of a kind of tearing – or that the actual edges of my body are somewhere between where I am now and where I was there. I probably go to the canvas with some desire to make a balance out of these feelings.
And that extends, itself, into the troubling of the painted mark or line – any sense of contour or definition is charged and in question.
And I think that my interest in multiplicity at the level of the surface has to do with the desire to register multiplicity of place and of time.
A painting can include many “places” at once. Above all, there's something unfathomable in the act of looking back at what you are still making – you're looking back and forward at once.
Q: It seems, from looking at your paintings, that the landscape and topography of that continent, and of South Africa in particular, affected you? Can you speak to this?
PS: In addition to what I was just saying – there's trying to do justice to a sense of scale, to the presence or trace of large forces.
There's definitely a mapping impulse which works as much at the level of relief mapping as of contour.
Q: Why is that?
PS: I have this desire for the form to press up from its bedrock, probably more than trying to demarcate strict borders.
There's a certain roughness or ruggedness that I've wanted to maintain.
I wanted physical expressions as much – or more than – legible references. Part of some visual tectonic plate. Growing up alongside the ocean meant that I wanted to keep a wavelike sense of energy and rhythm, however troubled, in the canvases. Forms will often jut into, or out of, sight. Also many of the works allude to processions of people – a familiar sight in Africa – people walking along the roads, in towns and in the country.
Q: Processions seem to figure a good deal.
PS: Yes – processions need not be just ceremonial – people walking to work, or walking from place to place, in numbers, give one the feeling of what in other circumstances may have been associated with pilgrimages.
On a different level altogether, watching large groups of animals moving in migration, or approaching a water hole, gave me a sense of what it is for the body to move across the surface of the earth.
I think I'd like the eye to move over a canvas as if it were walking in that way.
Q: In fact your canvases seem cinematic, and often ask the viewer to move from left to right – is that correct?
PS: It's probably more true of some of the more nearly “figurative” works, in which there's some element of implied narrative, so that a figure, or certain elements, may seem to move from left to right.
It's also the way many of us read. How most painted Annunciations work.
But I would never want the movement to feel unimpeded, and I would certainly want to keep a force pushing back from the right edge.
Q: And animals seem to appear everywhere, more frequently of late.
PS: Well animals certainly walk back and forth. And given my anxiety regarding the human impact on the creaturely world, it would be easy to see why I feel closer to them than to most humans. But this is not addressing what it meant to spend time near wild animals. To take in not only their beauty, their ruthlessness, their responsiveness, but also to learn how just how attentive one can become in their presence. If I could make a painting that would ask you to do as much work as a wild animal might if you were in its presence, I would feel I was getting somewhere: the very first works of art to which I really responded were of animals.
PS: Yes. Before I'd ever been to a museum I had been in the presence of cave paintings in the Drakensberg Mountains.
These follow the natural contours of the stone, incorporating its very matter at the level of texture and color, so these animals are both of the stone and yet not.
How could they be there? They were both accurate and stylized at once. They felt natural yet sacred. Somebody had observed these animals with a closeness and a mastered sense of being mastered by them, and it set the standard for any genuine art for me.
Some were mythic. Some of the human forms had animal heads.
They were also unavoidably marked, for me, by the knowledge that the people who had made them had been killed or driven away, leaving these as the only trace of their existence.
On several occasions, from early childhood, I would sleep in these caves during periods in the mountains.
This involved something I've not often considered: what it means to fall asleep and to wake in the presence of a work of art. The paintings themselves seemed to emerge from the stone and recede into it with the darkness, almost as forms of consciousness itself.[...] William Corbett
— Galerie Pièce Unique
Peter Sacks: “Quiero dotar de vida al lenguaje”
Cambió el verso por el lienzo y se propuso desenterrar el poder visceral de las palabras. Sus obras sobre 'El proceso', de Kafka, se muestran en Madrid
Marchó a Marfa en 1999, al mismo desierto de Texas donde Donald Judd abrió una importante brecha para el arte contemporáneo. Peter Sacks (Sudáfrica, 1950), reconocido poeta, autor de media docena de libros y catedrático de Literatura, iba como invitado a una residencia para escritores, pero aquel viaje marcó un punto y aparte. No escribió una sola línea, sacó fotos, pero al verlas impresas no le gustaban y comenzó a borrarlas con tipp-ex. Poco después los versos propios dejaron paso a la reescritura mecanografiada de frases de otros, y esos textos escaparon a las tapas encuadernadas de un libro, saltaron a todo tipo de materiales (papeles antiguos y nuevos, cartones, telas) y de ahí al lienzo. Sacks reescribió literalmente su historia y —aunque sigue impartiendo clases de literatura en Harvard y está casado con la poeta Jorie Graham— abandonó la práctica de la poesía.
El conjunto de 64 cuadros en torno a El proceso, de Franz Kafka, que hasta el 9 de mayo se exponen en la galería Ivorypress de Madrid, son una muestra especialmente significativa de aquel giro radical que marcó el desarrollo artístico del sudafricano. Al fin y al cabo, fue esta novela la primera obra que Sacks decidió mecanografiar sobre un trozo de lino al regresar del desierto texano. Aquel gesto mecánico en plena crisis de madurez abrió la puerta a un particular proceso creativo en el que ha empleado desde material poético de Yeats o Mandelstam, y extractos de novelas de Cioran o Primo Levi, hasta discursos de Mandela, informes de la Cruz Roja sobre las torturas en Irak o el texto de la Convención de Ginebra. "No quería usar páginas ya impresas sino reescribir, rehacer los textos y sentir la gravedad de las teclas, la experiencia física. Es un acto de homenaje, quería que el texto volviera a vivir en mi tiempo", explicó en Madrid una mañana de mediados de febrero con un suave deje sudafricano y una intensa determinación.
Autores como Joan Didion han confesado que la reescritura del trabajo de otros escritores (Hemingway, en su caso) les ayudó a entender el ritmo y la cadencia, lo de Sacks no ha sido un gesto juvenil, y su búsqueda va más allá del ritmo: él trata de excavar hasta encontrar el impulso, el sentimiento. Suma telas y materiales reciclados en sus obras, creando nuevas capas densas unas veces; ligeras y fantasmales, otras. "Me interesa la presencia física de materiales, por eso uso detritus. La tela y el tecleo conforman una materia importante, algo que ha sobrevivido. Hay algo de ritual religioso en las horas que paso mecanografiando", apuntaba antes de definir esta experiencia como un trial (palabra que significa juicio y prueba en inglés) en sí misma.
En 1999 Sacks reescribió literamente su carrera, dejó la poesía y se volcó en el arte
Sacks viajó por primera vez a Estados Unidos en 1967 y pasó un curso en Detroit. Allí se dio de bruces con las brutales revueltas raciales —"yo presuponía que una democracia como la estadounidense habría dejado atrás el racismo que vivíamos en Sudáfrica"—. De vuelta en su país, la implicación del joven Sacks en los movimientos políticos antiapartheid le llevaron de regreso a EE UU en los setenta, donde estudió en Princeton, luego en Oxford y se doctoró en Yale con un trabajo sobre la historia de la elegía en la poesía inglesa. “Empecé a escribir poesía a los 20 y el valor para lanzarme venía de un amor por el arte poético. Necesitaba intentarlo y ver si fallaba, adoraba la música y el misterio de la poesía”, recordaba el hoy expoeta. También pintó y dibujó desde niño, algo que siguió haciendo de adulto en cuadernos, anotando y pintando mientras viajaba, cuando paseaba, cuando miraba cuadros en museos.
Las piezas mostradas en Madrid —que también incluyen cuadernos de los últimos años— se enmarcan dentro de Books beyond Artists, una exposición que presenta más de un centenar de libros de artista, y abarca más de un siglo de historia del arte. Sin embargo, el camino emprendido por Sacks en las obras en torno a El proceso es en gran medida el inverso: sus obras — cartones de paquetes postales, en los que aparecen pegados extractos de la novela escritos a máquina sobre distintos materiales, las palabras a veces ocultas, apenas legibles, rodeadas de pintura acompañadas por otros papeles o imágenes— retratan el desmembramiento de un libro.
La lectura que el profesor Sacks propone escapa al ámbito académico, su particular comentario de texto expone y apela al sentimiento que la novela provoca, al poder casi "visceral" de la palabra: "Mi empeño es una investigación activa, un viaje. No se trata de un análisis, yo busco una experiencia visual, y ahí hay un elemento arqueológico, las capas que se superponen, algo que dota de un nuevo poder a la palabra. Me impulsa la urgencia de acompañar el texto para llegar a una zona donde el lenguaje no te puede conducir".
La entrada de texto en un lienzo no es nuevo, y sin embargo en la actualidad vive un momento álgido. Casi como eslóganes o pies de foto, las frases han brotado con un tono irónico o explicativo en las obras de arte. Sacks busca algo distinto: "Yo quería dotar de vida al lenguaje. Hay tantos escritores y profesores que han analizado a Kafka, ¿qué puedo añadir? Siento que hago como una especie de pintura rupestre, algo que me remite a las pinturas de aborígenes que veía de niño, a mis recuerdos y sensaciones".
From a distance, Peter Sacks's new 6-foot-square mixed-medium canvases seem to be composed primarily of a thick impasto. Stand a little closer and the impasto resolves into something like the raised surface of a topographical map, a landscape's geological features expressed in subtle sculptural relief. Move closer still and the geographical scale shifts suddenly to the human: what were landmasses turn out to be garments and textiles of various sorts-clothing, lacework, rags-bunched into shapes, often scorched or otherwise distressed, then painted. Pieces of corrugated cardboard, netting and other found objects have also been incorporated as structuring elements. And then there are the texts: Sacks has typed (and sometimes handwritten) a range of them directly onto the textiles, having forced most of the fabrics through a typewriter's carriage.
The movement across these moments of vision and revision-from abstract painting to the cartographer's bird's-eye view to the intimacy of text and textile, and back again-is not merely phenomenological experiment. In Sacks's work these perceptual shifts are deftly thematized. Consider Six by Six (The Living), 2011–12: to discover that a mass in what looks like a military map is actually the ruin of a man's shirt is to move from the sanitizing abstractions of armed conflict—spectacle, statistic—to the reality of the fragile human body. The texts in Sacks's paintings are always drawn from carefully chosen contexts; in Six by Six (The Living), they are excerpts, mainly whited out, from Civil War soldiers' letters and other historical documents pertaining to the Battle of Gettysburg. As one draws near the work there is a dramatic shift both in orientation (from aerial to portrait view) and in affect (from the cool to the elegiac). Here it bears mentioning that the South African-born Sacks—now an English professor at Harvard—has written, in addition to five books of poetry, a widely acclaimed critical study of the English elegy.
Sacks's new paintings have force both as elegies and as complex inquiries into the nature of contemporary art-making. His adoption of a serial square format acknowledges an art historical movement toward a more modular fabrication that is in tension with the lacework, weaving and sewing involved in the production of the repurposed textiles. His patient typing out of texts directly onto these textiles stages a drama between the manual and the mechanized, as well as between looking and reading.
The fate of the handmade is a central theme in Sacks's work and can be seen as a comment on the increasing use of machine fabrication in the art world and beyond. One remarkable facet of these canvases is that Sacks has produced large-scale paintings without painting itself serving as the primary compositional mechanism. While he handles paint wonderfully, his manipulation and placement of the cloth and other objects, and his selection and typing out of texts, are at least as important as the application of paint-and yet the works have an unmistakable painterly effect. They thus manage to both incorporate and transcend a critique of ambitious, expressive abstract painting. Like the best elegies in any medium, including those for a medium itself, the material achievement of Sacks's art offers a glimmer of human possibility amid the work of mourning.
— Art in America
PETER SACKS New Paintings
From afar it looks like an Abstract Expressionist painting: a large triptych with a textured off-white surface imprinted, in part, with a floral motif and dotted with over a dozen irregular shapes—trapezoids, triangles, would-be pentagons—rising elegantly from the surface.
Get up close, however, and the painting reveals itself to be an intricate collage layered with paint, fabric, lace, embroidery, wood, cardboard, and other materials. Much of the fabric comes from shrouds and shirts. Some of it looks like the gauze used to bandage wounds. Long passages from the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Enuma Elish, a Mesopotamian creation myth, and from the International Committee of the Red Cross’s ICRC 2004 report on the treatment of prisoners of war in Baghdad have been typed out onto columns of linen.
Take a step back again and the scattered shapes call to mind the rough outline of the map of Iraq ubiquitous across media reports on the war over the past decade. The off-white, now no longer a random choice of color, emerges instead as an expanse of sand, a desert landscape.
The painting, called “Exit Strategy” (2009 – 2012), is one of 21 new works by the South-African American artist Peter Sacks currently on view at the Paul Rodgers/9W Gallery in Chelsea. Hung on the wall opposite the gallery entrance and slightly obscured from view by a pillar, “Exit Strategy” is the first painting to meet the eye as one enters the show. Its title, its motifs, and the inclusion of the ICRC report carry a clear and overt political message.
Yet, “Exit Strategy” is not so much about failed policies in Iraq, as it is an elegy for the country and the suffering of its people. The gauzy fabric in the painting poignantly speaks to this. As does the floral-patterned lace that emerges and recedes from the surface, recalling a tablecloth and the intimacy of a family dinner—of the ordinary lives and the comforting ordinariness of life that war disrupts.
Far from a mere aesthetic choice, Sacks’s technique of collage and overwhelming use of textiles is what is truly political about his work. In the same way that his paintings upend our aesthetic expectations—transforming appealing abstract visual landscapes into intricate collages messy with emotion and dense with narrative—they also force us to reconsider what we mean when we speak of politics and the political. What, after all, is the polity, but the collection of individuals that make up the state? Sacks turns the viewer’s gaze to individual human life and experience. They are, of course, why politics ultimately matter.
The materials that Sacks uses over and over again, the work and prison shirts, the shrouds, the buttons and thread, the bits of embroidery and lace, all convey a tenderness and an intimacy with the human body and the hand. They are what remains when the body is long gone serving as poignant reminders to the individual lives lost and the anguish endured. The textiles themselves often bear the marks of distress, as Sacks burns their edges, rips and otherwise marks them, and then partially or wholly buries them within his paintings.
There is a cuff and part of a sleeve visible in the upper right-hand corner of “Six by Six: Gettysburg: The Living” (2011 – 2012), a painting embedded with letters from U.S. Civil War soldiers. Stretched out tautly to the corner of the canvas, it evokes an outstretched arm: perhaps reaching for help, perhaps already flung back on the ground in death. Or perhaps it is the mute gesture of the dead, whose voices can now only be heard through their letters, if at all. The button on the cuff conveys a particular intimacy as it marks the way in beyond the fabric to the skin.
The shirt collar, too, often appears as a central motif in a Sacks painting rising up in relief from the background. In “Six by Six: Checkpoint 2” (2010 – 2012), a painting embedded with excerpts from the Geneva Conventions and Red Cross reports, the burnt and distressed collar of a denim work shirt is clearly visible. Its stiff arc evokes the neck, a place tender to human touch, and the back, so suggestive of human labor.
As a native of South Africa, Sacks is also very much concerned with African history. Four of the paintings on view are from a series called Migration. In “Migration 33” (2011 – 2012) two thin arced lines of raised fabric emerging from a nearly flat off-white background evoke a small band of people wandering across a vast desert, as seen from afar. The vulnerability created by this simple artistic gesture is affecting.
In creating each of his paintings, Sacks painstakingly types or handwrites the texts embedded in his work onto linen fabric. The process takes him months and registers as another, if slightly more subtle, political element in his art: Sacks’s commitment to the slow work of the hand in an era of digital enhancements and high speed. Moreover, much of the textiles, lace, and embroidery in Sacks’s paintings are handmade materials originating in the 18th and 19th centuries and purchased in junk shops in Normandy, France.
“I see my paintings as a cross between cave paintings, medieval frescoes, illuminated manuscripts, and late 20th-century abstract paintings,” says Sacks, “The show is about survival. It is about what endures.”
— The Brooklyn Rail