Tom Sachs Paints His Own Picasso

A discussion on mortality, art feuds and Lisa Simpson with the artist Tom Sachs, whose new exhibition "Painting" is now on show in Paris

“Behold, the greatest painting of all time,” announces the American artist Tom Sachs to a small group gathered before one of his latest works: a recreation of the sailboat painting that hangs above the living room sofa in The Simpsons. Sachs estimates it’s one of the most-viewed paintings in history, more recognizable maybe than any of the still life paintings by Pablo Picasso he has recreated in the gallery adjacent.

For his latest exhibition “Painting,” which opened at Thaddaeus Ropac gallery in Paris last week, Sachs delves into the oeuvre of the Spanish artist, creating his own replicas of still life paintings from Picasso’s ‘War Years’ (1937-1945). Adding to this, Sachs recreates works by two others: Rotorelief (1935) by Picasso’s rival Marcel Duchamp, a birds-eye-view of colorful discs that swirl to create an optical illusion; and Lisa Simpson’s “Scene from Moby Dick.” (In different episodes of The Simpsons, both Lisa and Marge Simpson are said to be the author of this painting. Sachs chose to go with Lisa because she is his favorite character.)

It’s a show about the process of art-making, by an artist who has exhibited an obsession with method since his earliest works. It’s as if, by recreating the works of these three figures, Sachs is trying to answer the question: “What makes a great work of art?” Does true greatness lie in Picasso’s emotional approach, Duchamp’s intellectual approach, or in the pure artistic gesture of a child like Lisa?

Sachs doesn’t consider his versions to be copies, or forgeries, or even studies of the original works. Rather, they are taxonomies, in the way a botanist takes apart a flower, or an anthropologist would study a culture. “I’m looking at art, and at the same time making it mine through my own system.”

JEREMY OLDS When you mount a show like this, which draws on Picasso and Duchamp artworks and The Simpsons’ intellectual property, do you ever fear the possible legal repercussions?

TOM SACHS I can’t really worry about stuff like that. I understand why people feel that way. As long as you’re true to yourself and act with integrity, that’s all that matters. Also, we have a tradition in the studio of using preexisting things a lot. There’s parody, and there’s parity. When we showed the Chanel guillotine here in 1998, the lawyers from Chanel were calling up and getting angry. Thaddaeus [Ropac, his gallerist] got on the phone and called Karl Lagerfeld. He said we had to send him a fax. We sent the fax immediately, he saw it, picked up the phone and was laughing – “I love it.” The lawyers were pissed off. But that was the beginning of it and, strategically, it remains the same.

JO How did the idea of the show emerge, and this trinity of Picasso, Duchamp and Lisa Simpson?

TS At the heart of it, there’s a conflict between Picasso and Duchamp. I think it’s parallel to the duality of man, the Apollonian and Dionysian spirits, our emotional-intuitive and our intellectual. In spirit, I see myself as more of a Dionysian – an emotional, intuitive artist. In practice and strategy, it’s clearly Duchampian. I’m a conceptually driven, process-oriented artist.

In the end, the men became these two different forces: Picasso, this pure Dionysian figure, painting minotaurs and becoming one of the richest men in the world; and Duchamp’s living on 14th St, giving chess lessons to make a living. When Duchamp died, Picasso’s obituary for Duchamp was, “He was wrong.”

So this conflict is really interesting, but then who am I in all of this? It’s a very subjective body of work by me. My signature’s bigger than Picasso’s. If there’s a conflict between these two figures, then Lisa is, in a way, the artist. She’s doing it for love. She’s 8 years old, she’s painting her heart out. She’s pure of spirit. She is my alter ego. She is who I wish to be.

Tom Sachs, Scene from Moby Dick, 2023. Acrylic and krink on canvas. 91,4 x 106,7 x 3,8 cm (36 x 42 x 1,5 in). (TSA 1470). Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac gallery © Tom Sachs.

JO Why?

TS I think it’s just her innocence and purity. I’m clearly a grizzled middle-aged dude who’s put up a lot of shelves and made sculptures, but she’s forever 8 years old. She has an innocence that can only be achieved by a fictional character. Like classical mythology: these are ideal figures, no one can really be those things, but that’s what stories are for.

JO Do you recall discovering Duchamp, and what you found appealing about his work?

TS I never was super into Picasso, but when I discovered Duchamp my brain exploded. He was the one who helped me see that there is art in everything. So much of my outlook in life and making art is through his wit.

JO We see your DIY sensibility in the work in this exhibition – the rough-and-ready painting, the traces on the sculpture. Where does that sensibility come from?

TS As a child I was forbidden to use tools, because they were too dangerous. But my mom had a tool set in the basement, because she was the handy one, and [my parents] didn’t really stop me. They’d say no, but when I’d go and use them, they didn’t know – or care that much. I taught myself. For many years I was a contractor and did construction jobs. I built so many things myself, so I derive great pleasure from making. That goes into painting – I’m a DIY painter, too.

JO How long did you spend on each work?

TS It all starts with a drawing. It takes a couple of days. The painting takes a couple of hours, maybe a day, because I work out all the problems in the drawing. What’s the saying? “Just a few hours but a lifetime of preparation.” It’s finding the strategy and the way of doing it. So the actual execution is kind of minor – I mean, how long does it take to put a urinal on a pedestal and sharpie your name on it? Just a moment. But a lifetime of preparation.

JO The skull is a recurring motif in this exhibition. Much of Picasso’s work explored mortality – was this a theme you were interested in exploring?

TS Death’s a tragedy, it happens once and it’s over. We all approach it in different ways. I am increasingly aware of how little time there is left. That’s something that happens to different people in different stages of their lives. There’s an urgency that I feel. I don’t think I’m alone – a lot of artists have that feeling, and that’s why they paint. Everything is sex or death, the beginning of life or the end of it. Those are the bookends.

Tom Sachs, Rotorelief, 2023. Acrylic, Krink and harware on panel. 152,4 x 121,9 cm (60 x 48 in). (TSA 1477). Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac gallery © Tom Sachs.

JO At this point in your career, has anything shifted in your perspective on your art?

TS I became a father six years ago. That helps you understand death a little. You see the birth, and there’s nothing like experiencing the birth of a person, because it helps you understand death to have someone grow physically in your arms, from a helpless baby to a violent skateboarder in five years. Wild, feral, you try and encourage and support that feral-ness while not letting them wind up in jail. It’s finding that balance.

I think an artist’s best work lies in their inability to truly understand it. I can’t speak for Picasso. I suspect he might have known some of the reasons why he was doing it, but I equally suspect he was as clueless as me, and just as compelled to paint as a way of using his subconscious mind or a way of dealing with it through his art. Even though he was very articulate, as am I, we don’t always know why we do stuff.

JO Picasso said that painting was like keeping a diary. Do you find that to be true?

TS Every morning before I wake up I do a drawing before I look at my phone. I date everything. I don’t always add the time of day, but I think I’m going to start because of this conversation. I realize that it is a diary, and I have dozens and dozens of sketchbooks. They’re really disorganized. (He opens a small sketchbook) This one is on its last day – it’s pretty beat, it’s time to switch. But if you have a date, then someone could piece it back together, and that someone could be me.

JO Who’s your Mastermind?

TS Lisa Simpson is who I aspire to be. Lisa is flawed, she’s really neurotic. She has many meltdowns. She’s her own little freak. But she’s pure of spirit.

JO Do you have a favorite Lisa moment?

TS “Lisa the Tree Hugger” is the best. I also love when she becomes a vegetarian, and the lamb – (he imitates a lamb) “Don’t you love me Lisa?”

Tom Sachs, “Painting,” runs from 17 January – 24 February at Thaddaeus Ropac, 7 rue Debelleyme 75003 Paris.

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