David Cohen at Artcritical
February 16, 2001
A frolic with
I give up! I'm tired of not liking
David Salle. In marked contrast, on the evidence of his latest show
at Gagosian, which continues to March 3, the artist himself never tires
of being David Salle, exhausting though it must be. For sure, however,
there's still plenty not to like about this perennial Bad Boy of painting,
the same things, indeed, that have always irked earnest art lovers:
his trickiness and repetitiveness and suspected cynicism.
My repulsion started right at the
outset of my career, before even learning that he was one of the '80s
artists one was supposed to despise. I was in Toronto, writing my first
foreign review (of the renovated Henry Moore wing at the Art Gallery
of Ontario) and I was overwhelmed by a visceral disgust at the bombast
and sameness of their huge, clearly premature Salle retrospective. And
I remember, quite clearly, that it wasn't the vaguely nasty subjects
that appalled me, but the deathly, enervating form. Right up to his
last show at Gagosian's old SoHo space, with those teddy bears and Alex
Katz quotations, my antipathy held out. And by then I wanted to start
liking him. He was sufficiently out of fashion to warrant admiration
for his doggedness, plus I had met him at a panel and found him to be
totally charming, plus my whole attitude towards authenticity and appropriation
had swung around in my first decade of artwriting. But the paintings
just seemed puny and inadequate.
And yet now I find myself ravished
(an appropriate term for images with pastoral frolic as its central,
repeated motif) and, well you know what Cicero said about frolicing.
There is indeed a kind of post-coital guilt and confusion when you realise
you have been seduced by an artist you thought a turn-off. Will I now
have a revised view of the earlier work? Will I soon have the old doubts
about this newest work? Has it changed or have I? Forget Cicero, it's
Heraclitus I need to worry about (as in "You can never step into
the river twice").
And now, of course, with these shifting
emotions and distorted memories, I don't have neatly stored within my
brain the right memories and responses to do justice to the subject
here, to be able to answer the question empirically enough about Salle's
shifts and mine. Just why is it that this new series seems strong and
fresh and vigorous when earlier efforts from the same hand, employing
similar strategies and in pursuit indubitably of a consisitent agenda,
fell so short?
I have a hunch. There has been a subtle
shift of nonetheless seismic consequence in the balance of power between
image and surface treatment. Before, despite the po-mo overload and
deconstructive disregard of the intended meanings of his appropriated
sources, power was with the image. The means of putting the image down
was subservient to its emotional tenor, even when this tenor was counter-intuitive
to the image, - for example, cold treatment for erotic subjects. Now,
and it is significant that the central image is of innocents fishing
in a rococo landscape, touch and tone seem to determine choices of image
or artist to appropriate or quote. One feels, say, that that Derain
harlequin came in because the brush demanded it. It is actually better
for Salle to tune in to a Jasper Johns pattern than an Alex Katz figure
because - for all his eclecticism and layering - it is texture not context
that his painting were crying out for.
It is extraordinary, really, how diverse
Salle can be in his painterly effects without ever quite capitulating
and becoming painterly per se. He is still more relaxed, more intuitive,
more form-conscious, with imagery than he is with shape, gesture, color.
It is as if imagery is the stuff on his palette and paint some fabulous
discovery or invention. What an odd fellow! But his adventures with
paint are invigorating. Like the happy peasant in his serial stencil
he has caught something impressive. The juxtaposition of linen and canvas,
the optical collisions of oil and acrylic, are as constructive as they
are deconstructive. Of course, these tricks all serve to keep any kind
of expressiveness in steel enforced quotation marks. But that's okay.
This is David Salle. These paintings have the chilly dryness of a strong
martini, if not the purity.
David Salle: Pastoral continues at
Gagosian Gallery, 555 West 24th Street, to March 3, 2001
View images from this show at www.gagosian.com
but be sure to come back here!