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An Artist Who’s Been Making Work About Life and Death Since Childhood

An Artist Who’s Been Making Work About Life and Death Since Childhood

Sarah Sze’s studio is an encyclopedic celebration of the human experience. Nineteenth century chronophotography of galloping horses, pre-Columbian cave paintings, and a reproduction of Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” (1656) line the white walls of her split-level New York studio, a former carriage house used by the city’s Gilded Age barons. For Sze, whose cerebral environmental works have pushed sculpture and painting into new formal and psychological realms, these pictures are part of a continuum: artifacts whose psychic power erases the years separating us from our past selves. “Art is really about having a conversation over time,” she told me during a recent visit. “You stand in front of a great artwork, and you’re speaking across generations.”

Time — how it’s recorded and remembered and ultimately how it fades — is intrinsic to Sze’s work, perhaps never more so than in “Timelapse,” her exhibition staged last year at New York’s Guggenheim Museum. For Sze, the museum became “a site to explore the idea of a public clock.” She transformed the Guggenheim’s white bays into sculptural magpie nests with pieces like “Timekeeper” (2016), a desk heaped with a cornucopia of objects: a metronome; digital clocks telling time in different parts of the world; torn archival pigment prints of postcard-perfect skies; Newton’s cradle. Stacked and mounted video projectors hurled moving images around the room — a bird in flight, rippling water, TV static. In another work, “A Certain Slant” (2023), a pendulum dangled from a ladder atop a dolly (balanced on builder’s levels) and toggled across a floor covered with white sand that had seemingly spilled from a broken hourglass.

Sze, 55 — a professor of visual art at Columbia University whose work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney — showed a preternatural sensitivity for sculpture’s relationship to its environment from an early age, perhaps because she grew up with an architect father. (Her mother was a schoolteacher.) At Yale, she majored in painting but also studied architecture. Her work has often been commissioned and shown in spaces like Renzo Piano’s Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas and Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s High Line in Manhattan. “I try and come to every architecture [project] like it’s a conversation with that building and there’s a kind of marriage,” she said.

In April, Sze debuted a show at Victoria Miro gallery in Venice. It’s a kind of homecoming — she lived in the Italian city for six months with her two children and husband, the oncologist and “Emperor of All Maladies” (2010) author Siddhartha Mukherjee, when she represented the United States at the 2013 Venice Biennale. The show was split into two parts, with one half hanging in the main gallery and the other shown in a nearby space that Victoria Miro typically uses as an apartment. In preparation, Sze transformed large sections of her roughly 7,000-square-foot studio in New York into a life-size facsimile of the exhibition, replete with a replica view of a neighboring canal.

Sze walked me through that model exhibition, starting with the apartment entranceway. Splatters of butter yellow, blue-gray, and fluorescent orange paint adorned the walls, except for several conspicuous virgin-white rectangles — the places where paintings, it seemed, once hung. Sze made a trompe l’oeil wallpaper of these surfaces, which she then grafted onto the salon walls of the exhibit. “You see the remnants of something that happened, but is gone, and you jump into the imagination,” she said. “To breathe life into the experience of seeing a work of art is what I was interested in.” Further back, she showed me a handful of acid-hued, near abstract paintings that she called “portals,” each layered with a digital collage evoking dystopian sci-fi landscapes in the Anthropocene. In Paris, Sze currently has an exhibition on view at Gagosian that includes an immersive video installation and a series of new paintings.

“The paintings I basically make only alone and, like, lock myself up,” she told me. We sat together on the second floor of her studio, the smell of turpentine hanging in the air, as Sze answered T’s Artist’s Questionnaire.

What’s your day like?

I get up at 6 a.m. and then take my daughter to school. I’m in the studio by 8:30 a.m. What I do first, I end up doing the longest — I try to be very disciplined about immediately starting to only do creative work. Like 9 a.m., no emails, nothing that’s a distraction. I immediately start making artwork. Then when I’m the most nonfunctional and tired in my day, like by 4 p.m., I’ll do other stuff. But I try and keep that space open. That doesn’t mean I’m doing great artwork for that entire time. Sometimes it’s just one hour of work that actually comes together, but I try and not let the distractions come in.

How much do you sleep?

I go to bed probably between 12 a.m. and 1 a.m. I’ve never needed a lot of sleep.

What’s the first piece of art you ever made?

My father had dug up a foundation for a building. My brother and I would play in the mound because the mound never left. (When you build a house there’s a mound of dirt, and then they remove the dirt, but this dirt just became this everlasting pile.) We dug a hole through the middle of it and we would play in it, in a tunnel. Then I remember seeing on television a report that there were these five kids who’d done this — and four of them had died. One lived because they’d created a shell of air. They made their body into a kind of cave so that they curved over themselves and huddled. It collapsed on their back and they were living in this interior shell, this hole. So I would go into this hole, and I would do that. I feel like that was the first work of art because we were building something. It was sculpture, it was collaborative. I was thinking about life, death and sculptural form.

You heard the story and then made the work?

No, we were making the tunnel and then I heard it. It was a weird thing about that time — being that age is so interesting. At this age, I’d be like, “All right, not going in that tunnel!” But at that age, I was curious.

What’s the worst studio you ever had?

There were so many that weren’t great. The worst studio I ever had, I mean, it wasn’t great oil-painting in your own bedroom.

Because of the smell?

Yeah, because it was completely toxic.

What’s the first work you ever sold and for how much?

I remember I got second prize for a painting when I was really young. I think someone bought it for, like, $10. I remember it wasn’t first prize, it was “second prize, painting show.”

You entered at how old?

I think I was in fourth grade. I still have it in my parents’ house, the second prize, which is really funny.

When you start a new piece, where do you begin?

Each work generates the next. And I very much think — I say this to my students — it’s an interesting way to work, and to keep the work flowing: When you’re making one piece, you’re thinking about the next already.

How do you know when you’re done?

For me a piece is done when it’s at this stage of teetering, where it’s not too much one thing or too much the other — so if a painting has too much oil and not enough acrylic. I want, for example, the paintings to sit between a photograph — what a picture is — and what an oil painting can do, what acrylic can do, what a print can do. I want you to have this confusion between them. It’s always flickering. It’s fragile. What it’s made up [of] is always falling apart and coming together before your eyes. And so that’s a very specific note. Toward the end of making a work, it’s always making sure [what] that note is: Your foot is still in the air, it hasn’t landed. And that means sometimes you have to pull back and you have to make that mix perfect.

How many assistants do you have?


Have you assisted other artists before? If so, who?

I made a decision when I was just making art out of grad school not to. But I think everyone is different. I worked at the New Victory Theater [in New York] as the person who picked up the phones and then told people where to go with the walkie-talkie. I didn’t want to have my work job in the art space.

Do you listen to music when you’re making art?

I play music when I want to dance in the studio. I think the way we listen to music has changed over my life. I used to play CDs, mixtapes. I actually really like to dance, so I dance, but as a break. But I’m usually, weirdly, listening to nothing, or I listen to narrative, which is strange, I think.

So, podcasts?

Podcasts, books. And I think why it works for me is it’s a way to distract me. It’s almost like the Freudian couch, where you’re not looking [at your therapist]. It actually puts you in a place where it allows you not to focus as much on the thing itself.

When did you first feel comfortable saying you’re a professional artist?

I’ve thought of myself as an artist from a very young age. I was always cast as the artist. I was cast as an artist in school; I was cast as an artist in my family. I was making art all the time. It wasn’t like friends who were [like], “What should I do with my life?” I didn’t have a lot of choices. I think that was pretty much my identity from the start.

What do you do when you’re procrastinating?

I’ve been procrastinating looking at animal shelters because I’m going to adopt a dog. I go online and look at all the dogs. But I can’t do it until after the [Venice] show.

What’s the last thing that made you cry?

Actually, the two are connected. I had to put my dog to sleep. I mean, there are so many things to cry about in the world right now — I feel like this is also a little bit self-indulgent. I don’t know if you’re an animal person?


So you know when you lose an animal, it’s just a kind of pure sadness. It’s different than anything else because animals are, and pets are, self-sacrifice, love, devotion. There’s no ambiguity there.

What do you usually wear when you work?

I wear whatever I’m wearing, which means that I kind of have paint on everything I wear.

What do you bulk buy with most frequency?

My guilty pleasure that I bulk buy with most frequency is Vasari Payne’s Gray.

What’s that?

Vasari is this incredible maker of oil paint, and I love their Payne’s Gray.

What’s your worst habit?

I don’t know what the worst is but I have no sense of time, which can make dealing with me difficult. I made a body of work around time, but I’m not a great timekeeper.

What’s your favorite artwork by someone else?

There’s so many, but I’m going to say “Las Meninas” by Velázquez.

Which work of your own do you regret or would do differently now?

I guess I would say that I don’t think of work that way. Work doesn’t always get better — we know that. When you make something that you feel is very strong, there’s a sense of dread because it’s like, What can you make next?

And sometimes the thing that’s next is struggle. Creative resilience is really important; you have to work through bad work to get to good work. The work that doesn’t work makes the next work that does.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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