David Salle Essay

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Installation view of “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (December 14, 2014-April 5, 2015).

JOHN WRONN/©2014 THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART

“The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” is MoMA’s first survey of recent painting in over 30 years. In the museum’s crowded sixth-floor galleries, curator Laura Hoptman has corralled 17 artists who have come to notice in the last decade or so, and collectively they give off a synaptic charge. There are a fair number of clunkers, but the majority of the painters here display an honestly arrived-at complexity, expressed through a rigorous series of choices made at what feels like a granularly visual level. Their work rewards hard looking.

The good artists in the show are very good indeed. Charline von Heyl, Josh Smith, Richard Aldrich, Amy Sillman, Mark Grotjahn, Nicole Eisenman, Rashid Johnson, Joe Bradley, and Mary Weatherford have all developed tenacious and highly individual styles. Each makes work that engages the viewer on the paintings’ own terms and that shakes free whatever journalistic shorthand might, in passing, get stuck on them. What drives these artists is resolved in works that are self-reliant and unassailable while remaining open and undogmatic—it’s the ebullience of secular art freed of any ideological task.

Two words one should probably avoid using in exhibition titles are “forever” and “now,” and Hoptman uses both. “Atemporal” comes from a William Gibson story, and Hoptman worked it into a youthful-sounding phrase, but it’s just distracting, like someone talking too loudly while you’re trying to think. She wants to make a point about painting in the Internet age, but the conceit is a red herring—the Web’s frenetic sprawl is opposite to the type of focus required to make a painting, or, for that matter, to look at one.

What does “atemporal” mean, in the context of painting? Judging from Hoptman’s catalogue essay, it’s the confidence, or panache, to take what one likes from the vast storehouse of style, without being overly concerned with the idea of progress or with what something means as a sign. Today, “all eras co-exist at once,” Hoptman writes. She goes on to say that this atemporality is a “wholly unique phenomenon in Western culture.” Big news. The free-agent status accorded the artists in her show is something I take as a good thing—maybe “minding one’s own business” would be a better way of putting it—but her claim for its uniqueness is harder to swallow; it’s more or less what I’ve been advocating for the last 35 years. Not that I take any credit for the idea; within a certain milieu it’s just common knowledge.

Josh Smith, Untitled, 2013.

JONATHAN MUZIKAR/©2013 JOSH SMITH/THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK/GIFT OF DONALD B. MARRON

In her desire to connect everything to a narrative of the digital future, Hoptman misses the salient difference between the best work here and its immediate antecedents: a sense of structure. By structure I don’t mean only relational composition—though that plays a part—but more generally the sense of a painting’s internal rationale, its “inside energy,” as Alex Katz would say, that alignment of intention, talent, and form. Hoptman wants to make a clean break for her crew from the mores of “appropriation,” but again, the emphasis seems misplaced. Appropriation—as a style—had a tendency to stop short, visually speaking. The primary concern was with “presentation” itself, and the work that resulted was often an analog for the screen, or field, something upon which images composed themselves into some public/private drama. Appropriation pointed to something—some psychological or cultural condition outside of the work itself—that was the basis of its claim to criticality and, at its best, excavated something deep in the psyche. But there are other things in life. At present, painting is focused on structure, discovering and molding pictorial form for its own sake.

Atemporality, then, is nothing new. Most if not all art reaches backward to earlier models in some way; every rupture is also a continuity. The “reaching back” might be to unexpected sources, but imprints of earlier achievements are what give art its gristle and grit. What’s different is the mode of seeing. As an example, Weatherford places tubes of colored neon in front of fields of paint-stained canvas. In the old, appropriationist mind-set, one might get hung up on a list of signifiers along the lines of, say, Mario Merz or Gilberto Zorio meets Helen Frankenthaler; this reductiveness was, from the beginning, an unsatisfying way to see. Pleasantly, reassuringly, more like an old friend showing up after a long absence, arte povera echoes through Weatherford’s work, but it doesn’t feel like a self-conscious reference. Her works clear a space where they can be taken on their own terms. They do, as Ben Jonson said in a somewhat different context, “win themselves a kind of grace-like newness.”

In a related, refreshing development, Warhol’s gloomy, vampiric fatalism is no longer dragging down the party. Duchamp, too, is absent. What a relief. Nothing against the two masters as far as their own work is concerned, but they have exerted such an outsize gravitational pull on generations of artists that finally being out from under them feels like waking from a lurid dream. There is camp in “The Forever Now,” to be sure, and imagery, and irony, and “presentation,” but they are not the main event.

Painting also seems to have shed its preoccupation with photography; here you will find only the faintest nod to “the age of mechanical reproduction.” Even for Laura Owens, who blithely tries on the visual conundrums of the digital world, photography isn’t really part of her DNA. It turns out that much of the art-historical hand-wringing of the last 40 years over Walter Benjamin’s famous prophecy was either misplaced or just plain wrong. Painting is not competing with the Internet, even when making use of its proliferative effects.

Charline von Heyl, Carlotta, 2013.

JASON MANDELLA/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND PETZEL, NEW YORK/OVITZ FAMILY COLLECTION, LOS ANGELES

Imagery is present to varying degrees in many of these artists’ works. It’s front and center in Eisenman’s paintings, exuberantly evident in Smith’s, lambent in Bradley’s. Drawn forms, some with a goofy, cartoony quality, are often the basis of Sillman’s muscular lyricism. Sillman is a great picture builder; her evocative and gemütlich paintings give the show some real gravitas. Representation even shows up in the trenchant cerebral complexities of von Heyl, but none of these artists is involved with the tradition of realism. They are not translating what can be seen into what can be painted. While everything, even abstraction, is an image in the ontological sense, and there are snatches of imagery in most of these paintings, these artists are simply not imagists; their images are more like the folk melodies in Bartók—present as understructure, there but not there.

The overall tone of “The Forever Now” has a West Coast casual feel about it. Five of the artists in the exhibition—Grotjahn, Weatherford, Owens, Dianna Molzan, and Matt Connors—are based in Southern California, and their work has some of Los Angeles’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward materiality. It’s a feeling I remember from living in L.A. in the ’70s: a slightly secondhand relationship to the New York School pieties. The alternative to sober, grown-up painting was an emphasis on materials, often industrial or non-art materials, and on the idea of process itself. The work embodies a youthful vigor without visible strain—in a word, cool. When combined with an internal structural core, the result has a kind of multiplier effect; it wins you over.

(The situation in literature today is not so different; while still avoiding straight realism, the parodists, inventors, miniaturists, and tinkerers are now coming into prominence, taking over from the arid metafictionists. Writers like George Saunders, Ben Marcus, Sam Lipsyte, Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, and Chris Kraus have clear parallels with painters von Heyl, Weatherford, Bradley, Aldrich, Chris Martin, et al. Painting and advanced writing are now closer in spirit than at any time in living memory.)

But I want to return to that quality that sets apart certain painters in this show—that sense of structure. Like diamonds, Grotjahn’s paintings are the result of great pressure brought to bear on a malleable material over a protracted period of time. His work is a good example of the way in which many artists today are using imagery and history—which is to say, the way that artists mainly always have. Grotjahn manages to simultaneously invoke Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism—everyone from Malevich to Victor Brauner—and translate those impulses into an intensely focused, schematic composition that leaves just enough room for his hand to do its stuff.

Much has been made of Grotjahn’s Picassoid heads, but the overall looping structure of his paintings produces an effect closer to Joseph Stella’s 1920s paintings of the Brooklyn Bridge. Grotjahn reimagines Stella’s swooping catenaries into arched ribbons of impasto paint. Because the chunks of color are small and contiguous, they tend to blend together in the viewer’s eye, giving the paintings an alternating current of macro and micro focus. His colors are dark red and burgundy, forest green, warm white, cobalt blue—the colors of silk neckties. They are preppy in a nice way, with a whiff of the 1940s. More importantly, Grotjahn’s color intervals are exacting. They put the painting in a major key. Their simple, clear visual forms—arcs, circles, lozenge and ovoid shapes, like segments of an orange—sometimes overlap and cut into one another, creating a space of increasing, sobering complexity. Grotjahn’s paintings do a funny thing: they achieve great scale through the linear arrangement of small areas of paint, and their structural and imagistic concatenations are in good alignment with the color and paint application. The what and the how are in productive sync. These paintings are tight, shipshape, and very satisfying to look at. At 46, Grotjahn is close on to a modernist master.

Aldrich has been making interesting and surprising paintings for a while, and one of his works here shows great panache. Two Dancers with Haze in Their Heart Waves Atop a Remake of “One Page, Two Pages, Two Paintings,” from 2010, is Aldrich at his least gimmicky and most in tune with the spirit of abstract painting as deconstruction. The painting’s success lies in its loose-limbed sense of structure: a grid- or ladder-like armature along which an array of painted shapes and brush-drawn lines alternate with the interstitial white spaces to form a syncopated rhythm. Its painterly touch calls to mind Joan Mitchell and Philip Guston, and also Robert Rauschenberg’s Winter Pool from 1959—two canvases joined in the middle by a ladder—as well as Rauschenberg’s later Combines. Aldrich’s palette here is sophisticated, just shy of decorator-ish; he takes eight or nine hues and nudges them into perfectly tuned intervals of cream, white, Pompeii red, burnt umber, and a grayed cobalt green—colors that feel at once Mediterranean and Nordic. This particular painting touches on a number of visual cues without leaning too heavily on any of them; the four irregular black rectangles framed by cream-colored bands suggest darkened windows in a cracked plaster wall.

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There are places in New York where the city’s anarchic, unaccommodating spirit, its fundamental, irrepressible aimlessness and heedlessness have found especially firm footholds. Certain transfers between subway lines, passageways of almost transcendent sordidness; certain sites of torn-down buildings where parking lots have silently sprung up like fungi; certain intersections created by illogical confluences of streets—these express with particular force the city’s penchant for the provisional and its resistance to permanence, order, closure. To get to the painter David Salle’s studio, walking west on White Street, you have to traverse one of these disquieting intersections—that of White and Church Streets and an interloping Sixth Avenue—which has created an unpleasantly wide expanse of street to cross, interrupted by a wedge-shaped island on which a commercial plant nursery has taken up forlorn and edgy residence, surrounding itself with a high wire fence and keeping truculently irregular hours. Other businesses that have arisen around the intersection—the seamy Baby Doll Lounge, with its sign offering “Go-Go Girls”; the elegant Ristorante Arquá; the nameless grocery and Lotto center; the dour Kinney parking lot—have a similar atmosphere of insularity and transience. Nothing connects with anything else, and everything looks as if it might disappear overnight. The corner feels like a no man’s land and—if one happens to be thinking about David Salle—looks like one of his paintings.

Salle’s studio, on the second floor of a five-story loft building, is a long room lit with bright, cold overhead light. It is not a beautiful studio. Like the streets outside, it gives no quarter to the visitor in search of the picturesque. It doesn’t even have a chair for the visitor to sit in, unless you count a backless, half-broken metal swivel chair Salle will offer with a murmur of inattentive apology. Upstairs, in his living quarters, it is another story. But down here everything has to do with work and with being alone.

A disorderly profusion of printed pictorial matter covers the surfaces of tables in the middle of the room: art books, art journals, catalogues, brochures mingle with loose illustrations, photographs, odd pictures ripped from magazines. Scanning these complicated surfaces, the visitor feels something of the sense of rebuff he feels when looking at Salle’s paintings, a sense that this is all somehow none of one’s business. Here lie the sources of Salle’s postmodern art of “borrowed” or “quoted” images—the reproductions of famous old and modern paintings, the advertisements, the comics, the photographs of nude or half-undressed women, the fabric and furniture designs that he copies and puts into his paintings—but one’s impulse, as when coming into a room of Salle’s paintings, is to politely look away. Salle’s hermeticism, the private, almost secretive nature of his interests and tastes and intentions, is a signature of his work. Glancing at the papers he has made no effort to conceal gives one the odd feeling of having broken into a locked desk drawer.

On the walls of the studio are five or six canvases, on which Salle works simultaneously. In the winter of 1992, when I began visiting him in his studio, he was completing a group of paintings for a show in Paris in April. The paintings had a dense, turgid character. Silk-screen excerpts from Indian architectural ornament, chair designs, and photographic images of a woman wrapped in cloth were overlaid with drawings of some of the forms in Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even,” rendered in slashing, ungainly brushstrokes, together with images of coils of rope, pieces of fruit, and eyes. Salle’s earlier work had been marked by a kind of spaciousness, sometimes an emptiness, such as Surrealist works are prone to. But here everything was condensed, impacted, mired. The paintings were like an ugly mood. Salle himself, a slight, handsome man with shoulder-length dark hair, which he wears severely tied back, like a matador, was feeling bloody-minded. He was going to be forty the following September. He had broken up with his girlfriend, the choreographer and dancer Karole Armitage. His moment was passing. Younger painters were receiving attention. He was being passed over. But he was also being attacked. He was not looking forward to the Paris show. He hated Paris, with its “heavily subsidized aestheticism.” He disliked his French dealer. . . .

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In a 1991 interview with the screenwriter Becky Johnston, during a discussion of what Johnston impatiently called “this whole Neo-Expressionist Zeitgeist Postmodernist Whatever-you-want-to-call-it Movement” and its habit of “constantly looking backward and reworking or recontextualizing art history,” the painter David Salle said, with disarming frankness, “You mustn’t underestimate the extent to which all this was a process of educating ourselves. Our generation was pathetically educated, just pathetic beyond imagination. I was better educated than many. Julian”—the painter Julian Schnabel—“was totally uneducated. But I wasn’t much better, frankly. We had to educate ourselves in a hundred different ways. Because if you had been hanging around the Conceptual artists all you learned about was the Frankfurt School. It was as if nothing existed before or after. So part of it was the pledge of self-education—you know, going to Venice, looking at great paintings, looking at great architecture, looking at great furniture—and having very early the opportunity to kind of buy stuff. That’s a form of self-education. It’s not just about acquisition. It was a tremendous explosion of information and knowledge.”

To kind of buy stuff. What is the difference between buying stuff and kind of buying it? Is “kind of buying” buying with a bad conscience, buying with the ghost of the Frankfurt School grimly looking over your shoulder and smiting its forehead as it sees the money actually leave your hand? This ghost, or some relative of it, has hung over all the artists who, like Salle, made an enormous amount of money in the eighties, when they were still in their twenties or barely into their thirties. In the common perception, there is something unseemly about young people getting rich. Getting rich is supposed to be the reward for hard work, preferably arriving when you are too old to enjoy it. And the spectacle of young millionaires who made their bundle not from business or crime but from avant-garde art is particularly offensive. The avant-garde is supposed to be the conscience of the culture, not its id.

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All during my encounter with the artist David Salle—he and I met for interviews in his studio, on White Street, over a period of two years—I was acutely conscious of his money. Even when I got to know him and like him, I couldn’t dispel the disapproving, lefty, puritanical feeling that would somehow be triggered each time we met, whether it was by the sight of the assistant sitting at a sort of hair-salon receptionist’s station outside the studio door; or by the expensive furniture of a fifties corporate style in the upstairs loft, where he lives; or by the mineral water he would bring out during our talks and pour into white paper cups, which promptly lost their takeout-counter humbleness and assumed the hauteur of the objects in the Design Collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

Salle was one of the fortunate art stars of the eighties—young men and women plucked from semi-poverty and transformed into millionaires by genies disguised as art dealers. The idea of a rich avant-garde has never sat well with members of my generation. Serious artists, as we know them or like to think of them, are people who get by but do not have a lot of money. They live with second or third wives or husbands and with children from the various marriages, and they go to Cape Cod in the summer. Their apartments are filled with faded Persian carpets and cat-clawed sofas and beautiful and odd objects bought before anyone else saw their beauty. Salle’s loft was designed by an architect. Everything in it is sleek, cold, expensive, unused. A slight sense of quotation mark hovers in the air, but it is very slight—it may not even be there—and it doesn’t dispel the atmosphere of dead-serious connoisseurship by which the room is dominated.

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During one of my visits to the studio of the artist David Salle, he told me that he never revises. Every brushstroke is irrevocable. He doesn’t correct or repaint, ever. He works under the dire conditions of performance. Everything counts, nothing may be taken back, everything must always go relentlessly forward, and a mistake may be fatal. One day, he showed me a sort of murdered painting. He had worked on it a little too long, taken a misstep, killed it.

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The artist David Salle and I are sitting at a round table in my apartment. He is a slight, handsome man of thirty-nine, with dark shoulder-length hair, worn tightly sleeked back and bound with a rubber band, accentuating his appearance of quickness and lightness, of being sort of streamlined. He wears elegant, beautifully polished shoes and speaks in a low, cultivated voice. His accent has no trace of the Midwest, where he grew up, the son of second-generation Russian Jewish parents. It has no affectation, either. He is agreeable, ironic, a little detached. “I can’t remember what we talked about last time,” he says. “I have no memory. I remember making the usual artist’s complaints about critics, and then saying, ‘Well, that’s terribly boring, we don’t want to be stuck talking about that’—and then talking about that. I had a kind of bad feeling about it afterward. I felt inadequate.”

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The artist David Salle and I met for the first time in the fall of 1991. A few months earlier, we had spoken on the telephone about a mystifying proposal of his: that I write the text for a book of reproductions of his paintings, to be published by Rizzoli. When I told him that there must be some mistake, that I was not an art historian or an art critic, and had but the smallest acquaintance with his work, he said no, there wasn’t a mistake. He was deliberately looking for someone outside the art world, for an “interesting writer,” who would write an unconventional text. As he talked, I found myself reluctant to say no to him then and there, even though I knew I would eventually have to refuse. Something about the man made me say I would think about it. He then said that to acquaint me with his work and with himself he would send some relevant writings. A few days later, a stylish package arrived, preceded by a telephone call from an assistant at Salle’s studio to arrange the details of delivery. It contained three or four exhibition catalogues, several critical articles, and various published interviews, together with a long interview that was still in typescript but was bound in a hard black cover. It was by the screenwriter Becky Johnston, who, I later learned, was an “interesting writer” Salle had previously approached to do the Rizzoli book. She had done the interview in preparation for the text but had never written it.

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David Salle’s art has an appearance of mysterious, almost preternatural originality, and yet nothing in it is new; everything has had a previous life elsewhere—in master paintings, advertising art, comics, photographs. Other artists have played the game of appropriation or quotation that Salle plays—Duchamp, Schwitters, Ernst, Picabia, Rauschenberg, Warhol, Johns—but none with such reckless inventiveness. Salle’s canvases are like bad parodies of the Freudian unconscious. They are full of images that don’t belong together: a woman taking off her clothes, the Spanish Armada, a kitschy fabric design, an eye.

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David Salle is recognized as the leading American postmodernist painter. He is the most authoritative exemplar of the movement, which has made a kind of mockery of art history, treating the canon of world art as if it were a gigantic, dog-eared catalogue crammed with tempting buys and equipped with a helpful twenty-four-hour-a-day 800 number. Salle’s selections from the catalogue have a brilliant perversity. Nothing has an obvious connection to anything else, and everything glints with irony and a sort of icy melancholy. His jarring juxtapositions of incongruous images and styles point up with special sharpness the paradox on which this art of appropriated matter is poised: its mysterious, almost preternatural appearance of originality. After one looks at a painting by Salle, works of normal signature-style art—paintings done in a single style with an intelligible thematic—begin to seem pale and meagre, kind of played out. Paintings like Salle’s—the unabashed products of, if not vandalism, a sort of cold-eyed consumerism—are entirely free of any “anxiety of influence.” For all their borrowings, they seem unprecedented, like a new drug or a new crime. They are rootless, fatherless and motherless.

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The artist David Salle has given so many interviews, has been the subject of so many articles, has become so widely inscribed as an emblematic figure of the eighties art world that it is no longer possible to do a portrait of him simply from life. The heavy shadow of prior encounters with journalists and critics falls over each fresh encounter. Every writer has come too late, no writer escapes the sense of Bloomian belatedness that the figure of Salle evokes. One cannot behave as if one had just met him, and Salle himself behaves like the curator of a sort of museum of himself, helpfully guiding visitors through the exhibition rooms and steering them toward the relevant literature. At the Gagosian Gallery, on Madison Avenue, where he exhibits, there is a two-and-a-half-foot-long file drawer devoted exclusively to published writings about Salle’s art and person.

My own encounter with Salle was most heavily shadowed by the interviews he had given two writers, Peter Schjeldahl and Becky Johnston. Reading their dialogues with him was like listening to conversations between brilliant characters in a hastily written but inspired play of advanced ideas and intense, slightly mysterious relationships.

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The spectre of wrongdoing hovers more luridly over visual art than over literature or music. The forger, the pornographer, and the fraud are stock figures in the allegory that constitutes the popular conception of the art world as a place of exciting evil and cunning. The artist David Salle has the distinction of being associated with all three crimes. His paintings are filled with “borrowed” images (twice he has settled out of court with irked owners); often contain drawings of naked or half-undressed women standing or lying in indecent, if not especially arousing, positions; and have an appearance of messy disjunction that could be dismissed (and has been dismissed by Hilton Kramer, Robert Hughes, and Arthur Danto) as ineptitude palming itself off as advanced art. Most critics, however, have without hesitation accepted Salle’s work as advanced art, and some of them—Peter Schjeldahl, Sanford Schwartz, Michael Brenson, Robert Rosenblum, and Lisa Liebmann, for example—have celebrated its transgressive quality and placed his paintings among the works that most authoritatively express our time and are apt to become its permanent monuments.

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Unlike David Salle’s enigmatic, difficult art, his life is the banal story of a boy who grew up in Wichita, Kansas, in a poorish Jewish family, took art lessons throughout his childhood, went to art school in California, came to New York, and became rich and famous overnight.

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During an interview with the artist David Salle, published in 1987, the critic and poet Peter Schjeldahl said to him:

I’ve noticed, looking at your work attentively for six years or so, a repeating phenomenon, that of going away from seeing your things extremely stimulated and with vivid memories, and thought processes that seem to continue on their own, but eventually they get attenuated and fall apart, leaving a rather sour residue. If I haven’t seen something by you for a while, I can start to think that I’m overliking it. . . . Then, when I see something new, something good by you, there is an immediate freshening, an immediate dropping away of that mood of depression.

I recognize in Schjeldahl’s feelings about Salle’s work an echo of my own feelings about Salle the man. When I haven’t seen him for several weeks or months, I begin to sour on him, to think I’m overliking him. Then I see him again, and I experience Schjeldahl’s “immediate freshening.” As I write about him now—I haven’t seen him for a month—I feel the return of the antagonism, the sense of sourness. Like the harsh marks Salle makes over the softer images he first applies to his canvas, they threaten to efface the benign, admiring feelings of the interviews.

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It is rare to read anything about the artist David Salle in which some allusion isn’t made to the question of whether his work is pornographic and whether his depictions of women are humiliating and degrading. Images of women with panties down around their ankles who are pulling blouses over their heads, or women standing bent over with outthrust naked buttocks, or women lying naked on tables with their legs spread recur in Salle’s paintings and have become a kind of signature of his work. The images are monochrome—they are copied from black-and-white photographs—and the pudenda are usually so heavily shaded as to foreclose prurience. To anyone who has seen any of the unambiguously dirty pictures of art history—Courbet’s “The Origin of the World,” say, or Balthus’s “The Guitar Lesson”—the idea of Salle as a pornographer is laughable. However, the poses of Salle’s women are unsettling. Someone has stage-directed them—someone with a very cold eye and with definite and perhaps rather unpleasant ideas, someone who could well be taking photographs for a girlie magazine, maybe a German girlie magazine. As it happens, some of Salle’s images of women are, in fact, derived from the files of an American girlie magazine called Stag, for which he briefly worked, in the art department (the magazine was on the verge of folding when he left, and he helped himself to cartons of photographs, mostly of women but also of car and airplane crashes); others are copied from photographs he took himself of hired models.

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In a review of a show of David Salle’s paintings, drawings, and watercolors at the Menil Collection, in Houston, in 1988, Elizabeth McBride wrote, “He indulges himself in degrading, depersonalizing, fetishistic images of women which constitute . . . a form of obscenity. . . . Paintings such as these are a way of giving permission for degrading actions. This work has all the cold beauty and the immorally functional power of a Nazi insignia.” Of the same show Susan Chadwick wrote, “Salle’s work . . . is even more mean-spirited, more contemptuous, and more profoundly misogynist than I had realized. . . . That brings us to the difficult question concerning art that is socially bad. Art that presents a message which is in some way wrong, bad, evil, corrupting, immoral, inhumane, destructive, or sick. What can be done about negative artists? I cringe when I see parents bringing their young children through this show at the Menil on weekends.”

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In the winter of 1992, I began a series of interviews with the artist David Salle. They were like sittings for a portrait with a very practiced sitter. Salle has given many—dozens of—interviews. He is a kind of interview addict. But he is remarkably free of the soul-sickness that afflicts so many celebrities, who grow overly interested in the persona bestowed on them by journalism. Salle cultivates the public persona, but with the detachment of someone working in someone else’s garden. He gives good value—journalists come away satisfied—but he does not give himself away. He never forgets, and never lets the interviewer forget, that his real self and his real life are simply not on offer. What is on offer is a construct, a character who has evolved and is still evolving from Salle’s ongoing encounters with writers. For Salle (who has experimented with sculpture, video, and film) the interview is another medium in which to (playfully) work. It has its careerist dimension, but he also does it for the sport. He once told me that he never makes any preparatory drawings for or revises anything in his paintings. Every stroke of the brush is irrevocable; nothing can be changed or retracted. A few false moves and the painting is ruined, unsalvageable. The same sense of tense improvisation pervades Salle’s answers to interviewers’ questions. He looks ahead to the way his words will read in print and chooses them with a kind of fearless carefulness. He also once told me of how he often gets lost as he paints: “I have to get lost so I can invent some way out.” In his interviews, similarly, moments of at-a-lossness become the fulcrum for flights of verbal invention. Sometimes it almost seems as if he were provoking the interviewer to put him on the spot, so that he can display his ingenuity in getting off it.

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During recent talks I had with the painter David Salle, who was one of the brightest art stars of the eighties, he would tell me—sometimes in actual words, sometimes by implication—that the subject of his declining reputation in the art world was of no real interest to him. That this was not where his real life lay but was just something to talk about with an interviewer.

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Writers have traditionally come to painters’ ateliers in search of aesthetic succor. To the writer, the painter is a fortunate alter ego, an embodiment of the sensuality and exteriority that he has abjured to pursue his invisible, odorless calling. The writer comes to the places where traces of making can actually be seen and smelled and touched expecting to be inspired and enabled, possibly even cured. While I was interviewing the artist David Salle, I was coincidentally writing a book that was giving me trouble, and although I cannot pin it down exactly (and would not want to), I know that after each talk with Salle in his studio something clarifying and bracing did filter down to my enterprise. He was a good influence. But he was also a dauntingly productive artist, and one day, as I walked into the studio and caught a glimpse of his new work, I blurted out my envious feelings. In the month since we last met, he had produced four large, complex new paintings, which hung on the walls in galling aplomb—while I had written maybe ten pages I wasn’t sure I would keep. To my surprise, instead of uttering a modest disclaimer or reassuring words about the difference between writing and painting, Salle flushed and became defensive. He spoke as if I were accusing him, rather than myself, of artistic insufficiency; it appears that his productivity is a sensitive subject. His detractors point to his large output as another sign of his light-weightness. “They hold it up as further evidence that the work is glib and superficial,” Salle said.

“If work comes easily, it is suspect.”

“But it doesn’t come easily. I find it extremely difficult. I feel like I’m beating my head against a brick wall, to use an image that my father would use. When I work, I feel that I’m doing everything wrong. I feel that it can’t be this hard for other people. I feel that everyone else has figured out a way to do it that allows him an effortless, charmed ride through life, while I have to stay in this horrible pit of a room, suffering. That’s how it feels to me. And yet I know that’s not the way it appears to others. Once, at an opening, an English critic came up to me and asked me how long I had worked on the five or six paintings I was showing. I told her, and she said, ‘Oh, so fast! You work so fast.’ She was a representative of the new, politically correct, anti-pleasure school of art people. I could easily visualize her as a dominatrix. There was some weird sexual energy there, unexpressed. I immediately became defensive.”

“I just realized something,” I said. “Everyone who writes or paints or performs is defensive about everything. I’m defensive about not working fast enough.”

In a comradely spirit, Salle later showed me a painting that had failed. It was a painting he had dwelled on a little too long, had taken a fatal misstep with, and had spoiled. I was shocked when I saw it. I had seen it in its youth and bloom a few months earlier; it had shown a ballet couple in a stylized pose radiantly smiling at each other, a mordant parody of a certain kind of dance photography popular in the nineteen-fifties. (Its source was a photograph in a fifties French dance magazine.) Now the man’s face was obliterated. It looked as if someone had angrily thrown a can of gray paint at it. “It’s a reject, a failed painting. It’s going to be cut up,” Salle said, as if speaking of a lamed horse that was going to be taken out and shot.

“It was so fine when I saw it first.”

“It wasn’t fine. It never worked. It’s so bad. It’s so much worse than I remembered. It’s one of the worst things I’ve done in years. The image of the couple is so abrasive, so aggressive. I tried to undercut it by painting out the man’s face. It was even more obnoxious than hers. But when I did that I was on a course of destruction.”

18

The painter David Salle, like his art, which refuses to narrate, even though it is full of images, declines to tell a story about himself, even though he makes himself endlessly available for interviews and talks as articulately as any subject has ever talked. Salle has spoken with a kind of rueful sympathy of the people who look at his art of fragmentary, incongruous images and say it is too complicated, too much trouble to figure out, and turn away. He, of all people, should know what they are feeling, since his work, and perhaps his life as well, is about turning away. Nothing is ever resolved by Salle, nothing adds up, nothing goes anywhere, everything stops and peters out.

19 [cartoon id="aa102"]

On an afternoon in April, 1992, the painter David Salle and I sat on a pristine yellow fifties corporate-style sofa in his loft, on White Street, looking at a large horizontal painting that was hanging there, a work he had kept for himself from a group of what he calls “the tapestry paintings,” done between 1988 and 1991. The painting made me smile. It showed a group of figures from old art—the men in doublets and in hats with plumes, the women in gowns and wearing feathers in their hair—arranged around a gaming table, the scene obviously derived from one of de La Tour’s tense dramas of dupery: and yet not de La Tour, exactly, but a sardonic pastiche of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Dutch and Italian genre styles. In the gesture for which Salle is known, he had superimposed on the scene incongruous-seeming fragments: two dark monochrome images of bare-breasted women holding wooden anatomy dolls, a sketchily rendered drawing of a Giacometti sculpture, a drawing of a grimacing face, and a sort of Abstract Expressionist rectangle of gray paint with drips and spatters obliterating a man’s leg. As if participating in the joke of their transplantation from Baroque to postmodernist art, the costumed men and women had set their faces in comically rigid, exaggerated expressions. When I asked Salle what paintings he had had in mind when he made his pastiche, he gave me an answer that surprised me—and then didn’t surprise me. One of the conditions of Salle’s art is that nothing in it be original; everything must come from previously made work, so even a pastiche would have to be a pastiche done by someone else. In this case, it was an anonymous Russian tapestry-maker, whose work Salle had found reproduced in a magazine and had copied onto his canvas. The tapestry paintings, perhaps more richly and vividly than any of Salle’s other groups of work, illustrate the paradox on which his art is poised—that an appearance of originality may be achieved through dumb copying of the work of others. Salle has been accused of all kinds of bad things by his detractors (Hilton Kramer, Robert Hughes, and Arthur Danto, the most prominent of the critics who hate his work, have all said that he can’t draw), but no one has ever accused him—no one can accuse him—of being derivative. His work has always looked like new art and, as time goes on and his technique and certain of his recurrent images have grown familiar, like art by David Salle. The tapestry paintings—there are more than ten of them—were a culmination. They have an energy, an invention, a kind of gorgeousness, and an atmosphere of success, of having pulled something off against heavy odds, that set them apart from Salle’s other works. It is no wonder that he wanted to keep a memento of his achievement.

But now the achievement only seemed to fuel Salle’s bitterness, his sense of himself as “someone who is no longer current,” who is “irrelevant after having been relevant.” He looked away from the painting and said, “The younger artists want to kill you off. They just want to get rid of you. You’re in their way. I haven’t been the artist who is on young artists’ minds for a long time. It has been six or seven years since I was the artist who was on young artists’ minds. That’s how fast it moves. The artists young artists have on their minds are people I’ve barely heard of. I’m sure there are young artists who think I’m dead.” I laughed, and he joined me. Then, his bitterness returning, Salle said, “I feel that I’ve just gotten started, marshalled my forces, done the research, and learned enough about painting to do something interesting. What I do used to matter to others—for reasons that may not have had anything to do with its merit. But now, when I feel I have something to say, no one wants to hear it. There has always been antagonism to my work, but the sense of irritation and annoyance has stepped up. ‘What, you’re still around?’ ”

20

In an interview with the screenwriter Becky Johnston, in 1991, the artist David Salle, during a discussion of his childhood, in Wichita, Kansas, gave this answer to a question about his mother:

You know, I don’t really remember her very well. I just remember that she had a lovely gray skirt and a pink blouse with French cuffs and she had her monogram embroidered on the skirt in pink thread. She worked in the dress store [where Salle’s father worked as a buyer, window dresser, and advertising-layout man]—she was a saleswoman on the floor—and she dressed very chicly. I remember her then—which was when I was about six—and then I remember her ten or fifteen years later when she worked at night as a cashier in the accounting department of the J. C. Penney store, and she was completely, utterly changed: she wore brown or beige double-knit pants suits. And I honestly don’t remember what happened to her in between. I have no images of her in between. In my mind, she just went from being this very chic, very lovely, kind of slightly elevated person, to being this horrible drudge. Then, some years later, she changed back again.

In an interview with me, in 1992, Salle returned to this memory and told me how upset his mother had been when she read a version of it in an essay by Henry Geldzahler, which appeared in the catalogue of Salle’s photographs of naked or partly naked women posed in strange positions. “I had been hesitant to send the catalogue to my mother because of the imagery,” Salle told me. “It never occurred to me that something in the text, which is innocuous, would upset her. But when she called me up she was in tears.”

21

In the introduction to a book-length interview with the artist David Salle, published in 1987 by Random House, the critic and poet Peter Schjeldahl writes, “My first reaction on meeting this twenty-seven-year-old phenom was, I’m afraid, a trifle smug. Simply, he was so transparently, wildly ambitious—even by the standards of his generation, whose common style of impatient self-assurance I had begun to recognize—that I almost laughed at him.”

22

When I was interviewing the artist David Salle, an acutely intelligent, reserved, and depressed man, he would tell me about other interviews he was giving, and once he showed me the transcript of a conversation with Barbaralee Diamonstein (it was to appear in a book of interviews with artists and art-world figures published by Rizzoli), which was marked by a special confrontational quality and an extraordinary air of liveliness. It was as if the interviewer had provoked the artist out of his usual state of skeptical melancholy and propelled him into a younger, less complex, more manic version of himself.

There is a passage, for example, in which Diamonstein confronts Salle with a piece of charged personal history. “From what I have read, you worked as a layout man at what was referred to as a porn magazine. Is that true?” Salle says yes. “How much did it affect your sensibility? I think you should address the issue and get rid of it one way or the other,” Diamonstein sternly says. Salle, disconcerted, lamely points out that actually he wasn’t a layout man but a paste-up person at the porn magazine. Still floundering, he irrelevantly adds that he and the other young men in the art department were “pretty stoned most of the time.” Diamonstein continues to push Salle on the question of what the experience of working at a men’s magazine called Stag meant to him. “So, did this affect your sensibility by either informing you, giving you a skill? Repelling you, amusing you? Finding it absurd, interesting—how did you react? How did you ever get there in the first place?”

Salle begins to see a way out of the impasse. “A friend of mine worked there,” he says. “It was just a job on one level, but ‘absurd / interesting’ describes it pretty well. Nobody there took it very seriously. It wasn’t shameful—people who worked there didn’t tell their families they did something else. At least, I don’t think so. I just remembered there was one guy who worked there because his father worked there—they were both sitting there all day airbrushing tits and ass. Like father, like son, I guess.”

Diamonstein meets this with an inspiration of her own. “You could have had a job at Good Housekeeping, too,” she points out.

“Well, I only worked there for about six months,” a momentarily crushed Salle retorts. Then he finds his tone again: “There has been so much made of it. Even though I had no money, I quit as soon as I could. You know, this assumption of causality assigned to the artist’s life like plot points in a play is really nutty. Do people think I learned about tits and ass working on Stag magazine? Do I seem that pathetic?”

23

In an essay published in the Village Voice in 1982, the critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote of his initial reaction to the work of David Salle, who was to become “my personal favorite among current younger artists”:

When I first encountered Salle’s work, two or three years ago, its vertiginous mix of blatancy (“storytelling” pictures) and elusiveness (the “story” was impossible to figure out) made me a little sick. I was also rattled by the frequent use of pornographically posed female nudes. It now seems to me hardly conceivable that in his determined excavation of the culture’s most charged pictorial matter, Salle would not have availed himself of these ritualized vehicles of male fantasy. But it made me so nervous that I rather comically felt a surge of relief when in last year’s show Salle presented a male nude. What may have been even more shocking was Salle’s cavalierly offhand exploitation of classically modernist pictorial devices, those sacred signs. He was using them like cheap tools, without even the upside-down respect accorded by satirical irony (as in Lichtenstein). I itched to dislike this stuff.

Then it started to get me. It was like a welling, congested, sentimental weepiness without an object, as emotions triggered by images of, say, a depressed-looking girl smoking in bed and some unspecific tragedy in a crowded street sought cathartic resolution, in vain. It was an abstracted sensation of dislocation, yearning, and loss that started resonating with my sense of what both art and life are like here in the late twentieth century. Suddenly Salle’s harsh artifice seemed heroic, an earnest of authenticity—without ceasing to seem perverse, against the grain.

24

One day, the artist David Salle and I talked about Thomas Bernhard’s novel “The Loser.”

“I’m a third of the way through it,” I said, “and at first I was excited by it, but now I’m a little bored. I may not finish it.”

“It’s so beautiful and so pessimistic,” Salle said.

“Yes, but it doesn’t hold your interest the way a nineteenth-century novel does. I’m never bored when I’m reading George Eliot or Tolstoy.”

“I am,” Salle said.

I looked at him with surprise. “And you’re not bored when you’re reading Bernhard?” [cartoon id="aa103"]

“I’m bored by plot,” Salle said. “I’m bored when it’s all written out, when there isn’t any shorthand.”

25

In the fall of 1991, I attended a book party for the writer Harold Brodkey given by the painter David Salle in his loft, in Tribeca. The first thing I saw on walking into the room was Brodkey and Norman Mailer in conversation. As I approached, I heard them jovially talking about the horrible reviews each had just received, like bad boys proudly comparing their poor marks. The party took place early in my acquaintance with Salle, and this fragment of conversation was a sort of overture to talks I later had with him about his sense of himself as a bad boy of art and about his inability to stop picking at the sore of his own bad reviews. He is an artist who believes in the autonomy of art, who sees the universe of art as an alternative to the universe of life, and who despises art that has a social agenda. But he is also someone who is drawn to the world of popular criticism, to the bazaar where paintings and books and performances are crudely and carelessly rated, like horses or slaves, and who wants to be one of the Chosen even as he disdains the choosers; in other words, he is like everybody else. Only the most pathologically pure-hearted writers, artists, and performers are indifferent to how their work is received and judged. But some hang more attentively than others on the words of the judges. During my talks with Salle, he kept returning to the subject of his reception, like an unhappy moth helplessly singeing itself on a light bulb. “I don’t know why I keep talking about this,” he would say. “This isn’t what is on my mind. I don’t care that much. I spend a disproportionate amount of time complaining to you about how I am perceived. Every time we finish one of these talks, I have a pang of regret. I feel that all I do is complain about how badly I’m treated, and this is so much not what I want to be talking about. But for some reason I keep talking about it.”

26

David Salle is one of the best-received and best-rewarded of the artists who came to prominence in the nineteen-eighties, but he is not one of the happiest. He is a tense, discontented man, with a highly developed sense of irony.

27

In several of David Salle’s paintings, a mysterious dark-haired woman appears, raising a half-filled glass to her lips. Her eyes are closed, and she holds the glass in both hands with such gravity and absorption that one can only think she is taking poison or drinking a love potion. She is rendered in stark black-and-white and wears a period costume—a dress with a sort of Renaissance aspect. The woman disturbs and excites us, the way people in dreams do whom we know we know but can never quite identify. David Salle himself has some of the enigmatic vividness of the drinking woman. After many interviews with him, I feel that I only almost know him, and that what I write about him will have the vague, vaporous quality that our most indelible dreams take on when we put them into words.

28

One of the leitmotivs of a series of conversations I had in 1992 and 1993 with the painter David Salle was his unhappiness over the current reception of his work. “I don’t think anyone has written a whole essay saying my work is passé,” he said. “It’s more a line here and there. It’s part of the general phenomenon called eighties-bashing. The critics who have been negative all along, like Robert Hughes and Hilton Kramer, have simply stepped up their negativity. The virulence of the negativity has grown enormously in the past couple of years. The reviews by Hughes and Kramer of my ’91 show were weirdly, personally insulting. The two of them were always negative, but now it was as if they smelled blood and were moving in for the kill.”

I told Salle I would like to read those reviews, and a few days later his assistant sent them to me. Salle had not exaggerated. Hughes and Kramer seemed beside themselves with dislike and derision; their reviews had an almost hysterical edge. “The exhibition of new paintings by David Salle at the Gagosian Gallery . . . has one tiny merit,” Hughes wrote in Time on April 29, 1991. “It reminds you how lousy and overpromoted so much ‘hot’ ‘innovative’ American art in the 1980’s was. If Julian Schnabel is Exhibit A in our national wax museum of recent duds, David Salle is certainly Exhibit B.” He went on:

Yet is there a duller or more formula-ridden artist in America than Salle in 1991 as he approaches the Big Four-Oh? . . . Drawing, as anyone who has seen a few Salles knows, is not what the artist does. He never learned to do it, and probably never will. He is incapable of making an interesting mark. . . . Thus his pictures enable critics to kvetch soulfully about the dissociation of signs and meanings, and to praise what all good little deconstructors would call their “refusal of authoritarian closure,” meaning, roughly, that they don’t mean anything in particular. It’s as though those who bet on him can’t bear to face the possibility that his work was vacuous to begin with. . . . The Gagosian Gallery . . . has even hired a guard to stand at the entrance to the room in which Salle’s six new paintings are displayed, presumably in case some collector from the bottom of the waiting list is seized by the impulse to grab one of those tallowy objects from the wall and make a run for it. Ten minutes into the show, your heart goes out to that guard. Eight hours a day, five days a week, of this!

Kramer had wrung his hands in the New York Observer of April 15th:

About some art exhibitions nowadays, we hardly know whether to laugh or cry. Their pretensions, not to mention the atmosphere of piety surrounding them, are undeniably laughable. Yet their artistic realization is at once so barren and so smug—and offers so few of the satisfactions we look to art to bring us—that the sense of comedy they elicit turns, almost before we know it, to feelings of grief and depression. . . .

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