Shape Shifters: David Salle Ghost Paintings
David Salle Ghost Paintings at Skarstedt Gallery
November 8 – December 21, 2013
20 East 79th Street, between Fifth and Madison avenues
New York City, 212.737.2060
Walking into Salle’s Ghost Painting show late last year, one might have expected to see Salle’s multi-layered, lateral dislocations of image and subject played out across the surface. Instead, one was transfixed by beautiful color, translucence and internal depth. There is also directness, singularity, and an emphasis on centrality in this series from the early 1990s. The tough simplicity of the Ghost Paintings is a clear pivot from Salle’s better-known work.
I immediately thought of a comment the painter and critic Sidney Tillim had made to me twenty years ago. Tillim had stated with certitude that David Salle is an exceptionally fine colorist. I hadn’t thought of Salle in these terms before, but Sidney’s comment stuck with me. I have always considered Salle’s main achievement to be his inventive use of inserts and filigrees in energetic compositions. Initially informed by John Baldessari at Cal Arts in the early seventies, Salle’s probing imagination eventually found common cause with the flurried compositions of Francis Picabia, Robert Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist toward the end of that decade. But Salle’s longstanding, unwavering ability to communicate how much he loves the act of painting was a thorny proposition for an artist who ascended with “Pictures Generation.” Salle’s signature trajectory, an imagistic slot-machine surrealism, barrels on, as recently evidenced in New York solo exhibitions at Lever House and Mary Boone gallery in 2012 and 2011 respectively.
So much is captivating here. Bold simplicity reigns as big fields of color dominate these large paintings. The color schemes range from melancholic to a brightness that is reminiscent of Warhol’s swan song Daimler-Benz car series. And if you’ve ever wondered what single representation Salle would settle on if he had to downshift from his effusive progression of racing representations, here it is – a photo image staged by Salle himself, of a mysterious shrouded figure, drapery cascading that is timeless and elegiac. Anonymous yet theatrical, the figure’s absence of identity actually increases its presence. It’s as if Salle is asking, if I cover it over, does it really have less impact? It is an act of negation that begets pictorial possibilities.
The presence of a shrouded figure, eerie and beautiful, carries centuries of history. When Salle elects not to use color, as in Ghost 12, associations of grisaille painting, haunting fragments of classical sculpture, and the gloomy tonalities of early photography spill forth. Salle’s drapery configurations bear resemblance to the backdrops in Victorian photos of children, a portrait style in which mothers actually hid under fabric drapery while supporting their toddlers for the camera. That Salle has titled his series Ghost Paintings underscores the images’ spectral, shape-shifting quality, which also echoes turn-of-the-century interest in spiritualism and supernal apparitions. And Salle’s softly contoured drapery can also suggest feminine interiority. The florals of Ghost 9 and Ghost 11 recall Fragonard’s young women swathed in pinks, yellows and blues.
Salle’s rolling concavities of cloth and color also recall the paintings of Andrea Del Sarto, as in Ghost 10, for instance, where architectonic drapery reinforces compositional centrality, leading us deeper into the psychic space of the scene. When Salle amplifies the color, in half of the works on display, his neon combinations revisit the fully mannered color displays of Del Sarto’s younger colleagues, Jacopo Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino. Both Salle’s Ghost 6 and his Ghost 14, which reveals the tilted face of his female model, have characteristics of the swooning madonnas in Pontormo’s Deposition and Fiorentino’s Lamentation. When the suggestive folds of drapery are plied to enhance mourning or passion, the sacred and profane often spring from the same source.
Salle’s solitary shrouded figures conjure a compendium of associations. Ghost 1 seems like a mountain, while Ghost 5 looks like one of Zubaran’s monks or Guston’s Klansmen. The photo image in Ghost 3, (shrunk and recycled by Salle in Picture Builder one year later), now seems prescient. With a discernibly forlorn posture and outstretched arms, the figure is now disturbingly familiar in the form of the infamous, harrowing image of a shrouded Iraqi prisoner under torture.
Focusing on one large-scale image per work, Salle taxed the image with successive acts of negation and dissociation. He cut it, visibly re-stitched it, and inked it. The image was horizontally trisected on photosensitive linen, and rejoined with two visibly sewn seams. Here, Salle looked past the variations of the modernist grid relied upon by fellow postmodernists. Instead, he proportioned his images classically, into approximate thirds. The narrative-driven formats used by Salle’s Picture Generation peers promoted sequential arrangements that mimicked authoritarian modes of instruction and control. Ideally suited to enshrine critique, ideology, and promote a return to the aesthetics of puritan severity, such formats lacked the flexibility to accommodate Salle’s less orthodox visual interests. In contrast, Salle’s single image doesn’t settle into a read. However, in a tacit nod to Minimalist iconoclasm, each horizontal section in the Ghost Paintings is identified with a distinct color, giving each painting the look of a tri-colored flag. But Salle adroitly inks the surfaces with intense hues that increase depth of field, light, and illusion. The effect is not dissimilar to David Reed’s drapery-inspired abstractions of the period. Employing a breezy imperfect haste, Salle’s occasional traces of wide brushstrokes reveal how the thin translucent veils of color were pushed around. Both the color applications and the photo images have been treated nonchalantly. Spots, scratches and other photo imperfections appear like eye floaters, baring all against the draped figure. Absorbing these stresses, the shrouded figure gains poetic strength while the Rothko-esque proportions and emphasis on color field allow the viewer to hang back and bask in sensation.