PRINT May 1999

Dan Cameron

THE NEW YORK ART WORLD’S self-imposed amnesia regarding the ’80s finds its purest expression in our contemporary response to the art of David Salle. As the archetypal bad boy of a generation that defined itself through its unmitigated brashness (Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat are as much his contemporaries as Barbara Kruger and Sherrie Levine), Salle has become an inviting target for those who, appalled by the decade’s distinctive fusion of greed and egotism, wish the ’80s had never happened. Others seem to be in denial that the artistic premises of David Salle’s work—his peculiar fusion of iconoclastic vigor and jaded worldliness—have ever been credible. One thing both perspectives reveal is just how difficult it is to recapture that moment fifteen years ago, when Salle and his ilk held the art world in thrall. Even contemplating the gulf between now and then seems daunting, which is probably one reason to applaud the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam for choosing this moment to offer a close-to-definitive survey covering two decades of Salle’s paintings.

As contradictory as it might seem, at least part of the animosity implicit in the contemporary reaction to David Salle has to do with the artist’s own career management. Certainly the glib misogyny suggested by many of his canvases and the flagrant ambition he’s always displayed seem conspicuously out of sync with the mood of the moment; indeed, it would seem impossible for an artist of Salle’s savvy to have so thoroughly misread the zeitgeist. Yet this observation brings with it a companion idea, which is that any candid discussion of Salle’s work must, at the very least, acknowledge the fact that the painter's persona of a half-jaded dandy has not ingratiated him to his public. More than any other active artist one can name, it’s actually easy to picture Salle wearing an indelible smirk of disdain while he works. The spirit is infectious: His paintings resist any attempt on our part to identify directly with either their technique or their subject matter, leaving us to commune with them on a fairly rarefied plane, where fancy brushwork and the “death of the author” come together. Salle’s knack for playing the prig might help explain why his work, despite its tendency to spill forth a cornucopia of pictorial incident, seems uniquely ungenerous. His public pronouncements about art (his and others’) have often been gratuitously elitist and/or mean, and thanks to his unremarkable forays into film directing and ballet scenography, Salle’s considerable intelligence as a painter has tended to become sidelined by an unrepentant streak of dilettantism. In short, Salle offers, on the proverbial silver platter, about as many reasons to dislike him as any single artist might muster.

Of course, if the Stedelijk survey ends up bolstering Salle’s flagging reputation by proving that his work is greater than the sum of its dubious parts might suggest, it may also help us understand that much of the indifference, even anathema, felt toward Salle and everything he stands for may be misdirected, since his work appears to have its roots in a historical rupture whose effects are still being broadly felt today. In other words, as the first self-consciously “postmodern” American painter, Salle has long been accustomed to bearing the brunt of a disproportionate amount of the criticism leveled at his generation. When he emerged on the scene in 1981, his work was generally slammed for both its cynical appearance and its breezy, offhanded way of dismissing the possibility of the sublime in painting. Although curators and critics gradually warmed to his tactics, there was a take-no-prisoners aspect to the accompanying shift in public taste that left a great deal of rancor in its wake. Not only did Salle provide a devastatingly effective assault on the lingering mythology of the artist as genius, he did so with a cool lack of apology that only made the cozy embrace of the old school look more inviting. Respecting neither pictorial convention nor the critical left’s loftier claims for art’s social relevance, his work also tended to make a spectacle out of its own cleverness and good/“bad” taste, which made his painting bitter going down, whatever it finally amounts to.

Beyond the problems of his initial reception, a more disturbing hypothesis regarding David Salle’s status presents itself today—namely, that the fundamental source of the resistance we feel toward his art in 1999 is that it is made to stand in for our own discomfort with the values propagated during the ’80s: greed, self-indulgence, social indifference. And yet, as we reacquaint ourselves with such classic Salle images as His Brain, 1984, and Coral Made, 1985, we are reminded of the possibility of intense belief in painting’s power as a synthetic language—a position that hardly seems tenable in today’s mediate-or-perish atmosphere. In the latter painting, Salle brings together a number of diverse painting vocabularies—Color Field, photo-silkscreen, amateur academicism, hard-edge abstraction, noirish Hopperesque realism—in an unsteady truce. The greatest formal challenge facing him in the task was to avoid allowing one approach to dominate the others and instead to give each style a separate niche in a hierarchy dictated only by his artistic and expressive aims. As a result, the painting makes a tangible reality out of the postmodern proposition that all historical styles are more or less equal, and that it is a matter of the artist’s visual intelligence to make the discrete elements occupy the same pictorial framework.

While Salle’s efforts throughout the ’80s in this regard were directed at getting the disparate parts to come off as powerful and intelligible statements, some early-’90s works suggest a side effect of controlled chaos. Mingus in Mexico, 1990, deploys a crowded field of Mannerist detail as a historical backdrop over which more contemporary vernacular material can be laid. The audacity of Salle’s approach consists of his signature subordination of art-historical material to his visual and conceptual intentions, as if the only use for history is as a foil for latter-day transgressions. This is roughly the formula employed in the best of Salle’s earlier work: pitting distinct vocabularies against one another while managing to impose a visual order that emerges from random, subjective associations the artist himself is not consciously trying to control. If this description today sounds formulaic, that is probably because Salle’s methods, originally adapted from cinematic sources, have subtly but tellingly influenced the larger visual culture that surrounds the art world. For better or worse, however, one of the unshakable principles of our postmodern period is that once such changes become incorporated in the wider lexicon—film, video, graphic design, advertising, etc.—their origins are largely forgotten. If that is indeed the case, then Salle is in the unique position of being underestimated in the present, partly as a result of having been extravagantly influential in the recent past.

Although many of the issues and complexes that guide our way of seeing the art of the ’80s seem strongly in need of reexamination, a valid argument can be made in favor of David Salle as one of the very few of his generation to maintain a degree of critical dialogue with his viewers. Certainly when compared to Schnabel, Eric Fischl, or Robert Longo, who were once generally thought of as his peers, Salle emerges as far and away the most dynamic and restless intellect. Next to the more radical postures of Kruger or Levine, Salle’s adherence to painting appears traditionalist, but he has more consistently stretched the formal boundaries of the medium than have most painters of his generation. Of all the members of their generation, perhaps only Cindy Sherman has done more to alter our entire framework for thinking about art. If this means that David Salle has fallen short of his ambition, it’s not just okay—it’s practically inevitable. With time, he has found a historical niche as a painter, one he would no doubt reject outright but which is nonetheless important: as the midpoint in the Pop-grounded trajectory linking James Rosenquist and Kenny Scharf, with affinities to more hybrid figures like Ross Bleckner and Carroll Dunham. Sometimes I even catch myself thinking that if Salle had renounced figuration, even temporarily, he might have at least come face to face with the technical shortcomings that made his most recent body of work, the “Glass and Mirror Paintings,” such a burdensome chore for even diehard fans.

Assigning David Salle’s art the function of guilty pleasure—a reflex I must confess to having indulged in from time to time—not only entails a gross simplification of the art of the ’80s, it consigns the struggle over figure-based painting to an even more marginal position than the art world at large currently sees it as inhabiting. At a moment when the “adventurous uses of figuration” automatically bring to mind work as critically unchallenging as that of John Currin or Elizabeth Peyton, this is a worrisome prospect. Perhaps it has taken the perspective of the ’90s for us to recognize that the much-heralded opening up of painting from the late ’70s through the mid-’80s was more a local affair than an art-historical transfiguration. Next to today’s “global art” issues, not to mention the expanded reach of video and installation over the course of this decade, Salle’s preoccupations seem a bit solipsistic, his ambitions for painting antiquated. But to propose that the ’80s case for painting was a little shy of the mark is not the same as arguing that the issues dealt with in Salle’s art deserve consignment to the dustbin. Like many of his contemporaries, Salle skated into midcareer with a full-blown identity crisis on his hands, and he is one of the few survivors who seems to believe he can still outwit his viewers. In a sense, however, this is beside the point: Painting never really went away, and figuration in particular has attained its renewed critical acceptance thanks in large part to Salle. Cycles of history may be unforgiving, but they are also capable of surprising reversals. If the upcoming Stedelijk exhibition is unlikely to return Salle to the forefront of critical debate, it will help us acknowledge those aspects of ’80s critical and artistic thought that still resonate today. It’s taken a long time to be able to consider the work of the preceding epoch without getting mired in preconceptions of one kind or another. We might even discover that despite the toxic undertow of self-consciousness, the political bad faith that haunts his content, and the disquieting memories of the ’80s art boom (and crash), perhaps the best approach to take to David Salle nowadays is to remind ourselves that the painless redemption we appear to yearn for in the art of the present day can only be meaningful if we permit ourselves an unflinching inspection of the darker side that we left behind.