New York

David Salle

Gagosian Gallery

For much of the mid ’80s the art establishment was held in thrall to David Salle’s addictive brand of bad-boy defiance, which courted misogyny and cynicism in the name of esthetic liberty. No one could top Salle as the artist responsible for the largest number of art-world dinner parties reduced to out-and-out shouting matches. In keeping with the moment, a streak of opportunism a mile wide ran through his project, one that was less a Warholian gesture than a sparring match with Julian Schnabel, Salle’s erstwhile competitor for most all-consuming art-world ego. I'll admit it now, I’ve always felt a little guilty for loving Salle’s ambivalence and yet at the time it all seemed to make sense as a kind of anticriticality disguised as deconstructivist mischief.

Somewhere along the way, as it invariably does, the air went out of Salle’s will to play the heavy. Brattiness doesn’t last, a little voice said, but great paintings do—and thus another fine upstart went astray. By the late ’80s, Salle’s paintings had become luxurious testaments to a basically smart and ambitious guy’s desire to he remembered foremost as a painter. For a while, there was even a corresponding tension between the remnants of his talent for choosing and juxtaposing images, and the courtly manner in which he rendered them. In fact, the plan would have worked had his painterly talents been anywhere near as developed as his audacity. But like many of his forebears, from Jim Dine to Kenny Scharf, Salle’s ambition is tied to an absence of self-criticality, which caused him to turn his hack on the gestures with which he first gained notoriety and to denounce them as mere posturings, thus instantly eliminating his entire support structure.

Tension is what was most glaringly absent in his double show of new paintings and sculptures at Gagosian, and new and old paintings at Boone. Although a few recent canvases, such as Picture Builder, 1993, suggest that Salle is trying to develop a recombinant vocabulary that fuses the best of his previous sources with a few new curves, there are too many works on a par with LifeSaver, 1993, which seems almost spiteful in its adherence to formulaic color and composition. For me, the argument will never be about whether Salle is or has the makings of a convincing painter, it’s about whether he dares to speak in the voice of his time, and stand up to the scorn that comes with it. That’s why it’s particularly painful to note that in these works Salle has rejected the fight to recast visual meaning for the sake of trying to charm us. Ultimately, he’s much more convincing as the snake.

Dan Cameron