Peter Sacks, the most compelling artist in America

Sebastian Smee

THE WASHINGTON POST – Peter Sacks likes to swim.

Keep this in mind if you have a chance to stand before his work, recent examples of which are on display at Sperone Westwater in New York. From a distance, you may imagine certain movements in water.

Ribbons of coloured cloth evoke the coral reef surges and switchbacks of tropical fish.

The artist sticks strips of these fabrics and textiles – white lace and linen from Normandy, indigo blue cotton from his native South Africa, kimonos from Japan – to his works’ surfaces, which have been built up not only with light fabrics, but also burlap, corrugated cardboard, paint and wood.

Sacks’ larger canvases are big enough to create a sensation of immersion. Perceived peripherally, the elusive movements on the works’ surfaces seem to have their own implied velocity, like the famously hooked brushstrokes of Willem de Kooning (content “slippingly glimpsed”, as the Dutch emigre put it). And because they are freighted with their own history of making and use, they can function like aromas that briefly unlock troves of private narrative, only to die away.

In ‘Mare Incognitum’ (2019), a work made up of 90 small, square panels, Peter Sacks conjures the long history of seafaring and trade. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

It is this surface speed, this glimpsing quality, that I love most about Sacks’ recent work, and particularly this latest show, titled Republic. It emerges from something deep, heavy and layered – more compacted and geological than oceanic. But it is what gives his work life.

“I’m trying to do justice to my feeling of what the mind is like – it’s sedimentary,” Sacks told Joshua Rothman in a New Yorker profile. Sedimentary, but something more fugitive as well. I didn’t love the first Sacks show I saw. It was too sedimentary. It was better, I’m sure, than I concluded that day, but the work relied too heavily, I recall thinking, on borrowed gravitas.

Most of this came in the form of quotes by giants of modern European literature, typewritten by the artist and stuck to the surface. The process seemed to illustrate TS Eliot’s “fragments I have shored against my ruins”, but came too close, for me, to what Saul Bellow’s fictional Herzog called “the commonplaces of the Wasteland outlook”.

But just as there is something depressing about seeing an artist you love fall off in quality, there is something uniquely inspiring about watching a sincere artist break out of a cul-de-sac into something shimmering, fully fledged and completely convincing.

This has happened to Sacks in his 60s. He is now 70. No wonder people are talking about him.

Descended from Lithuanian Jews, Sacks grew up in Durban, South Africa, a port city on the Indian Ocean. A gifted athlete, he won a silver medal in the backstroke at the Maccabiah Games in the late 1960s.

After a period as an exchange student in Detroit, Sacks returned to South Africa and became involved in the anti-Apartheid movement. Forced into military service, he found his way out by winning a scholarship to Princeton University. Sacks was then awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, which took him to Oxford. After a five-month interlude spent walking in South America, Sacks received a doctoral degree at Yale, where he wrote his first book, the critically acclaimed The English Elegy.

Sacks switched from literary criticism to writing poetry (he has published several volumes), and now teaches poetry at Harvard University. He had always made small, private images in bound notebooks, but it wasn’t until 1999 that he stopped writing poetry and turned to art. During a residency in Marfa, Texas, and after separating from his first wife, Sacks began, tentatively at first, to make the kind of art that hangs on walls.

Sacks is now married to the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jorie Graham. His deep love of literature is evident in his artworks, which still include fragments of text, as well as photographs of favourite writers and layers of literary allusions. But his artistic lexicon, which from the beginning was material- and process-oriented, has become gradually more imagistic.

Instead of creating dense, allover effects with collaged elements that tended to become turgid, Sacks now plays virtuosically with figure and ground, using tone, colour and texture to create subtle illusions of spatial depth and three-dimensional movement. His sense of colour is refined, and his ability to balance areas of high pressure (bold, busy patterns) and low pressure (areas of relative emptiness) suggests affinities with Henri Matisse.

Matisse, who grew up in a textile manufacturing town in the north of France, was inspired throughout his career by textiles from Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

The tendency is to think of Matisse as all about surface and joie de vivre.

But during the years around World War I, he developed a style rooted in the conviction that paintings that carried visible traces of the labour, doubt and profound emotion that went into them could be especially expressive.

About the same time, collage became a way to use pre-existing materials that carried traces of earlier meanings. If those materials were somehow distressed, erased or otherwise ravished, they could, like Matisse’s erased marks and scraped-back surfaces, express a sense of the sediment of buried feeling – feeling that might include shame, grief or even the fragility of the body politic.

Abstract artists, including Alberto Burri, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Jack Whitten and Mark Bradford, all found unique ways to use such materials to conjure the weight of incommunicable things.

Sacks blends both approaches. His heavily encrusted, palimpsest-like works make use of all the graphic qualities of patterned fabrics, then add movement and torque, creating the effect of flying apart or massing together.

In ways that can put you in mind of William Kentridge’s torn-paper animations, he has even found ways to exploit rough-and-ready silhouettes, suggesting skyscrapers and cities, or moving figures.

The fabrics evoke the African, Indian and European attire Sacks saw as a boy in Durban, as well as histories of migration and loss. In Mare Incognitum (Latin for “unknown sea”), a dazzling new work made up of 90 small, square panels, Sacks conjures the long history of seafaring and trade with 30 sailing ships made from tattered textiles arrayed in a majestic procession that floats over a deep sea turbulent with twisting patterns and fragments of text.

The allusions are to Greece and Homer, as well as to the Alexandrian poet CP Cavafy and the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam.

Plenty of gravitas then. But the overall impact is bright and buoyant.

Alongside his large, multipanel works, Sacks has been using the same techniques and ingredients to make bewitchingly beautiful works on paper.

The latest of these, a highlight of Republic, he has called Sangoma Series, after the Zulu healers he observed as a young man as they performed rituals, chanted and drummed on the streets of Durban.

Incredibly free and spontaneous-looking, they have a windblown, centrifugal energy, like whirling dervishes, and suggest the zero gravity of Matisse’s late paper cutouts.

Flying apart at the edges, they also recall “the colours of banners (that) change” with the seasons from yellow to green, then red and black, in lines from one of Sacks’ favourite poems, Report From a Besieged City, by Zbigniew Herbert.

Other lines from the same poem, which inspired earlier work by Sacks, cavorted through my mind after I saw this show, “if we were to lose the ruins we would be left with nothing” is one.

The other, especially pertinent after this past year: “only our dreams have not been humiliated”.