“The paintings are done a little bit in the spirit of trying to keep children entertained”, David Salle joked at the press preview of his latest show ‘Musicality and Humour’. “You have to keep up a lot of activities up your sleeve otherwise kids are getting bored”.
Children and adults who visit the show won’t get bored as there is so much to look at. Take, ‘Latin Rhythms’, which is one of the most complex and vertiginous layered paintings in the show. A Mexican man with a sombrero, riding a donkey and a torso with a Madonna cone bra designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier draw the attention. Underneath is a black and white cartoon of a nurse sitting beside the bed of a sleeping patient at a 90 degree angle and painted in the style of the cartoonist Peter Arno. On the right and left corners you can detect part of the body of a housewife that appears also in another painting, ‘Autumn Rhythm’ wearing a headscarf and an apron. On top of that are a vast amount of objects floating over the surface of the canvas such as a pair of brown men’s shoes, a diver’s helmet, a boxing speed bag, a bucket, bowls and a dustpan.
Salle is a virtuoso in finding a graceful balance between disparate objects and imagery that he appropriates from various sources. There is also a delightful harmony between colours, shapes and styles. I found myself utterly engrossed in studying the structure, the rhythm and the movements of these dynamic paintings and how Salle continues to push the boundaries of collage in art.
At the press preview, the Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagan interviewed Salle on his new body of work. One of the topics they discussed was the difference between the structure of a novel and a painting. “I’m very interested in all kinds of visual structures such as how you dose information, in what sequence, in what amounts”, Salle said. “The fundamental problem with painting though, is that it is static and you take it in all at once. In a novel you can plant the seed on page 10 and it will bloom on page 210. In painting you have to do it all at the same time. The question is how you make a painting that structures that information in a certain way when you can see it all at once”.
Salle is very accommodating in giving interviews and some of them are made available in the selected press section of his website. When Janet Malcolm asked him in her article for The New Yorker, as to why he gives all these interviews he gave a peculiar answer. “It’s a lazy person’s form of writing. It’s like writing without having to write. It’s a form in which one can make something, and I like to make things”.
Salle is an eloquent writer. When he came to New York in 1975, he wrote short reviews for Arts Magazine to support himself. ‘How To See’ is a collection of essays in which he writes about contemporary art “in the language that artists use when they talk among themselves”. With an artist’s eye he discusses the work of other artists and is not afraid to critique them.
The artist Eric Fischl discusses his friendship with Salle and the differences in their practices in his revealing and brutally honest autobiography ‘Bad Boy’. It seems that an unhappy childhood is not only a writer’s goldmine, it is also an artist’s goldmine. In the book, Fischl discusses his unstable family background, the high and lows of his career and discusses with an artist’s eye what makes Caravaggio and Hopper such skilful artists.
During the interview, O’Hagan presented some insightful observations on Salle’s work and asked him some profound questions about the work that had also intrigued me. Sometimes I wished Salle’s answers were more extensive and I made some notes for follow up questions I would ask him the next day.
After I had seen the show for the first time, I was impressed by Salle’s body of work, but when my girlfriend asked me during dinner if there was a single work that stood out for me, I couldn’t think of one. I do recall Fischl’s show, ‘Presence of an Absence’, adorning the walls of Skarstedt gallery a year before, when there were clearly a few works that did. Fischl offers an explanation in his book about the difference between his work and Salle’s. “When you try to recall them [Salle’s paintings], you remember their overall effect, their energy, their power. But the paintings blend together in a more general impression. Individual canvases don’t come to mind. I try to create images so poignant they burn into your brain”.
I was interested in Salle’s opinion and asked him if there is one painting that stood out for him in the show? “I have to say not really,” he answered. “Perhaps because I’m still very close to them. I’m not making a hierarchy between them at the moment. I think something interesting happens in every painting and there are parts in all of them that I feel pretty good about. The paintings, though, create a kind of conundrum for themselves or sometimes problems and the part I seek out or feel most enlivened by, is penetrating to what’s really going on in the painting, almost like solving a problem. It sounds a little bit more removed than it is. It’s all done ‘inside’ the painting so the speak. Painting is routine and a matter of practice. Some days it shines, and some days it doesn’t. Sometimes I think “oh that was a good lucky mark, but that is shop talk it’s not so interesting to talk about”.
I was surprised that Salle dismissed it as shop talk. When I interviewed the artists John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage and Richard Phillips, they talked at length about the act of painting and their creative processes. For me the subject was not finished and I asked Salle what is the joy for him as an artist of putting paint on a canvas with a brush? “It’s a great pleasure, great way to live, to make something. There are all kinds of fun involved. One kind of fun is to make something at all and then to respond to it as you’re making it, and another kind of fun is to look at it what is done,” he enthuses.
“Are you the happiest when you paint?” I asked him.
He paused and frowned. “Am I the happiest when I paint?” he repeated my question. “I’m not going to answer that question. Next question”.
Oops, I should have realised that this might be a question that is in Salle’s category of “his real self”, something that Malcolm had warned me about in her article in The New Yorker. “He [David Salle] 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 not on offer”.
O’Hagan asked Salle a question about the vertiginous composition of ‘Latin Rhythms’ that puzzled me as well: How does he build a work like this, how does it start? “I don’t have a list of objects that I’m going to paint when I start a painting”, Salle answered with dry humour. “The first thing I think of is; how do I divide the canvas? What kind of lines, what kind of diagonals or intersecting lines. I do it in my head. I’ve been doing it for so long, it’s second nature. I actually don’t sketch the paintings out because I want the excitement, the dare and the fun in time and space”.
When I tell Salle the next day I was amazed that he is able to compose such complex layered paintings in his head he smiled “It’s strange isn’t it?”. He added, “That is not to say that I know in advance how the paintings are going to end up. The first layer of images determines to a certain extent everything that follows. The organisation of the images is just done on the canvas. I always worked more or less this way on the canvas in real time and actual size. It is not necessarily smart, it’s what I’ve always done, it’s part of what I like about it. At this point I am willing to go wherever my instincts lead me”. Does he want the painting to surprise him? “Yes, that sounds right. It’s not that I’m withholding myself or trick myself in being surprised. The effects of the juxtaposition [of the elements in the painting] are not always known in advance.
In this body work Salle uses repetition as a device to create humour in his work. In the painting ‘Equivalence’, the cartoon of the nurse sitting by the bedside of a patient is repeated three times on a different scale which creates a comical effect. Salle mentions to O’Hagan a funny example of the use of repetition in the film ‘The Lady Eve’ directed by Preston Sturges. “Henry Fonda’s character is in love with the Barbara Stanwyck character. He is so besotted and becomes a total klutz. There’s a party scene where Fonda, trips, falls and crashes a tray of silverware and his tuxedo gets dirty. And he trips three times in the film. The studio said you can do it twice because three times won’t be funny anymore and he said you are wrong because the third time is the killer”.
I wanted to delve deeper into the subject of humour in his work and asked Salle if he finds it difficult to create humour in the paintings. “That’s in the eye of the beholder”, he smiles. “I can’t vouch for the humour for anyone else. I don’t find it difficult [to create humour in the paintings], I find it natural. I’m not saying that the paintings are going to sent anyone into stitches. I’m not trying to write jokes, nor do I think I have. The bar for humour in painting is pretty low so you don’t have to come up very high”.
“Why is it low?”, I ask.
“There’s not a lot of humour in contemporary painting.”
I concurred with his answer and wondered if he had an explanation.
“Maybe artists think it’s inappropriate, maybe it never occurred to them or people are not accustomed to it”.
Did it help to create humour in the paintings by using cartoons? “Yes, but that is not why the paintings are funny, I don’t think it has got much to do with it, frankly. Repetition is funny, maybe a colour is funny or something is misaligned. It’s very hard to talk about humour. One should never have to explain a joke. It is either funny or not. That is the cardinal rule”.
Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers.
Works from top to bottom: The Rain Fell Everywhere, Latin Rhythm, Autumn Rhythm, installation shot, Equivalence. All works from 2018. © David Salle/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Skarstedt, New York.
David Salle, Musicality and Humour, Skarstedt Gallery London, until 26th of April 2019.