Tom Sanford is a painter based in New York whose work has been exhibited far and wide, from Los Angeles to Paris to Tokyo to Bergen. Sanford’s work is not quiet. It is loud— in color, subject matter, and the responses it provokes. Peppered with pop references, religious imagery, and in-your-face attitude, his paintings challenge taboos while winking at a long history of artistic tradition. Titles of some of his recent solo shows serve as apt descriptors of the work itself: “Mr. Hangover” (Leo Koenig Inc., New York, NY, 2008), “Bad Religion” (Galleri Faurschou, Copenhagen, Denmark, 2007), and “I will Fukn Rob Your White Ass” (Leo Koenig Inc., NY, 2006). In 2003, Sanford embarked on a project to “transform” himself into TomPAC, the incarnation of Tupac Shakur, in conjunction with his exhibition of a series of iconic paintings of gangster rappers.
Sanford is represented by Leo Koenig Inc. in New York, by Galleri Faurschou in Copenhagen and Beijing, and by Galerie Erna Hecey in Brussels. He has a B.A. from Columbia University and an M.F.A. from Hunter College. He is shaggy-haired, amiable, and fast-talking. His laugh rumbles warm and easy.
As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a banker. My dad was a banker. When I was very young I had a little pretend bank, it was called Tommy Trust. I think I counted pennies and had a little ledger where I made notes. It was almost like an art practice unto itself, simulating my father somehow.
I thought I would be a banker for some time. I always drew and that sort of thing, but I never thought it was a viable career. I went to Columbia thinking I would go into banking. I studied economics initially, but I just didn’t really have much facility for economics. I pretty much failed Econometrics.
What happened after failing Econometrics?
I ended up switching over and becoming an Art major. I had one professor in the Art Department, Archie Rand, who had a big influence on me. He convinced me that being an artist was a viable career. It was a terrible influence in that way…my parents must’ve hated the guy!
At first I became an Art and Econ double major, an eventually I became an Art major with an Econ minor.
A gradual slip, in other words. How did your parents react to that?
When I told my dad that I wanted to be an artist, he said, “Well, that’s great. You should join the Navy— there are probably a lot of decks you can paint!” My parents have always been very supportive, but I don’t think they thought it was the most practical thing in the world to do.
You graduated from Columbia in 1998. What happened after that?
I was seeing this girl at the time, and I think she had an influence on me— I broke up with her soon afterward— she wanted me to get a job. I think she felt that if I had a job I would have more money to spend on her. So, I applied for one job, the only job I ever applied for. It was being an administrator for an international art shipping company. Of course it would have been soul sucking and terrible, but I was one of two candidates who were seriously considered for the job. In the end, they went with the more experienced guy, which is the best thing that ever happened to me. Because then, since I needed money to rent a studio, I ended up working as an assistant to a bunch of artists. I did a number of other odd jobs, but the most steady source of income I had for the first five or so years out of college was working for artists.
What you realize is that, after about six months of doing things like being an artist’s assistant, that Columbia degree is absolutely valueless. You just can’t get another kind of job. So you are very quickly forced into this life of art— which is the most wonderful thing.
Tell me more about the jobs you had.
My main employer was Alexis Rockman, a painter who I have been close with ever since. I also worked for Deborah Kass, who was a great mentor for me. And a professor of mine from Columbia, Gregory Amenoff, was a generous mentor to me. I became even closer to him after I graduated. He really, genuinely, wanted to help his students. I needed money, so he gave me a job. I needed to show my work, so he got me into group shows. I am always very thankful to him.
My job as an assistant would be to paint the floor, clean the brushes, run their personal errands, that kind of thing. I would do research for them too. At the time, if an artist needed images for something, there wasn’t Google Image Search, so I would go to the New York Public Library and look through their image files to find a picture of a lemur, or whatever it was they wanted.
Did you have any other jobs besides being an artists’ assistant?
For a time I was working part-time doing research for a guy who was trying to pitch a show to HBO. I did moving jobs. I worked on sets on commercials building backdrops. I taught some after school programs— finger painting for kids in the projects, essentially. That was a lot of fun, but it was very draining.
I also taught a summer program in SUNY Brockport, New York. Every year I would go up there and all these high school students would come up for a month of intensive art— college preparatory stuff. It was fun. We got up to all sorts of no good. The teachers were all between 18-35, so we spent about as much time in the bar room as with the kids. We did all sorts of crazy stuff, like steal golf carts from campus security and ride around drunk. Go to a store and see the weirdest things we could shoplift. It was in the middle of nowhere so there wasn’t much to do up there.
Where did you live after you graduated from college?
When I got out of school, I sort of half-lived with my parents in Westchester and half-lived in a studio I rented in New Rochelle, which was very inexpensive. I would go home if I needed to shower, and would have my dinner of chips and a 40 in the studio. I would paint ‘til 4 at night and then go to my job in the morning. I had this big easy chair with a footrest in the studio, and I would sleep in that.
After about a year, I moved into a loft in Bushwick with two friends, one was a painter and the other was a writer. We built a ramshackle housing unit in a corner so that most of it could be a studio. I had a little bed that was lofted above my friend’s room, like a tree house. There were rats in our loft sometimes, it was kind of disgusting.
Williamsburg was a little bougie at that point, but not as much as now. My friends were there and in Bushwick. We would go to each other’s lofts and look at each other’s paintings and party and all that. There was no natural food store or anything like that in Bushwick at the time, so there were only two things we ate: we would either go to the ghetto Chinese place, or we would go to the Mobil Mart, because it was the only place where you could get un-rotten groceries. That Mobil Mart on Bushwick and Flushing is not there anymore, I guess there is no need for it anymore. But that is what we ate. You could get a can of stew, or Slim Jims, a lot of beer. We would make a lot of rice and beans.
Why did you decide to go to graduate school at Hunter?
I lived in that loft for about a year and half or two years. But I met my now-wife, Alex, when I was living there and it was clear that she didn’t want to spend a lot of time in that loft. First of all, it was in Bushwick. Bushwick, I guess it’s kinda nice now because they have restaurants and stuff, but it’s still a dump. I don’t know why people spend as much money as they do to live there now. When I lived there it was very inexpensive. Now you live much cheaper in this neighborhood [Upper West Side/Harlem].
So the reason I went to Hunter for graduate school was to get a studio in Manhattan! I had been out of college for four years, I was pretty broke, and I wanted a studio in Manhattan because Alex was in Manhattan. I thought, if I applied to Hunter I could get student loans. Also, the great thing about Hunter was that you could go for four years and get a pretty big studio. When I entered, it cost $1,100 per semester. You can’t rent a studio in Manhattan for less than that a month and I was getting six months worth for that price.
I didn’t end up having to get a loan, because by the time I had to pay my tuition I had always saved up enough money. Initially from my odd jobs and then from my art because I started to show pretty regularly during my time there. I think by the time I got out of Hunter, I had more money than I had ever had!
Do you recall the first time you were paid for your art?
I had sold various pieces in college for very small amounts of money, but the first time I sold through a gallery was out of a show called “Size Matters.” It was at a place called GAle GAtes, which was a very cool non-profit art space in Dumbo. The show was in 1999 and was curated by Mike Weiss. I will forever love Mike Weiss. Not only for selling my first painting, but because of what he did before that. I was on a first date with this girl. We went to the Lucky Strike restaurant in Soho. Mike was an art impresario. He had a magazine, he was curating all these shows, and became an art dealer later. Well, he walks in to Lucky Strike with a whole bunch of fat cats, and he sees me in the corner with this girl. He waves and I wave back and say, “Oh, that’s this guy Mike, he just put me in a show.” Then, at the end of the meal, the waitress comes up and says, “The gentleman across the room has paid for your dinner.” I felt like the coolest fucking guy in the world. On the first date I walk into this place and people are buying our meal!
How did you start getting your work shown?
I was in a bunch of group shows at minor galleries, or shows that friends put on. I think the most important thing when you’re a young artist is your community. The point of going to art school is not that you’re going to learn anything particularly important there, for the most part. If you aren’t going to work on your own, you have no hope anyway— if you need to be in art school to make art, you’re screwed. But, the point of it is that you make a community. You meet other students and they will be your peers, hopefully for most of your life. Your friends and contacts will get you into shows. You sort of help your brothers and sisters out.
My first solo show was in 2001 and it was a very odd situation. A friend of mine introduced me to this funny little Japanese fellow named Tomoya Saito who spoke almost no English. He was a peculiar chap, but he wanted to see young artists’ studios. He wanted to start a gallery, and he was looking for artists. He had decided that Brooklyn of all places was the place to find artists, so he was in New York for two or three months, traveling around from studio to studio. He came to my studio. At the time, I was making these icon paintings of gangster rappers. He liked the paintings and offered to do a show. I was a little bit wary of him, because he could hardly speak any English and he said he was going to make a gallery in Tokyo, but it didn’t exist yet…so. I said, “If you buy a couple of paintings, I’ll do the show.” I figured I would hedge my bets a little bit that way. So he did that. He flew me to Tokyo. And Alex, my now-wife who was my girlfriend then, came with me. I credit that as one of the very good things I did early on that led to our very long and happy relationship and marriage. So, Tomoya Saito was very important for my eternal happiness!
Was that first show a break?
It went reasonably well, but it wasn’t enough to make a living off of. So I was frustrated. I did what you’re not supposed to do, I sent slides of my work to a bunch of galleries, like twenty, that I thought were reasonable, where I might show. The only gallery that wanted to meet me was 31 Grand. They gave me a show. For that show, I did a project that got me into a lot of tension at the time. I decided to turn myself into Tupac Shakur. It was a very superficial transformation. I lost weight and I got one real tattoo and a lot of fake tattoos, got the appropriate piercings. I did daily ode-to-Tupac activities. I went on the Atkins diet to lose weight for the part, but on that diet I could still eat chicken wings, which was Tupac’s favorite dish. So that was a daily ritual. I would cheat [the diet] and have some Hennessy every day and smoke more pot than I normally would— I’m not a big pot smoker but Tupac was. The main part of the project was that I had a blog called Thug4Life, which unfortunately isn’t there anymore because I failed to pay the domain fee or whatever it is— I just forgot, it was the stupidest thing.
Why did you transform yourself into Tupac?
At the time, I was making gangster rap icon paintings. They weren’t really about being a fan of hip-hop. I was a fan of hip-hop and still am, but I thought of it as a transgressive act to make paintings of these young, black men. The art world was recovering from the 1990’s at the time, and it was still a questionable activity for a young, white, upper-middle class guy to paint black people. That was a taboo. So I figured, who could I paint that would be the most despicable? I went with gangster rappers.
I thought that was interesting too because as a young, white suburbanite, I was into gangster rap because it offered a nihilistic, post-modern approach toward music that rock and roll did not. These guys had no interest in the avant-garde or the ethics of making art, they were about using the medium for political or financial rewards. That made a lot of sense to me. Classic rock seemed like my parents’ music. Even new rock music just didn’t seem relevant when you put it next to N.W.A. or Public Enemy. That is stuff that makes your parents nervous.
I started making gangster rap paintings and after a while I felt that I needed more skin in the game, quite literally, so I decided I would turn myself into Tupac. Although I didn’t go into blackface, it was essentially like going into blackface. To claim that I was TomPAC, the reincarnation of Tupac.
How did you publicize the project?
I didn’t do anything! I just published the blog.
And you got a tattoo. That’s quite a commitment.
People get tattoos for silly reasons all the time. I felt like this was a perfectly good reason. It’s funny, because I go swimming most mornings at the pool on 138th street. Most of the lifeguards are of color and they actually really like the tattoo. I’ve been told that I’m the only swimmer they respect because I wear a Tupac tattoo.
Where is the tattoo?
[Shows the tattoo on his chest] It’s just the first one he got that says “Tupac.” I was going to get the “Thug Life” one, but the tattoo artist wisely advised me against it. Now I’m really glad because I’ve got my belly back and it would look really, really funny if I had a Thug Life tattoo there…
Back to the actual project.
I did the Tupac project because I didn’t think there was enough ‘me’ in the rapper paintings. I wanted to put myself on the line. It worked quite well in that I got a fair amount of dipshit-of-the-month notoriety. Got a lot of hate mail. I ended up being on MTV, interviewed by Sway. He went into the interview very angry. He didn’t realize the project was kind of a political thing. He just thought I was this asshole who was pretending to be Tupac. But then I was agreeing with all of his points, but for the camera he had to stay mad at me. And I looked like a skinhead. I was really skinny, covered in tattoos, I had my shirt off and had my head shaved. I was on the cover of an issue of the LA Times, I was on NPR, things like that.
I did this thing for three months and it was quite enough. I am not a performer. I like my privacy. I did the blog, mostly. I only appeared in public as Tupac once, really, and that was for the opening of the show. The day of the opening, the Daily News ran an article about my show. They put in a photo of a painting of Jay-Z that I had made. And the gallery all day was getting phone calls from people who weren’t normal art patrons. Asking things like, “Is it free to come see the Jay-Z painting?” “What time is the gallery open?” And then they got a few— probably joke— death-threats. Also, the girls who worked in the gallery were at a bar the night before and they overheard someone they didn’t know talking about what was going to happen at the gallery the next night, at the opening. Like, “That kid’s gonna get shot!” So they were really nervous. The gallery ended up hiring security for the opening. I did the only thing I could think of doing, which is that I got really drunk. I was scared. I hid in the corner for most of the night.
Dressed as Tupac?
Yeah. I hardly remember the thing at all.
A lot of your art is controversial.
I have a few controversial pieces. The bottom line of most of the work is that it’s supposed to be in poor taste. Sometimes it is offensively in poor taste.
One of the things you learn in art school is that you are meant to make work that is difficult. You’re not supposed to make work that is pleasing to people. I want to make work that communicates to people. That is populist. That people who are not a normal art audience can get something out of. I want it to function within the arena of art as well, but I want to make work that sort of breaks down taste and class. Taste is one of the tools of hegemony that differentiates the upper and the lower classes.
So I want the work to be of the worst possible taste. Aesthetics are very easily changed or co-opted by a taste-making elite. If something looks ugly or garish, it can very easily be assimilated into being the hip or correct thing if there is a good reason to do it. I wanted to make work that was not that easy to assimilate. Because the fact that people who aren’t supposed to like fine art are probably going to like it, makes is very hard for the art establishment to touch it. A fifteen year-old kid can like it. I think that is more challenging, there is more room there.
There were these two artists, Jack Early and Rob Pruitt. These two guys were hot young artists when I was in art school. And they did this show at Leo Castelli’s gallery. They were two white gay guys and they made paintings of African American imagery and called it the Black Show, or something like that [Red, Black, Green, Red, White and Blue]. They were totally ostracized in the art world. It was too transgressive. With identity politics in the ‘90s, people were not willing for that to be touched. These guys were messing around with black identity as white celebrity artists, and people didn’t like that.
When I started making my work, I had a memory of what they had done. So I thought, this is something I could do that would touch a nerve.
Weren’t you afraid that you would be ostracized too?
I thought it was the best thing that could actually happen to me. Rob Pruitt and Jack Early had something to lose— I had nothing to lose. Being ostracized would be a high value problem for me. You can’t be ostracized if you aren’t in.
Being an artist in not a stable career path, especially compared to the dream of being a banker that you had as a kid. Does that ever worry you?
Of course. The good thing about being an artist is that you want to go to work every day and you don’t have any sort of mid-life crisis. I mean, you don’t get a Christmas party, but otherwise your life is great. You wake up, excited, like I do at five or six every morning— when I’m not too hungover— ready to go.
Five or six?!
Yeah, I’m getting old, right?
The downside is that there is no stability. When I am able to make some money, I am pretty good about saving it. Luckily my wife has a job, so I’m not particularly worried. We just bought a new house, which will make our month-to-month expenses go down since we’ll rent out the first floor. I’ll be able to have a studio at home, and be home to take care of the little lady who is coming into our life soon [he is having a baby in February].
Everyone likes to have money, but I don’t really have that many expenses. Wives, they need things. They need to go on vacation and buy clothes. But, I don’t need things. I just need my materials and my studio, to eat, the basics.
My parents are really WASPy and that makes them really frugal. I have a healthy disdain for materialism because of them, and I am thankful for hat. So even when I’ve had a lot of money coming in, I spent it on securities, stuff like that.
You’re a responsible type.
I guess so.
What were your work habits like way back when, and what are they like now?
All I did was paint and go to work, and on the weekends I might go to some parties. Then I could work late into the night, I can’t do that anymore. I’m really pretty useless after 8 pm these days. But I do get up pretty early. I’m not a particularly smart person, but I am a very disciplined person. And that’s my greatest asset, I think, as an artist. I really buy into the Malcolm Gladwell idea, the 10,000 hours idea. I put a lot of work into the studio when I was an undergraduate in college. I really didn’t do anything else. I did the bare minimum for my other classes and spent 40 or 50 hours a week in the studio. And after school, I never worked more than I needed to work on other jobs [besides painting]. I would work 35 hours at the very most, and if I could get by with 20, I would.
One thing I have told my students when I taught, and would tell students again if I had the chance, is that the most important thing I did in my artistic training was being a high school wrestler. When I started wrestling I thought it would be cool, like WWF or something, but I quickly found out that it was about humiliation and pain and getting up early in the morning and sweating. It was awful, it sucked. But I was too scared of the coach to quit. And so I eventually did decently as a high school wrestler, but it really taught me work ethic. And I think that is the most important thing in doing anything, really.
There is no reason that I have to get out of bed at five in the morning, I could sleep until six in the evening and no one would fire me, but you have to be self-motivated and disciplined. I treat art like a job. When I had a studio downtown, I would go to the studio every morning at eight o’clock and stay there until six pm. I would work pretty much the entire time I was there.
Things will probably change somewhat now when I will have my studio at home. I will need to take care of the young lady then hand her off to an au pair or something in the afternoon and make dinner for my wife in the evening. We will get some sort of childcare so that I can get an eight-hour workday in. My wife is jealous, but she needs to keep her job. If you are an artist, you can’t get a loan unless you have a husband or a wife who has a “real” job.
Any advice for young artists?
It is a really good idea to work for an artist because you will learn how to be an artist. The most important part of my education was working as an assistant for those various artists, because I saw what they did apart from making work. I saw what it meant on a day-to-day basis to be an artist.
And, you have to move to New York, or LA, or Berlin, or London. If you want to work for Goldman Sachs, you can’t live in Idaho, if you know what I mean. You have to go where the jobs are. That’s one thing. Then, there is no objective quality in art. Since everything is subject, your relationships are the most important thing. So, if you don’t know the people you need to know, you will slave in obscurity. You have to engage with the art world, if you want to be an artist and not a hobbyist. Of course there are different things you can do, you can be a regional artists and sell paintings for small amounts of money anywhere. But if you are looking to get into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, then you have to be in the conversation, you have to come to the places where these things are happening. It’s more decentralized than it was, say, twenty years ago, there are probably ten cities in the world that it is possible to be an artist in, but you have to go there.
What about the argument that New York is too expensive for struggling artists?
Yes, it is expensive to live in New York and that makes it difficult, but there is a support network here and opportunities for artists— like working with art handling or assisting other artists— that don’t exist in other communities. It is more expensive, yes, but you can potentially sell some art. And you don’t do this for the comfortable lifestyle. If you need to have a lifestyle that necessitates a 40-hour a week “real” job, then you’re not interested in becoming an artist.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Images courtesy of the artist: Jam Master Jay Icon (2002) oil/acrylic with fake gold and silver leaf on wood. 50″ x 40″, Times Square Pieta (2004) Oil & Acrylic on wood) 42″x52″, Wall Street (2008) oil on paper 72″ x 48″, TomPAC (2003), Client 9 (2009) oil and fake silver leaf on paper, 70″ x 48″, Michael Jackson (2010) oil/fake gold on wood 48″ x 40″