New York

David Salle

Lever House Art Collection

Lever House, the Miesian, midcentury skyscraper designed by Gordon Bunshaft for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, has become, in recent years, a deluxe site for the exhibition of contemporary art. The installations there are visible through—though often harried by—the building’s broad glass curtain walls that front onto Park Avenue.

In order to ameliorate the distractions of the sudden shafts of light glancing off the neighboring office buildings and the roaring traffic’s boom, architect Christian Hubert, working with curator Richard Marshall, hung gauzy scrims battened by rectangles of wood upon which David Salle’s large paintings were mounted. The six horizontal works, presented under the title “Tapestries / Battles / Allegories,” were given intriguing names, though the paintings as exhibited carry no identifying labels. Thus, the visitor was hard-pressed to determine which canvas was, say, Campaign (all works 2012), as at least two works could easily have served as representative of a military theme. Another work was presumably The River, as it visually references, among other works, George Caleb Bingham’s Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, 1845, that gem of antebellum American genre painting.

But aren’t the vagaries of nomenclature rather the point? That the viewer remains unsure as to the identity of the works underscores their multivalency and, in that sense, their continuing claim as representative postmodern efforts. Salle’s magpie borrowings tend to drive out meaning through referential excess. In this counterintuitive way, the artist invites us to experience his paintings as untethered from literary source or pictorial model, perhaps even as arrangements of pure sensory stimuli.

Yet to argue that Salle was focused on an art of existential effect (as if following a thread leading from Suprematism through Abstract Expressionism) smacks terribly of casuistry, since, from the outset of his notable career, the ocean of ciphers in which he has luxuriated have begged to be decoded. Indeed, no artist of the past four decades (with the initiatory exception of Robert Rauschenberg) is as associated with such a catholicity of readings in response to pictorial references. Among the visual clues of these half-dozen works—apart from the titular tapestry, battle, and allegory—are tantalizing references to Yves Klein’s “Anthropométries de l’époque bleue,” 1960–62, those famous splayed and dragged figures that the astonishing French Conceptualist created using nude models as human paintbrushes.

To be sure, the battle scenes and massing armies that here form the backdrop of several works recall French salon painting of military subjects—think Édouard Detaille or Ernest Meissonier. Their panoramic vistas embody the lachrymose chauvinism that developed in reaction to the rout of Napoléon’s Grande Armée following the fiasco of his Russian campaign, a defeat that augured the trouncing of France by the Prussians in 1870. Such disasters ultimately became central to nationalist myths of French heroism from World War I through World War II and, arguably, into our own postcolonial time. As we peer through one layer of image down upon another, such seemingly happenstantial invocations, when lathered over by the Klein figuration, continue to remind us of an oft-cited model for Salle’s painting—Francis Picabia’s “Transparencies.”

Still, in certain measure, interpretive content in Salle’s work is supplied by context; here, Lever House itself conferred particularly pointed meaning. Aby Rosen, who currently owns the landmarked structure, is himself a notable collector of contemporary art. Among his tenants is Alberto Mugrabi, whose family owns perhaps the major holding of Warhol. Together with Marshall, an on-the-qui-vive curatorial figure, these three very solicited personalities direct the Lever House art collection. But are they not as well (all proportion guarded) celebrities equivalent to the royal and ecclesiastic patrons and builders of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to whom we owe the architectural treasures of the grand siècle? It was for the sheer spectacle and glory of the capacious walls and stairwells of their grand palaces that the great Flemish tapestries of the Baroque period were woven. In that light, Salle’s present-day tapestries, battles, and allegories could not have been more aptly conceived or more saliently located.

Robert Pincus-Witten