Tom Sachs opens ‘Cassette Only’ exhibition at Baldwin Gallery
New paintings and drawings celebrate cassette tapes and stolen music
The artist Tom Sachs has been thinking a lot lately about his teen years in Connecticut as a punk rock kid, going to hardcore shows and making tapes, pirating music and finding himself part of an artistic movement for the first time.
Leading hardcore bands, in his commuter zone stretch of the Northeast, would often stop and play a club called Anthrax in Stamford, he recalled, between Boston and New York concerts.
“It’s this all ages, no-liquor place where you could see, like, Bad Brains play and smoke weed with them in the van after if you wanted because this community was so small,” Sachs said recently during a late-night Zoom conversation, laying in bed under his NASA frieze headboard. “And pirating music onto cassette was an important and integrated part of that cultural phenomenon.”
He reminisced about borrowing records from friends and from public libraries and recording them onto tapes, building personal music libraries, often embroidering the tape cases with pen drawings and gifting them to friends. Sachs has saved much of his tape collection, which he showcased during a video walkthrough of his Queens home studio and his new “Cassette Only” exhibition at Baldwin Gallery this week on Instagram, showing off his bootleg tape of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” among other personal gems.
“Cassette Only,” which opened Sunday at the Baldwin, is a collection of new Sachs drawings and paintings of cassettes, mostly the TDK SA-C90 model that he preferred to use pirating music from during the 1980s. Sachs recalled taking the train to New York City, buying boxes of taps on Canal Street and stocking up on these chrome tapes.
The tapes speak to the freedom that the technology provided and also to the punk ethos of bands encouraging fans to steal music and disrupt the music industry rather than pay for it. That idea was immortalized in the 1982 Malcolm McLaren song “C30 C60 C90 Go” about home piracy and in the Dead Kennedys 1981 cassette “In God We Trust, Inc.,” which included a blank side and the note: “Home taping is killing record industry profits! We left this side blank so you can help.”
Tom Sachs’ “Cassette Only” show in the Baldwin Gallery in downtown Aspen opened on Sunday, Dec. 26. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
What: Tom Sachs, ‘Cassette Only’
Where: Baldwin Gallery
When: Through Feb. 12
More info: baldwingallery.com
Making tapes, of course, would evolve into burning CDs and then file-sharing on Napster. The piracy that interested Sachs went on, but it was never so personal as those mid-’80s nights copying songs onto TDK tapes.
Looking back, Sachs concluded: “I’ve only been exposed to two grassroots art movements in my entire life, and the first one was the American hardcore punk scene.” (The second movement is the recent birth of the metaverse and the phenomenon of NFTs, a big Tom Sachs story for another day.)
Best known for his bricolage sculptures and “Space Program” installations that recreate historic NASA operations, Sachs has shown regularly with the Baldwin Gallery in Aspen over the past three decades and been a frequent guest at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village. Through the Aspen Art Museum, Sachs also installed the large-scale sculptures “Miffy Fountain” and “My Melody” on the Snowmass Village pedestrian mall in 2014.
ALSO NEW IN ASPEN GALLERIES
• Christopher Martin’s new ‘Labyrinth’ series of paintings opened Dec. 22 at his gallery on E. Cooper Ave.
• David Frederick Riley this week opened an exhibition of Western and wildlife paintings at Aspen Grove Fine Art.
• Street artist Mr. Brainwash has opened his “Aspen is Beautiful” pop-up exhibition in the North of Nell building next to gondola plaza.
• Photographer Terri Loewenthal opened “No Place I’d Rather Be,” a collection of “psychscapes,” at Hexton Gallery on Dec. 15.
• Casterline | Goodman opened a new exhibition by painter Alexander Holler at its E. Durant location and “Changing Lanes” from photographer David Yarrow at its E. Cooper gallery on Dec. 15.
Sachs scrapped a plan to come out for the opening after he and much of his studio team got hit with the latest coronavirus surge in New York. (The show went on and the gallery remains open.)
The Baldwin show also includes two of Sachs’ interactive boombox sculptures (one has a hidden machete) which he’s shown at Baldwin in previous exhibitions. Sachs is also showing a series of new Brancuzzi-style sculptures. Both fit in with the cassette-minded show and its tribute to physical media.
All made over the past two years, the “Cassette Only” works have been Sachs’ way of connecting back to some basics amid the increasingly complex productions of his conceptual art practice.
“I really just wanted to work on painting and drawing,” Sachs said.
Walk through the show and take a more than cursory look and you’ll note that the process of making the tape pieces varies. Some are nearly as perfect as the machine-printed tapes themselves — these are photograph transfers with clear lines of burned wood on gold leaf. Others, which Sachs has dubbed his “My Way” versions, are drawn and painted by hand and therefore imperfect with lines that waver and paint that smudges.
“They’re really rough and fast and they remind me that I’m an artist,” Sachs said.
Sachs, as a brand-name 21st century artist, often works in modes that have him disconnected from the simple mark-making and handcraft of the work and instead challenge him to create on an industrial level, as he has with his Nike sneaker collaborations.
“I get so caught up in the business of keeping the idea of art open,” Sachs explained. “I’m not afraid to do a sneaker, not afraid to do a piece of furniture, not afraid to do a sculpture or bronze or ceramics and make all these incredible things. It’s so diverse that I forget sometimes that the essence of it is just drawing and painting.”
But why not force himself to make a choice and make the work one way? Why not choose one as the right way (as most artists would)?
“They’re two different approaches to the same problem,” Sachs said. “I think they’re both part of who I am. And I feel really blessed that the community supports what I do enough that I could do something as risky as that and not have all the answers. It’s filled with contradiction, but this is the duality in my mind.”
They’re also not pure recreations of the tapes. At gallerist Richard Edwards’ urging, the new pieces do include small decal-like drawings and paintings of signature Sachs animals like kittens, monkeys and chicks, offering a link to some of his more familiar works.
Last year in the early months of the pandemic and its public health lockdowns, Sachs became a prominent creative voice of the odd moment. His work in the basement studio of his Queens apartment was based on the concept of “in-situation resource utilization” (ISRU). Borrowed by Sachs from NASA, it’s the practice of using found objects in space for exploration, which Sachs began using with his studio team years before the pandemic.
Sachs’ recent bout with COVID — a case not severe enough to keep him from working — helped him push the idea of quarantine creativity yet further. Sachs quarantined alone in his art studio for 10 days, holing himself in a small hallway-like space that he treated like a NASA airlock, sealed to the outside world.
When he needed materials or provisions — be it a specifically sized piece of wood or a Shake Shack snack — he would send messages to his studio team and they would leave them with a knock on the door.
“I did this and I was thinking, ‘Man, this is the life. I can do this work and no one can talk to me. No one can barge in,’” he recalled. “I don’t know if I’m going to get to maintain it.”
Sachs said the virus has given people the liberty to say no to so many obligations and excuse themselves from so many things they wouldn’t want to do anyway that he hopes it breeds a freer way of being.
“I’m going to start using COVID as an excuse to be more of who I am,” he said. “That’s pretty exciting.”
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