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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.