Artist Tom Sanford’s artistic mantra, he tells me, “is to do the most obvious fucking thing ever.” We’re sitting on the floor in the Gitler &___ art gallery in Harlem, New York with a six-pack of Flagship IPA, staring at his latest exhibit: 99 one-foot-tall paintings of beer on the wall. The inspiration song — a simple, folksy, and annoyingly catchy countdown of 99 bottles of beer — is the most obvious idea for a summer art exhibit. But even things that are obvious can have a heartwarming message. In this case, that message is that few things can bond a community together like art and beer.
“I’d post the paintings on Instagram while I did them, and naturally I’d write something beneath it as I posted,” Sanford tells me, a faint scent of paint circulating around us. People would come to Sanford’s studio after seeing the project, bring him a beer, he’d paint it, and post a little background story on Instagram. In Sanford’s words, “It became less about a depraved alcoholic in his art studio and more about the social interaction surrounding beer.”
The exhibit is the culmination of Sanford’s posts. And while the feat had a following on Instagram, seeing all of the paintings lined up on the wall takes the message another step further. A plated portrait of a humble Budweiser bottle hangs feet away from a painstakingly accurate rendition of a Flying Dog Snake Dog. There’s even a bottle of O’Douls. No two paintings are the same, and each has a touching story of its own.
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"22 bottles of beer on the wall, 22 bottles of beer, take one down and pass it around, 21 bottles of beer on the wall." This #odouls goes out to all the ex beer drinkers, especially my good friend Jon Heller who holds down @gitlerand and has been the backbone of #99bottlesofbeer – Heller is a guy I've had a few real beers with in the past, but it's been 15 months since he stopped drinking and I admire his strength. So I stopped by #pushcartbooks at the gallery and we toasted with a @anheuserbusch O'Doul's #cheers #12steps #cheers #tomsanford #nearbeer #nabeer
Sanford rattles off each story just from glancing at the painting. Somehow he’s not sweating in his oversized brewery shirt and shorts, despite the humid and hot New York summer air. He may have drunk a lot of beers since he started the series in May, but he hasn’t drunk his memories of the social interactions away.
“I used to make paintings about celebrity culture, and it was somewhat cynical work,” Sanford says. “I love those paintings, but at some point I wanted to make work about things that I really love and my everyday life, because life’s too short to make art about things you don’t really enjoy.”
He took the last sip of his Flagship IPA, spun the bottle around on the ground and laughed a little.
“It was also a way that I could get other people to buy me beer.”
"2 bottles of beer on the wall, 2 bottles of beer, take one down and pass it around, ONLY 1 Bottle of beer on the wall!" Oh boy, do I have a long history with @budweiser . Growing up I actually had #budwieser sheets, a much coveted hand me down from my cool, rock'n'roll guitar player, rock radio DJing uncle @chuckdaviscreative (Q105.5 was the jam summers in #rhodeisland @iandavis23 @james_made ) – summer of 1996, between sophomore and junior year my roomie Ted and I worked on the @anheuserbusch delivery trucks form the #LIC #queens distributor , I did the upper manhattan route, little did I know I would never leave the neighborhood. Over the years I have drank more #bud than any other single beer and I love it. So refreshing and crisp. I remember in college my pal the excellent photographer and artist @stephenhilger use to recite on command: "This is the famous Budweiser beer. We know of no brand produced by any other brewer which costs so much to brew and age. Our exclusive Beechwood Aging produces a taste, a smoothness and a drinkability you will find in no other beer at any price." – so although one can only find the #budweiseramerica bottles these days I painted the real thing from memory, I could paint this one in my sleep. It goes out to all my hundreds of friends over the years who I have had a bud with #thisbudsforyou #beer #macrobrew #americanbeer #cheers @gitlerand #99bottlesofbeer @rogerclark41 @yufej @tedrebholz ONLY ONE MORE – Any guesses what it will be?? 🍺
There’s the Budweiser, which holds a special place in his heart from when he drove a Budweiser delivery truck on the Washington Heights route while attending Columbia University.
"38 bottles of beer on the wall, 38 bottles of beer, take one down and pass it around, 37 bottles of beer on the wall." This morning I attended an old friend's father's funeral. The sort of occasion that leads one to take stock and appreciate friends and family. After the mass I had a short chat with one of my other old friends who also attended over a @magnersusa that we shared and even poured out a little for our friend's father who had passed in the rainy parking lot of the church. RIP LM. Note: my buddy @mckinnis2 , who provided the @magnersusa #cider, no longer drinks #beer , but as he is one of my oldest and dearest friends I made a little rule exception for this #bottle , besides magners is so good, it's pretty damn close to beer. #cider #ciderbeer #tomsanford #99bottlesofbeer @gitlerand @mmendez611 #rip #bronxville
Then there’s the Magners, one of two ciders in the series. He shared the cider at a close friend’s father’s funeral in the parking lot and poured one out for the friend’s dad.
"1 bottle of beer on the wall, one bottle of beer, take one down and pass it around, NO MORE BOTTLES OF BEER ON THE WALL!" And the final beer is @ballantineale . It's my father's beer and there is always a #sixpack of these soapy suds on hand when ever I go home. It is the beer that reminds me how lucky I am to have the love and support of my family and friends, people whom I can always rely on. My father is the person I most admire and want to emulate and there is no one I prefer to share a #ballantineale with. But I want to dedicate these 2 ballantines (#jasperjohns ) to the many many people who have helped me with this project, so many people in fact that it required an extra beer (so in there are 100 bottles of beer not #99bottlesofbeer , a surprise plot twist ending) thank you to my wife @alexsandrasanford for putting up with this nonsense for the past couple of months (I love you ❤️). Thank you to Avi and Jon at @gitlerand who did so many little things to make this happen. A very special thank you to @puuunk nk who I met through this project and is the person who is responsible for getting so much #freebeer for tonight's opening, as well as lots and lots of other help with the PR side of this endeavor (and thanks to @markandrewpowell as well, looking forward to 🍻tonight) thanks to @zenithrichards for not only bring beers but also his camera 📷and thanks to the many many people who were so kind as to bring me a beer (or several) and make this all so much fun for me. I hope y'all can come tonight as now we have beer for you! I am sure I'll miss some of you but @ericdoeringer @karynlyons @peterdaverington @teammacho @lauchie @christopherjamesbuchan @sambuffum17 @laurenbrielynch1 @markjannot @jason.yarn @jbgluck @mahon_e @beckermania1 @michael.pajtas @lloydsays @fletch788 @justinrwolf @krischatterson @nandofreiblatt @ledwards1701 @taradelagarza @cold.beets @alfiesteiner @uptownbourbon @dainaslp @chefjamesd @mckinnis2 @lifedeathdinner @aaronjohnsonart @dkaufthal @jakedobkin @chamblissgiobbi @chamuconegro @amolsarva @jems_beer_factory @eastsidebond @thenewurbanite #cheers #beer #craftbeer #craftbrew #imported beer #domesticbeer #art
The double Ballentine had perhaps the most meaning. Ballentine is his dad’s favorite beer, and it’s always been a part of his life. There’s two in tribute to pop artist Jasper Johns’s Painted Bronze — but it also means that, technically, there are 100 bottles of beer on the wall.
It’s almost enough to make you forget about all of the independent-brewery-versus- macro-brewery fights. When I asked if the project threw Sanford into beer politics and feuds, he said he didn’t even know that was a thing. The section of the internet carved out for praising the rise of craft beer and for arguing about what is true craft and what is crap somehow didn’t touch Sanford.
“While it’s about beer, it’s not that nerdy,” Sanford says. “I’m not reviewing beers, and for practical reasons I’m very positive about all of them. I wouldn’t put the beer up if I didn’t have an affection for it.”
Harpoon Brewing Co. is sponsoring the gallery, and gave cases of beer to Sanford to give out for free during the opening and closing. There are enough beers for anyone who comes in during the August showing to grab a Harpoon IPA or a Harpoon Wannamango from the fridge in the back while they check out the art. In a sense, the community aspect of the series continued on long past when Sanford drank his final beer.
Tom Sanford’s 99 bottles of beer started with a single Heineken and turned into an art story about the power of sharing a beer with someone. Now that it’s over, Sanford’s wife told him he can cut the beer drinking down.
“I need to go on a diet,” Sanford says, laughing. Then he stands up, pulls his keys and bottle opener out of his pocket, and lets me know that, for now, his intention to bond over beers is still going strong. “I’m going to grab another beer, you want one?”