The artist on his multidisciplinary practice.
Robert Sandler is a jack of all trades. Whether photographing one of his surreal images or conducting a chorus, the artist circumvents expectations. From his prop-filled Brooklyn studio, Sandler spoke with Platform about how clowns became integral to his work, why he needs to get lost in New York, and what makes the Gossip Girl reboot so meta.
You're really multidisciplinary in your practice. I’m curious, is there anything that makes you work in certain mediums as opposed to others?
I usually just try to use whatever I think is most appropriate for the ideas I have or the questions I'm trying to ask. Because I often work from thoughts or feelings first, mediums or materials naturally present themselves.
Are you more comfortable working in some mediums versus others, or are they all familiar to you at this point?
I really like to learn new things, so sometimes projects are opportunities for me to try out a different discipline. Though my background is as a painter and I studied painting. I love to think about painting and talk about painting. It forms the background for a lot of the ways that I work.
A lot of your photography and video work uses clown motifs. Why is that and how did that come about?
I started dressing up as a clown because I had basically stopped painting. I was trying to find a way to get back into painting and I was asking myself, “What's the dumbest way to paint again?” It became literally painting my face as a clown. I was making prints with my face where I would paint a happy face on, frown, and then push fabric against it. I was curious about how the paint would react and the resulting image of something internal pushing against or defying something external.
From there, I made a video piece, Fatal Loins, where I reenacted the balcony scene from the 1961 film version of West Side Story. I played both Tony and Maria as clowns, and it became a way for me to deal with certain questions around expression – particularly in musicals, which are so over the top and expressive – reenactment and play, and these ideas around the surface of the face or the surface of an object and then what's behind it or beneath it, the push and pull between those two places.
What made you step away from painting?
Basically, I found it too paralyzing. I thought that I couldn't do it responsibly or ethically. This idea that I made a mark and this mark was somehow supposed to represent some kind of internal desire or wish or emotion – that almost became too overwhelming. I like to do things in a very roundabout way, so I think my work is always sneaking its way around or circling painting. I don't know if I exactly stopped painting, but I think I've taken a view of painting where it has to be approached like I’m a detective or a scavenger.
How does working in other mediums feel different from that? How are they less paralyzing?
With other media, I can hide my hand a lot easier, or the gesture will become more mediated, whereas with painting, at least the way that I would paint, my hand was always very present. I prefer the tension that comes from hiding the hand a bit more because it will always show up again, it always comes to the surface, but in a distorted way or a way that’s unfamiliar to me.
Did it feel too personal or too revealing?
[Laughs] The works that I make instead are incredibly personal and revealing, so that's perhaps not the problem. It was more that I became frustrated with this idea that painting expresses something about me as an individual or about the artist as an individual. I wanted to take a step away from the hierarchy or the truth value that's attached to these kinds of ideas around the artist as an individual maker who expresses herself and is valued because of that. There’s almost something too heroic about painting, and I want to do something that's a little bit more pedestrian.
When you go about making a work, are you an outliner or do you improvise?
I don't plan so much. I suppose I'm not a very good artist in that I don't really keep a sketchbook or anything. The way that I work is that I'm walking or I'm having coffee or I'm lying in bed trying to fall asleep, and if an idea comes to me I let it stay there, and then if I still have it in a month, I figure, “OK, this is an image or an idea that I can roll with.” I try to let my body or my brain kind of weed things out for me.
Are there any hobbies or skills outside of art that you really enjoy or are looking to hone?
I’m learning a new language – Hebrew, because my husband's Israeli. It’s good to stretch my brain in that way, and I’m looking forward to being able to argue with him in his mother tongue. But I'm not really a hobbyist. My sink was leaking the other day, so I took some time to try to fix that. I know nothing about how to do that, but that childish urge to take something apart, put it back together and see if you can put it back together the right way, took over.
Did that end up being successful?
I think so! But now I wonder if I'm going to get my security deposit back.
Everything you've described seems pretty autodidactic. Would you say that word describes you more or less?
Definitely. I don’t like to feel limited by what I think I can or can’t do. You have an idea and you try to figure out what would be best for it. It's not like, “OK, it has to be this one thing because this is what I know how to do.” If I think this would be best as stained glass or a photo-realistic painting, then I'll teach myself how to do that.
Have you always been like that, in your practice and outside of it, in general?
I guess so. It's not something I really thought about. I watch a lot of videos on how to do things or how to make things, and then even if you never end up doing them, you're like, “OK, in theory, I understand how this should be done. I guess I could do it if I needed to.” I think, for me, understanding how things are constructed physically is a way of understanding how the world works, literally how it functions, and how ideas are made.
Autodidacticism feels very natural to me, but I understand that it's not something that everyone relates to, though I think they could. You just have to adopt a funny mixture of bullheaded confidence and being 100 percent OK with messing up a lot. Skills and tools are just techniques. Sometimes artists use technique to drive a wedge between themselves and a viewer. I don’t want there to be any mystery around the things I do.
What's the last YouTube spiral you went down?
The Victoria and Albert Museum has an amazing series called How Was It Made? They'll talk about how a Korean red lacquer vessel or an agate teapot or even just plywood is made. It's very comforting to see people doing things with their hands in a very precise and technical manner.
You mentioned stuff on YouTube, but have you gone down any other internet rabbit holes lately?
I'm a real lurker on TikTok. I'm not around many teenagers in my life. There's something kind of wild about them that I like, whether it's when I see them on the internet or in the subway. I think TikTok is a good way to see what they think is funny or what they're concerned with or what their anxieties are. I was just watching the new Gossip Girl reboot on HBO. My jaw was open the whole time! It was such a whirlwind. This is being catered to Gen Z, so it's like, “Is this accurate? Do they care? Is this really the life they want to live or is this just some idea about what Gen Z is or is going to be?” It's just a lot to process. Were there as many references in the original Gossip Girl?
I did watch that show when it first came out. Admittingly, I haven't really seen it since it was on air originally, so I'm not sure. What kinds of references do you mean?
I guess, because it’s the pilot, they have to use all these cultural shorthands. It went from Billie Eilish to Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai to Berghain to turmeric lattes to Edith Wharton to Adderall to Instagram. We understand that this girl is rich because she has poodles and this guy has a social conscience because he’s handing out donuts to workers on strike. There’s also something about all the references to New York. You understand from the opening shot that Tavi Gevinson is coming from Brooklyn, she's riding the J [train]. There’s a class judgment that we’re supposed to make here — though, it took me a while to understand Tavi was supposed to be a teacher. It’s all so extreme and self-aware, like this big wink. Before when I watched the show, it felt very foreign to me — I’m from Baltimore — but now I see these references to the city and it’s amazing how quickly they can all just feel so played out.
When you say certain things are played out, do you mean you think the show is trying to riff on people's ideas of New York, and now that you live here and are familiar with the city they seem old hat?
Yeah maybe, or they're not even ideas about New York anymore. They're just ideas about ideas about New York. The show is so meta, it's astounding.
What other TV shows or movies are you interested in?
Over quarantine, I watched basically all of Survivor, which was a trip because I didn't watch it growing up or anything. It's an amazing show. It’s essentially a game of social manipulation, and when people are extremely good at that, it’s horrifying but I also can’t look away. You have to be pretty charismatic to win because you need to get a group of people to like you, but at the same time, you can’t be too charismatic because then everyone knows you’ll win and they’ll vote you off. And if you’re self-aware, you’ll see when you’re being too charismatic, and you’ll tone it down a bit.
How many seasons of that show are there?
What do you do when you're feeling stuck?
I usually go to The Met or another museum, but The Met’s the best because it's big enough that you can get a bit lost in it. I walk until I feel turned around and then I try to see what I notice or where I found myself and if I can learn anything from that process. I try to let my unconscious guide me. Or just walking in general. I have to move.
Besides The Met, do you have any other favorite spots in the city to stroll through?
I live in Ridgewood [Queens], and in a way, Manhattan is nice to walk through, but because it's basically a grid, you can't really get lost. You always have a sense of where you are. I love the city for watching people, but not for getting lost. It's better if I can be in a place where if I make two rights, I might end up actually going left, whereas in the city if you make two rights, you almost always know you're doubling back.
What other odd jobs or day jobs did you have before pursuing your art full-time?
I still have my odd jobs – I don’t want there to be any mystery or fantasy about that. New York is expensive, and I’m still in a place where I need to work and balance that with time in the studio. I work as a copy editor for a magazine and as a part-time assistant for a publisher who specializes in artists’ books. Somehow, I ended up in this half-literary world. Around 2014, I moved to Berlin for a few years and needed a job. The only thing I really had going for me was that I spoke English, so I found work editing academic papers in English. When I moved to New York, it was relatively easy to translate that into working for a magazine.
Do you explore literary aspects in your work at all? Is there any interplay between those two things?
I'm always reading, or at least trying to read. I’ll have five books going at once that I'll sort of jump between. It's not unimportant, for sure, but what the connection exactly is, I don't know. It might be something about the form, about storytelling. Literature tells stories and artists tell stories. I think there's a lot to learn from books about how to tell a story. I'm often reading as a way of kind of understanding strategies or conventions or ideas about storytelling that I can then lift or steal to think about art.
Are there any particular books or stories that were a strong source of inspiration to parlay into your own work?
When I was developing the show, Ha! Ah! at Kai Matsumiya, I was also thinking a lot about Jane Austen and George Elliot. I love 19th-century British novels where no one can really say what they actually think or feel. I was reading stuff by Georges Simenon and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.” Also Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein, the Austrian philosopher. In general, I was asking myself what’s a clue and what’s a red herring, what’s both. I’m much more invested in the process of searching for something and in the potential elegance of that search than finding any answers.