New York

David Salle

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

David Salle’s paintings look lusher than before. The painted grounds of his canvases remain cinematic—smooth, thin stains that resemble projections—but they are more richly, even luridly pigmented. On the right panel of Painting for Eli, for instance, the contorted face and straining neck of a woman are drawn over a deep, indigo purple, while the left panel consists of a large daisy awkwardly chiseled into light wood, a concoction that is both bluntly simple and characteristically disingenuous. Post-existential eroticized angst and the emotional naiveté of stylistic awkwardness are Salle’s dominant motifs. The recent work in this show shows adventurousness and increased confidence with materials; it was, all in all, a breakthrough with mixed blessings.

All but five of these thirteen works were executed in the first two months of 1983, suggesting (among other things) that Salle has been emphasizing the idea and pace of “production.” This program is peculiarly appropriate to his admitted pictorial ideology: to compress, decompress, and thereby neutralize the connotative values in imagery. He has expunged the psychological quease that makes many of his previous female nudes disquieting, and is now bracketing, quoting, and categorizing his troubleshooting episodes. A year ago I suggested that Salle’s fascination was the issue of self-betrayal—of finding or losing the self—but this no longer seems to be the case. He seems for the moment to have chosen the role of rogue, and his fascination has become more literary, concerned with finding or losing the moral of the story.

A combine painting called Black Bra sports one dangling at the tip of a wooden pole, and lest the jest seem too Zéro de Conduite, it has an art-historical coda in the form of a depicted bowl of apples derived from a Cézanne still life. Fleisch Art, 1982, is a nude, less in need of elaboration. The title of the latter work is incorporated in the painting; Salle uses words and objects more frequently and with greater aplomb here than before, and while his puns, verbal satires, and titles are now acute and speedy, the combines are the slickest yet most inert of these new works. Globes offer some of the world’s best instant graphics and are thus a natural addition to Salle’s visual inventory, but the four little ones hanging off the front of Deaf Ugly Face create stagnant congestion. Gratuitousness is part of Salle’s strategy, but his actions nonetheless require something of his intellectual, rather than just graphic, presence.

The four “Zeitgeist Paintings,” 1982, are grand improvisations, each keyed by the opportunities to riff graphically provided by the letters c, u, n, and t. Each letter prompts intricate “stream of consciousness” drawings on each of the paintings’ top panels (one of which bears likenesses of Spencer Tracy and Bella Abzug), and slower-paced dissection studies of nudes and self-portraits below. They are Salle’s most complex, most spontaneous, least glib, and most impressive paintings to date. The strongest element of his art is essentially narrative (or at any rate postnarrative), saturnine, sentimental, and psychological. The art-historical spoofs such as Black Bra seem merely designed to offend some of the more easily offended sensibilities, and seem therefore time-killing dalliances. Salle’s efficacy as an irritant is well established and annotated. At times it is also a potent provocation to visual thinking. The “Zeitgeist Paintings” and a few others here reconfirm Salle’s dual position as sharpest thinker and Peck’s Bad Boy among his peers.

Lisa Liebmann