Friday, February 16th, 2001

A Frolic with David Salle

David Salle, The Emperor, 2000. Oil and acrylic on canvas and linen. 84 x 147 inches.© David Salle and VAGA, NY
David Salle, The Emperor, 2000. Oil and acrylic on canvas and linen. 84 x 147 inches.© David Salle and VAGA, NY

I give up! I’m tired of not liking David Salle. In marked contrast, on the evidence of his latest show at Gagosian, which continues to March 3, the artist himself never tires of being David Salle, exhausting though it must be. For sure, however, there’s still plenty not to like about this perennial Bad Boy of painting, the same things, indeed, that have always irked earnest art lovers: his trickiness and repetitiveness and suspected cynicism

My repulsion started right at the outset of my career, before even learning that he was one of the ’80s artists one was supposed to despise. I was in Toronto, writing my first foreign review (of the renovated Henry Moore wing at the Art Gallery of Ontario) and I was overwhelmed by a visceral disgust at the bombast and sameness of their huge, clearly premature Salle retrospective. And I remember, quite clearly, that it wasn’t the vaguely nasty subjects that appalled me, but the deathly, enervating form. Right up to his last show at Gagosian’s old SoHo space, with those teddy bears and Alex Katz quotations, my antipathy held out. And by then I wanted to start liking him. He was sufficiently out of fashion to warrant admiration for his doggedness, plus I had met him at a panel and found him to be totally charming, plus my whole attitude towards authenticity and appropriation had swung around in my first decade of artwriting. But the paintings just seemed puny and inadequate.

And yet now I find myself ravished (an appropriate term for images with pastoral frolic as its central, repeated motif) and, well you know what Cicero said about frolicing. There is indeed a kind of post-coital guilt and confusion when you realise you have been seduced by an artist you thought a turn-off. Will I now have a revised view of the earlier work? Will I soon have the old doubts about this newest work? Has it changed or have I? Forget Cicero, it’s Heraclitus I need to worry about (as in “You can never step into the river twice”

And now, of course, with these shifting emotions and distorted memories, I don’t have neatly stored within my brain the right memories and responses to do justice to the subject here, to be able to answer the question empirically enough about Salle’s shifts and mine. Just why is it that this new series seems strong and fresh and vigorous when earlier efforts from the same hand, employing similar strategies and in pursuit indubitably of a consisitent agenda, fell so short?

I have a hunch. There has been a subtle shift of nonetheless seismic consequence in the balance of power between image and surface treatment. Before, despite the po-mo overload and deconstructive disregard of the intended meanings of his appropriated sources, power was with the image. The means of putting the image down was subservient to its emotional tenor, even when this tenor was counter-intuitive to the image, – for example, cold treatment for erotic subjects. Now, and it is significant that the central image is of innocents fishing in a rococo landscape, touch and tone seem to determine choices of image or artist to appropriate or quote. One feels, say, that that Derain harlequin came in because the brush demanded it. It is actually better for Salle to tune in to a Jasper Johns pattern than an Alex Katz figure because – for all his eclecticism and layering – it is texture not context that his painting were crying out for

It is extraordinary, really, how diverse Salle can be in his painterly effects without ever quite capitulating and becoming painterly per se. He is still more relaxed, more intuitive, more form-conscious, with imagery than he is with shape, gesture, color. It is as if imagery is the stuff on his palette and paint some fabulous discovery or invention. What an odd fellow! But his adventures with paint are invigorating. Like the happy peasant in his serial stencil he has caught something impressive. The juxtaposition of linen and canvas, the optical collisions of oil and acrylic, are as constructive as they are deconstructive. Of course, these tricks all serve to keep any kind of expressiveness in steel enforced quotation marks. But that’s okay. This is David Salle. These paintings have the chilly dryness of a strong martini, if not the purity.

David Salle: Pastoral continues at Gagosian Gallery, 555 West 24th Street, to March 3, 2001