New York

Peter Saul

Allan Frumkin Gallery

Like D’Archangelo, Peter Saul comes out of the Pop Art scene; he too is attempting to develop his Pop materials into something else—in Saul’s case a kind of blasting, bombardiering, socially relevant funk. At the Allan Frumkin Gallery during November he showed three groups of paintings, all about equally hysterical and iconoclastic.

In Saul’s famous Saigon (Whitney Museum), a horrors-of-war extravaganza with an anti-hokey edge to it, the embodiment of hatred and anxiety seemed justified; in fact, the utter offensiveness of it (as in Guernica) had a decorous appropriateness. Now, however, in the new social-critical works, everything is hopelessly and equally corrupt. The freaked Popeye grotesquerie of Saigon is applied without diminution of intensity—with merely a change to a simpler format on a smaller scale—to taking pot shots at, for instance, Leo Castelli, Henry Geldzahler, Clement Greenberg, and Andy Warhol.

The art world pictures backfire by cheapening the whole output in esthetic as well as moral worth. Even if the New York art world were controlled by a Tammany-like machine would that really be as serious a problem as race, Johnson, Nixon, or the attitude brilliantly “captured” in the painting Phuckin Stoodints? Saul’s art world subjects themselves were all much more formidable or threatening in the years when he was trying to make it as a Pop artist but not doing very well. Maybe a private axe is being ground.

The hateful social-critical zing in Saul’s lurid, bad taste Day Glo canvases is, of course, reminiscent of George Grosz in Weimar Germany. But an even closer parallel may be found in Thomas Hart Benton’s Political, Business, and Intellectual Ballyhoo. While Benton’s Depression painting is less expressionistically ugly than works by Grosz, its ulcerous ressentiment comes close to Saul in its cartoon-figure satire and in its target—the decadent irrelevancy and corrupt pseudo-intellectualism of the art world. Benton’s figures are reading the New Masses, the Post, the Nation, and the New Republic, and placards announce “Greenwich Village Proletarian Costume Dance,” the “Literary Playboy’s League of Social Consciousness,” “Regenerative Potentialities: The New Woman,” and the fact that 5 out of 6 people have halitosis.

Compared with Saul, Dubuffet is genteel. These pictures are so totally committed to offensiveness and humiliation that there is no innocent line of esthetic approach open to them. The figures suggest lurid hot rod decals or the mascot images painted on the fuselages of military planes during the war: but here all the wit and charm are removed, leaving only the grossness. Saul makes sure that it will be impossible to experience any innocent pleasure. There is no point to get, no lesson to be learned; there is not even the minimum optimism of the anarchist. There is some humor, to be sure, but of a kind worthy of a guilty adolescent snicker. Worst of all, the new works tend to dilute the effect of Saigon.

Joseph Masheck