PRINT May 1999

Dave Hickey

WHAT CAN ONE SAY about David Salle’s paintings on the eve of his European retrospective? Well, at the very least, one can say that the paintings must exist for the retrospective to take place. They must be there, on the wall, for the party to begin. Whether they will be taken as the true occasion for the party, however, is another question altogether, since, at the moment, David Salle’s paintings are not nearly as legendary as Salle’s artistic persona, and Salle’s artistic persona is not nearly as legendary as the progress of his artistic career. That is the object of wonder. The career—that first glorious decade during which Salle was widely touted as one of the major painters of the late twentieth century—and the dire second decade during which his reputation has plummeted to the status of high-dollar roadkill.

No discussion of Salle wanders far from the mystery of this dazzling trajectory, which is usually construed as a moral narrative in which the artist is alternately cast as undeserving victim of the zeitgeist or equally undeserving beneficiary. Logic would suggest that one of these narratives must be true, but logic presumes the validity of its terms, and “zeitgeist,” as a term, doesn’t mean or explain anything. Zeitgeist (or the fantasy of periodicity, if you like) is nothing more than an all-purpose excuse that transforms everything in its transcendental aura into a hapless, cause-less effect. David Salle, however, is neither a fashion victim nor a lucky fool.

The unavoidable fact is that Salle’s paintings caused their public vogue. For nearly a decade, a great many sophisticated people with broad experience in the world preferred looking at Salle’s paintings, talking about them and spending money on them, to looking at, talking about, or spending money on other works of art. For nearly a decade, we found uses for David Salle’s paintings, and lately we haven't. This sea change in fashion is presumed to constitute some kind of moral censure of Salle’s endeavor. All it really means is that we no longer like what we thought they meant. One of the hoariest axioms of art criticism is that old eyes can see new work, but only new eyes can confirm it. So, even though the clamor that surrounded Salle’s emergence constitutes solid evidence of the strength and efficacy of his paintings, it doesn’t mean we got them right the first time.

Maybe we got it wrong back in the ’80s. If we did, we were far from the first audience to acknowledge the power of an artist’s work by willfully misinterpreting it and then rejecting the work when we soured on our own misinterpretation. In this regard, it helps to remember how little use we had for de Kooning and Warhol twenty years ago not because they had “lost it” but because we no longer believed in what we thought their paintings meant. Without implying that what’s “good once” is “good forever,” then, I would like to suggest that Salle’s paintings at the present seem to be very different objects than they were in the moment of their apotheosis. They have virtues and qualities that were simply not visible in the atmosphere of their original interpretation. To state the case simply, there being no credible, visible evidence to support the widely held presumption that Salle’s work is somehow “ironic,” the painting in hindsight seems more a cri de coeur than a critique of contemporary culture, less a deconstruction of historical iconography than a diary of cosmopolitan disappointment.

The paintings haven’t changed, of course, but our eyes have, as they always do. We are emerging from an epoch in which the critique of institutions was gradually transformed into an institutional criticism whose hubris was virtually all-pervasive. Artists, art critics, tenured professors, and social activists during this period were all assumed to be pursuing the same progressive ends by different means. After the “end of art,” it was presumed, everyone was a critic, and this presumption of “critical distance” was so strong that it was easy to mistake candid confession for cold critique in any work of art that threatened to reveal the intimacies of an anxious and unhappy existence—for no better reason than that artists during this period were not granted the privilege of expressing their personal dis-ease and dysfunction. They were elite practitioners. We looked to them for irony, insight, and analysis. Because we felt the need of it, of course, but also because it was easier and more comforting to deal with distanced critical commentary than it was to confront the desperate, engaged expression of anxious, unhappy, and not particularly likable human beings.

In my own case, this period came to an end in 1989, when I finally saw Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories—the most sour and Sallesque of Allen’s films. I was sitting there in the theater about halfway through the film and still waiting to be amused, when I suddenly realized (when I knew absolutely and forever) that there was no distance between Woody Allen, actor and auteur, and his surrogate hero—that the ironic, critical distance I had presumed to be there was not there at all, that Allen was the guy in Stardust Memories and Play It Again Sam, in Annie Hall and Manhattan. In that moment, what I had taken for coolly observed cultural criticism was suddenly revealed as the most plangent form of self-lacerating confession, and I hated it. So I began avoiding Allen’s films. Then I came upon Manhattan one night on TV and found it to be a better film without the distance, not as funny ha-ha, perhaps, but braver and edgier, invested with a dreadful fullness that my self-protective presumption of irony had previously diluted.

I had a similar moment with David Salle, not in front of one of his paintings (which have all but disappeared from sight) but while reading his suicidal, crash-and-burn interview with Eileen Daspin in W—the one in which he fantasizes about the pleasure of putting Robert Hughes’s head in a vise. No sooner had I read these lines than it occurred to me that Salle’s narcissistic anger might, in some sense, be justified. Perhaps the international art critic who proclaims the diaristic, confessional virtues of Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon should be able to recognize those same qualities in Salle’s work—although, to be honest, Salle’s confessional mode is way too French, too nasty and acidic (à la Bataille) and totally lacking in the bogus, John Bull fulsomeness of Freud’s and Bacon’s angst. Even so, once you dispense with the presumption of irony, the obsessive, recursive distortions, the fixations and iterations, are undeniably there.

Over the years, I have become increasingly enamored of this confessional reading of Salle’s work. First, it makes the paintings more interesting by allowing them their urgency and nakedness. Second, it grants Salle the power of his talent while allowing him the privilege of his difficult personality. Third, it allows us to view his work in the deep tradition of ambitious provincials who, having tasted the bitter fruit of cosmopolitan success, build an oeuvre out of their nauseated reaction to it. Finally, by reading Salle’s paintings collectively as a confessional memoir, we are forced to think of them in unlikely contexts, as having affinities with the work of, say, Hannah Wilke, whose entire oeuvre is built on the bedrock of her panic and narcissism, or with that of Robert Gober, Salle’s bête noire, whose iterative and enigmatic iconography inhabits a similarly poisoned atmosphere. (I imagine Salle and Gober regarding one another warily, with hostility and recognition, across the abyss of sexual preference.)

The best reasons for regarding Salle’s work in this way are: One, Salle’s work does not change; two, it does not develop; and three, it is obsessively focused on the iconography of the past and invested with the antique pallor of forgetfulness. The work of artists who aspire to comment on the historical moment tends to change with it, as does the work of artists who are engaged with historical notions of style. David Salle does not change. He is a resourceful and inventive artist within the parameters he has set himself, but his format and his concerns remain as steady as Bacon’s or Freud’s, or even Robert Ryman’s—none of whose manners we would ever expect to change. So the issue is not so much Salle’s steady-state vision but our expectation that it should develop—and this expectation derives, I think, from the unspoken presumption that Salle is somehow offering “commentary,” that he is painting texts that comment on other texts.

In the ’80s, as you will remember, it was presumed that the visual terms that were appropriated to the discussion of texts by ’70s literary critics (juxtaposition, layering, linking, erasure, etc.) could somehow be borrowed back and applied to images. As a consequence, under the aegis of this hilarious misprision, Salle could be seen as painting some kind of Joycean prose—as having invented a critical “style of styles.” The simple fact, of course, is that the arrangement and inflection of embodied signs bear no analogous relationship to the arrangement and inflection of lexical items. We do not read images the way we read texts. We read images the way we read the weather, in an atmosphere of local knowledge and expectation. Having said this, of course, a “style of styles” is still possible. Jim Shaw does it in My Mirage, deploying an entire catalogue of late-twentieth-century Pop and beaux-arts manners in perfect counterfeit. David Salle does not do it ever. Basically, Salle has two styles: the brushy, modeled style of the nudes, which pays equal homage to James Rosenquist’s billboard manner and to generic beaux-arts training, and the expressionist maudit manner of the overlays that alludes to Picabia, Orozco, and Siqueiros. In matters of arrangement, his work is indebted in nearly equal parts to Baldessari, Rosenquist, and Polke, although Salle is a more daring and accomplished collagist and arranger than any of them. These are his debts. In sum, however, Salle has his own style, and it is relatively stable. What Salle did not borrow and adapt, what he invented, was not a “style of styles,” which is a relatively flexible concept (there being a surfeit of styles to combine and reconstrue), but a “genre of painting genres,” which is a generalization of the first order and not flexible at all. Any move out of a “genre of genres” is either reductive (simply painting a landscape) or a move out of painting altogether—a move that Salle has made occasionally, exhibiting sculpture and photographs.

Emphasizing the inflexibility of Salle’s format, however, presumes that he wants some flexibility, that he wishes his paintings to “go somewhere” in a formal or historical sense, and there is no evidence that he does, nor any particular reason he should. Salle’s paintings look back. They remember. They accept the primary gift of Pop art to painting, which was the revivification of genre as a categorical idea—the restoration of still lifes, nudes, portraits, landscapes, history paintings, and (in the case of Richter and Warhol) abstractions to intellectual credibility. Salle’s fiat was to combine these genres in a field of reverie and contemplation, to develop out of it a manner of recovering the past, not as experienced, but as remembered, in all its conventional poses—and in all its bitter lost-ness as well, I think. This, perhaps, explains Salle’s fall from grace. In the ’80s, a retrospective, contemplative practice of this sort was simply unimaginable, so we didn't imagine it. I would be the first to admit, however, the clear possibility that I am imagining it now. If so, that's okay. I like the paintings this way: as nasty and petulant as your maiden aunty—as frozen and sad as poor old Watteau.