Peter Sacks: "Everywhere"

by William Corbett

Peter Sacks is a poet of considerable reputation who teaches English literature at Harvard University. His is the sort of career poet/scholars aspire to and from which one does not change course, but this is exactly what Sacks has done. While continuing to teach he transformed himself, in his forties, into a painter. In committing himself to an urge that had, since boyhood, expressed itself in drawing for pleasure and for keeping a visual record of travels and thoughts, Sacks discovered untapped reserves of memory and imagination. The result is bold, large-scale paintings both abstract and figurative that are fearless in their willingness to risk statement and dramatize. This is not the work of a poet who gradually became a painter, but of one caught in a mighty surge of feeling. It is the visual equivalent of his line, “No world more real, for I was everywhere.”

For Sacks everywhere begins in South Africa where he was born in 1950 in Natal Province. He has made sweeping, mural size abstractions of bright, hot and plain red, green and blacks, African colors that reveal an inner landscape – what we carry with us that looks and feels like home. Lately he has returned as if haunted to an image of Africa, the continent itself that is both map and memory. Migration is a black Africa invaded by white and buttressed or held in place by a scaffolding or cage. It resembles, as do all of Sacks's Africa's, a misshapen heart and a shield. In No Forgiveness, twin white Africa's cut out of ribbed cardboard suggest the whiteness of Apartheid, the system under which Sacks grew up. It is a false and cruel reality that in South Africa the Dark Continent was white, a history that cannot be forgiven even as reconciliation moves forward.

The effect of this picture is similar to what Jasper Johns achieved in his American flag paintings. We see that a symbol we think we know withholds as much as it reveals. There is something hidden in plain sight, an idea that fascinates Sacks.

You can see this in his use of collage. He likes his surfaces built up and roughed by materials as homely as cardboard and delicate as lace. He also likes to plaster images and text on a surface as if on a wall. His surfaces snag the eye so that what is underneath but disappearing, or rising through the paint, holds your gaze. His paintings are evidence of what endures in fragments, what persist as time erases all and images of the untidy reality of our identity and history. Some are like walls from which years of torn posters hang. All, they seem to say, that is here and now has been scored by time. For the most part, and the exceptions are stunning, his color is limited to tarry black, glare-white and accents of red, green and cerulean. Color is a world of its own, one that Sacks, who has a clear sense of subject, will likely explore in good time.

Black and white dominate his recent paintings,the implied black and white of race in Africa and the black and white of words on paper. His Ancestor paintings are skids of type, the I as text, published on the paint like Martin Luther's theses nailed to the church door. Paul Celan, Franz Kafka and transcripts from the Truth and Reconciliation trials in South Africa make witness in this way. Two photographs of Osip Mandelstam central to the Prisoner paintings take this trope of ancestor and witness a step farther. The handsome, confident young Mandelstam is juxtaposed with the mug shot of Mandelstam the prisoner in Stalin's gulag. Old before his time the soon to be murdered Mandelstam is without his false teeth. His face is disappearing into itself. Sacks has worked over and around these photographs as if to frame them like icons but his marks are furious, and the pictures are near billboard in scale. These pictures deliver a message of witness, the gaze and words from which we can hide but which will not go away. Yet what is clear on the surface in text and image hums underneath. These paintings are as much meditation as message. There is always more to see, know, feel and think, but we were rushed along by the century of fury in which Mandelstam died. What is there to do but wave the tattered pages of Celan and Kafka at our new hyper, blood ravenous world. Sacks knows that artists are great rememberers. His images locate the past in the present, which is what all rememberers do. His motto might be found in Ezra Pound's late Canto CXVI:

“But the record
        the palimpsest –
a little light
        in great darkness”

The stunning exceptions in Sacks's use of color are his wonderfully crude, childlike, playful, and absolutely accurate in feeling, map of the world and his startling Township Series (City of the Future). The latter began as a backdrop for Peter Brook's production of the play Size Bansi est Mort, by the South African playwrights Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona. The series is a cross between Leger's vibrant cityscapes that burst with the unstoppable vigor of modern 20th century life and the thickly-painted, vivid, proto-Pop city scenes and still lifes of Stuart Davis. These are ambitious paintings both in themselves and in their service to the vision of others. They are a reminder of how public Sacks's art is. He certainly has private relationships with Africa, Mandelstam and with his materials, but the myths he is working with are not personal like, say, Philip Guston's are. Sacks's focus is on what is common to us, the pages of a book, the shape of a continent or an elephant, images from the great storehouse, which holds the stuff that imprints itself on all our minds. This is what is present for everyone but no less personal when we find it in ourselves.

When I first visited Peter Sacks in his downtown Boston studio, I expected to see some mild trifles, what a gifted poet might turn out with his left over energy, busy hands and a modicum of talent. In minutes the pictures he hauled out and hung before me wiped this assumption from my eyes. I saw that day what I continue to see in Sacks's new work, forceful and lucid images that speak unguardedly, eloquent in their forthrightness. On that first visit I saw that Sacks had arrived as a painter fully formed in that he knew what he wanted to say. Saying it is, of course, the trick. He was eager to give it all he had and alert to what he might stir up and see in the process. It is remarkable that to get there he left nothing behind. He did not abandon poetry but carried it with him into his embrace of painting. It is the undercurrent, variable in its intensity but abiding, in every painting he makes.

©2006 - William Corbett/Galerie Pièce Unique, Paris

Peter Sacks is represented by Sperone Westwater.


Instagram: @petersacksstudio