Peter Sacks: Republic
On ViewSperone Westwater
January 22 – March 20, 2021
Peter Sacks has long been known as a literary critic and poet but recently he has turned his attention to visual art, creating complex collages that make use of materials as diverse as Indian textiles, blue cottons from South Africa, and kimonos from Japan. His use of such differing materials creates a complicated surface effect, and the look of the works, at least from some distance, suggests Abstract Expressionism. But the complexity of Sacks’s sequence exceeds this simple visual parallel. Like the artists who shaped movements such as Constructivism and Suprematism, Sacks seeks to ally abstraction with social commentary, even a radical view. Here, the social implications of Sacks's outlook are linked to a complex collage of different sources of cloth: his materials come from all over the world, as if proposing a kind of internationalism that might be able to respond to the limits imposed by the isolation and xenophobia of many around the world, not least our own former president Trump.
Republic (2019–20) is a three-panel work with coiling lines of cloth material, a bit of which carries over from the central panel to the right one. The overall design is slightly anarchic, yet carries measure and restraint as well. Shapes and colors are used differently within the large piece, as if to indicate the chance experience of social order. If it were not for the materials used, and in such a collage-like fashion, one might think of the undulating lines of a painter like de Kooning, for example. The social implications of Republic are taken up in the catalogue essay by contemporary art historian Emily Braun, who writes that “Peter Sacks’s Republic expresses the unraveling of the social fabric.” It is a way of showing the disjointed aspect of a society losing its way, a political outlook dominant until recently, until Trump was voted out of office, and a response was launched to the chaos brought about by the ongoing presence of the coronavirus. These circumstances are hard enough to depict in a realistic manner, and even more difficult to represent in an abstract fashion, but Sacks does an excellent job of creating a complex surface that doesn’t exactly fit together; threads and textures and materials are randomly aligned. This inability to fit—Sacks’s disheveled surfaces—works as a metaphor describing the fractured life, public and private, that most of us now lead in America.
The Sangoma Series (2020), works on paper accompanying the triptych that gives the exhibition its name, are conceived of as drawings, despite the fact that traditional drawing media, such as graphite and charcoal, are not present. These individual works take the name given to Zulu healers—Sacks was born and raised in South Africa and maintains a strong interest in its politics and belief systems. The imagery consisting of amalgams of what looks like cut paper, hardly looks figurative, but it was explained to me that these are, in fact, figures. Their refusal to look like an actual body intensifies the rough spiritual intensity of their presence. Sacks seems most interested in the intersection between readable meaning and abstraction’s ability to survive without correspondence to actual things. That he turns this into something politically understandable is laudable.
The last piece to be mentioned, Mare Incognitum (2019), is large: 60 by 150 inches. It consists of mixed media on wood panels, and is a grand collage including such materials as found shells, buttons, a glove, cardboard, even a Lincoln five-dollar bill. Two rows of ships at the top of the work perhaps refer to Sacks’s travels as a young man to South America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. Great poets such as Cavafy and Mandelstam are also included in the imagery. The idea of the sea and the ships navigating it also suggests poetry, perhaps in the form of the great epics of the Greeks. Perhaps this is what makes Sacks so accomplished an artist: his ability to merge his intellectual interests with the fabric of culture and the poetic history surrounding him. Much of the best art occurring today takes place between genres, whether it is prose and poetry, abstraction and figuration, or painting and collage. Sacks is particularly good at mixing his metaphors in the most original fashion, and as this show amply demonstrates, he finds room to allude to both public and private matters—and to make sure that they visually merge in original ways.