New York

View of “Peter Sacks,” 2022. From left: Without Title 1, Without Title 2, Without Title 3, all 2022. All from the series “Without Title,” 2022.

View of “Peter Sacks,” 2022. From left: Without Title 1, Without Title 2, Without Title 3, all 2022. All from the series “Without Title,” 2022.

Peter Sacks

This exhibition highlighted four new bodies of work by Peter Sacks. Two of them—the “Without Title” and “Without Name” series, both 2022—were mixed-media paintings. They were differentiated by size: The three “Without Title” works were large, if not grandiose, each measuring eight feet by six feet, while the four “Without Name” pieces were each four feet by four feet. Both series feature a mishmash of found materials, a sort of Sargasso Sea of debris. They are a “real paradise,” as van Gogh described the “place where the street-cleaners dump the rubbish.” (“My God, it was beautiful!” he exclaimed.) Bits of text surface out of the incoherent mess like memento mori salvaged from Sacks’s unconscious. Freud once characterized psychoanalysis as a kind of archaeology; Sacks tells me he is an archaeologist digging up the ruins of the past. 

In a third body of work, the “Resistance” series, 2020–22, Sacks made contact with, indeed resurrected, beloved internal objects. The series portrays a group of thirty-two revolutionary figures, many long dead, whom Sacks admires for their resistance against the norms of art and society in which they lived and worked. These include Samuel Beckett, Rachel Carson, Paul Celan, Paul Cézanne, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Primo Levi, Nelson Mandela, Alexei Navalny, Frank O’Hara, Rosa Parks, Nelly Sachs, and Volodymyr Zelensky. In their high-minded defiance and nonconformity, these heroes are inspirations for Sacks’s search for authenticity through artmaking. Freud once said that people suffer from memories, often unwittingly. Sacks suffers from them wittingly—he knows them and confronts them unflinchingly—and shows us the faces with photographic verisimilitude. (We will survive in our photographs, not bodies, and haunt others as photogenic mirages).

The “Resistance” works—smaller and more intimate than the sprawling paintings in “Without Title” and “Without Name”—suggest greater self-possession. A stand-alone piece, Crossing, 2021, is similarly concentrated. Composed of ninety individual segments, each depicting a sailing ship, it has a biographical air, the ships at sea suggesting Sacks’s emigration to the United States from South Africa. Or is he saying he is always at sea, between worlds, between verbal art and visual art, between abstraction and representation? Is he setting these polarities dialectically at odds, trying to integrate them while giving each its due?

“Without Name” was the darkest of the series, haunted by shadowy figures, in effect anonymous ghosts of Hades—clearly symbols of death. By contrast, the “Resistance” works lit up with strands of luminous color, adding life to what is otherwise gloomy. There were hints of color, too, in “Without Title,” but nowhere was hue more lavish and consummate—a delirious end in itself—than in the fourth and final body of work on view. The ten works in the “Above Our Lands” series, 2021–22, are an Abstract Expressionist tour de force. With their delirious Gordian knots of color more or less centered on white paper, these transcendental abstractions enliven in their dramatic interweaving of oddly organic shapes. Stunning in their gestural intricacy and emotional richness, they show Sacks rising above lands of human suffering.