New York

Peter Saul, Untitled, 1966, acrylic, oil, and metallic paint on canvas, 75 1/4 × 69 1/4".

Peter Saul, Untitled, 1966, acrylic, oil, and metallic paint on canvas, 75 1/4 × 69 1/4".

Peter Saul

Peter Saul remembers listening to the electrocution of American scapegoat Ethel Rosenberg live on the radio. This would have been 1953, when he was eighteen. According to the artist, the reporter became “completely unhinged,” shouting, “Her hair is on fire! Her hair is on fire!” Sadly for Saul, his parents made him switch off the broadcast, leaving him to forever imagine what followed. This possibly apocryphal origin story goes a long way toward explaining Saul’s work: He’s been envisioning the depth of the country’s depravity ever since and has never lost a sense of our zeal for public suffering. (He painted a literal depiction of this event—a flaming Ethel—in 1987.) Finishing art school in 1956, Saul escaped to Europe and painted the US cultural landscape from abroad in a crime-soaked, home-brewed proto-Pop art as glimpsed through a scant selection of magazines, mostly Life and MAD, and colored by memories of the appealingly lurid comic book series Crime Does Not Pay.

Saul, advantageously unaware of Warhol, thought smuggling low culture into high art was his own invention. (Someone had to break the news to him.) But where Warhol and co. were arch and cool, Saul was a hot-blooded crank, huffing Surrealism and pulp fiction and twisting Americana into something suitably grotesque. He aimed to skeez, dropping droopy toilets, splashing bloody swatches, and throwing amorphous bulbous extremities—not to mention the odd swastika—into his fever-dream pastiches. Superman’s chest insignia is a repeated motif, and Saul saw it for what it was: an emblem of America’s dime-store invincibility, the kind of reassuring story you whisper to yourself while the Soviets are tinkering with the Bomb.

Running concurrently with Saul’s first New York survey at the city’s New Museum, the artist’s solo exhibition at Michael Werner Gallery highlighted fourteen of his paintings and works on paper, made between 1959 and 1966. Murder in the Kitchen, 1961—the canvas after which the show was titled—presents a Manny Farber–like flat plane jumbled with evidence roughly sketched in subdued (for Saul) green, yellow, pink, white, and blue oils. A bottle with a skull-and-crossbones label, a halved grapefruit, a radio helpfully labeled radio, footprints, a hovering toilet seat (and a leaking penis missing that seat), coffee cups, and more delineate the sinister spill of a crime scene, where you never know which object is the telltale one. In the top-left corner, a hand reaches in firing a gun, the economy of the gesture recalling a Saul Bass title sequence. A woman’s head, with long hair and Xed-out eyes, stands in for the victim, although the firearm seems to be shooting at a piglet with a human face. The picture’s organizing principle is strict synchronicity, a narrative in which everything, half-remembered, happens at once.

Confounding and defiant, Murder still does not quite show Saul fully unleashed. Two paintings from 1966, Untitled and Golden Gate, are closer to the Day-Glo provocations he became best known for. The former shows a buck-toothed woman with goat feet being ogled by four soldiers (three Vietcong and one American), one of whom bashes her head with a blood-spattered phallus labeled VD. A male figure with the words honest work written on his left arm swoops in from the bottom of the composition. If some of the earlier pieces here suggested the works of Georges Braque or Willem de Kooning, these later paintings recall the hot-rod art of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth or the acid-tinged id of R. Crumb.

In an audio tour of the New Museum show, Saul seems bemused at the institution’s attempt to make him, in a word, “respectable.” After all, he wanted nothing more than to shit on the floor of the art swells’ tabernacle, which he did for fifty-plus years, the heretical gush now deemed prescient. The righteous anger that inspired his outpouring resonates today with even the fanciest audiences. And his current style, a Bosch-cum-Garbage Pail Kids aesthetic, jibes perfectly with our dumpster-fire era. But Saul’s rank iconoclasm presumes an earnest and upstanding urge deep in the American psyche, something that can be jolted out of cruelty or passivity. As Saul well knows, the nation’s powerful and their patrons can’t be shocked or shamed, and the country grinds on, discovering new lows by the hour. In comparison, the practiced vulgarity of a Saul canvas reads as a good-natured, modest belch beneath the roar.