Grumpy Old Men: Tom Wolfe and Tom Sachs Duke It Out Over Contemporary Art


Tom Sachs and Tom Wolfe at 87 Leonard Street in TriBeCa.


On a recent Monday evening, Tom Sachs, the artist, and Tom Wolfe, the writer, were sitting in a coldly nondescript TriBeCa apartment, discussing the state of contemporary art. The event was called Tom vs. Tom.

“I detect two new art forms today,” Wolfe said in front of a small audience, mostly supporters of the New York Academy of Art, the evening’s host. “One I call No-Hands Art. And the other is Tenure Art. As in ‘T’ for Tom, ‘E’ for Easy, N for Nathan, U, R, E.” Tenure Art, Wolfe said, was mostly conceptual. He described the career paths of these artists this way: “If you get some publicity you have a pretty good shot at getting a job teaching on a faculty and after six years you can get tenure. And you’re not gonna live high, but you’re not gonna have to work hard.” As for No-Hands Art, “Probably the best examples,” Wolfe said, “are Jeff Koons and Richard Serra. Jeff Koons was briefly married to this woman Cicciolina,” the pornographic actress and Koon’s first wife. Here, Wolfe went on to explain Koons’s “Made In Heaven” work, a series of explicit photographs and sculptures depicting the artist engaged in intercourse with his spouse. “They had some pictures taken,” Wolfe said, “Polaroids, I believe, of themselves in just about every position that nude bodies can be in. That I could imagine anyway. And these were sent off to some elves in the Midwest—he didn’t touch the photographs—and the elves converted them into three-dimensional glass sculptures.”

With his book The Painted Word, Wolfe wrote one of the more famous attacks on contemporary art and the theoretical jargon that sprouted up as a result of it—courtesy, in particular, of the critics Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and Leo Steinberg. (“When did I write that?” Wolfe asked himself in front of the audience. “Around 1980. No—1970.” The book is from 1975.) Wolfe’s thesis in the book is that modern art had become “literary” and “academic,” despite the fact that “the Modern movement began about 1900 with a complete rejection of the literary nature of academic art.” If Wolfe’s argument hasn’t exactly aged well—“when the Metropolitan or the Museum of Modern Art puts on the great retrospective exhibition of American Art 1945-75,” he writes, albeit facetiously, “the three artists who will be featured, the three seminal figures of the era, will be not Pollock, de Kooning, and Johns—but Greenberg, Rosenberg, and Steinberg”—it must at least hold a record for the ratio of exclamation points per page. (A representative passage: “The fogs lifted! The clouds passed! The motes, scales, conjunctival bloodshots, and Murine agonies fell away!”)

In the apartment, Wolfe wore his famous flamboyant white suit, which sagged on the shoulders and augmented the smallness of his 84-year-old body. He carried a wooden walking stick with a carved wolf’s head for a handle.

“Anything I say that’s smart, sixty percent of that is really stolen from Tom,” Sachs said. “Anything dumb is me.”

Sachs is a sculptor who probably falls more on the side of No-Hands Art, in Wolfe’s definition, though he straddles the conceptual line as well. (“I have,” Sachs said, “elves in the Midwest.” He added, however, “My hands are sliced up. And my hands aren’t cut up and calloused because I’m busy writing e-mails.”) Sachs’s most famous work is an installation of the equipment needed for an imagined manned mission to Mars. Beyond a shared interest in astronauts—Wolfe was working on The Right Stuff, his book about the space program, around the time that he wrote The Painted Word—Sachs does not align with Wolfe’s tastes, though this went unmentioned. Sachs, to his credit, went along with his counterpart’s cynicism—“I hate art,” he said bluntly—and occasionally quoted Wolfe’s writing from memory. He paraphrased a passage from the book Radical Chic, saying, “The history of New York Social life is as complicated as politics in the Caribbean.” (To which Wolfe replied, “Sure.” “You said it,” Sachs said.) Their conversation was largely lacking a narrative thread.

“Maurizio,” Wolfe said at one point. “I’m trying to think…”

“Cattelan,” the audience muttered back.

“He had a recent work called Ninety Cans of Shit,” Wolfe continued. “And that’s what you get.” (This being in reference to contemporary art as a whole. Though it consisted of ninety tin cans presumably filled with excrement, the piece was called Artist’s Shit, and was in fact by Piero Manzoni, who produced the work in 1961, the year after Cattelan was born, and thoroughly within the era in which Wolfe argues that contemporary art had become too “literary.”)

“Remember performance art?” Wolfe asked, out of nowhere. “You don’t seem to see much performance art anymore. But performance art—what was her name? She used to appear naked all the time?”

“Marina Abramović,” the audience mumbled in unison.

“Yeah,” Wolfe said. “She doesn’t appear naked really anymore. I don’t know why she quits now. One of her recent shows, to get to the show—although she was still going naked at this point—there were two naked people at the door, a man and a woman, and you had to squeeze between them to get inside.”

“Can I ask you questions?” Sachs said, mercifully cutting off this tangent. He described an “issue that is plaguing the arts,” which he referred to as “consumerism and this constant search for authenticity.” (Regarding Abramović “not being naked now that she’s 70,” Sachs said, “Nothing ages more ungracefully than a beautiful woman’s ego, or whatever.”) Sachs asked his question: “I’m curious to know if you’ve been able to, through all of your observations of not just art but the world, find a connection between the different kinds of authenticity that people seek, and why they make stuff.”

Unsurprisingly, Wolfe’s response did not provide a useful answer as to why people “make stuff,” but it was a rather concise summary of the author’s definition of “the art world,” which is worth quoting at length for its crankiness alone. “I love the phrase ‘the art world,’” he said. “The art world, I figure, is made up of—I used to give the figure of 10,000 people worldwide. It’s a little more now. But about 3,000 of them live in the United States. Twenty-seven hundred of those live in or close to New York. That’s probably changed a little bit. And the idea that the public is trying to act on great art is a laughable theory. Because they don’t see great art. The 3,000, let’s say that’s the correct number in New York, they’re least of all critics. The critics are messenger boys today. They just get the news from the art world and they bring it to the newspapers. When’s the last time you saw a critic in a newspaper or magazine saying ‘This is the greatest’ when no one else is agreeing? It doesn’t happen anywhere. It used to happen. Critics made a point of going head to head, but no longer. I think that’s a shame. The art world is made up of curators, collectors, and gallery owners, and some artists. They make all of the decisions. It’s not a world! It’s a community. Another thing today that I noticed, you talk about money in art. Very wealthy collectors have a tremendous impact. Art is a commodity, but it is the only commodity where everything is unique.”

“Some say it’s the world’s largest unregulated commodities market,” Sachs said.

“That is true,” said Wolfe. “There are things you can do, ways you can hype certain people and certain prices that would be literally against the law in any other industry.”

The collector Alberto Mugrabi, known for helping drive up the market for Andy Warhol, was in the audience, sitting at the apartment’s dining table. As Wolfe made his comments about collectors, Mugrabi stared straight off into the distance, rested his chin on one hand, and slowly tapped the fingers of the other on the table.

Later, Glenn O’Brien raised his hand and asked Wolfe if, when he was witnessing the excess of the art world for the first time decades ago, he “ever imagined that it could just keep going and keep going and keep going.” Wolfe said his writing on the subject “had absolutely no effect. Zero.”

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