Studio Practices: SACHS v. KOONS

The average amount of time a viewer spends looking at a work of art is measured in seconds. In those fleeting seconds, the viewer reacts and the psyche deliberates—thumbs up or thumbs down. Many artists hire studio assistants to help carry out their vision yet some viewers find this practice unacceptable and often reject the work as the artist’s sole creation. Today, the viewer is increasingly aware of the absence of the artist’s hand and the common practice of studio assistants. Artists such as Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami, and Jeff Koons are household names associated with the factory production of art. Alex Rüger, Curator of Dutch paintings at The National Gallery in London, believes the practice of Master and workshop is alive and well. Rüger says, “The workshop may no longer be technical, but if hundreds of people apply should Julian Opie advertise for an assistant, it suggests that the basis of the studio of the very famous artist has not changed, just the motives, and the artist’s ‘name Eremains every bit as important E[1]. While hired help enables the process of creation on both standard and grand scales, contemporary artists are sometimes criticized for claiming credit when assistants are involved. How does the process of making influence the viewer’s reaction and is the fact that assistants are not credited as collaborators the issue?


Arguably, the most famous artist employing a team of specialized assistants is American neo-pop artist Jeff Koons. Well known for his larger-than-life balloon sculptures, which are meticulously made from high-chromium stainless steel, Koons is criticized by the public for his studio practice and soulless polish. With over 120 assistants, Koons focuses primarily on quality control rather than his own handiwork [2]. Where Koons lacks the knowledge and ability to make something, he admits, “I’m basically the idea person. I’m not physically involved in the production. I don’t necessarily have abilities, so I go to the top people E[3]. Hence, he is associated with art-directing his brand of products as opposed to creating works of art and some critics, namely Robert Hughes, dismiss his work as a result.


At the opposite end of the spectrum is Tom Sachs, an artist who effectively escapes the stigma associated with employing studio assistants. An interviewer once commented to the artist, “Despite the fact that you have a studio full of assistants, the work doesn’t feel fabricated: your hand is all over it E[4]. Sachs’s workforce totals a modest number of fifteen assistants at his New York studio, Allied Cultural Prosthetics [5]. His process-oriented conceptual art is an assorted mix of materials from local hardware stores to dumpster diving. Tom Sachs describes his process:
The manner in which we do things is always based on a triangle of good, cheap, and fast—you choose two out of three. I always say make it good and show how you made it. Don’t hide the screw, show it. Always show the glue mark. Let the tape show the dirt that it picked up while being handled. There are other rules too. Writing is always in Sharpie, and if something needs to be written and I’m not there, there’s a chart of my handwriting so it matches. When it comes to making the logos, sometimes it’s just a question of using a projector and tracing the letters. Duct tape is generally done in cross-hatch pattern, and if it’s laid horizontally it must go on in a shingle-like pattern so that dust doesn’t accumulate on the ridges. Mending plates should always show the price tag from OK Hardware, which indicates that the thing was built in Soho [6].


This process of making is what Claude Lévi-Strauss calls bricolage (more commonly known as ‘do-it-yourself Eor ‘DIY E. Lévi-Strauss explains:
The ‘bricoleur Eis adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but, unlike the engineer, he does not subordinate each of them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured for the purpose of the project. His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with  Ehatever is at hand E that is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions [7].


Unlike Koons, Tom Sachs possesses many skills. Before kick-starting his career, Sachs studied both sculpture and architecture. He later worked as an assistant to Frank Gehry creating furniture, and held many jobs including welding, renovating, and cleaning up after window displays at Barney’s. These oddball experiences, combined with the bricolage approach, suit the ingenuity of his chosen materials. Yet, even with the homespun appearance, Sachs hired his first assistants in 1991, just two years after receiving his Bachelor’s degree [8].


Allied Cultural Prosthetics is not simply a studio for making. Sachs’s work requires a sense of humor and playfulness, enlivening both the studio and his creations. He also sees the humor in managing fifteen assistants. For example, his assistants are required to carry Sachs-issued knives accompanied by a pseudo Boy Scout card with a set of knife rules at all times. If one forgets their knife, he reprimands them with a smirk by ripping a corner off of the card [9]. This studio 'play' also influences his stock of creations through a slew of not-so-subtle artist’s jokes. Satire plays a leading role in Sachs’s work—even satirizing the artist altogether. Every Sachs assemblage reflects a personality and nuance that subverts the idea of striving to create a perfect art piece. He cultivates an obsessive desire for accomplishment or simply completion. For the viewer, it is not about appreciating the genius of excellence where fulfillment has already been achieved in manufactured production, which anesthetizes the beholder. Rather, it is identifying with the idiosyncrasy of Sachs’s work that separates it from the work of countless other artists who use studio assistants.



His biggest project to date is Tom Sachs’s Space Program. With a life-sized replica of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Apollo 11 Lunar Excursion Module (Fig. 1)—complete with a control console (Fig. 2)—the artist staged a moon landing in Gagosian’s Beverly Hills gallery. The ambitious project took a year to complete requiring fourteen assistants at a rate of fifteen to seventeen dollars per hour [10]. Remarkably, other people have tried to recreate the Eagle but failed, making Sachs’s LEM the only freestanding replica in existence, a magnificent achievement of hobbyist fascination. Sachs’s version is far from perfect, but its crudeness and unfinished quality flaunts the meticulous craft that went into its creation. However, it goes beyond merely recreating the lunar module; he circumvents history with a replacement. Apart from any account that a history book could deliver, Sachs’s sets out to tell his own story to the audience: a narrative of two intoxicated lesbian astronauts during their journey to the moon—or in this case, Gagosian’s gallery floor. Leaning in to each other, they are seconds from kissing when mission control interrupts and reminds them of the mission at hand. The artist’s somewhat misogynistic joke is the one-liner presented.


NASA inspired more than just Tom Sachs’s Space Program; Sachs views himself as Flight Director on all of his projects and his assistants as Astronauts [11]. Taking human exploration to heart, Sachs believes that with teamwork, there is no room for the individual. Although Sachs is the artist, he identifies the labors with ‘Team Sachs. EFrom the audience’s perspective, it is assumed that because art is a product of creativity, all art is the direct result of one artist’s capabilities. Traditionally, studio means an establishment or a production company. In film, it takes an exhaustive lineup of staff to realize the vision of the screenwriter or the director. Art is no different. From Rembrandt to Warhol, studio assistants are part of the job. Team Sachs provides support for ambitious projects with one requirement: larger scale or greater detail.


A closer look at the Lunar Excursion Module’s interior (Fig. 3) exposes an even greater attention to detail. The entire process of making is revealed through Sachs’s choice of materials: nuts and bolts, white foamcore, tape, Sharpie markers, cardboard, hot glue, found objects, electronics, and so on. Its transparency provokes the desire to see more and to see it all. Taking a look inside, the LEM is equipped with to-be-expected necessities such as modular equipment, instrument panels, and safety and hygiene kits. However, he modifies the interior to include extracurricular gratification such as a sound system, a library, and an “Alcohol Tobacco Firearms Ecabinet (Fig. 4) with Jack Daniels whiskey, Marlboro cigarettes, and two makeshift handguns created from scratch—none of which are endorsed by NASA. Every item is obsessively marked with tape and corresponds with serial numbers for identification, which are then inventoried as artifacts for Sachs’s altered space-exploration history.


There is a large amount of problem solving needed with Sachs’s bricolaged replica. As such, his creations are free to evolve through the process under his supervision, whereas Koons’s ideas are imparted for someone else to make without faltering from the initial design. Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin said, “In the early stages, if you try and set something on a path and say that’s the only way to do it, you outlaw other inputs that might come up with a better solution E[12]. This process of discovery and resolution communicates a perceived value in the viewer’s mind. The sheer amount of labor that Sachs exploits is not cheapened with the knowledge of added hands. Whether Sachs or an assistant executes the details, uniformity is not an issue.



True to his practice of  Ehow how it’s made E his assistants are openly embraced during the performance at Gagosian Gallery. Sachs’s assistants participated in the exhibition as either astronauts or mission control personnel. As part of his staff, the two female assistant-astronauts mined the concrete floor of the gallery for samples of moon rocks (Fig. 5). While Sachs is credited as the creator, Gagosian promoted the exhibition as “a live demonstration by Sachs and his team E[13]. In fact, Sachs downplayed his role in the performance allowing his assistants to stand out as actors. As such, the moon landing was a collaborative installation and the assistants received credit in a published book detailing the efforts of the exhibition [14].


Koons, on the other hand, keeps his assistants in the studio and behind the scenes. He places strict guidelines leaving no room for discovery or error and firing those who do not meet these criteria [15]. His assembly line is split between paintings and sculptures limiting assistants to specific tasks such as ‘dot-painting E mixing colors, cleaning up sculpture casts and more [16]. Koons’s studio is truly that of a factory; the assistant’s role is to facilitate the end product, which can take up to a year or more to complete. Assistants work quietly and diligently to complete Koons’s tasks wearing jumpsuits, respirators, and gloves for safety precautions. This studio system is that of the proletariat slaving over the work of another. As such, there is no freedom of influence or discovery experienced like that of Sachs’s assistants.


For such intense studio practice, Koons’s concept is simply the juxtaposition of popular culture and its deceptions. Koons earned a reputation early on for continuing Duchamp’s legacy, a universally adopted and exhausted appropriation of everyday objects in contemporary art. His early work features readymades, inflatable vinyl bunnies and flowers, and over-sized reproductions of all of the above. In the eighties, as part of The New series, Koons preserved unused Hoover-brand vacuum cleaners in clear plexiglass boxes illuminated by tacky fluorescents. At the time, the vacuums earned mixed reviews. The purpose of encasing them was to exploit the virginity of the products yet the outcome was too subtle and underscored the monotony of daily life. The majority of viewers did not experience the sexual undertones as Koons originally intended. He eventually decided to up the ante with over-the-top seduction moving away from candidly appropriating ordinary objects to fabricating ones to call his own.


Sachs takes the readymade further by rehashing everyday materials and popular culture into new narratives. Characteristically, the bricolage practice is a way of thinking. Sachs says, “Sculpture for me has always been about developing a language. The actual making is a big part of that language E[17]. His visual vocabulary is unpretentious, existing through the use of familiar materials, which lends the viewer easy access to the work. Sachs ELunar Excursion Module demonstrates a mix of handmade objects with a surplus of manufactured goods owned by the artist. When placed in a different context, the items reference new significance. Even though the act of making is clearly on display, there is still mystery, which leaves it up to the viewers to relate their own meaning.


Awareness of materials and of process significantly contributes to the experience of a Tom Sachs sculpture. Sachs’s process of making essentially influences the content with varied levels of meaning. It is also the choice of limiting the materials to whatever is available that links the work to the beholder. Because of this, there is an interactive quality that engages with the audience. In a sense, Sachs creates relational art without the commitment of addressing any social issue. As Nicolas Bourriaud suggests, the relational work is more than just an object, but an encounter of body and spirit [18]. This  Epirit Eis evident in Tom Sachs’s re-adaptations. As a bricoleur, he bares multifaceted influences and cultural analysis.


Whilst Sachs places value in the viewer’s experience, Koons’s value is in owning the object. Koons boasts accessibility for all, but only the privileged can afford the swelling auction prices for a highly sought-after Koons. Such is the belief that with beauty there is taste; and taste is expensive, therefore, it is desirable. This chain reaction is partly a result of strategic marketing and public relations. In interviews, Koons explains that mass culture has replaced religion and that his objects reference spirituality and essential truths of oneself. Nonetheless, there is a disconnect between the promotion of his work and the reality that it is purely one-dimensional. The masses, along with some critics, argue that the works are over-inflated commodities for the culturally elite. Yet the commoditization of Koons’s sculptures is, ironically, a result of the seductive candy coating from mass-production.


Sachs’s work is accessible to all both in reception and ownership. The price of a piece by Tom Sachs starts as low as five dollars. His products range from zines, lighters, Sharpie pens, playing cards, knives, jewelry, and measuring tapes to high-art commodities such as homemade guns, sculptures, fountains, and guillotines. He makes things to sell, but encourages their use instead of keeping them in display cases. Moreover, these items are made from store bought materials and products, which he alters by crossing out logos then signs or engraves his name below.


There are disadvantages to showing the evidence of labor. To some, Sachs’s work borders on amateur craft rather than high art. In Koons’s case, audiences are seduced by the shininess and simplicity because it appeals to common people and pop culture as well as advertising and product awareness. The universality of the object is perhaps the most credible aspect behind the pieces. It is about desiring the object, whereas Sachs’s work compels the viewers to focus solely on the spectacle of seeing the work that went into its creation. Sachs is also sometimes too lowbrow to appeal to the art elitist and is cast aside as adolescent fixation. He is criticized for finding too much enjoyment in the act of making and that after seeing one Sachs one has seen them all. With the obvious humor, the audience finds difficulty taking the work seriously. Furthermore, the public expects that art should be well made, not something that is so crass and crude.


Nevertheless, contemporary art is in the wake of settling from the blue-chip excess of the naughts and aughts of the previous decade. Audiences want to believe that contemporary artists accomplish great tasks and create epic works of art with their own hands and their own skills and, yet, they are no longer naïve about the use of assistants in studio practice. Whether or not the viewer accepts the assistant’s part in the creation of the work, the actual process of making influences the overall reaction to the work. As such, Koons’s work remains the same as always. His objects are too perfect and, with his reputation of artistic director, the mass-produced pieces leave a bitter aftertaste. On the other hand, Tom Sachs leads the way of innovation with his unique studio practice and bricolage methods. It is increasingly apparent that it takes more to impress museum-goers and gallery visitors with craft than with shock value or dazzle. Whether art is interactive like Sachs’s or shallow like Koons’s, contemporary art must engage the viewer and appeal to the audience’s shrinking attention span. Work that is machine made and lacks a personalized artist’s touch is emptied of emotion; it becomes detached or, what Walter Benjamin calls, auratic.