New York

Tom Sachs, The Cabinet, 2014, mixed media, 8' x 13' x 11 1/2".

Tom Sachs, The Cabinet, 2014, mixed media, 8' x 13' x 11 1/2".

Tom Sachs

Sperone Westwater

Tom Sachs, The Cabinet, 2014, mixed media, 8' x 13' x 11 1/2".

Predictably winking but at times also unexpectedly personal and even wistful, Tom Sachs’s recent solo show was figured as a kind of material autobiography: a trip down an artistic memory lane paved with a thousand different things, each subsumed within the systematizing logic of his famously relentless, tongue-in-cheek didacticism. The exhibition showcased the ways his artistic persona can both charm and chafe—it was maniacally overstuffed with objects and language, rich in obsessive-compulsive tics, and marked by a cultivated mash-up of gravitas and juvenilia, of amiable self-deprecation and surpassing self-regard. It once again emphasized the permeability between Sachs’s process and its products, and how assiduously he works to keep the relationship between the two transparent.

The exhibition, titled “Objects of Devotion,” was structured around the gathering, under a Wunderkammern-style presentational scheme, of the tools and materials of Sachs’s practice. This emblem of protoscientific natural philosophy is an apt one for Sachs; his work has long prized the recognition (or, failing that, invention) of sympathetic patternings that connect apparently dissimilar things, while his brand of bricolage has more than a whiff of lo-fi alchemy, proposing the transmutation of base elements into something greater and more “precious.” It is, of course, sometimes tempting to put quote marks around the whole of Sachs’s practice. After all, part of the point of his project has always been to ironize the end to which his elaborate processes lead—not just to let the seams show but to foreground them, to use triviality and anticlimax to undercut the grandiosity of his gestures. As a result, encounters with Sachs’s work are typically colored, as they were here, by an interpenetrating mixture of awe and bathos.

Several of the dozen-odd sculptures on view drew on “Space Program 2.0: MARS,” Sachs’s 2012 extravaganza at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. Mars Rocks, 2012, for example, was a large wall-hung vitrine containing ninety-nine samples of purportedly Martian geology, labeled according to an opaque scheme (though a chunk of hardwood was titled Laimbeer, presumably after the pugnacious Bad Boys–era Detroit Pistons center). Meanwhile Synthetic Mars Rocks, 2016, a glass-and-metal cabinet full of carefully ordered, if cheesy-looking, “geologic” artifacts, spotlighted the unapologetic fakery at the heart of the project. Astronomical pseudoscience was also a theme elsewhere—Moon Rock Box: Helpers in Need, 2008, was another wall-based display, this one containing fourteen rocks, each inscribed with the name and function of one of the Nothelfer, a group of saints venerated in the Middle Ages for their supposed protections against ailments (plague, fever) or other threats to well-being (family discord, deathbed temptation). Works such as Vaguum, 2012, and Moon Rock Box: Nevada, 2008–2009, were presented as self-contained lab setups, with supposedly extraterrestrial mineral samples situated as the investigatory centerpieces of elaborate, ersatz experimental contraptions.

For all their profusion, these paled in comparison with Sachs’s newest display pieces: The Cabinet, 2014, and Rockeths, 2017. The former was a folding case fashioned from orange-and-white striped barricades and festooned with hundreds of tools, hung in groups and inscribed with the names of individuals who have “inspired, influenced, or frightened” the artist—from Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn to the members of the Wu-Tang Clan—while the latter was less a cabinet than a kind of portable workbench and shelving unit, similarly jam-packed with the tools of the artist’s trade, as well as a collection of model rockets, all again labeled to namecheck various figures of personal importance—scientists, musicians, artists; Apollo, Dionysus, Stringer Bell. The fetishistic frisson the assembled materials (pens, pliers, drill bits, tape measures) clearly provoke in Sachs was made even more explicit in McMasterbation, 2016, one of a trio of scale-model space modules arrayed on plinths. Featuring a copy of the legendarily comprehensive McMaster-Carr hardware catalogue spread open like a porn mag centerfold designed for lonely gearheads—alongside a ready supply of Vaseline and a handy tissue dispenser—it was part cathectic confession of objectophilia and part self-derogating indictment of his own work’s tendencies toward sometimes masturbatory excess. Smart and stupid, funny and somehow a bit sad, it was classic Sachs: too much information, in every sense of the phrase.

Jeffrey Kastner