The American artist David Salle (born 1952) combined the human figure with abstract forms in many of his works, presenting disturbing meditations on our modern existence.
David Salle was born in Norman, Oklahoma, in 1952 and spent much of his youth in Wichita, Kansas, before going to California to study art at the age of 18. He received both his B.F.A. (1973) and M.F.A. (1975) from the California Institute of the Arts while studying under the artist John Baldessari. In 1975, at the age of 22, he moved to New York to embark on a career as a painter. His early years in New York, where he still resided in the early 1990s, were financially difficult ones, so much so that in 1976 he declared bankruptcy. As a result, he was forced to support himself by taking on odd jobs working alternately as a cook, teacher, and even a paste-up artist in the art department for Stag magazine, a pornographic publication.
Nevertheless, Salle's rise to the top of the art world was rapid and his success made him one of the most widely known artists of the 1980s. His first artistic triumph was in 1979 at an exhibition staged by a private dealer in New York. Once he was discovered by Mary Boone, one of the most prominent art dealers in New York, his career accelerated at a feverish pace. At the relatively young age of 37, Salle had participated in countless one man and group exhibitions throughout the world.
If the Post-Modern era can best be characterized by the term "pluralism," then David Salle was the 1980s most representative artist. Salle's imagery and the unique manner in which he drew from a variety of sources sets his painting apart from the work by other artists clamoring for public and critical attention. He drew from such widely disparate artistic traditions as Pop Art, Minimalism, Abstract Expressionism, Cubism, and Realism as well as images from popular culture. Though his paintings often conformed to the 1980s call for a return to the figure and representational art, he often combined the figure with abstract forms and this juxtaposition typically resulted in a mode of painting that was at once accessible and unfamiliar.
One relatively early example was his How To Use Words as a Powerful Aphrodisiac (1982). Typical of Salle's style was the inclusion of the human form, usually monochromatically rendered and erotically posed, upon which he will often superimposed hastily sketched images drawn either from popular culture or works of art from both the recent and distant past. In this case, Salle, in the center panel of his unequally proportioned triptych, superimposed Picasso's Cubist Head of a Woman over a quickly painted monochromatic copy after a Coney Island scene painted by Reginald Marsh (1940). In the left panel Salle painted a vertically posed, academically rendered right arm and shoulder of a model. Were it not for the shocking red background one might think this was an anatomical study pulled from the portfolio of Salle's painted studies from life he made during his student days. The right panel, curiously cut off at the bottom, was completely non-representational and in the tradition of the best of the Abstract painters from the 1950s. The painting was therefore an odd juxtaposition of artistic modes of expression familiar to any student of art in the 20th century: the abstract or non-representational, the experimental, as well as the figurative.
Salle was not merely interested in the problems of the Post-Modern era's coming to terms with viable means of expression after the Modern period, but he was also interested in the phenomenon of mass consumption, mass media, and the objectification of intimate human contact and relationships, as was quite clear in his painting entitled His Brain (1984). Here Salle presented us with a graphic image of a nude woman bent at the waist with her buttocks to the beholder. Again, superimposed upon this erotic image were sketches of Monet's floating studio, the ghostly image of a woman with her fingers in her mouth, and what seemed to be faint silhouettes of Abraham Lincoln. The left quarter of the canvas was dominated by a vertical strip of abstract painting that consists of repeating clusters of crisply delineated multicolored crescent shapes separated by vaguely zoomorphic forms. Pained over this pattern was a suggestively phallic form. This painting was typical of Salle's style through his seemingly haphazard combination of various images. The image was jarring and confrontative yet strangely distanced from our experience. It was this dichotomy that was the core of Salle's work. Yet the attempt to fathom the meaning in Salle's paintings often resulted in frustration. Salle's paintings refered to so many images and themes outside themselves that his art has been described as "intertextual." As a result, his paintings tended to be discursive, passing from one subject to another in quick fashion, resulting in message that is not usually immediately forthcoming.
The notion of the impersonal nature of contemporary life and culture was also fertile ground for Salle and was best expressed in his characteristic use of coolly rendered grisaille figures, particularly those that bordered on the pornographic, as does the woman in His Brain. Though she offered herself to the viewer, she was rendered with such coldness and detachment as to stifle any romantic impulse. In this sense Salle seemed to be working in the tradition of Degas in the 19th century, detached and remote in his relationship to the subject. The absence of both color and human interaction made Salle's women mere objects—a consumer item, a commodity for the eyes like a pornographic photograph or an urban billboard. His pictures demanded a reaction and begged us to discover. His sketchy borrowings from the past, were strident comments on tradition, both historical and artistic. He called into question the very foundations of our own time and pondered with a certain cynicism the validity of the Modern era.
In the mid 1980s Salle's work became increasingly complex both in its formal construction and intellectual implications, as he often included real objects. Witness the light fixture in his The Trucks Bring Things Home or the wooden panel studded with pegs in his equally enigmatic The Disappearance of the Booming Voice of 1984. The upper portion of the latter painting consisted of a wooden panel with projecting dowels whose ends have been painted with green acrylic. Given the subject of the lower panel, the foreshortened raised legs and buttocks of a prone nude woman, there can be no doubt that these pegs carry a phallic meaning. Again, Salle combined the familiar and unfamiliar, along with the artistic and the erotic, in such a way as to pique our curiosity while at the same time purposely discouraging our efforts to ascertain his meaning.
Salle may be considered a kind of Post-Modern Pop artist with fangs as he repeatedly borrowed from artists like Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and James Rosenquist. He differed from them in that his paintings were introspective, enigmatic, often brooding and vaguely disturbing meditations on the contemporary world and our desperate search for meaning. In a society fixated on images and image making, Salle presented us with an unsettling mirror of our own existence.
Salle turned to stage decoration and in 1986 was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to create paintings for the theater and ballet. In December 1985 he devised the settings and costumes for the play Birth of the Poet, by Kathy Acker, which was performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In the spring of 1986 the American Ballet Theatre premiered Karol Armitage's The Mollino Room, with sets and costuming by Salle. Some of the costumes resembled the garb of circus performers, while others were whimsical variations of ordinary street clothes. For example, Mikhail Baryshnikov, the lead character, wore a blue polo shirt with a smiling fish design. The sets (which some found striking) differed from his paintings in their lack of multipanel format and erotic content. Three of the five drops contained but a single image, the fourth was simply a monochromatic expanse of orange and the fifth was painted with an abstract rectangular design. Significantly, the title of the ballet refered to Carlo Mollino, a modern Italian architect whose belief that bad taste merited serious attention, may have lead the fascination of pop culture. Though not heralded as his finest accomplishments, his set designs were better received than his cinematography directing debut—Search and Destroy, 1995.
"The idea of a painter becoming a filmmaker is an intriguing one," John Petrakis, of the Chicago Tribune, wrote, "and perhaps someday modern artist David Salle will direct an enticing piece of cinema. But he'll need a much better script than the one provided for him here by writer Michael Almereyda, based on Howard Korder's stage play. To put it bluntly, this movie is a mess." Though much ado was made about the opening and that this was his first attempt, little good was said about the production. Although it had infomercial hosts, closet scriptwriters —for slasher flicks, drug dealers, gangsters and a bit of love thrown in for good measure; some of the actors were "dangerously out of control, the tell-tale sign of a rookie director."
In a paperback volume, David Salle (1986), Janet Kardon traced the transition of the artist from the 1970s to the 1980s.
There were many critical articles and numerous museum catalogues concerned with the art of David Salle. Some excellent sources containing background material that place Salle within his historical context are H.H. Arnason, History of Modern Art, 3rd edition (1986), and Howard Smagula, Currents: Contemporary Directions in the Visual Arts, 2nd edition (1989). See also Chicago Tribune "Puzzling 'Search' Self-Destructs," 05/12/95 and Current Biography Yearbook (1986), pages 488-491.