David Salle is remarkably measured in his thinking, prone to prefacing any vaguely provocative statement with a phrase like “of course these are generalizations and there are always exceptions and you could create a counterargument if you were to take the trouble…” In the Fab Four of famous 1980s male art stars–the other three are Jean Michel Basquiat, Eric Fischl, and Julian Schnabel, but, to paraphrase, you could make a counterargument–let’s call Salle the Quiet One. If Fischl was never quite brash enough to inspire the resentment reaped by his peers, Basquiat’s legacy is at least secure in death, and Schnabel makes a point of shouting about his worth from the rooftops with every gesture he makes. But Salle has more or less kept his head down and worked, with great consistency, since his first show in 1979. (It was at a then-unknown gallery called Gagosian.) He has exhibited widely and been written about at great length–including serving as the subject for one of the most famous profiles in the history of The New Yorker, Janet Malcolm’s “Forty-one False Starts.” It’s strange to call such an artist under-valued, but I couldn’t help but think this was the case as I sat with Salle in his house in Brooklyn one recent afternoon.
The ‘80s were a decade of extremes and contemporary art was no exception. Those years saw a horde of young male artists getting rich and catching the attention of the wider public, laying the ground work for the cultural monolith that is the art world as we know it today. The money and the personalities, predictably, all cast a long shadow over the actual work being made. Salle had his brief moments as an angry young man (Malcolm’s piece, which catches the artist on the eve of turning 40, opens with a description of Salle as “bloody-minded,” and complaining, in Malcolm’s words, that he “was being passed over”), though nothing like Schnabel, whose most famous soundbite is, “I’m the closest thing to Picasso that you’ll see in this fucking life.” Salle, though he doesn’t look it, is now 62 and he’s mellowed considerably with age. He has a small, muscular frame, and wore a flannel shirt and yellow sneakers. He had a few days worth of stubble on his face, and I could only describe him as meditatively calm as he surveyed today’s art scene.
“I think it takes a great deal of time to understand art that has any real substance,” he said. “And why should we expect to, you know, get it? But that’s very much at odds with how the system works, which is to run it up the flag pole and see who salutes. And now we’re in a situation of measuring the success of something by the audience size. Which is for me, personally, the beginning of the end, because that was always the thing that set art apart from other areas of culture, there was no equation between quality and audience size.” He paused here, then added, deliberately, “On the other hand, things are popular for a reason. Sometimes the reason is because they’re really good.”
His studio, tucked away in his house, was spare and clean. While we talked, Salle’s dog snored on the floor by his feet. On a wall was hanging a canvas that, somewhat typically for Salle, looked like it was made by five different artists competing for space. His paintings are appropriation collages, and this one had a tube of turquoise toothpaste unloading onto an orange toothbrush, and an understated streetscape in the background, with a rendering of the kind of cheap plastic flags that one might find at a parade, dangling from an unknown origin. In another corner was a removable rectangle of canvas, which Salle fiddled with aimlessly for a moment before locking it back into place. This work is currently installed at Salle’s show at Skarstedt Gallery in Chelsea, where other paintings are similarly frenetic and disorienting. One depicts an upside-down glass of milk, spilling almost violently onto the scene, which also contains a floating piece of lemon meringue pie, a pack of cigarettes, and a Waste King Universal toilet bowl. Salle’s admirers have long looked at his work as a kind of secret language to be decoded. When I asked him how the toothbrush painting started and how it ended up in the state it was in, it was one of the few times Salle came across as guarded, like the answer was between him and the painting.
“Let’s just say they start with a big bang,” he said, “you know, and matter arranges itself along something–there’s a sun, and there’s things that arrange themselves along the axis of the sun. I mean, they start with something. I don’t know how interesting or important it is.”
In addition to the exhibition in Chelsea, he also has a show on view at the Dallas Contemporary in Texas, his first in an American museum in about 20 years. Despite all his success, this institutional absence is characteristic for Salle and a lot of the painters he came up with.
“It’s my first show in a museum in America in a while,” he said. “I can’t even remember the last time.”
“Do you think,” I asked, “that your generation of painters—”
“Is a lost generation?” he said, finishing my question for me. There has lately been a growing and inevitable reassessment of the artists who came to light in the ‘80s, but the names Salle and Schnabel can still seem like a provocation to a number of critics.
“The simple answer would be fashion,” Salle continued. “There’s a fashion, and there’s the proverbial wheel that turns. But that’s a little too simplistic. I mean, broadly speaking, it’s almost like there’s not a person saying this because it’s such an obvious thing to say—it could be said by a robot—but it’s more about the uses to which things can be put. And certain things give good use, and other things resist. And the things that resist it, or are mislabeled in terms of the use they can give, it’s like a household product. ‘No we don’t use that product to clean the table. We use this other product to clean the table.’ What do you think?”
I told him I thought the wheel, so to speak, had clearly turned on the ‘80s and it was time for the critical appraisal that may have been lost at the time. To which Salle replied, “It’s easier to write about money than it is to write about art.” Here, he brought up the late Robert Hughes, the critic who was perhaps the biggest enemy to the postmodern painting of Salle’s generation and whose persona in many ways matched that which he was lambasting. One of the kinder things Hughes said of Salle was that he was “the yuppie market’s dream.” Salle, to me, dismissed Hughes’s writing as “sociology journalism,” which actually seemed exceedingly generous given that Hughes on several occasions tried to hang the superficiality of an entire generation on Salle.
Of sociology journalism, so-called, Salle said, “One of the most egregious examples—and it’s not nice to kick the dead, but in this one case I don’t really care—the infamous pastiche poem that Robert Hughes published in The New York Review of Books early on in the ‘80s.” This was a piece called “The Sohoiad,” structured like Alexander Pope’s “Dunciad.” I like a lot of Hughes’s writing, and he was immensely skilled with a zinger, but “The Sohoiad” is a study in journalistic infantilism. It has not aged well. (Salle appears as a character named “David Silly,” for instance.) “He, in his own self-proclaimed way,” Salle continued, “lampooned the new art by making fun of its audience. And that’s as old as the hills. That goes back to the English distrust of Modern art that begins in the teens of the last century and certainly by the ‘20s was well underway.”
At this point, Salle quoted from memory an exchange in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, in which Charles, the hero of the novel, concludes that “modern art is all bosh.” Salle went so far as to affect a slight Wiltshire accent.
“So Hughes,” he said, getting back to his point, “and it’s not even that much later, less than 50 years after Waugh, makes fun of Julian by making fun of what he calls the ‘well-shrunk dental surgeons’ from Scarsdale who collect his work.” This, too, he pulled from memory, accurately. “In the first place,” Salle went on, “that’s thinly veiled anti-Semitism. Second place, it’s not accurate. Third place, even if it is, so what? Fourth place, what does it say about the art? Nothing. But it passed at the time for serious criticism.”
Salle, who has himself turned out to be an excellent critic later in life and is also working on a memoir, never even raised his voice. He spoke like he was simply stating facts. “The attacks remain disturbing to this day,” he said, “and it’s shocking that it was allowed to stand by serious publications. Artists were just so much sport. I’m not sure it would happen today. I guess it happens with Jeff a little bit.”
“Jeff” being Jeff Koons. I said that after Koons’s 2014 retrospective at the Whitney Museum, an institution that has also from time to time championed Salle, there’s a sense at least that “we’re stuck with him, and the work is important and has to be dealt with.”
“Not if you read Jed Perl,” Salle said with a laugh, referring to the former New Republic art critic, a student of Hughes’s irascibility and also not a fan of Salle. (Perl once attacked him for taking a “Macho Man pose.”) “But the difference between the way artists—older artists—received the new artists of the ‘80s, as opposed to the older critics,” and he trailed off. Starting again: “I’m not just trying to give you a list of influential supporters, but”–he began counting on his hands–“Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Lucas Samaras, Alex Katz. None of those people had a problem with our work.”
We then retreated to a basement office in Salle’s house, where he wanted to show me some pictures. In a beautiful moment of irony, ”the leading American postmodernist painter,” as Malcolm described him, couldn’t turn on his computer.
So we talked instead about growing up in the Midwest. He was born in Oklahoma but he grew up in Kansas in an “overgrown cow town. It was a dreary place.” But, he said, his first art teacher there happened to be “quite a serious regional painter.” Salle would go on to be an early student of John Baldessari’s at the California Institute of the Arts, but he told me he credits his first teacher with everything he knows. “It was a lucky, quite rare setup,” he said. She wasn’t, he added, “particularly appreciated in the town.”
I asked him about his own experience teaching, and he mentioned that he’d just gotten back from doing a guest lecture at a seminar taught by architect Peter Eisenman at Yale. “He asked me to come up,” said Salle. “He just told me, ‘I’m doing a seminar that’s focused specifically on the diptych as a device and intellectual construct. Would you come up and talk about it?’ What he hadn’t said was they had spent the last couple of months looking at my work, as a lens to talk about the diptych.” He was clearly moved by this, and his voice grew very soft as he said that a class of students studying his work over a long period of time made him rethink a lot of things about himself. He seemed proud. I left wondering why he hadn’t had more moments like this.