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David Salle

by Emily Nathan
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In 2011, David Salle is just about the last Postmodernist Painter. Back in the wild and woolly 1980s, he had plenty of company -- Julian Schnabel, Eric Fischl, Robert Longo, Francesco Clemente, even Mark Tansey -- but somehow, his competitors and colleagues have all faded away, or metamorphosed into something else entirely.

Not Salle. His paintings remain as chimerical as ever, disparate and coordinated, precise and homely, strange and familiar -- large works that integrate dynamic collisions of color, texture and nearly recognizable motifs into dystopic, magnetic tableaux. They draw you in and deny you entrance; they are enigmatic and accessible.

Born in Oklahoma (in 1952), a star student of John Baldessari at Cal Arts, Salle moved to New York in the ‘70s and was quickly snatched up by powerhouse dealer Mary Boone. Critics recognized that something important was taking place on his canvases even if they struggled to make sense of them; Peter Schjeldahl wrote in 1982 that a Salle exhibition would be an “Event” -- capital “e” -- “if catered with a box of Chiclets and held in a subway toilet.”

These days, Salle works from a sun-bathed studio on the first floor of his modern apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and an exhibition of his newest paintings opens at Mary Boone’s 24th Street space on May 7, 2011.

Recently, he welcomed me into his home for a chat.

Emily Nathan: In past interviews, you have articulated a distinction between a work of art’s “popularity” -- how it sells -- and the quality or abundance of its “meaning” or “value.” I’m interested in your relationship to that idea with regards to your own work, which has certainly retained its popularity over the years.

David Salle: Everybody wants to be popular. Well, I suppose there might be a certain fascination in being unpopular -- but I guess the point is simply that art as art is not, or ought not to be, anyway, a popularity contest. Art is about something else. And that something else is not measurable by the same tools that are used to measure products in popular culture. I don’t want to see the two ideas inextricably merged.

EN: Popularity is not necessarily indicative of value -- and something of value might not necessarily be popular.

DS: Well, there’s an old chestnut about the movie business that goes, “No American movie was ever successful for the right reasons.” In my view, to have value, a work of art has to do many things simultaneously -- well it doesn’t have to do anything, really -- but let’s say that one idea is that it can both offer a kind of immediate visual pizzazz, and at the same time can unfold slowly over time, its meaning deepening and its complexity ripening, while the immediacy of its visual impact never fades. That is what we as artists strive for.

EN: You have claimed that you believe the meaning and value of a work of art can develop and even fluctuate over time. In the ‘80s, your work was canonized almost immediately, its meaning was fixed, it was established as doing something particular and meaning something particular. Does that feel limiting to you? 

DS: I think it’s pretty much a truism that meaning changes. There is another chestnut that occurs to me here -- a slightly more highbrow one. Wittgenstein tells us: “For the meaning of something, consider its use.” What critics often do is to come at something with a specific use in mind -- the use to which the painting will be tethered. That’s the job of the critic -- they stand between the work and the end-user. But the use will change over time. It’s subjective, contingent, personal. I’m glad if I contributed something that was useful to someone at some point. Sometimes I’m surprised at what people find to say about my work, but it doesn’t feel limiting in any way. I would also say that an interpretation is never a final one -- so far.

EN: I have read you quote André Gide: “Don’t understand me too quickly.”

DS: Yes, I have felt a kinship with that famous line. I didn’t anticipate that by invoking it, I would seal my fate never to be understood.

EN: So you do feel that some interpretations are more relevant than others?

DS: It’s a myth that all interpretations are equally valid. An interpretation has a better chance of holding up if it is based on close looking. Really, attentive looking heads misinterpretation off at the pass. Of course, some kinds of misinterpretation are productive -- and fun.

EN: This brings me to this idea of the artist’s intention. How important is it to the artwork, in the end?

DS: I always tell students that I think “intentionality” is overrated. All these people running around with their intention on their sleeve -- it kind of skews things in a certain overly rational direction. Other things -- like talent, for example -- are ultimately more important.  

EN: Not to mention that art should have an effect, should communicate something. Do you think art’s purpose is simply to provide a platform for an artist’s expression?

DS: Well, a good work of art does about 15 things simultaneously when it hangs on the wall, and one of those things is to make the room look better. Another is to give the viewer access to feeling. I don’t think art is a purely private language -- but that doesn’t mean that it has to be easy. Maybe “communicate” isn’t the right word for what an artwork might do; maybe “sing” is better.

EN: I’m conscious of a number of responses that I might have to an artwork-- sometimes it provokes a feeling in me, or I have a reflexive, esthetic appreciation of it -- and sometimes it might engage me intellectually, and I’ll seek to discover some revelation within it. Often it’s many things at once.

DS: Yes, often it’s many things at once. Determining what constitutes an authentic response to something is a big discussion. But I think it’s important to try to separate out the learned or group response from the individual one. When I work with students I try to get them to be aware of what they find themselves actually thinking and feeling when they’re looking at something -- instead of what they think they’re supposed to be thinking and feeling. I find that there is often a big difference between the two.

The real issue is about “autonomy.” How much autonomy does a work of art have, and how much does the viewer have? I tend to plant my flag on the side of more autonomy -- for art.

EN: Can you discuss the distinction you have made -- though it is perhaps an ambiguous, fluid one -- between the pictorial and the presentational?

DS: I made that distinction initially to illustrate a point about how a painting works -- I don’t mean it to sound over-determined. Most art is a combination of both the pictorial and the presentational -- nothing is purely one or the other. But it’s a question of emphasis, and how each is weighted. While there is a strong presentational aspect in my own work, it’s embodied in a pictorial tradition and orientation. What I mean by the pictorial is a level of integration and organization of all of the elements of the painting that results in a work singing a kind of song about itself -- but not in an academic, self-referential way; rather with a juicy and expansive kind of awareness.

Painting has a performative aspect to it -- someone has to paint it. And that performative aspect is also part of the pictorial. When I talk about composition, I mean it in the largest sense: the way the painting orchestrates its idea of itself. What does the painting think about itself, so to speak. What are its aspirations?

EN: I see the presentational, on the other hand, as a work’s offering of references and allusions that viewers might seek to bring together and to “decipher.”

DS: Well, the presentational is largely about reading cultural signs. I am more interested in personality, almost above everything else. I think works of art have personality just as people do, qualities that are related to the personality of the artist but which ultimately stand alone. A work of art is kind of like a pet, in that it takes on your personality but also has its own personality.

EN: How does your discussion of art change when you are speaking to a fellow artist, rather than a critic or an academic? When you describe work, you often use words like “pizzazz,” words that feel things more than say things.

DS: Well, that’s how everyone talked about painting, 30-40 years ago. Even 25 years ago. I doubt if it’s only artists who talk this way today-- but I don’t really know. Maybe you’re right.

In any event, “esthetics,” as you called it, can’t actually be set apart from the life of the thing. They’re inseparable -- one is embodied by and through the other. How is it that you can come to know anything about an artist except by what they actually did? Not what they said about what they did, but what they actually did. All that stuff only matters insofar as it makes you feel something, and how a painting makes you feel is a function of how it looks; how it looks is the way that it gives you access to certain feelings. Separating the two would be like talking about literature without talking about the sentences.

EN: You seem to use three-dimensional, active, physical words when you talk about art.

DS: Yes, the physical fact of it -- its texture and heft, along with its fluidity of thought -- it’s all part of it. That is what there is to talk about.

EN: You mean that the optics can’t be separated from anything else?

DS: A painting is a series of decisions, sometimes bold, sometimes flat-footed decisions. That’s the specificity of it. Now, art is a big subject, obviously -- you could talk about it in lots of different ways. But someone always did something to make it -- and that thing is very specific.  

EN: Your works draw from this vast arsenal of references and motifs, and they therefore beg to be understood by somehow connecting these parts. Paradoxically, they also resist that interpretation, it seems. This tension is something that has comprised much of the dialogue about your work.

DS: You mean, do they mean anything or not?

EN: Yes -- and what do they mean, and how does meaning work within them, and what sort of commentary do they make about the possibilities for meaning to be constructed?

DS: It might sound strange, but I’m not that interested in references as such, iconographical identification and all that. My work is not a scavenger hunt. Of course, iconography is part of the painting -- you have to deal with it, you have to locate it within yourself as an immediate experience. On the one hand, to pose a model is a very immediate experience, for example -- while the borrowed still life, on the other hand, might be more of a mediated experience. And the two things have to work together. So what am I trying to do with all that? It might sound simplistic, but I was really just trying to make what I thought was a new kind of beauty.

Sometimes I think of myself like an orchestrator, working with this palette of sounds. I think about instrumentation in composition. A composer writes a melodic line, let’s say. And then he must think about what instruments can express that line, at what tempo and timbre, etc. Certain composers have a gift for orchestration -- knowing that a certain phrase can be best expressed by the woodwinds, or whatever.

I think painting is the same: it’s knowing how to orchestrate all those sounds in order to make meaning, and I don’t intend “meaning” in the pre-determined, narrative sense necessarily, but in more of the musical sense. What is the meaning of music? I don’t know. It’s temperamental, located within a deep part of the psyche. Mine is more a process of moving into the painting and asking the painting what it wants and needs. It’s an additive kind of play.

EN: Things build upon themselves.

DS: It’s just how I’m made. I’ve never been able to see one thing alone -- I’m always looking at one thing and seeing what’s behind it, or what’s next to it. That is a condition of our existence that I felt very comfortable with, and that I thought I could express. I think that is what has been guiding and shaping my work all these years.

Everything in life is a succession of modifiers -- until it’s not anymore. To use another analogy, I think about the way poetry works: it generates an accretion of meaning, line by line, image by image. That is not dissimilar to my sense of what I do.

There is so much really great contemporary art, modern art anyway, on the other hand, that takes a very different approach, and operates as a testament to the singular. It is reductive in an intellectually thrilling way: the elimination of all extraneous things. It’s deeply satisfying to have all of the complexity of modern experience reduced to the one thing that you either believe in or you don’t.

But my starting point, and what I’m doing, is very different. Why would have I have taken the opposite tack? I don’t know -- perversity? I enjoy the sensation of navigating between things which exert different kinds of gravitational pull. I’m interested in counter-point, and in counter-puntal thinking. That is very natural to me -- it feels alive.

EN: How do you view narrative, which I’d say is traditionally conceived as linear, as operative or not operative in your work?

DS: I don’t think my paintings are obscure at all -- if anything, they’re an open book. If the analogy with poetry means anything, think about how narrative exists in poetry. It’s often built out of clues that are embedded in a line. You find yourself putting things together because of an emphasis, an accent, where the stress falls, and suddenly you realize, “Oh! He is talking about his dead child,” even though the poem does not spell it out.  

I think narrative is part of life, probably an innate human drive, and we do it all the time. Every painting has a narrative, I think, even an abstract painting. It is certainly true that my paintings do, sometimes, resist completing the easy narrative -- they undercut it with something which re-routes meaning.

EN: I’d assert that part of being human is this desire that we have to pull things together and to “make sense” out of them. You have said that you’re not interested in sources and iconography, but rather in larger notions and genres?

DS: People often want to know where something in my work came from -- but it doesn’t really matter. In a painting, every element’s meaning is specific to my particular use of it.

EN: You mean that meaning is generated by how that thing is there, and what it is there? If I understand you, you feel that its attendant history -- the connotations of the tradition or genre from which it is drawn -- is simply not the point?

DS: All that stuff is not absent, far from it -- but it’s just not dominant. If you were to create a list of the iconographic sources that I draw from in a particular painting, you simply wouldn’t get much closer to understanding anything particularly interesting about that painting. It’s not that the word “source” or “reference” is some sort of taboo to me -- it just doesn’t get you much, meaning-wise.

EN: If one were to make that list of iconographical sources that are present in your work, each source would have its own attendant history and be rooted in its own system of connotation. That is unavoidable. But when you, as an artist, displace those elements from their original context, bring them together and modify them to compose your work, they immediately construct and re-configure their own, new context and generate their own system of meaning. It’s an active, present, specific process.

DS: You just made a pretty good description of one of my paintings. I’ll take that.

EN: I think that also captures the activity and energy of your paintings; each one is a genesis and a bringing together and a recreation and a construction and a self-identification, all at once.

DS: Yes. That all sounds fine to me.

EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine. Contact Send Email