An epic conversation with Mark Anthony Gree (GQ) about death, sex, sleep, and success from inside the workshop of artist Tom Sachs.
Most artists luxuriate in lawlessness. Not Tom Sachs. His “greatest work of art”—his words and ours—is the studio he’s created. But he’s not talking about the sculptures in his studio—objects that look like the genius renderings from a child’s imagination. And technically he’s not talking about the people, either: a small assortment of misfits, most of whom are one part welder, one part stylish SoHo inhabitant. Sachs’s prestige, so to speak, is the studio itself—the rules and guidelines and code and language and expectations that exist before anyone even clocks in. In one of his films, Ten Bullets, he outlines the code for his workshop. The film is a quirky instruction guide, anchored by ten bullet points, shot with Tom’s rough edges and trademark DIY look. The rules are strict. (One example of a rule is “Always Be Knolling”; another is “Sacred Space.”) Everyone must watch Ten Bullets before entering the studio, team members as well as guests. Ten Bullets is polarizing. If you read the comments below the video, people seem to think it’s bonkers. (“Weaponized autism” is my personal favorite.) But there are thousands of people—from art-world snobs in their 60s to kids who camped out for his highly coveted Nike collaboration—who would kill to work in Tom’s infamous studio. Most people think it’s crazy to go to the moon, too.
Walking from one end of the studio to the other was trippy. Parts of it looked like NASA’s workshop on a tight budget. (Tom has done three massive intergalactic exhibitions in which he re-creates elements of space; so far, he’s been to Mars, the moon, and Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa.) Other parts of the studio looked like a chop shop for random objects like basketballs and lobsters. The more in progress something looked, the closer it was to being done. When all the works, tools, and people are together, everything looks like art.
“I play the game best when I’m happy. I don’t believe in the myth of the tortured artist. It’s not for me. I think it’s a crutch.”
When I finally got to Tom at the rear of the studio, he was shirtless. (He’d just gotten a haircut.) At 52, Tom Sachs is pretty ripped. He has those type of non-gym muscles that look like he earned them while at work. Like a farmer. So I figured that seemed like a safe place to start.
GQ Style: You’re pretty ripped, Tom. What’s your workout regimen?
Tom Sachs: Space Camp! Space Camp is a three-day-a-week ritual. It’s something that Pat Manocchia of La Palestra developed. We do five essential exercises. And follow it religiously. It’s a dead lift, a chin-up, a lunge, an ab exercise, and push-ups. We follow the health triangle, which is diet, exercise, and rest. And sleep is key. Without sleep, it doesn’t matter how well you eat and how much you work out. You need to do all three.
How many hours a night do you sleep?
Eight. It’s a priority. That’s also why I don’t get sick.
When was the last time you had a cold?
I think it was the day I made that deal with Satan, when he said, “Bubeleh, it was such a pleasure doing business with you. So in addition to the ‘Sell Your Soul for Success’ deal, I’m going to throw in the ‘No Sick’ clause for free.”
You reference Satan a lot in your work. But you’re also influenced by and love a lot of musicians and artists who are very spiritual. Are you a spiritual person?
Well, of course I’m spiritual. I’m a scientist. We don’t know. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs.
What do you believe happens when you die?
I mean, just the science stuff, like, worms.
But that’s just your body. What do you think happens to Tom Sachs, the artist-scientist?
The same thing that happens to my cat who died in October. Just, like, it’s gone. I don’t know about all the fake news that religion pumps into us to help us behave and work better in a consumerist society, like the afterlife, or nirvana, or heaven, or 72 virgins, or whatever. I think it’s important to accept truth over certainty and not just choose certainty, which is like faith and belief that you’ll have a second life or heaven or whatever, because you can’t deal with the truth. The truth is that we don’t know and there’s a real possibility that there is absolutely nothing after death. Death is a tragedy that happens once and it’s over. If you start to really look into that, you might find that it’s so maddening a concept to comprehend that it might make it difficult for people to do simple things like love one another and get up out of bed. I think that the contemplation of death is something that separates us from the other animals and is probably an unrecognized or undiagnosed source for madness among many men.
James Baldwin was an atheist. I think that’s part of the reason he worked so hard. This is it, ya know? Do you feel an added pressure, considering that any day you could be turned into worm food?
I think I am more agnostic than atheist because I don’t know. I believe in magic. I believe in superstition. I believe in different things that I don’t understand and things I just don’t know. But, for sure, if there is something after this, it’s not this. I tend to make the most of every day because it’s gone in a second. The short amount of years between birth and death, compared to geology or the life of a tree or something, it’s so short that it does make me want to make the most of every minute. It’s so complicated, because you’re weighing that against the length of life. The sonata’s long, you must take care of the bow.
Before a big show or project, do you find it difficult now to feel that same kind of excitement you felt when you were trying to make a name for yourself?
Jay-Z’s “My 1st Song” is my theme song. I write my first song like it’s my last, and my last like it’s my first, or something like that. I think that’s how I make work. Now, no one is immune to death and to the curve, and Werner Herzog said that great filmmakers only have a 15-year life span. The great films. The best. He’s said he’s looked at all of them. And I said, “Including you?” With artists, it’s different lengths. With rock musicians, it’s the shortest one; architects, it’s the longest. But no one is immune to that. If you acknowledge that, you can fight a little harder. But the other side of that is that there’s an established language within which we can work and develop, so it’s easier. Everything has its cycle. Just like everyone else. I’m inspired by the same exact things, so it’s mostly just the needs of the body. The sensuality. It is always work, and the reward for good work is more work. So every time it’s hard, and it’s just hard in different ways. As you keep raising the bar, it gets harder and harder to innovate. But never innovate for its own sake. Just sometimes it’s best to sit back and do the same thing again and just incrementally build.
Is it true that all of this—your art, studio, and career—is the result of a broken heart?
Here’s the story. She was a senior and I was a freshman in college. She selected me to be her lover. The school that I went to, Bennington College, was pretty progressive. Some of the students, including her, were really, really brilliant. It was a kind of community, where you could learn more from another student than the professor, and she was one of those students. I took a sculpture class. And of course she was four years older than me, so she had been doing it for a while, so there was a lot to learn. She taught me to weld, and then took me to the Museum of Modern Art, and taught me the Kama Sutra, and then dumped my ass. All in, like, really, in a month or in a very few amount of weeks. She left me with the skills to work in a welding studio. I had nothing to live for because I was so devastated. But I was pretty inspired by her and the experience to make sculpture. I just poured all of my broken-heart energy into this one pretty terrible steel sculpture, but it was a lot of physical work. I found through the physical pain of labor, you can find solace through physical work by sweat.
“I’m an athlete, and my sport is sculpture and putting up bathroom shelves.”
Some athletes play the game better when everyone is booing. Some need the love from a home crowd. Does sadness or turmoil help you play better?
I play the game best when I’m happy, and in love, and well fed, and well fucked, and rested. Healthy. I don’t believe in the myth of the tortured artist. It’s not for me. I think it’s a crutch.
Was it always the plan to build out an entire world for yourself to live in?
No. When I moved to New York, I didn’t know I’d have a successful career as an artist. I thought I’d be invited to interesting dinner parties. I’ve been to three dinner parties. I go to one a decade that’s memorable, and they’re always at Jon Kessler’s house, who’s an artist and a friend of mine. It was never a plan. The ritual of the studio has developed organically over the past 30 years. When I first started in this space, I was an elevator repairman and I repaired all the elevators in this block because this block is all owned by one landlord.
That was your job?
That was my job. It was something I told people I could do and then figured it out. It seemed dangerous, and I could bill a lot of money, because no matter how much I billed, it was less than the union repair guy or the union welder. Because I learned from my college girlfriend how to weld. [laughs]
Thanks, college girlfriend! What were the early days of the ritual like?
The ritual started with waking up early, going to the coffee shop on the corner for a 50 cents for coffee and 50 cents for a pork bao—which is a jelly doughnut with pork meat inside. It’s delicious. But the point is, it was a dollar and it’d get you going. I’d work all day into darkness and have my ritual of working with my team, because I always hired my friends from school to help me. Those are the same people that are here today in the studio. It’s friends. We’re a family.
James Brown is a hero of yours. And in Ten Bullets, you reference James charging band members for mistakes. He was a genius. But also a tyrant. And most people hated working for him. Are you as difficult to work for?
I’m better than James Brown. I’m a better team leader because I’ve learned from his mistakes. I also had a huge advantage over him. I mean, talk about white entitlement. James Brown came from a very, very fucked-up place. It’s a miracle that he survived.
But how do you push people to such a successful place, create a family without people feeling like you’ve pushed them too hard? Where’s the limit?
It’s complicated, but it comes to three words: selection, development, and retention. You gotta choose wisely, and you have to get rid of people when they don’t work out quickly, but also give them long enough time to work out. I can tell you, some of the people that are the best on my teams are the ones I really wanted to fire.
What’s the origin of the boom boxes you make?
They’re homemade sound systems assembled from existing components, like audio components, but put together to create an environment for a party. It comes from my first boom box, which my sister’s high school boyfriend stole. I traded my Physical Graffiti double-LP record for it and took my 1976 Plymouth Volare wagon, which was originally my mom’s car but became mine at 17. It had an AM radio, and I cut it out and installed this thing myself. I just did it. I went to the hi-fi store and bought speakers to put in the doors. It was so loud and good. It was incredible. It was like a party in my car. That was the first sound system that I made.
So it’s like Pimp My Ride: Tom Sachs Edition.
It didn’t have any physical ambitions; I just wanted it to sound good.
Did you try to hide your work so it looked natural? Or were you, at 17, into the homemade aesthetic?
I tried to make it as good and as clean as I could. I got the little kit with the speaker grilles and cut the doors out. I tried to make it nice. I was in high school, and I spent years trying to do it the right way before I realized there was a virtue in doing it the wrong way.
Would you consider that—doing it the wrong way—your breakthrough?
Yeah. I was making this one model—this is 1998—for my second art show at Morris-Healy Gallery. I made a full-scale model of the Fat Man, the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki a couple days after Hiroshima. But mine, instead of having a bomb, had a little capsule hotel with a sofa, a TV, a toilet, and it was functional. But I made all this effort to make it really slick and perfect, the way an atomic bomb would be. Smooth. I had assembled all the parts, but it was the first time I used a fabricator. I hired someone to do it because it was all fiberglass, so I used a boat fabricator to build it. I walked in his shop, and I was watching him paint it. He had done all these different colors of fiberglass and patching underneath, and it was so beautiful. I was watching him spray-paint over it and make it unified, which is what I asked him to do. I was like, “Dammit, I wish I had made it myself.” Because if I had made it myself, I would’ve seen that the patchwork had virtue. It was unpretentious. He just did it to make it quick, and it looked great, but I was like, “Shit!” Any artist could’ve done that.
Looking at the Nike collaborations, how do you feel right now about it all?
I feel good about the fact that so many people were able to get them. I hate the pretension of the art world. Also, the studio is a sponsored team. I’m an athlete, and my sport is sculpture and putting up bathroom shelves.
Whenever you collaborate with somebody, are you ever reluctant to give their project some of the magic you’ve been building for over 30 years?
I don’t like collaborations. I don’t do them very often. With brands, I only work with Nike. It seems like there might be others, and I’ve flirted with it, but I’m only really interested in one thing. I don’t really like working with other artists—it’s a lot of time spent with power dynamics and stuff.
What is it about Frank Ocean that made you want to work with him?
I think what he’s doing is important, and I want to do what I can to help. His art helps people to value intuition and sensuality. And help people think about their emotional landscape with more intention. There isn’t a lot of support for that. So of course I want to be of assistance.
You don’t seem like the type of person to binge-watch TV, let alone cartoons like Family Guy and The Simpsons, but you riff on them a lot in your work. Are you really a fan?
From 1989 to September 11, 2001, I had a TV there, in that corner, and I’d watch The Simpsons every night. I’d work here at my welding station, and I had the rest of the antennas out of the window. But when they blew up the Twin Towers, I lost reception. I’d sit here and watch The Simpsons.
“This place is a cult, and I mean that in the scariest, most Manson-family kind of way, in that we’re totally committed to this way of life.”
Yeah. The reruns. I’d watch it every night, and I’d always work here, and that was part of my ritual.
Who’s your favorite Simpsons character?
Lisa. She’s the artist. She’s the one. Bart is pure Dionysian, whereas Lisa is this mix. She’s emotional and spiritual, but she’s also a straight-A student. She’s a scientist. She’s conflicted.
Do you consider this place—the studio and the culture that you’ve built around it—a cult?
This place is a cult, and I mean that in the scariest, most Manson-family kind of way, in that we’re totally committed to this way of life. Anyone is free to leave whenever they want. There is zero pressure. We’re very, very, very committed to it being a safe work environment. The whole #MeToo, sexual-harassment thing doesn’t even come close to what we’re trying to do here. Like, everyone in the studio was bullied in high school or participated in some part of that. We were all subject to that. We’re very careful to make this a supportive work environment for everyone…. We’re always trying to make it safe and deal with all of these difficult topics.
Another difficult topic that’s in the news a lot is cultural appropriation. How have you navigated that?
Who is this white middle-aged non-Asian male to do something about the Japanese tea ceremony? Or boom boxes, for that matter. Because that’s something that’s black and Latino, uptown culturally. And I always say the same thing: If you do it for a couple years, it’s an interest; for five years, it’s a hobby. But when you do something for 20 years, it becomes a part of your life and you become a part of it. And I become an amplifier. And I am the best boom-box maker that’s ever lived. And I can back it up. I’ve been inspired by people, and I try to elevate. I would actually say the guys who do the sound systems in Jamaica or in the Caribbean parades, even here in New York, they’re way better at sound-system making for those parties. But it’s a different kind of thing. I’m looking into more discreet, more compact objects for a room. And same with the tea ceremony. The people that get pissed off at me about me appropriating the tea ceremony aren’t Japanese tea masters. Japanese tea masters fucking love what I’m doing. I’m bringing attention to their craft, I’m studying, I’m elevating, I’m respecting it. I’m turning it inside out. I’m taking a shit on it, then gilding it, and putting it on a pedestal. People that get mad are other white middle-aged non-Asian people who are like, “I can show you!” The art of America is the art of the African diaspora. And I’m not black. I’m white. When people ask me what art I’m into, I say James Brown and Bob Marley and Fela Kuti, even. Though he’s not part of America, you hear American influences in his music. And that’s the art that inspires me. It’s not necessarily my territory to work with. I just think you have to do it with sensitivity.
Maybe your biggest inspiration would appear to be NASA and space. Would you ever go to Mars, if given the opportunity?
Maybe. Not definitely. I’d need a lot more information. I definitely wouldn’t go on the one-way trip. No way. Probably not. I probably wouldn’t go. The most hospitable place on Mars is a billion times more dangerous than the bottom of the ocean and the top of Everest, which I’m not really interested in going into. Earth is like a big warm wet kiss and I want to explore every inch of her.
Interview Mark Anthony Gree / Photography by Jason Nocito for GQ Magazine