The Art Assassin 2

a nonfiction novel by Albert Wang, or a portrait of the artist as a young failure…

ASSASSINATION: Tom Sanford, Artist Represented by Leo Koenig, Inc.

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Photograph of Tom Sanford in front of his work. Courtesy of Facebook.
Tom Sanford: McNugget Orgy, 2004, oil, acrylic and fake gems on wood, 52 by 40 inches. Courtesy of Leo Koenig, Inc.

I have admired the work of Tom Sanford‘s colorful and provocative paintings based off the thumbnails featured at the website of Leo Koenig, Inc., one of the prominent Chelsea galleries I have enjoyed over the years. I identified with the artist’s focus on the postmodernity of the hip-hop culture (Sanford enjoys looking its iconography and I really dig the idea of sampling where cultural recycling and remixing occurs) and its particular lenses through that of a non-African American, which contrasts to the art historical borrowings of Kehinde Wiley who is an African-American artist that uses hip-hop as a theme in his work, focusing on its dress and personal attitude. So when Sanford appeared at my show at envoy enterprises last month, needless to say, I was more than surprised and very glad to chat with him at the bar downstairs.

I am happy to have had the chance to speak with this delightful and vibrant gentleman at the bar and later on within this interview portrait about his profoundly fascinating works that deconstruct our contradictory relationship with the idea of celebrity with our love of loathing for such personalities (who wouldn’t love to hate Paris Hilton for being more famous than us) while being totally obsessed with their existence all the same. The artist’s insights in the cult of personality by the corporate machine while not being entirely dismissive of this emotional connection help the viewer to probe our secular religion of our society where fame is the basis for the new gods and goddesses. The aura of Britney Spears could be argued as a form of heroine-worship where society’s obsession with her pregnancies become a form of fertility rite. Sanford’s work becomes an amalgam of German expressionist neo-pop art with elements of lowbrow surrealism where personalities similar to that of Grosz or Dix interact with their own simulacrum within the context of a rewritten iconography where the intellectual can examine popular culture without impunity. For example, I do admire his bravery in his artistic experiment TomPAC, which took performance art into the realm of understanding race in the context of character symbolism.

If you have any questions about Sanford’s artwork, feel free to contact his gallery Leo Koenig, Inc. at (212) 334-9255 or at Two other galleries that have his work include Galleri Faurschou in Copenhagen/Beijing at and Galerie Erna Hecey in Brussels at

So on to the show and here are THE ART ASSASSIN’s latest details of this “assassination”:

qi peng: To start off on a lighter note, what are some of your favorite artists, books, television shows, sports, art magazines, toys, movies, and other cultural artifacts (either from your childhood or adulthood) that you wish to share with your fans of your work here? How are these incorporated into the ideas for your work?

Tom Sanford: Fans? Well if you say so.

I guess I could list all the stuff that I think is cool or was really into when I was younger, but that would be about as interesting a high school kid’s Facebook page. Needless to say, I am a pretty engaged consumer of popular culture. I think that is pretty clear from my work. These days I tend to be attracted to things because they seem important culturally and so are useful to me as far as my art goes.

qi peng: Have you been recently during the past few months to any galleries or exhibitions that you have seen and would to recommend to us? What elements within those shows inspired your artistic eye and tastes?

Tom Sanford: Last week I visited the Basil Wolverton exhibition at Barbara Gladstone gallery. I didn’t know Wolverton’s work by name, but had been told initially by Tony Fitzpatrick, and subsequently by several others, that I would know some of the work and should get over to the gallery. I am very glad that I did, as it was a spectacular exhibition. It turns out that I am familiar with a good number of Wolverton’s drawings – primarily those that had appeared in Mad Magazine, for instance his classic “Beautiful Girl of the Month” cover (Mad, May 1954). As a child I was a regular reader of Mad, and while that particular cover was before my time, I had seen reproductions of it. My own drawings of monsters and other such nasties were heavily influenced by Basil Wolverton’s work in particular. And I am not the only one, by any means – many of my favorite contemporary artists such as Peter Saul, Robert Crumb, and Jim Shaw are clearly in debt to Wolverton. So I would highly recommend the show. It will excite and amaze anyone who was or is a comic book geek, or spent their time in school drawing all over their notebook when they might have been listening and taking notes. Wolverton is a real master of pen and ink drawing and particularly his portrait drawings are incredibly wild and weird.

qi peng: Are there any restaurants or hangouts such as bookstores around Tribeca, where you work at, or New York where Leo Koenig, Inc. is located of or anywhere else that you wish to recommend us? What are the qualities that you enjoy best about the places that you have chosen?

Tom Sanford: My favorite New York eatery is the Nancy Whiskey Pub on Lispenard and West Broadway. It is only a few blocks from my studio and they serve what i consider to be the finest burger that NYC has to offer. Not only is it the best, but is very inexpensive: it is served deluxe with fries and lettuce, tomato, pickles and cheese for six bucks! I have conducted an extensive survey of New York’s hamburgers over the past fifteen years or so – i have paid many times what the Nancy Burger costs, but rarely much less, and I am quite certain there is no better at any price.

Enough about the burgers – the Nancy is by no means one dimensional. The beer is cheap, it offers one of only three shuffleboard tables in Manhattan, the shanty town inspired “design” of the lofted seating area (with 5′ 5″ clearance) is charming, and one must check out the art cliches poster in the women’s room. On top of the ambiance, the clientele is far more interesting than the usual fashionable Tribeca crowd. At the Nancy you will see firemen from the local precinct mixing with down-on-their-luck traders, local deadbeats and winos, artists (the employees of Pearl Paint for instance), shuffleboard pros, and the most discerning gourmands of New York (such as myself)  who are there to enjoy that burger and wash it down with 3 or 4 pitchers of Budwieser.

qi peng: In your assessment, how do you feel that the current economic recession impacted the contemporary art market and way that it functions in the larger national economy? Do you feel that artists will be pursuing more personal and intimate projects than the overly commercial work that was typically geared for the art fairs during the upcoming years? How do you think that galleries and non-profits will be coping with the dramatic shifts within the political and corporate culture, particularly in America? If so, how does your artwork deal with poking fun yet also indulging in the idea of celebrity as mass production and potentially universal delusion? Do you enjoy baiting corporate logos such as in your work “McNugget Orgy?”

Tom Sanford: Clearly the recession has done a number on the contemporary art market, and judging by which of the New York galleries have closed down post-Lehman Brothers, emerging art has taken the hardest hit. People talk about how taking the money out of art is good for artists. I have also read how terribly hard the poor art market has been or art dealers. I don’t buy it. Artists need money to be able to focus on their art, and not where their next meal is coming from. While money does not necessarily translate into good art, one needs money to make art, and few ever made any good art while working at an odd job to make rent. Galleries, on the other hand are certainly hurting, but I think it is sort of ridiculous to posit that they are the victims of the downturn, while it will help artists to make better art. I think that everyone suffers in hard times like these, and from what I hear, at least the galleries seem to be able save some money by neglecting to pay their artists when things get tight.

qi peng: Also, do you have any favorite hobbies which you enjoy in your spare time? How do these activities inform the studio work that you pursue? Based your personal interests, are your mixed media paintings, works on paper, performance art as TomPac/photography, and installations reflective of those hobbies you pursue?

Tom Sanford: I guess art making is my hobby, and it is an extremely time-consuming one. The demands that my hobby puts on my schedule are such that I have had absolutely no time for any other profession or career, let alone other hobbies. I do take a half hour swim at 6:30am  weekday mornings, but one would not consider this a hobby as my physician has advised me that this exercise is essential if i hope to enjoy any sort of longevity. I do also try to fit in my broadcast industry recommended 4 to 6 hours of daily television. However, this again can hardly be considered a hobby as my accountant advises me that given the nature of my art practice, this and most other forms of cultural activity should be considered “research” and thus a necessary part of the “process” of art making. So In answer to your larger question, my art work in general reflects the culture and milieu that it is created in, not my particular hobbies or interests as i really have none outside of making art that accurately reflects its time.

qi peng: As a graduate of both Columbia University School of the Arts and student at Hunter College Department of Art, what was life in the studio like back then? How does your studio practice differ nowadays from studio time in those years? What were the ideas that you explored during your undergraduate and graduate years as a student? Also how has your themes and style evolved over the years?

Tom Sanford: Columbia was so long ago that my recollections are foggy at best. I do remember that my pals and fellow painters Jon Allen and Tom Meacham had studios down the hall from mine in Watson Hall and we used to paint all night and skip class to get more time in the studio. Back in the mid 1990s Columbia was a very exciting place to be in school. The graduate students were integrated with the undergrads and there was a really generous spirit of art making and a sincere interest in learning while fostering a dialogue that focused on art issues and not trends in local real estate. The faculty, especially Gregory Amenoff, Archie Rand and Allan Hacklin were extremely available and supportive of our developing art. The students, both graduate and undergrad, threw many art parties that focused as much on the art as the hallucinogens. By the time I got to Hunter, I was rather suspicious of art education and I wasn’t really interested in the academics. Rather, i focused on developing my art and ping pong skills. There was a serious ping pong league at Hunter. It was dominated by a few excellent players: David Malek, Christian Sampson, Don Porcella, Jules de Balincourt, Ben Dowell and Zach Harris to name a few. Looking back at Hunter, it occurs to me that ping pong proficiency is probably correlated with artistic achievement as all of those ping pong players are now making great art. These days, my studio is in a basement that I share with my old friend Alexis Rockman in Tribeca – unfortunately there is no ping pong table, but there is a dog. As far as ping pong goes, i imagine my style has suffered. With regards to my art, I hope that it has gotten better.

qi peng: Assume that you could create your own personal museum of artwork. Which artists or pieces would you include in the collection and why? What things do you like looking when you are at art museums or galleries anywhere? What types of artwork does your personal tastes gravitate towards?

Tom Sanford: If I was going to make a museum, I would probably do it for the same reason that most individuals do it –  to add prestige to their personal art collection and receive a tax benefit. Although I would like to buy more art, I normally don’t have the means to, but I have been lucky enough to trade my art for work by some of my peers whom I admire. I currently have over 30 excellent pieces by many of my favorite  contemporary artists including Aaron Johnson, Michael Anderson, Holly Coulis, Torben Geihler, Tony Matelli, Jacob Dyrenforth, William Powhida, Brent Birnbaum, Aidas Bareikis, Hunter Barnes, Ginna Triplett, Kevin Klein, Les Rogers, Daniel Heidkamp, Erik Lindman, Jeremy Kost, Emily Prince, and Barnaby Whitfield to name some off the top of my head. I also have a few small pieces by some famous older artists such as Alexis Rockman, Malick Sidibe and a very small Peter Saul drawing. The Saul drawing came from the sign-in book for my last exhibition in New York. It seems that Peter visited my show, wrote some nice stuff in the book and did a quick drawing. I ripped the page out as soon as I saw it and had it framed – so cool!

As far as what I look for in a museum, I like ones that are inexpensive and accessible. I tend to go to the Metropolitan Museum of art most frequently because you can pay what you wish.  I do go to the others as well, but normally when they have a special exhibition. Truth be told, the Frick Collection might be my favorite in New York – it has my favorite painting in New York: Bellini‘s “Saint Francis in the Wilderness” (c. 1480).

qi peng: On another light note, do you have any favorite cuisine or dishes or drinks that you enjoy? Considering that food and drink are essential for the artistic soul, what things do you enjoy about meals either prepared in a restaurant, a bar, or a home setting?

Tom Sanford: I believe that I answered this in question 3. I would not want to bore you or your readers with further praise of the Nancy Whiskey burger. In general, I do enjoy eating and drinking, and from time to time, in great quantities. That is why I make sure to take my morning constitutional swim per my doctor’s orders. While I do relish food and drink, I find the connoisseurship of these things, without an altogether hedonistic approach to the endeavor, rather tedious. I do enjoy a nice bottle of wine, but I am also very happy with a six pack of Bud.

qi peng: I really have enjoyed your artwork very much for its brilliant use of satirical caricature to poke fun and deconstruct the nature of celebrity. Works such as “Zidane” and “Britney & Sean Preston” parody the cult of the personality by emphasizing the trashy nature of the subjects while attempting to undermine their aura by quoting art historical conventions such as the Madonna and child, etc. How do you go about choosing the celebrities that you find worthy of your blessing? What is the underlying process from preliminary sketches to the final product that is convincing to the viewer?

Tom Sanford: Normally my goal with any particular painting is to make an image that will be out of date by the time I finish. So I am attracted to celebrity magazines and tabloid subject matter. I want the work to look dated immediately, at least in terms of the specific subject matter, because it is my belief that for Art to have any meaning in the future, it must exactly describe the time in which it is made. That is to say, one cannot hope to make a picture that has timeless importance unless firstly and foremost it describes its own time in a specific and meaningful way. You do not have to remember the event depicted in Géricault‘s “Raft of the Medusa” to appreciate that this is a truly great painting. In our culture, with a 24 hour news cycle and our collectively short attention span, very few events or ideas are important for more than a few days. With this in mind, I want the subject matter of my work to reflect the disposable nature of information, so I gravitate to what one might dismiss as trivial subject matter, but I am fascinated by the trashy stuff.

qi peng: Do you dislike Damien Hirst? With your hilarious drawing with a touch of diamonds similar to Warhol’s diamond dust paintings entitled “Dollar Bill Y’All,” what are you trying to say about Hirst’s marketing abilities? Do you think that someday he will fall off the map like a minor footnote in the artistic canon?

Tom Sanford: I really like Damien Hirst. I would not bother responding to his work if I didn’t think that it has currency, not only within the smaller arena of art, but in the culture at large. That goes for all of the artists that i address in my projects. “Dollar Bill Y’all” is my Canal-Streetbootleg-customized-t-shirt-style version of Hirst “For the Love of God”. I heard that the diamonds that cover the platinum skull cost 15 million pounds sterling and their purchase actually had a measurable effect on the international diamond market. While i am sure that the almost $1000 that I spent on fake gems did not exactly shake things up in the garment district, this seemed like a very large sum of money to spend on materials for a work on paper, and so I felt a small kinship with Hirst. The point of my piece was to deal with the amazing cultural equivalence that the art arena affords the artist. Although the resources that are available to elite artists such as a Hirst or Koons are not at my disposal, I can produce work that addresses their work in a real way, and on a somewhat level playing field. This is what is great about Art and It is why I want to be an artist. In few other endeavors, cultural or otherwise, is the individual of modest resources so empowered. As far as the canon goes, it is hard to say with certainty so soon, but I would be willing to wager that Damien Hirst will be among the two or three artists that matter historically from the 1990s.

qi peng: During our evening discussion at envoy enterprise’s bar Home Sweet Home, we had a very nice and provocative discussion about the nature of Mark Flood‘s debut show “Chelsea Whores” at Zach Feuer Gallery. What were some of the features of the show that attracted and/or repulsed you? With the politics of newspaper and art magazine reviews in full effect, what observations do you have about the way that some gallery owners are able to get reviews based on professional connections rather than mere reviews based on brute talent? Which places around New York City do you think have a particular cult of personality about its aura?

Tom Sanford: My recollection of that conversation is a little hazy. Regardless, I am a believer that things said amongst gentlemen at the bar should stay there. I was at the Mark Flood exhibition yesterday and it looked very good.

qi peng: What controversies would you enjoy stirring up? In your project TomPAC: Thug4Life, are you trying to critique or celebrate a white male’s fantasy of being powerful and wealthy through a life of hip-hop, grime, and crime? By adding tattoos, a bandana, and the proper bling such as dookie gold chains to yourself, who is TomPAC and what is he trying to achieve? What fascinates you about the underground culture of hip-hop, particularly the iconography of Jay-Z, Tupac Shakur, and The Notorious B.I.G.? Is TomPAC a work of performance art and if so, how? Also do you ever face criticism from the public, possibly from the African-American community, for your continual explorations into this realm? What was it like to be reviewed in XXL Magazine, a major hip-hop media outlet?

Tom Sanford: Yes, I certainly do hope to grow up “young black and famous / money hanging out the anus” (Sean Combs), but my TomPAC project, and for that matter, my series of paintings of gangsta rappers, were not primarily about Hip Hop. I have always been extremely interested not only in the music and aesthetics of Hip Hop culture, but also in Hip Hop as a truly postmodern form. As an art form, it has gone beyond outdated ideas of authorship and originality. This being said,  my art projects that you asked about (the paintings and TomPAC) are about the notion that it is a transgressive action for, in the case of the paintings, a white male artist to depict black men, and later in the case of the TomPAC project,  I upped the anti by claiming to be a black man. The idea was initially inspired by Jack Early & Rob Pruitt‘s controversial 1992 exhibition at Leo Castelli Gallery called “Red, Black, Green, Red, White and Blue,” which dealt with black male identity and stereo-types. The reaction to the show was so extremely negative that the two artists were essentially kicked out of the art world for about a decade. I started painting black rappers in 2000 in large part to test this taboo. I soon decided that mere paintings in this case represented too little risk on my part, so in 2003 I transformed myself into TomPAC, a white version of the dead rapper Tupac Shakur. This project attracted a lot of media attention from places like NPR, MTV and the LA Times. While people were interested in the tattooing, piercing, head shaving, pot smoking etc., I regarded these aspects of the project merely performative flourishes. The real issue was whether it was ok for a white man to pretend to be a dead black man, and what does it mean that he does this? The public reaction to this project was pretty overwhelming, and in large part negative, but that was precisely the point of the project. Interestingly enough, white liberals/intellectuals and neo-nazis seemed equally uncomfortable with my claim on Tupac. Certainly some people of color were uneasy with it, but not all were, and once i explained the agenda of the project for the most part people where interested and less offended by it. I really don’t have much desire to do another racially provocative project. I learned a lot from that work and it is among the art of which I am most proud; however I have said what I needed to say on the subject. As to the article in XXL, that was not a review, but it is probably the coolest piece of press i have ever received. Back in 2006 XXL did a special issue to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Tupac’s death, and they included my project on their timeline of important Tupac related events – I guess i am a footnote in the official history of Tupac Shakur and I’ll drink to that!

qi peng: What have been some of the joys and challenges of working in the context of the gallery system, particularly at Leo Koenig, Inc.? What are some of your future projects or exhibitions that you will be pursuing soon? Will these new artworks be an extension of the themes and ideas that you are examining now or a different direction instead?

Tom Sanford: It seems to me that the “gallery system” is very helpful to an artist if that artist desires to reach a specific art audience and critical community. A gallery, if it is doing its job, also helps to turn one’s art into money. While this may be dismissed as a petty concern by some, I have found this transaction just as important as an audience, as it allows one to produce further work as well as deal with the day to day expenses of life. With that in mind, Leo Koenig, as well as the other galleries I have worked with, have certainly held up their end of the bargain and more. You asked about Leo Koenig specifically – I like Leo very well personally and also respect him professionally. I very much like being associated with Leo’s gallery, as he has shown a lasting commitment to a group of artists that he believes, as do I, have had an important role in shaping the discourse among a generation of artists who have emerged over the last decade or so. Artists like Gelitin, Tony Matelli, Nicole Eisenman, Christian Schumann, as well as Erik Parker and Jonathan Meese (the last two are no longer with the gallery) were among the artists that I considered the most important of a young generation when I left undergraduate school. Other artists affiliated with the gallery have risen to prominence subsequently, and i hope i can be considered among them. My next exhibition is with Gallery Erna Hecey in Belgium, another excellent gallery.

qi peng: Considering that both of us are fans of hip-hop culture, how does fiction project into the non-fictional aspects of rappers’ lives? How is the power of seduction hard to resist within the vocabulary of the rap talking and music video imagery? How do you incorporate elements of visual lushness into your paintings based on these real-life characters fictionalized?

Tom Sanford: This question is pretty vague. I think the only way for me to answer this would be in essay form and I would have to define your terms – so I think it would be better to skip it.

qi peng: I heard that you were a fanatic of the “Bad at Sports” podcast. What do you like best about the particular media joint? What are some of your other favorite online resources, blog, and art magazines or journals for checking out the latest art news scoop and inside information? Do you have any favorite or humorous stories from any of your exhibitions that you wish to share with your fans and column readers here?

Tom Sanford: A couple years ago I met Amanda Browder at the opening of “The Incomplete”, a show of Hubert Neumann‘s collection at the Chelsea Museum that included some of my work. Amanda had just moved to NYC from Chi-town, but I felt like I already knew here because I was an avid listener of the Bad at Sports podcast, to which she was a frequent contributer. Amanda asked to Interview me for the podcast and of course I was thrilled. We did the interview and it was a lot fun, so we decided that I should be Amanda’s sidekick and help her with the interviews and editing for the New York bureau of BaS. Bad at Sports is an artist-run weekly podcast that was started by Duncan McKenzie and Richard Holland about four years ago in Chicago. Everyone contributes on a volunteer basis, which means we are free to cover anything that interests us without any editorial pressure. It is a really entertaining show and a great resource, as each week consists of in-depth interviews with some of the most interesting artists and art professionals working today. Of course there are a bunch of other great internet art resources out there. I enjoy Martin Bromarski‘s Anaba blog, as well as Paddy Johnson‘s Art Fag City and Edward Winkleman’s blog to name just a few.

qi peng: What would a Tom Sanford cassette mixtape contain? Concerning your studio, what types of materials and equipment do you use to create your final artwork? How do you determine which materials go into a particular artwork? Also what is an average day like within the Tom Sanford studio when you enter the zone?

Tom Sanford: Qi, It is 2009, i haven’t seen a mixtape in well over a decade, maybe fifteen years. When I am in the studio I work while streaming content from various sources – a lot of TV from Hulu, movies from Netflix. I don’t really watch them – I just like the chatter in the background because working in the studio in my case means long periods of time alone in a room, and having TV on is like company. I also like to listen to Yankees games, Pandora radio, lots of NPR and various podcasts.

As far as materials go. I mainly make paintings, so I use paint. Sometimes i draw, so pencils. A day in my studio would not be very interesting to watch and for that matter to recount. Most of my work takes a long time, so if you want to see what I do, I would recommend bringing something to read and a few packed lunches because it could take a while.

qi peng: How you place your artwork in the context of art history? Are you a successor to pop art with a huge twist, like some perverted Mel Ramos meshed with Jeff Koons? And what the hell with the fascination with all those aluminum cans ranging from Coors Light Can to Budweiser Can to Miller High Life to Heineken Can and so on? What do you dig about still life and would you worry if the beer companies started to slap your paintings on their billboards instead of the photographs? Also, which brews would you recommend drinking to the Tom Sanford fans out there?

Tom Sanford: I don’t think is my job, even if i would like it to be, to place my work within the context of art history. I do think it is my job to make art that, to my mind, accurately describes something significant about the moment that i am living in, when i make that work. Whether or not these works will transcend that moment is not for me to judge. I think both Jeff Koons and Mel Ramos are fantastic artists, and I am flattered that you would compare my work to theirs; however I don’t think that my work is merely a mix of the two. It is a mix of many hundreds of influences, and certainly those two are among them. On the beer can poster paintings, i made them in 2008 and they were the various brands of beer (i prefer cans) that were available at my local deli. I painted beer cans as a small nod to Warhol’s soup cans. While he had a can of Campbell’s soup for lunch, i have a beer or two after work.

qi peng: Do you have anything else which you would like to share with your readers and fans of your paintings, works on paper, sculptures, installation work, and upcoming exhibitions here?

Tom Sanford: Only that I am working on a body of work for my upcoming November exhibition at Gallerie Erna Hecey in Brussels. The work for this show is pretty topical, paintings of all sorts of recent events everything from the Somali Pirates, to the WalMart stampede on “Black Friday, to the mother of octuplets. I think it is going to be my best work so far.

For more gossip or dishing me the art scoop: E-mail me at

Written by qi peng

July 14, 2009 at 4:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Hello Qi, you are all over the place.

    Hoping you’ll contribute (along with Tom Sanford and your other associates, assassinated or not) in A BOOK ABOUT DEATH

    Thanks for looking at my piece on the



    July 14, 2009 at 11:09 am

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