This Is His Life: A Blue Whale And Hello Kitty

Hilarie M. Sheets, The New York Times, 4 May 2008, Visit external site

The artist Tom Sachs has a bad-boy reputation and a long track record of provocation, including when he substituted a Hello Kitty character for the baby Jesus in a 1994 Barneys Christmas window, and when he used Prada packaging to build a model of a German death camp shown in a 2002 exhibition at the Jewish Museum.

If his wry, subversive comments on commercialization have offended some viewers, there’s no arguing with his sheer talent for making just about anything. Using salvaged materials like police barricades or architectural foam core, Mr. Sachs has pieced together toilets, shotguns, a refrigerator and a grand piano — all functional enough to do their jobs. He has made convincing copies of Mondrians from duct tape and Knoll furniture from phone books.

Such boyish wizardry — rather than acts of rebellion — seems to be what now most interests Mr. Sachs, 41, whose work from the last three years goes on view Thursday at Lever House and at the Sperone Westwater Gallery.

“I tried for nothing in these shows to be exotic, but for things that are connected with my life and my history,” said Mr. Sachs, who could have passed for an impish teenager one recent morning in his studio at the edge of Chinatown.

He has, for instance, made a six-foot-long foam-core model of the blue whale in the American Museum of Natural History, which he says he has loved since his childhood visits from Westport, Conn. “In the past I’ve made so many objects that are either nefarious or deal with the cynical parts of our consumer culture,” he said. “But the whale was interesting as something to make that was just pure good.”

At Sperone Westwater, in a show titled “Animals,” the whale will be poised atop a black Bösendorfer grand piano — an exceptional musical instrument here reduced to a brand-name pedestal for the whale, the same function pianos covered with silver-framed photographs serve in many affluent homes. In an adjacent room will be his surrogate of the piano, handmade from plywood but actually playable.

Another animal-inspired sculpture in the show, a tower called “La Guardia,” was custom designed for the cat that slinks around Mr. Sachs’s studio. A litter box with revolving parts, to reduce cleaning tasks, is topped by a small McDonald’s that serves cat food; this rises to a Japanese Zen garden with a video of clouds and birds chirping, which graduates to a penthouse based on the control tower at La Guardia Airport, where the push of a paw produces catnip atomizing spray.

“Everything is directly or indirectly an animal, with all the metaphors about animals used to describe aspects of ourselves,” Mr. Sachs said of the pieces in “Animals.”

To reinforce the intimate qualities of this eclectic collection, Mr. Sachs reconfigured the loftlike gallery space by building a series of small rooms with foam-core walls. The project drew on his early training at the Architectural Association in London and a yearlong apprenticeship in Frank Gehry’s architectural office. (That’s when he learned to use a table saw.)

The work in the Lever House show, by contrast, takes advantage of the very public ground-floor exterior space at Gordon Bunshaft’s Modernist Park Avenue tower. Working exclusively in bronze, Mr. Sachs has positioned two 10-foot-tall fountains — in the form of Hello Kitty and her equally cute friend Miffy — so that they face Park Avenue and are clearly visible from cabs whizzing by.

He has long been attracted to Hello Kitty, which he describes as a “merchandising icon” with “an almost Buddhist sense of nothingness.” With water spilling from their eyes, the fountain figures are weeping into pools of their own tears. In the moneyed canyons of Park Avenue, now facing difficult times, they may be appreciated as emblems of shared misery.

Inside the glass lobby of Lever House, Mr. Sachs is presenting more bronze sculptures that consciously echo the Modernist setting. A mini-Dumpster, for instance, recalls a Minimalist Donald Judd box, but it is another of the many waste management devices that populate Mr. Sachs’s work.

“It’s an important symbol of how there is respect and integrity to be had everywhere along the chain of the consumer cycle, even at the end,” he said.

Several towers of stacked car batteries — with titles that echo their virile brand names, like “Die Hard,” “Duralast” and “Trojan” — resemble sculptures by Isamu Noguchi, or Lever House itself. Yet they are direct casts of the dead batteries cluttering Mr. Sachs’s studio, taken from the temperamental former police car he drives.

Two quarterpipe skateboard ramps could also be Judd sculptures, but Mr. Sachs left the backs open to reveal how the struts hold up the curve of the ramps, the beauty in their making. “If it’s made in bronze, it’s no longer this menacing object of noise and liability but now something that has to be protected,” he said.

“Of course my original idea was to put it outside and make it start this fight,” added Mr. Sachs, a longtime skateboarder who said he knew that people trying to skate on it would come into conflict with Lever House security. “But I’ve been down that road and on all sides, and it’s not an interesting fight.”

If stirring up trouble is no longer a direction he wants to follow, Mr. Sachs remains a provocative study in contradictions. Growing up in the affluence of Westport, where Martha Stewart catered his bar mitzvah celebration, gave him a love-hate relationship with status.

“I started out doing work about brands as a way of investigating my feelings about luxury goods: wanting them, being offended by them, both at the same time,” said Mr. Sachs, whose social critiques implicate himself as well.

Louis Grachos, director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, said: “Tom really is an interesting cultural commentator. His sculptures become metaphors for how manipulative corporate branding and marketing can be, and the meanings those things take on in our lives.”

In 1999, when Mr. Grachos was director of Site Santa Fe, he showed Mr. Sachs’s “Sony Outsider.” Addressing the legacy of the atomic bomb in New Mexico, where it was first tested, Mr. Sachs created a replica of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima and then customized the interior with a lounge; performance artists listened to music and watched television there using Sony equipment, technology that came out of postwar Japan.


“Tom straddles that line somewhere between humor, good taste and bad taste,” Mr. Grachos said, “but forces the viewer to really deal with these power structures that exist out there.”

Still tapping those cultural fault lines, Mr. Sachs is now a seasoned midcareer artist with a dozen employees helping him pull off increasingly large projects. As he makes the rounds from his basement carpentry shop to a second-floor studio, he strikes a balance between exacting taskmaster and groovy Scout leader who wants to keep it fun for the kids.

“Even as an artist I get caught up in the grind of running a small business and keeping things going,” he said, discussing a 21-foot-tall bronze Hello Kitty that rises up behind the fountains at Lever House. “This windup Hello Kitty is an expression of how automated my life can feel sometimes. Maybe that’s why she’s the biggest one in the show and looks like she’s about to fall over.”

"My Melody," shown here with Tom Sachs on top of it, is among the works by Mr. Sachs to be exhibited in New York this month.Credit...Genevieve Hanson