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Peter Sacks interview: ‘Every painting has its own secret story’

Peter Sacks, a South African expatriate, has a biography that is as rich and varied as the art he practises. Having left his native country at a young age and gone on to become a recognised poet with tenure at Harvard, five books of poetry and a study of the English elegy to his name, Sacks stopped writing in the early 2000s and turned to painting instead

Peter Sacks: Aftermath
Robert Miller Gallery, New York
12 September – 1 November 2014


Spacious and contained, crowded and open at the same time, his paintings employ materials and things from real life to evoke the past and sustain the present, rescuing time and sense itself from the black hole of oblivion and turning our attention to the very process of the formation of meaning, which hovers between the spoken and the written, the seen and the sensed, the visible and the invisible. Laced with latent words, traces, and meanings, Sacks’s paintings are works of a poet and a thinker, a man rooted in the tradition of western civilisation. The artist agreed to speak to Studio Internationalon the occasion of his present exhibition, which follows in the footsteps of his inaugural success at the Paul Rodgers/9W Gallery in New York in five years ago.

Natasha Kurchanova: Peter, thank you for speaking to Studio International. Your exhibition at the Robert Miller Gallery seems to be about beginnings and ends. It is about beginnings because many of the paintings were inspired by your memories of South Africa, where you were born [in 1950] and lived for the first 20 years of your life. It is also an end of sorts, because it is entitled Aftermath. Could you tell me more about this idea of the beginnings and the end as it relates to the work in this exhibition?

Peter Sacks: I think that this is a very good place to begin, literally, as Africa is my birthplace – and this the work of a South African who lived through some decades of apartheid. I am deeply interested in the idea of origin as such, whether of a person, or a society, or a civilisation. So, yes, the show grows out of South Africa, but then moves on to embrace more global experiences. 

As to the title of the show, Aftermath–many people think this word refers exclusively to the end point of something destructive, whereas the actual meaning of the word originally refers to the first regrowth of a field after it has been mowed. So, right from its title, the work is seeking a balance between endings and beginnings. Each work tries to do justice to my sense of this balance between what has been destroyed and what is about to be reborn. We are living in the densely layered aftermath of so much personal and public history: in the aftermath of so many belief systems; in the aftermath also of so much cultural achievement interwoven with so much suffering and injustice. So that first feeling of our having been mowed down is balanced by a sense of incipient transformation. We have, by now, mowed down so much of ourselves and of the planet, and injured what I take to be the almost sacramental nature of materiality itself … But the powerful resistance of materiality is, for me, a source of accountability as well as a celebration of what it is to be in a human body. The surfaces themselves, I hope, elicit not only an intimation of what is underneath, but also of what is constantly rising to the surface.

NK: And an archaeology of prior origins? Beginnings?

PS: In terms of beginnings, a lot of this work has to do with my use of prior materials on a very physical basis. I do begin with raw canvas, but the origins of each work include materials that are, in an important sense, older than that canvas – prior to it. Fabrics, intricate textures filled with a debris field of human and industrial artefacts, handmade materials from different centuries and continents, from different cultural and political circumstances – shrouds, prison and work shirts, nightshirts, 19th-century trousseau laces, machine-made laces, crochet, metal rings, denim work clothes, buttons, eyelets, rope, fishing nets (many kinds of repaired nets), embroidery, as well as pieces of African fabric, burlap sacks and, more recently, old cotton fabrics from India. This is in addition to wood, metal, cardboard, batting, quilting and so on. The process of making these is so slow and organic – like creating an aftermath or a debris field where you intuit, and sometimes actually make out, the lives of many generations of humans, alongside nonhuman traces, and objects, all laid down under pressure – which take time to make and are filled with that time, pieces of what might have been a larger canvas of handiworks that reference entire lives, whole communities that are brought into the field of the painting, where the painting itself becomes another community.

NK: Are they things that people use, things that you remember people using, physical things?

PS: Exactly, yes. Not just used, but used in ways that are particularly intimate, personally and culturally. These are residues of the human desire to make, of the obligation to make – out of ritual belief, out of necessity, out of delight – even out of danger, scarcity, the need to survive. They are objects, or traces of objects, that link people in a community or a social order over generations. These are communities of labour, the accumulations of what is left when human life has been lived and some drastic change strikes it and, in so doing, also disorganises the relations between high and low artefacts.

That piece from a burlap sack, for instance, held sugar [he is referring to Aftermath 9, 7x7 (2014)]. And although the painting is also dealing with the history of art, from cave paintings to cubism, it is dealing with that burlap sack and with the global system in which the sugar trade and the slave trade were interlaced and circulated. And the colours in the painting are bright because the sub-tropics in which the sugar originates are bright in the way poisonous things can look sugary or shiny. My hometown of Durban was a centre of the sugar trade. And this sack of sugar, which, torn here, has the word “rêve” (French for “dream”) on it – as one might find in surrealism or cubism – although the “dream” it refers to is also the dream of world trade as domination, and the destruction of landscapes and cultures through vast networks of desire and greed. If you look elsewhere in the painting, you can make out how rêve is actually part of “revere sugar” (from a bag printed with the logo Paul Revere Cane Sugar), and we are in the United States in 2014 and the circulation of goods has never ceased alongside the suffering of people. But the painting is also about yellow, about yellow and the blue of ocean currents – and I am hoping you can feel those currents, and the voyages of discovery they occasion, which, of course, bring their own beauty and their own destruction. If you stand in front of that piece, you’ll see hundreds of fragments – the more you see, the more appear. Then there’s just the feeling of how enticing the surface may be, and how one may want to run one’s fingers over it because the feeling of what we make and what we discard or abuse or abandon, what ends up on the garbage heap, is also intoxicating. So in that painting I could say it’s about South Africa and commerce and the colour yellow. The one thing about these – and it is a deep part of their resistance – is that they can’t be reproduced: one has to take the time to see them in person. They are slow. Every painting has its own secret story. Some involve undersea life, and climate change, a history of broken treaties and oppression, and so on.

NK: They are very personal to you?

PS: Yes, they are very personal. Everything I use reawakens a world for me in the act of using it. Those fishnets carry the ocean and the hard attempts of fishermen to survive, as well as the struggle of sea creatures to survive the need of the fisherman.

NK: Speaking about the personal, when I was preparing for this interview, I read your poetry, because I wanted to understand how you use text in your paintings. After you left South Africa, you became a poet, published five books of your poetry, and developed a successful career as a professor of English at Harvard. Then, seemingly suddenly, you abandoned poetry altogether and concentrated your creative efforts on painting. In view of this transition, this choice, it made me curious to read your poetry and think about your painting in relation to it. It struck me that in your poems you always tend toward silence, while in your paintings you strive to develop a language, to tell stories. In your poetry, you allude to a particular feeling or action – evoking it precisely, but not explicitly – while your paintings are so charged with latent meaning that it seems they yearn to speak and tell their story, the story of feeling and emotion in their particular silent way. There is a lot of text in your work, but it is subdued, not explicit. Can you elaborate on silence versus speech, legibility versus illegibility, emotion versus expression in your art, because emotion, I believe, is the central force behind what you do?

PS: Yes, it is. That’s very insightful. What I would say is that my poetry did have a large commitment to what was unspeakable or what was beyond language, either in the realm of physical beauty or in the realm of human suffering. Some of this has to do with growing up in South Africa, where I was surrounded by a magnificent natural world, but absolutely atrocious human society. One of my poems – I think it was in my third book – said: “If they capture me, I have not learned to speak.” I was alluding to how language is already somehow part of a civilisational construct that was deployed for repression as much as for organisation of the world. There was part of me that identified with those who had no voice, or even with the creatures around me. The poetry was trying to bring the unspoken into relation with the spoken, and part of that involved looking for the rhythm of the music. I do want to say that, during all the time I was writing poetry, I was also making very small works in private. They were in bound books, so they could not be seen – I kept them secret. The transition was not simply one of stopping writing poetry and moving to making paintings, but it was from hidden, tiny, miniature bound book of illustrations and paintings to more publicly seen and eventually exhibited works.

NK: It wasn’t as sudden as it appears.

PS: No, not as sudden, but it is true, as you perceived, that I was able to “say something” in the paintings that I was not able quite to say in words on a page. It just evolved over the past 15 years. When I began on actual canvas – in the “visible world”– I worked at first with brushes and a palette knife. One day, without really thinking about it, I decided to push linen fabrics into the carriage of a typewriter I had in the studio. Not being paper, the fabric needed to be pulled and twisted in order for me to keep moving it through, so the lines I typed begin to create very interesting patterns that I felt I could control very much in the way I can control paint. In addition, by choosing whether to use letters or punctuation or blanks, whether to make it single- or double-spaced, the textual portions began to have very interesting visual effects. Single-spaced was darker, and double- or triple-spaced was lighter. I began experimenting with different colours of ink ribbon. So although this has some relationship with the writing – to the heard and silent as you put it – and it seems important what the texts are (and it certainly is to me emotionally as I run them through the typewriter and my body), there is a very strong component that is purely formal and graphic. Different colours of type, in different configurations, increasingly got put in, in ways where they are hardly noticed as text. Eventually, they begin to let go of their significance as language and take on increasing significance as visual action. This is something a person needs to see in order to experience. I recently found ways to type on extremely thin fabrics so that I can have a matrix of layers of languages. But then, in the end, I often paint over all of this, in order to create the next layer.

In the end, the feeling that there is something “in there” when one looks at one of these canvases, or reliefs, or whatever you want to call them, is important to me. People very often feel everything that is submerged in those layers. They ask me, often, “What is inside there?”, which seems very much a part of the act of looking. The sensation of being baffled is soon replaced by the sensation of information becoming available by “other means”. In this sense, I am very interested in the ways in which the invisible is apprehensible to us.

NK: It is interesting for me to see how you make this connection between the visible and the invisible, because what you want to say can be more effective if it is made visible?

PS: Yes, and even there the question of what’s visible is interesting. I am not comfortable with the notion that I have something “I want to say”. It does not work that way for me. I am interested in making layered works. There are often 10 or 11 layers. The question of what’s visible is always in tension with what is being obscured, what is below, what is beneath, what is anterior, not just interior. This goes back to the question of beginnings: how visible are the beginnings, or do we only see their after-effects, their traces or their aftermath? So, yes, these are versions of what I might call optical silence, these erasures or coverings.

NK: Were you influenced by [the French phenomenological philosopher, 1908-61] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, his Visible and the Invisible?

PS: Yes, his work on Cézanne is absolutely crucial to my thinking, and certainly the relation between the eye and the mind and the placement of the body in a particular position in relation to the thing seen.

NK: Is this why you insist that your paintings have to be seen in person rather than in reproductions?

PS: There are several reasons. One is that I feel that the texture requires one to be almost within a touching distance of the work, and in some cases to physically touch them. The other is that if one is not able to move back and forth, from far to near, one is missing a large part of the experience, which is one of shifting points of view, shifting senses of accountability to what you are seeing, because this changes enormously depending on one’s distance from the work. Seeing them in person also has to do with that aspect of them that I feel should be both public and private. This goes back even to my origins or beginnings in making tiny works on paper that were close enough to be read, so that when I move to the large works, I am able to retain that intimacy of being up close.

NK: In this sense, is painting almost like writing for you?

PS: It is expanding my sense of what legibility is. The ideal point would be to say that the entire world is legible. This partly accounts for why there are traces of language – literally – in some of the paintings.

NK: There have been many interesting things written about your work. I am going to ask you questions about some of the points that struck me in those articles and reviews. There is a considerable tension in your work, which is that between form and content. Some people notice that your paintings are paintings first of all, they are not stuff covered with paint; they call your paintings “abstractions”. Some put them within the tradition of monochromes and collage, a designation with which you seem to disagree. I believe it was Christopher Bedford, the author of the article in the catalogue for this show, who called your work “embodied abstraction”, which is an oxymoron of sorts if you think of abstraction in terms of art historian Clement Greenberg’s modernism. Do you object to your work being interpreted in modernist terms, or is it one possible way of speaking about them?

PS: I often say that I feel what I am trying to do is put the traction back in abstraction. I am not making literal representational figurative works, and in that sense am very interested in the practice of abstraction, but also the entire history of abstraction. Obviously my work, however non-representational, includes material social objects held within a total composition that is objective and even resistant. So I do not think of it as the work of “pure” abstraction. It is perhaps “non-representational”. It is essential to me that my materials have had prior uses. I do not think of the work as collage either, because of the degree of transformation all the material undergoes. When I use text, I transform it, oftentimes rewriting or reinventing, and typing it on to materials that are then ripped apart and made to adhere through infolding (which obscures the text and makes for new juxtapositions of words), and which are then painted over or burned and compressed. To me, it would not be the same to attach a pre-existing text – printed or on paper.

There is a physicality that works intention with abstraction and gives resistance to what may look like detachment, schematisation, or strict non-referentiality otherwise. I am using materials that have associations – either the words or the actual “stuff” – that pulls against the otherwise strictly autonomous realm of abstraction. Does this make sense as a response to your question about embodiment?

NK: It makes a lot of sense. In relation to embodiment, I also sense a certain reaction against conceptual art.

PS: Yes. There is a lot of thinking within the work, but it is not a priori conceptualisation in advance of the making. In fact, every one of these paintings begins simply on the floor with a blank canvas. They are like very slow action paintings. I make them one step at a time, watching what happens when things begin to materially interfere on the canvas with various kinds of fabrics, textures, materials, wood, cardboard, clothing. In a certain sense, it’s up to the materials to show me the way.

NK: In relation to your use of materials, I wanted to ask you a question about labour, which is an important aspect of your work. Your paintings are multilayered and apart from the physical labour of working on the floor, putting the layers in, the text in your work is typewritten by you – on principle, you do not use assistants.

PS: Every inch of every canvas, however large, has to carry the actual physical weight of my own body’s investment, and my own time in it, because my relation to it is very personal, as you said, as well as emotional. These are passionate works, even though they take a very long time to make. They come out of this part of myself, which I cannot delegate to others. I hope these works are works of responsibility. Therefore, I have to take a kind of personal physical responsibility for every part of them. This might be why I find it impossible to use an assistant or delegate any of the work to anyone –which I often think is crazy, but it is what it is.

NK: Along with labour comes time, which is another crucial aspect of your painting. It takes a lot of time to make the work, but it also takes time for the viewer to take it in, to examine it. It seems that your paintings have layers of meaning and memory contained in them and the viewer needs time to discover these layers.

PS: Yes, there is something possibly African in relation to a ritual process of making. In this sense, the time and the state of mind spent making the work become fundamental. Many of the paintings in the Mandela series, actually, refer to labour. For example, there are works that draw on the writings of Mahatma Gandhi, who was influenced by John Ruskin. And these writings, in turn, influenced Nelson Mandela. Time is needed, not because one would get everything in these paintings because there are so many details, but so that one would appreciate that there are such things as details. This includes those parts of the canvas that still have traces of language.

NK: I also notice you don’t put any of this in the titles and you don't provide any “explanations”.

PS: I hope the paintings get to a place where all of these experiences and sources speak through the process of painting without my having to name them. For many years now, people have surprised me by standing before them and feeling everything I’ve put in there without ever being told. A lot of this also involves figuring out that the paintings need to be viewed from multiple vantage points.
NK: Indeed, your work appears immensely different depending on the perspective of the viewer. Do you care if the viewer reads the text, looks at the detail, and so on?

PS: I don’t care if the viewer reads the text, as long as they are close enough to pick up a phrase here and there. I do care that they take in the detail. In many ways the paintings are about what it takes to “see” them – what it takes to see anything. How visible and invisible the world is. How much time one has to give to see the world. The paintings even invite people to touch them.

NK: Could you tell me more about these traces of language? They are barely legible: you made them so that they are both legible and illegible. You want the viewer to actually read them, is this correct? And then the viewer will get the sense contained in them?

PS: The words are chosen, because they are specific to the sources that I’ve drawn on and carried with me for a long time, whether it is the language of Mandela’s autobiography, or texts about our planet, or materials pertaining to politics – treaties, conventions, constitutions; there are writings about climate change … The feeling for me is that writing is one of many matrices, one of many webs of meaning-making. I am not wishing to foreground them, but to make them part of the aftermath or of the sense of a landscape that is at once out there and in here, that is partly seen through and shaped by language, but is also independent of it. Where there is language in the work, I want it to be seen as a visual element. If they are lines of text, it means I am drawing with them. They are visual objects first. If they happen also to be legible, that’s in addition rather than instead of. Perhaps the tension between what is overtly meaningful or readable and what is not creates the threshold that I am looking for in a number of these works.

NK: Yes, in many paintings, you do not use text.

PS: And in many, language is there, but it has been painted over, buried, as if made no longer available, as if meaning is something that might have been there but must be dug out somehow. Then one has to use one’s other senses to apprehend what language might have offered.

NK: In his catalogue essay for this exhibition, Bedford cited [American art critic] Leo Steinberg in relation to flatbed painting. He suggests that Steinberg’s distinction between nature and culture is applicable to your work, implying that it is concerned more with questions of politics and society than those of mimetic reproduction. Also, in relation to flatbed painting, one of your most favourite memories, which you cite frequently, is about the impact of cave paintings on you when you were a child.

PS: This ties to the question of the beginnings, because the first paintings I ever saw were cave paintings. As a child in South Africa, I was sleeping in a cave in the mountains. On one occasion in particular, I did not know there were paintings in the cave. We came there at night. I woke up early and looked up and, above me, on the roof and walls, I saw figures emerging from the darkness. They were animals or humans. The fact that those forms were not easily separable from the mounds of soil and minerals, the fire-stains and damp-stains, gave me the sense that all images or marks should be embedded in ways that are continuous with their support. Also, those paintings were made by people we no longer knew – anonymous makers prior to the colonising, domineering civilisation that effaced them. I felt an instant emotional attachment to something that was politically erased, but nonetheless was visually persistent. They were just beautiful, so my heart went out to them. They had – after many centuries – spontaneity, freshness and the sense of the maker’s hand, even though they were anonymous. They  set a kind of template in the flatbed of my imagination. From there, it makes sense that I was so drawn to fresco paintings, particularly pre-Renaissance ones. Romanesque churches had a cave-like feeling to them, and medieval fresco paintings were continuations of cave paintings. They elicited the same feeling of reverence and had a similar mystery about them. Also, so many of my senses were engaged when I first encountered cave paintings: there was a sound of dripping water, a smell of smoke, sunrise and arriving heat, alongside a sense of debris. It was an entire world. I knew was seeing an astonishing aftermath.

NK: That’s fascinating, because these feelings and impressions you are describing resemble an experience of being in an Orthodox Christian church. It’s very much like that because, apart from visual appearances, there are other stimuli – the flickering light of candles, incense, choral music – that engage one’s senses.

PS: Yes, in the caves, humans were working with firelight. Firelight itself moves, so the shadows move, creating an overall experience of these works as simultaneously in-time and out-of-time. There is one painting in this exhibition – Aftermath 9 – which I was discussing above, which I think of as being especially Byzantine because it has a gold, mosaic-like background, like an icon. So, this flatbed for me goes by way of cave painting, medieval fresco and large-scale paintings of the 19th century, from Géricault and Courbet to Monet and Matisse. Their large works were more than easel-size. It seems that they could occupy a cavern not just of the mind, but the cave of our civilisation’s making at large.

NK: Have you ever looked at the Russian avant-garde? Like you, artists such as Tatlin, Malevich, Kruchenykh, Khlebnikov and Goncharova, were also very much concerned with cultural invisible phenomena, as opposed to the observable, natural world. For example, their preoccupation with faktura – materiality of paint, its specificity in time and space – was one of the distinguishing features of the art of that generation.

PS: Yes, definitely, there is a strong link there, because the Russian avant-garde, for me, did enact the tension between traction and abstraction, as well as a sense of social, political or spiritual tensions that they were engaging. The rigor of Malevich clearing the field spoke to me as much as Tatlin’s concern for letting real materials speak for themselves. The fact that those people were making work at the same time as some of my favourite poets meant a lot to me. I’ve been very moved and influenced by the works of Mandelstam and Akhmatova. In fact, I did a series of paintings where I was transcribing the language of Mandelstam and bringing elements of his poems in.

NK: This exhibition contains paintings that could be called memorials, not only to your personal history, but also to that of your heroes, Mandela, for example, or Gandhi. Could you tell me more about the painting you made to commemorate Mandela? I noticed that in that triptych in particular, you left a lot of “ground” open, not covering it with paint and letting the materials – such as cardboard, for example – appear in their natural state. Is there a reason for it? Cézanne, of course, is famous for leaving much of his raw canvas uncovered in his late works. Is there any relation to that late-19th, early 20th-century tendency?

PS: On a purely visual level, because of the work’s large, epic, background, it seemed to be important to have areas that the viewer could fill in for herself. There was also something about allowing the materials to enjoy a greater degree of freedom or autonomy within the three panels that make up the triptych. That corresponded to the question of imprisonment and freedom within the subject matter and within a life. Also, there is an association with the putting together of pieces of different kinds of materials, improvising shelters or artefacts. For this work, I transcribed passages of Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to FreedomI wanted some parts of the text to remain quite legible, so people could read his actual words, part of the history of the country. That meant leaving them fairly uncovered. There was something moving to me – literally moving, but also physically binding – about typing out those words, some of which were originally written in tiny handwriting in a cell on Robben Island and then smuggled out. I sat for months over this work. I began this painting two years before Mandela died, thinking of it as a kind of spatial and temporal landscape of his entire development through the period of captivity and into the period of liberation and transformation.

NK: How long did it take you to make this work?

PS: Two years. Apart from actual painting, it took me a while to gather all the items that compose the work – bits of African cloth or European embroidery and lace, bits of corrugated cardboard. Then, it took me a long time to type out the passages of text.

NK: In my last question, I return to your use of materials. As you explained, you employ a variety of them, but you did not say anything about paint. Do you cover everything in actual paint – oil or acrylic?

PS: Yes, all the paintings include and require paint. I think of them all as “painterly” in varying degrees. I mostly use acrylic for its sturdy binding qualities, though I occasionally use oil for some final passages of translucency. In the Mandela triptych and in some of the works of this series, the ratio of paint to unpainted materials is different from some of the other Aftermath paintings. The large triptychs East Cliff and West Cliff use tremendous amounts of paint. In them, the fusion of paint, cloth and fabric is much more pronounced. In these works, I introduce a lot of colour, often making them look as if they are coloured or lit from behind. I often cover the entire work in progress with another layer of paint, and – before the paint is entirely dry – let the paint stain whatever is laid over it.

NK: Thank you, Peter, for your time and also the care and attention with which you approached this interview.


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