David Salle

by Friday, September 29, 2017

David Salle’s career in art was incubated in the distinct hotbed of post-studio artists under the tutelage of the renowned John Baldessari. At a time when the art world had posited painting as past its prime, or important only within the confines of a new and austere minimalism, Salle along with his peers, were reinvigorating the form in bold new ways. Whereas modernist-era painting was rigidly fixed to the idea that a presentation of an image should stay as true to the authentic experience of that image as possible, Salle was using these same realistic based images as components of overall pastiche works that compelled the viewer to also see them as shape, color, and form, pushing them onto a heroic scale hinting at Abstract Expressionism.

Coming and Going, 1987
photosensitized linen, acrylic, and oil on canvas
96 x 133.5 inches

This marriage of traditional figuration with Pop art’s obsession for disparate images, rejuvenated postmodernism and Neo-Expressionism by creating within the genre a pictorial space infused with humor and theatricality. Salle’s work in the field of theater furthermore lent a sense that each painting was a stage on which actors – whether they be body parts, clowns, or furniture advertisements were all a part of a roving cast of subliminal characters in the ongoing drama of our lives. It is as if Salle’s paintings are snapshots of singular moments within the constant stream of simultaneous superficial thoughts and visuals that perpetually dwell in our minds – non-literal and random bits hearkening to the beauty of ambiguity.

Cyclorama, 1997
oil and acrylic on canvas with formica frieze and dowels
84 x 114 inches

For Salle, the process of collage was not limited to the usual juxtaposition of manifold cultural references or innocuous Pop. He also considered the combination of various painting styles from historical to photorealistic to cartoonish on the same plane as essential ingredients in his constructions as well as the use of various fabrics and opposing textures. Even differences between the black and white scale and color fields offered parallels in his work. Salle coined this element a “Vortex,” a visual maelstrom left open to one’s individual interpretation.

Closer, 2011
oil and acrylic on linen
82 x 104.25 inches

The use of pastiche measures heavily in much of Salle’s work, a device by which he often imitates the style or character of another artist’s work within his own. Pastiche allows for a recycling of past themes and modes of artistic tradition into a contemporary context. This reconfiguration of artists and works that came before allows Salle to celebrate and incorporate them into the evolving postmodern dialogue as contributors.
In much of Salle’s work, familiar images are shown upside down or skewed from an average relativity. His use of body parts, floating by themselves in planes of blank space are a prime example of this desire to strip literalness from his subjects and instead present them, much like dancers upon the stage, as form rather than human. By placing common objects in these different perspectives, he asks us to process information in a new way, considering items for their shape or placement, jarring our associations from what is normal to what might be seen anew.

Scouting, 2016
oil on canvas and flashe, oil-stick, and archival digital print on linen
78 x 60 inches

Salle’s work off the canvas, most notably as a stage designer for dance and performance and then later into his career as a filmmaker, has bestowed his paintings with a theatrical element, in which we may come to view his compositions as frozen slides in the overall performance of our life and what we choose to show of ourselves, swirling in the ephemera of our thoughts, deeds, and obsessions at any given moment. This adds a directorial element to all of his work, which blurs the line between what is representational and what is authentic.
Salle not only created works of art but also wrote about art for such esteemed publications as ArtForum and Andy Warhol’s Interview. His reputation as a prolific arts commentator adds weight and depth to his career, solidifying his role as Renaissance man in the art world, alongside his supplementary work in theater, stage design, and filmmaking.

Smoke Kools, 2014-2016
oil and acrylic with silkscreen and digital transfer prints on canvas and linen
67 x 92 inches

David Salle was born in Oklahoma but spent his formative youth in Wichita, Kansas. His parents were working class people of Russian Jewish heritage; Salle was among the second generation of his family to be born in America. As a young boy, he took life-drawing classes through a local art organization in Wichita. His interest in drawing and painting persisted throughout his adolescence, and he continued to take classes several days a week as a high school student.

Waffles, 2016
oil, acrylic, charcoal and archival digital print on linen
60 x 84 inches

In 1970, Salle entered the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, north of Los Angeles. There, he studied under John Baldessari, whose paintings often dealt with altered photographic imagery. In a 2013 interview with his former teacher in Interview, Salle says, “He was my mentor when I was a student at CalArts in the early ’70s, and it’s fair to say that meeting him redirected my trajectory as an artist – as it did for innumerable others. His legendary class in Post-Studio Art bestowed on those of us with enough brains to notice, a feeling of unbelievable luck of being in exactly the right place at the right time for the new freedoms in art – we arrived in time for the birthing, so to speak.” The friendship between the two men has lasted over 40 years.

Hot People, 2016
oil, acrylic, charcoal, and archival digital print on linen
60 x 80 inches

While a student at CalArts, Salle explored various mediums, including video, installation art, and conceptual pieces. He also focused on abstract painting. He earned a BFA in 1973 and stayed at CalArts for graduate study, earning his MFA two years later. Salle then left Southern California for New York, where he supported himself with a number of part-time jobs throughout the late 1970s. He taught art classes, worked in restaurants, and worked for the designer and installation artist Vito Acconci. One of his more unusual gigs consisted of doing page layout and paste-ups for a pornographic magazine. When the publication went out of business, Salle took some of the stock photographs to use for his own work. These included sexually explicit nude images, as well as generic ‘news’ materials.

Float, 2005
oil on linen
96 x 132 inches

Salle’s creative endeavors as a painter, printmaker, and stage designer have played a significant role in shaping the sensibility of postmodern art, often mingling ‘high’ and ‘low’ art together on a single canvas and blending disparate images and styles into an innovative form of pastiche that speaks to the unique joys and frustrations of life in a late-capitalist society. Though he has been an influential figure in the American art world since the 1980s, his popularity has never been without controversy; he has drawn consistent criticism from feminists who object to his frequent use of nude and scantily clad women in his painting.

Unitled (Camus), 1976
mixed media on paper
108 x 156 inches

Along with his contemporaries, among them Robert Longo and Julian Schnabel, Salle ushered in a return to large-scale, gestural expressionism following the minimalism of painting and sculpture in the 1970s. His work has had a major impact on a number of artists, including the Pop-inspired collage canvases of Jeff Koons, multi-panel compositions of found photography by Julia Wachtel, and the lampooning of American media saturation, comic-book heroes, and religiosity in the paintings of Jerry Kearns.




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