David Salle: Tapestries/Battles/Allegories at Lever House
October 25th, 2012 to January 25th, 2013
390 Park Avenue, New York City
Even when the galleries and museums close for the day, there are paintings to be seen in Manhattan. At the Citicorp Center, for instance, on Lexington Avenue at 53rdStreet, you can look through the high windows at Frank Stella’s Salto Nel Mio Sacco (1985). And a block west on Park Avenue there was an installation of six very large recent paintings by David Salle. The glass-walled lobby of Lever House, a private space none the less visually accessible to the public, is effectively open 24/7. Salle’s allegorical scenes are based upon 17th- and 18th-century Flemish tapestries.
Supported by scrims and hung on panels, they are overlaid with his signature-style inset images topped off by brightly colored male and female silhouettes reminiscent of Yves Klein’s nude rubbings. Standoff faces the street; The River is close to the inner lobby window; and Campaign and the three other paintings are set back further within the building and only partly visible from outside. On a gray winter day, the high-pitched colors are dazzling, even before you get close enough to identify the subjects. Salle has always been famous for creating visual conundrums, but on this occasion his installation really ups the ante.
In a marvelously imaginative interpretative leap the curator Richard Marshall relates this setting to Philip Johnson’s display of Poussin’s Burial of Phocian (1648) within his classic Glass House (1949). Johnson’s collection of modernist paintings and sculptures (including both Stellas and Salles) is installed underground in other, nearby buildings on his estate, but this one old master painting is visible from outside the house. Salle’s Lever House installation mimics and modifies that effect. Looking through the walls of Glass House you see Funeral of Phocion, which depicts a landscape, set within Johnson’s carefully manicured landscape. Salle’s paintings are also set behind glass, but Tapestries/Battles/Allegories is in the city.
To understand its site you need to step back. Lever House (1952) was designed by Gordon Bunshaft, an American follower of Mies van der Rohe, whose masterpiece Seagram Building (1958), done in collaboration with Johnson, is directly across Park Avenue. Just as Johnson struggled with his architect-rivals, so too Salle has battled with his painter-frennemies. Trained as a modernist, Johnson became notorious for his postmodern eclecticism. Salle, who became famous in the heyday of postmodernism, uses his site to subtly allude to Johnson’s style of visual thinking. Stella’s Salto Nel Mio Sacco, a marvelous late modernist abstraction, is not hard to understand. Interpreting Salle’s Tapestries/Battles/Allegories is more challenging.