David Salle's "Pastoral" paintings are a marvel of wit, subtlety, irony: I think they are best understood as what Floressas des Esseintes, the decadent hero of J.-K. Huysman's autobiographical novel Against the Grain, called "exquisite experiments" -- exquisite intellectual experiments, one might add. They are indeed against the grain of much contemporary art, in that they're a highly learned, even scholarly art, and much more conceptually sophisticated than the conceptual painting with which Salle's work has been affiliated.
Salle has enormous cerebral curiosity, as intense as his sexual curiosity: like an archaeologist, he digs deep into art history, finding whatever visual shards he can, and piecing them together into a subliminally sexual and peculiarly archetypal scene. Like a recurring hallucination, it is repeated in picture after picture, with a strange compulsive determination, however much its details change.
I believe it is an allegory of the artist and his reluctant muse, both in 18th-century garb. He's the fashionable sophisticate, she the rustic maiden. He'd like to grab her, but his hands are tied up -- hoping to make art, so to speak. One hand holds a fishing rod, the other a kite -- he's hoping for a catch, and for a good wind to lift his kite high.
In other words, he's searching high and low for inspiration, without success. The muse resists him, perhaps coyly, perhaps fiercely -- he passively gazes at her, waiting for her to make her move -- jump him, as it were. Is she a tease, or is he impotent? Salle is projecting his own lack of inspiration onto her -- his inability to make a good artistic catch, to lift his kite to the artistic heights -- or maybe he doesn't inspire her.
Like Picasso's scenes of artist and model, what seems erotic is a cover for something deeper: the artist's uncertainty about his creativity. The hard-to-get muse represents his self-doubt, making him passive. He looks to the muse for inspiration, but it is not clear that she can catalyze him into creativity, however seriously he gazes at her. Salle's scene is, indeed, a stalemate, an impasse.
But Salle's "Pastoral" pictures are in fact very good -- truly inspired -- artistic catches, high-flying kites, as their razzle-dazzle virtuosity indicates. Salle pulls all the stops of technique, as his complex mix of painting, silkscreen, and drawing indicates. His insertion of smaller pictures within the larger picture -- a kind of intarsia -- adds to the complexity, as does the mix of styles, each another cog in a machine that mutates each time it reproduces itself.
Indeed, each picture resembles what used to be called a "machine" -- a grandly artificial construction, a mock mimesis. Each is a consummate realization of the decadent ideal of anti-naturalism. All the passion that is not in the pictures goes into their making. Like a connoisseur at a wine tasting, Salle sips this and that image and form, and spits it out -- to swallow a whole glass would ruin his taste, and suggest that he's really thirsty, that is, has desire.
The representational fragments are wonderfully old artistic wine, resonant with mystery, while the newer abstract fragments seem flat, banal, unripe. Is Salle suggesting a paragone between traditional and modern art?
The tantalizing result is a kind of Mallarméan pastiche of quasi-free visual associations -- a kind of poetic whole of prosaic fragments. They accumulate to synergistic effect -- there is a sense of esthetic mania, a kind of esthetic rush -- without adding up to a coherent, stable whole, however complete the over-all picture looks. It may be all surface, but it has an odd expressive depth and intensity.
Each picture remains an ironical puzzle -- a play performed a different way each time it is presented. Asking which is the best performance is beside the point, because the play is perfect in itself. Salle's series is the last, risky gasp of the idea of pure, autonomous art that Mallarmé advocated, however "arty" it looks.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.