The art of Tom Sachs is very much a story about America – and about modernity. Social and commercial “brandings” are important elements in what we see as modernity, even its driving force, but although branding is associated with the exclusive and the unique, all brands in fact have similar effects. They aim for uniformity and reduced personal (mental) space and initiative. All are designed to fix the individual in a preconceived role.
Sachs’ skepticism regarding the consumer society insinuates itself into his art. In an age of distanced, appropriated, or factory-produced artworks, he returns to personal expression, where the hand of the artist is clearly visible.
Tom Sachs invites the viewer into a handmade world of consumption, mass production, luxurious commodities and social contradictions, even social injustice. Defining his formal language as “bricolage,” he uses whatever is available – cheap materials without value in themselves such as cardboard, ink, adhesives, construction materials, wood, or a New York police barricade, and converts or recycles them into altered readymades. With the use of bricolage he returns to the first-person expression of the “self.” This gives the forms a double meaning: it becomes not only a description or a representation but also an appreciation of the object itself. The artist speaks through the material, and this spiritual transcendence is passed on to the spectator.
The notion of bricolage is nowadays mostly known and understood with reference to the theories of Claude Levy-Strauss. But beyond such Structuralist reflections, it is interesting to remember that Sachs’s bricolage also lies within the tradition of modernism. Sachs, who studied at Bennington College in Vermont, was deeply influenced by his modernist training, and even though he was fascinated by artists like Warhol and Koons, his modernist education won out in the long run as a source of inspiration since it better corresponded to his pragmatic and empirical working methods. In fact, his art incorporates all the basic elements of modernism: it aims to be inventive, to create a new vision, to go beyond and extend the notion of art.
Sachs’ works, which relate to the scale of the body, take the form of machines: guns, McDonald’s deep fryers, refrigerators etc. They are not only representations of machines, however, but are functioning machines. Conditioned by a humanistic attitude, far from any nihilism, he emphasizes the mechanism behind these objects. The technology, down to every last screw, is visible; nothing is hidden away, showing the ingenuity of his methods, as well as being an important element of the aesthetic appearance of the work.
The beauty of a bricolage object is contrary to standardized beauty, which refers to a consensus. The bricolage object always proposes a new personal beauty, relying on the available materials and the craftsmanship of the author. The aesthetics of the bricolage object thus lies close to the “degree zero” of representation, and has a clear link to the aesthetic efforts of the Fluxus artists (as well as their humor and playfulness), to abolish the distinction between art and life. But even though Sachs seeks the neutrality of the everyday object, we have to acknowledge that through the creative gesture he stamps the object with the expression of his own style. This is fitting perhaps, since Sachs does not accept a philosophy of the diminished identity of the author. His aesthetic is a moral one, loading the object, formalistically and thematically, with a personal message about honesty and individual experience, implicating the spectator in his reflections on social awareness.