New York

David Salle

Gagosian Gallery

Twenty years ago (my God!), when painting and postmodernism met in their unlikely romance, it was David Salle who played Friar Lawrence. As painting was regaining a respectability and a prominence it had lacked for over a decade, the clear intelligence of Salle’s work, and the neatness with which it lent itself to a new theoretical vocabulary of appropriation and the simulacrum, made him stand out. Of late, though, most anyone writing about Salle begins with the waning of his reputation in the ’90s. Salle’s painting has certainly lost its early bravura nerviness; given the critical apparatus that surrounded it two decades ago, as well as its attitudinal chiliness and the particular cerebral quality of its macho swagger, we might forget the jazziness of its juxtapositions, with its plaids and patterns, its cartoon figures, and its combinations of photographic passages and loose drawing. And in any case painting itself, love it or hate it, was a daring move in the early ’80s; today, while the honor of painting is fully restored after its ’70s lapse, it is no longer daring per se. As well, Salle’s current images have a uniformly well-behaved elegance, and his exhibitions have settled into methodical plays of variations on a theme. He virtually punctures surprise.

The recent show involved a pastoral, in a bland eighteenth-century style, in which a gentleman angler shows his minnowlike catch to a shepherdess type who seems disproportionately alarmed. The image recurs in each painting, often more than once, repeated in various ways—reversed, cropped, transposed into different color keys, and so on. It also combines with other images and forms, including a guitar and an origami figure drawn in outline over the underlying painting; a vertical row of oversize molars in solid colors blotting out the scene; a still life or section of pattern appearing on an independent canvas, here rectangular, there star- or coffin-shaped, inset into the larger work; and more. In fact these paintings constitute an intricate compendium of ways to form and vary and combine images, whether within the same canvas or in multipanel or insert arrangements.

The paintings are also full of art historical references and presences, the strongest to my eye being Jasper Johns, whose work of the ’80s and ’90s shows just the same kinds of reversals and crops and color shifts, which hide images in plain sight even while repeating them. A motif of a hanging sheet in a couple of Salle’s pictures may be an explicit nod to Johns, who has several times borrowed a similar image from a Zurbarán veronica. The response to those works of Johns’s has been quite mixed, but even so, the comparison with Salle is not altogether flattering to the younger artist. For not only can the fascination or repetition compulsion that one often senses on Johns’s part be riveting in itself, it shades into a philosophical exploration of the nature of imagemaking. Salle's careful, even virtuosic calculations do some of the same labor, but the result seems more a jumble of ingredients than a thoroughly cooked dish. And while the art of Johns, whether late or early, often reveals a bitter tension, a secret personal content under excruciating pressure from a willed impersonality, Salle’s paintings are impersonal, period, and leave you cold.

Or else, if there is personal content here, it has to do with sterility and canceled desire (subjects that Johns, again, can make riveting). Boy shows girl his minnow; she recoils. The scene may be rural, but when a bird appears it is a plucked turkey, or perhaps a line drawing of a paper swan. Still lifes are resolutely still lifes rather than fruit, and may appear upside down. One might be tempted to attribute the work’s deadness to the appropriative and quotational mode itself, attacked by some from the start for holding life at a distance and making art a hermetic hall of mirrors; but that would ignore the emotional resonance of some of that work, whether by Johns or Sherrie Levine. It would also ignore the snazzy energy of Salle’s own earlier painting. A strong and original artist, Salle seems to be fishing a handsome but stagnant backwater from which he may yet sail free.

David Frankel