New York

David Salle

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

Two of the twenty-one paintings shown by David Salle here loomed large in this three-gallery show of the artist’s work over the last two years. Both follow Salle’s most characteristic diptych format and grab-bag deployment of Modern allusions, are possessed of an easy, spoiled beauty (cold with the sense of lost innocence), and are utterly, self-consciously sentimental. Titled The Monotonous Language and We’ll Shake the Bag, the first has for its primary focus a gynecological perspective of the nude, and the second is of nudes in situ, under bedsheets. Both paintings are also quite small. Salle’s work lately seems to be getting heroically big, which doesn’t really suit his fine-tuned streamlined pitch—most effective when operating on a low, intimate, late-night-television-screen buzz.

The raw left-hand canvas of The Monotonous Language contains an abstract implosion of pink. The right canvas, in a modulated tone of greenish saffron, shows the pornographically arrayed woman in a color field over which the outlines of a ’50s-style decorated room have been sketched, perspectivally angled toward a corner. The woman’s genitalia open out from a low center. Her eyes peer out with, were such things possible, the same “expression.” All the elements, on hovering planes, effect a nearly mesmerizing visual tug, and any initial queasiness is soon cut as one is affected by the voluble spirit lodged in the core of the painting. It is a genie at once romantic and sophistic, who one moment suggests such notions as the poetic essence of the female form and the next dismisses it as the property of whores; who seems to be saying that Modern Art is just so much grist for the mill while being almost audibly tear-choked by the evidence at hand.

The second painting, We’ll Shake the Bag, is composed of a contiguous drawing over both panels executed in a cool, magazine-graphic style. It is of a couple, a kind of adult Dick and Jane, lying in one bed but on two planes—twin beds of the psyche. The man, whose section is painted a thin, Arshile Gorky–ish cyclamen, is propped up slightly by pillows, and his arm, cut short by the edge of the canvas, might be holding a book or a cigarette. His facial features are somewhat inchoate; he is not the love object. The woman is lying flat on a gray-matter-gray surface gazing vacantly at an undepicted ceiling. Scrawled over both panels in a bright orange are several undifferentiated, expectant little boys’ faces. Near each mouth is a circle with a straight upward stem; the boys are bobbing for apples on strings, and are, it appears, a flashback in someone’s memory. The illustrator’s logic would have it be Jane’s; caught in a limbo of erotic inertia she has a fantasy, a recollection of some Proustian autumn with still unformed but fecklessly motivated young “Dicks.” She is, as well, a love object of the artist’s. Lifeless, affectless, glossy composite though she may be, she seems to have tapped a Pygmalion streak in Salle—the thick orange line of an apple-bobber is suddenly lifted, broken, so as not to violate the numb, bee-stung, upper-left curve of her lip.

It is to film that these two paintings can most effectively be compared, to movies with a lot of dialogue, flashbacks, cigarettes, and after-sex scenes. Jean-Luc Godard movies with Anna Karina. Blow-Up. Darling. Almost any movie with Dirk Bogarde or Laurence Harvey—movies, in short, that are morally ambivalent, erotically ambiguous. In these paintings, and to a lesser degree in a few others, Salle in a sense beats film at its own game, managing to suggest the effects of psychological stasis, narrative flow, flashback, and montage. These two paintings are beset with a nostalgia for certain Modern moods, moods whose moments coincided with Salle’s cultural awakening and that of others in his generation—people (myself included) who were adolescent at some point during the ’60s and who are likely to identify with his retrospect. These paintings seem to belong more to the sensibility of the nouvelle vague than to any of the many moods that have recently qualified as New Wave. For all their (deliberate) stylistic glibness and fashionability they look neither funky nor hard-boiled, but seem touched instead with a misty, California-hothouse-grown, late, muddled strain of existentialism.

Salle’s most affecting paintings tend to elicit this kind of interpretive, quasi-fictional flapping about. For the most part, those works devoid of the artist’s lurking emotionalism fail to seduce at any level. Among the other 19 shown, a few more follow the general atmospheric lines described here—notably a two-panel nude called Rebuilt, another nude (blue, on a chair, next to a panel of punctured black masonite) called My Subjectivity, and an untitled painting featuring a panel of pastel polka dots and a filmy composition of assorted, hovering, suggestive shapes and graphic gestures (reproduced in these pages last October).

Salle’s most recent work demonstrates a reference system that has become less parochial. Reginald Marsh, various Depression-era themes, street photography, Bourbon Street brothels, Spanish dancers, Modern-generic formalities, motorcycles, and Burbank animation have all seeped in, but the grip that Salle’s subjects seemed to have on him has loosened. Among the academic pastiches and facile jokes (the former mostly turgid, the latter by and large shrill) that characterize the rest of the show, only one piece stands out. Titled Autopsy, it is (again) a small diptych made up of, on the right, a photograph of a woman sitting on a bed wearing a fool’s cap on her head and one over each breast and, on the left, a color grid which is a tossed salad of Josef Albers, Alfred Jensen, and television’s prebroadcast color-bars. This jet-age harlequinade, succinct and self-contained, is an instant cliché, something for which Salle has a pronounced knack.

Salle has moved away from his earlier tentative delicacies of surface and sensibility toward a harsh, bald-looking Pop-ishness. A work like The Happy Writers—one half color grid, the other a cluster of familiar cartoon characters—suggests the possibility that Salle’s personal ozone layer is dissolving—a potentially dangerous state of affairs. “Subversion” is the word most often used to describe Salle’s pictorial tactics, but these tactics, practiced as they are by so many these days (though rarely as ably), have become stylistic conventions. The irreverent gesture, neutered by proliferation and by stamps of approval, has become predictable and meaningless.

The possibility exists that David Salle is paring his work down to tabula rasa. A large painting of his in a group show that immediately followed this exhibition consisted of a speedy figurative cluster and, in bright-yellow stenciled lettering, on a separate panel, the phrase “David Salle, 1982”—like screen credits for a sit-com: The David Salle Show (or To Tell the Truth, starring Conceptual Art). Discomfiting, one would imagine, for even the chic-est of living rooms. This screeching reductio bodes well, for if Salle stays on the sophistic treadmill that he seems to know so intimately, he will flirt not with subversion, but with the worst kind of sedition: self-betrayal.

Lisa Liebmann