Studio visit: Sarah Sze

As her triptych, Surprise Ending, is offered to benefit the charity Hopeland, the New York-based artist explains how her work engages with a high-speed, digitally overloaded world

The American artist Sarah Sze is best known for immersive, multimedia works that address notions of materiality, temporality and space. As she explains in her New York studio, she sees what she does as a means of interrogating ‘the value in an object and in a moment’. 

‘With any creative process,’ she says, ‘whether it’s making a film or writing a book, so much of a really great artwork is about responding to each moment in that process.’

Often comprising everyday objects and images gleaned from the digital and physical worlds, Sze’s work is in constant flux. ‘I’m really interested in the idea of the generative,’ she says. ‘Of how one image generates another. One bleeds into another.’

‘We are living between seeing and experiencing life through a screen and experiencing it in real time and space’ — Sarah Sze

By way of example, Sze turns to Surprise Ending (below), a large-scale triptych executed in lockdown. It recalls a colour wheel, and features two landscape images at its centre. 

‘I’m playing with perspective,’ she says of the three-panel composition. ‘It’s very Renaissance in that there’s one point where everything shoots back to, creating a kind of speed. I think we’re in an age where our sense of time is being accelerated at a mind-boggling rate.’

This sense of velocity is further highlighted by the blurring and overlapping of images. ‘I wanted it to have this kind of staccato — you know, a stop, start, stop, start,’ she says, ‘so that, in the painting, you’re oriented and you’re disoriented.’

Sarah Sze (b. 1969), Surprise Ending, 2020. Triptych – oil, acrylic, acrylic polymers, ink, archival paper, aluminium, Diabond and wood. 80 x 100 x 3 in (203.2 x 254 x 7.6 cm). Estimate $200,000-300,000. Offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Sale on 3 December 2020 at Christie’s in New York

Sarah Sze (b. 1969), Surprise Ending, 2020. Triptych – oil, acrylic, acrylic polymers, ink, archival paper, aluminium, Diabond and wood. 80 x 100 x 3 in (203.2 x 254 x 7.6 cm). Estimate: $200,000-300,000. Offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Sale on 3 December 2020 at Christie’s in New York

Sze has long explored the intersection between the physical and the digital worlds, charting the ways in which the accessibility of information and images have shifted our relationship with objects, time and memory. 

‘How we fall in love with each other, how we decide to spend our time, is deeply intertwined with this new language of images,’ she says. ‘We are living between seeing and experiencing life through a screen and experiencing it in real time and space.’

Born in Boston in 1969, Sze studied architecture before switching to fine art. Since the late 1990s she has challenged the boundaries of painting, sculpture, architecture, video and installation, explaining that she likes ‘to think what each medium does uniquely better than another medium’.

She’s been the subject of solo shows around the world, including Sarah Sze, Night into Day, currently at the Fondation Cartier in Paris (though temporarily closed due to the pandemic). She also has work in the Fondation Cartier’s permanent collection, as well as in the collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Tate Modern in London. In 2013 she represented the United States at the Venice Biennale.

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According to Sze, painting offers the opportunity not only to ‘represent the images in our heads’, but also to ‘create space’. 

‘I think that painting in the age of the image is like sculpture, because there’s no need for it. But when you see a painting, you don’t just see images, but physicality and materiality, empathy and creativity. When you see those things in a painting, you understand humanity in a way that can never be replaced.’

Surprise Ending, which comes to auction on 3 December at Christie’s in New York, has been donated by the artist to benefit Hopeland, a New York City-based non-profit organisation focused on finding innovative solutions and better ways to keep children in families