Why ’80s East Village pioneer Oliver Sanchez is Miami’s best-kept art secret by Brett Sokol.
Oliver Sanchez with his Nunsmoke, 2009
If you’ve spent any time exploring Miami’s contemporary art scene over the past few years, then you’ve seen the handiwork of Oliver Sanchez. From exhibitions at the Miami Art Museum to the Rubell Family Collection, Sanchez’s craftsmanship has been on prominent display. Just don’t look for his name on any of the accompanying wall text.
One of the art world’s best-kept secrets, Sanchez has become South Florida’s go-to person for fabricating sculptures for Miami’s current crop of art stars—including Daniel Arsham, Bhakti Baxter and the team ofRoberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt—as well as for acclaimed artists well beyond the Magic City, such as New York’s Peter Coffin, Poland’s Piotr Uklanski and the Scandinavian duo of Michael Elmgreen andIngar Dragset. They envision it, Sanchez builds it—whether it’s Arsham’s partially melted, shudder-inducing furniture or Elmgreen and Dragset’s tarred-andfeathered Rolls-Royce convertible.
So how does Sanchez feel about putting in all that time molding, carving and hammering, only to have another artist reap all the glory? “I’m an artist’s artist,” he explains with a good-natured shrug. “I don’t have any reservations about it. I facilitate and help other artists realize their dreams.” Flashing a playful grin, he adds, “Especially when they come to me with tricky stuff, stuff nobody else wants to touch.”
That willingness to experiment, to tackle an artist’s offbeat design even if the blueprints seem to challenge the laws of basic physics, is writ large throughout Sanchez’s Design District studio. Walking inside it is like entering a fun house upended by a tornado: A top-hatted mannequin torso competes for attention with a ceiling-suspended hobbyhorse, alien-like assemblages lurk underneath worktables piled high with colorful thrift-store finds, and the walls are plastered with inventive collages. Punctuating the visual chaos, a rooster struts across the floor, breaking the din of sawing with earsplitting cock-a-doodle-dos.
“He’s practicing for tomorrow morning, just another emerging artist,” Sanchez laughs as the rooster lets loose with a fresh volley of crows—a siren call for the afternoon’s visitors. Some mosey over for a cigarette break from a neighboring warren of studios, others are en route to the nearby Spinello Gallery, Locust Projects, Dimensions Variable or Bas Fisher Invitational exhibition spaces. In fact, with the front entryway of Sanchez’s studio transformed into his own Swampspace Gallery, this corner of Miami is beginning to rival Wynwood as a nexus of art action.
This Design District setting is both intimately familiar—Sanchez grew up in a home just 10 blocks from his studio’s front door—and altogether foreign. Arriving in Miami in 1967 as a nine-year-old Cuban exile, “I didn’t have exposure to anything remotely similar to Art Basel or the ‘refinement industry,’” Sanchez recalls. “No one took me to museums because there were no museums in Miami.”
That’s not entirely an overstatement. The local cultural “refinement” offerings were indeed scarce on the ground in the early ’70s. Beyond the hermetic academic milieus of Miami Dade College and the University of Miami, there was little in the way of a homegrown art scene. “When I was a kid in 1977, I really had the sensation that I had to get out. There was something telling me, You gotta go, this is not the place to be an artist!”
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Sculpture fabrication work for Daniel Arsham in the studio and on stage (INSET); Sanchez’s studio with his Warbath, 2009, in the foreground; Block Island, 1983: (FROM LEFT) Bruno Schmidt, Kurt Thometz, Oliver Sanchez, Kenny Scharf, Min Thometz, Tereza Goncalves, Carmel Johnson and Adolfo Sanchez; The Sanchez-erected sculpture Kids during production (LEFT) and on display at Design Architecture Senior High; Kenny Scharf, Timothy Leary and Sanchez at Scharf’s New York studio in 1991; in-progress work for Daniel Arsham at Sanchez’s studio
In May of that year, Sanchez followed the lead of older brother Adolfo, decamping for Manhattan before the ink was barely dry on his Miami Dade College architecture diploma. Rent was cheap—$350 for a two-bedroom Upper West Side apartment with sweeping Broadway views— and commercial work on Madison Avenue was plentiful. By day you could find the Sanchez brothers putting their graphic design skills to use on a Condé Nast magazine ad layout, or on a quarterly report for a Wall Street firm. (“This was before desktop computers—all those bars and charts had to be done by hand,” Sanchez explains.) By night, the brothers threw themselves into what became the fabled ’80s East Village art explosion.
“I’ll never forget what Jean-Michel [Basquiat] said to me while we were walking on the street one night: ‘I’ll learn to draw later. First I want to get famous.’ Soon enough, there he was with a big show at [the gallery of] Annina Nosei,” Sanchez recalls of that famed painter’s breakout opening in 1981. “Everything was ripe, and everything was converging.” Musicians were making art, artists were staging plays, camera crews were flying in from Japan and newly wealthy collectors were driving in from New Jersey with outstretched checkbooks. Indeed, glancing at the exhibitions highlighted on Sanchez’s CV is like a documentary tour of that era’s hallmark shows: Sometimes solo, sometimes in collaboration, you could find the Sanchez brothers’ artwork at the Gracie Mansion Gallery’s “Famous Show” and the Downtowngoes- Uptown gala at the Holly Solomon Gallery’s “57th Street Between A and D,” as well as a string of events at the hallowed nightspots Club 57, Danceteria and The Mudd Club.
It’s a period that Sanchez looks back on with bittersweet feelings. Many of his closest friends were lost to AIDS, including his brother Adolfo. Others, such as Basquiat, died from drug overdoses. By decade’s end, the party was most certainly over: Working as a studio assistant for Day-Glo expressionist painter Kenny Scharf may have kept him at the heart of the East Village art scene, but Sanchez says walking around the neighborhood often felt like visiting a graveyard.
When Scharf decided to move to Miami Beach in 1992, it didn’t take much to convince Sanchez, his wife and their newborn daughter to follow. However, the city that greeted them was a far cry from the sleepy burg Sanchez left in 1977. And if the transformation of South Beach from a retiree haven into the American Riviera wasn’t jarring enough, Art Basel has helped make Miami into a bona fide art city. “Today, an artist doesn’t need to leave Miami to find a viable industry.”
Lately Sanchez has even found time to focus on his own artwork. Hanging in his studio is a series of figurative paintings based on iconic postwar photos, many recasting an uplifting moment—the inoculation of a small child, scientists gleefully perched over a primitive robot—in a more ominous light. “We’re in the age of recreation,” Sanchez says. “These are pictures that strike me, that I want to bring to the forefront.” A familiar mischievous smile returns to his face: “I’m not trying to outdo the original photo. A painting of a rose will never match the power of an actual rose. But something happens along the way. And that’s the beauty of making art—it’s not finite. It’s an ongoing conversation.”
Swampspace Gallery (3821 NE First Ct., Miami) features new work by David Rohn on Saturday, October 9, from 6 to 11 PM. For information, visit swampspace.blogspot.com.