New York

Anthony Joseph Salvatore


Anthony Joseph Salvatore’s lyrical abstractions recall the canvases of early American Modernists such as Arthur Dove, glowing with the inner light of stained-glass windows. These 13 medium-sized works in oil and acrylic on paper unfold like so many parts of a greater whole—in each, organic-looking blue and green fields are punctuated by quasi-figural and abstract forms of red and orange. This restless interplay of abstract shapes hints at a hidden, underlying order. Each title cites a specific passage from the Bible, which, instead of providing easy explanations, requires the viewer to confront a basic paradox: the coupling of a stern, Biblical message with sensuous form and lush color. For Salvatore, a self-taught artist and Pentecostal visionary, the medium and the message are decidedly one.

An outsider among “Outsiders,” Salvatore, who lives in Ohio, does not fit neatly into the pantheon of religious visionary artists in America—Howard Finster, Bessie Harvey, and Minnie Evans, among others—that has, in the past decade, become largely associated with Southern culture and folkways. Although he shares Finster’s goal of preaching an apocalyptic message through art, Salvatore does not work within the parameters of folk tradition. While Finster constructs clear, didactic narratives with both figurative images and text, Salvatore has invented a symbolic language of abstract forms. The varied, circular shapes that appear prominently in 1 Peter 3, 1989, and Ephesians 1 : 10, 1991, signify the word of God not via any literal message, but through their self-contained wholeness, which contrasts sharply with the surrounding visual chaos. Another common symbol is a red, tonguelike shape, Salvatore’s visual equivalent of the Pentecostal phenomenon of glossolalia, or “speaking in tongues.” Large and swollen, small and snakelike, these powerfully evocative forms embody the pronouncements of a powerful and often wrathful God. This show is dominated by eight interpretations of the Old Testament Book of Amos, in which God reprimands and severely punishes the people of Israel. While the ominous wall of red tongues in 2 Amos : 3, 1989, typifies this drama, Salvatore balances his portrayals of divine wrath with those of divine reparation, with the cool colors and soft forms of 9 Amos : 14, 1989. To the artist’s credit, these paintings always transcend the specificity of their intended message, communicating, as all successful expressionistic abstraction does, at the level of affect.

In a very general way, Salvatore’s work belongs to the Symbolist/Expressionist tradition in modern painting, and its honesty implicitly challenges the bland, New Age spiritualisms of much post-Modern abstraction. Yet it would be a mistake to include this artist uncritically in the mainstream of post-Modern painting, because he is not, after all, engaged self-consciously with the history of modern styles. Historically, unself-conscious artists like Salvatore have provided avant-garde artists (from Pablo Picasso to Jean Dubuffet to Roger Brown) with refreshment whenever the well of inspiration ran dry. While this time-honored pillaging of folk art by mainstream artists will doubtless continue, shows like this one challenge us to give self-taught talents the serious attention they deserve.

Jenifer P. Borum