The Uncertain Certainty: States of the Art of Painting

David Salle: Bushes With Form

Border Crossings: What do you mean when you say that painting has to do many things at once?

David Salle: Just that in descriptive painting brushwork has to do a lot of work. There’s the famous example of Matisse painting The Green Stripe, an early portrait of his wife in which she has a green nose, peach-orange coloured cheeks and a blue chin. The story goes that he was staring and staring and not making a mark and his wife grew impatient and asked him what he was waiting for. He said, You don’t understand, this brushwork has to describe where your nose is, it has to animate the surface, has to be delivered with the correct amount of force, colouristically it must be at exactly the right interval to all the colours around it, and it has to land in exactly the right place, both anatomically and descriptively in the structure of the oval that is the face. There’s nothing theoretical about it; it’s all visual. When I say that good painting does twelve or fifteen things at once, that’s just making a good painting. On one level, a painting has to make the room look better. Someone once said that painting that doesn’t have a decorative element won’t get very far in New York City, which is probably true. Painting has to do a lot of different things simultaneously. It has to be a painting, but it also has to exist in the world in a certain time and place.

Silver 12, 2015, pigment transfer on linen, 84 x 60 inches. Copyright David Salle. Courtesy Skarstedt, New York.

You have talked about “finding and giving form.” Can you find form by seeing how earlier painters have done it?

Finding form at the end of a brush is something you understand in the doing. It’s mechanics. What’s interesting is that it doesn’t matter how many people have done it before; you have to do it for yourself. You can understand the process from looking at how other people have done it, but that only helps you so far. Think of it this way: Alex Katz’s brush finds the form the way Miguel Cabrera’s bat finds the ball. It’s not so much that a batter goes out and slugs the ball; it’s that the bat makes contact with the ball in a kind of cooperative way. It sounds zen-like. An abstract painter knows this very well. You’re noodling around with the brush and there are moments when it has no meaning and there are moments when it suddenly acquires meaning. That’s the brush finding form. It’s easy to see when you’re doing it and it’s also easy to see when you’re not doing it. But this is just shop talk. It’s probably the way a race car driver describes the racetrack; the drift and banking and all the infinitesimal alignments that result in successfully navigating the track.

But a current Formula One driver doesn’t have to know how Stirling Moss handled his track because they’re on their own and they better know what they’re doing or they’ll be in serious trouble.

Well you can understand the lineage. You can say it begins with Manet or with cave painting and that would be true, but it doesn’t actually help you do it. You still have to drive the car around the track.

You’ve described your relationship to art history as “spotty and idiosyncratic.”

I just mean I never studied it formally. I can’t ever remember the sequence—who came after whom. Don’t ask me what century something happened in. I have no training in art history as a linear phenomenon. Which is more or less how a painter looks at painting; it’s all in the present tense. What’s interesting is how it looks now.

Self-Expression, 2015, oil, acrylic, charcoal, archival digital print and pigment transfer on linen, 102 x 78 inches. Copyright David Salle. Courtesy Skarstedt.

In “Tapestries/Battles/Allegories” at Lever House, your introduction of body prints into some of the paintings made me think of Yves Klein. I assume you would expect the viewer to make that association.

Yes and no. One thing about saying all art history exists in the present is this notion of appropriation or referencing has gotten out of hand. People are now sophisticated to the point where they assume getting the references is all there is to the painting. You look at a painting and say, Oh, I know where that comes from. Check. Or, I know what that’s referencing. Check. And then you’re done. You’ve gone through the checklist. I don’t find that very interesting. Most things come from some place; the question is what has been done with them; have they been taken to a new place? What’s funny is that Yves Klein is an artist I’ve never particularly cared for. My generation disregarded him; he was so invested in a kind of self-mythologizing that went against the grain for someone raised on American abstract painting. I don’t have much interest in that mythology or in the artist as performer. I was wrong of course—he’s very interesting. He was an unlikely one for me, but he did give me some idea of an image which I felt emboldened to use, though in a very different context. The critical question about those paintings would be, Do the body prints transcend the Yves Klein-ness and take on some new aspect?

Your paintings have a very complicated internal logic but I can’t always make the connection from one thing to another. Are you sympathetic to the vexing way your paintings read?

I sympathize with the viewer. I often wonder if the paintings are worth all the trouble. Why does everything have to be so complicated? Personally, I don’t find them complicated. Or rather, I find something less complicated to be less than satisfying. But there’s another misconception—that making art is like ordering off a menu; I’ll take one of those and one of those, then I’ll follow with one of those. I am routinely asked, Why do you paint women, why do you make diptychs, why do you paint liquor bottles, why do you reference Yves Klein? And the answer sounds completely idiotic: one doesn’t really have much choice. I don’t think you choose your subject matter. It sounds a little mystical but I think the subject matter chooses you. If it doesn’t happen that way, it’s probably not very interesting.

So the question, then, is not so much what to paint as how to paint it?

It’s a question of emphasis. There’s so much focus on subject matter and references that it tips the boat. It’s hard to keep the totality in focus. As an analogy: if you get ten people to tell the same joke, everybody will tell it differently. It’s not that the joke is unimportant but what is distinctive about the joke is the delivery. The “what” can be very prosaic. What’s more prosaic than a Campbell’s soup can? People have pretended as though all Andy did was to realistically describe it, but that’s nonsense. The Campbell’s soup can offered a level of stylization which was at the heart of Andy’s vision. It didn’t have much to do with the fact that he ate it for lunch every day. That just made a good story.

Racing, Falling, Growing, 2013, 86 x 84 inches. Courtesy David Salle Studio.

In the Skarstedt exhibition the painting called Self-Expression has a crazy layered build-up of toothpaste squeezed out of a tube and then at the end of the hot dog tray you mix a smear of red and yellow paint that corresponds to the standard condiments of mustard and ketchup. The shift from subject as content to paint as subject is wonderfully handled.

Those paintings are, in a certain sense, still-life paintings. Paintings of the kind of things one would put on a table to paint; hot dogs and cigarette packages and whatnot. One of the things I try to push as far as I can, to the extent I’m able, is the way the colour interacts with the image and the space and with the whole composition. It’s a rich area. The relationship between colour, form, image, gesture and composition are deep issues—but difficult to talk about. It’s pretty technical, kind of like analyzing film: what is the relationship between the shot and the mise-en-scène and the dialogue and the narrative arc? All those things can be related to each other but it’s difficult and maybe even tedious to do so. For me that painting was about different kinds of drippy flow-y squeezy shapes versus other kinds of rectilinear shapes. There’s another painting called Carnie Mind where the hot dog is projecting out of a bowl of tomato soup, which is not an homage to Andy, although if anyone thinks that, it’s fine with me. But what was interesting to me is something that probably wouldn’t interest anybody else: the contiguity of red and orange in the same painting. I wanted to see if I could make two different temperatures of red exist in two different contiguous planes and be descriptive of two different forms. That’s a purely painterly concern.

Many of these paintings address an intriguing relationship between painting and photography. What is it about photography that interests you?

That’s a good question. I have a very long history with photography going back to when I was a kid. I’ve always taken photographs at the same time that I’ve always painted. Now I kind of want to reject photography—or its dominance. I sometimes wish for a general moratorium on photography for a few years—there are so many pictures in the world already. However, I am very dependent on it in all kinds of ways. For me photography is primarily about light and shadow; and descriptive painting—still-life, figurative or whatever—is also involved with that. In these new pictures I wanted to see if I could include that photographic information without having it swamp the painting. I wanted to have the photographic reality alive in the painting but also to tame it.

In both Self-Expression and in Faster Healing a car tire turns up as one of the things in the painting. Inescapably, I think of James Rosenquist. Then in This is the Fun the still-life elements look like they could have been pulled from Picasso’s World War II domestic paintings. Are those kinds of recognitions on my part problematic for you? You’ve put those things in the painting but the danger may be that I’m assuming they carry more weight than you intend.

Well, that’s one level. If I were clever I would probably do something else but one can’t always be that clever. But there is no specific Rosenquist quotation in the paintings. I’m a great admirer of Jim’s work and he’s a friend, someone I’d be happy to make an overt homage to, but I don’t think these paintings are that. Here’s what I want to say: It is perhaps my deficiency but I simply don’t register those kinds of things in the foreground; for me they’re a few layers down. I was recently in Paris with my ten-year-old stepdaughter who has a limited appetite for museums, so we breezed through the Musée d’Orsay in about twenty minutes. There was a Bonnard show on called “Painting Arcadia.” Now Bonnard is an artist I’ve never been drawn to and, regardless of how high I rank his achievements, he’s just not that interesting to me. Part of my resistance has to do with a kind of local subject matter, it’s always the wife in the bathtub, or it’s the dishes on the breakfast table. All that unchanging French high-bourgeois life. I’ve known intellectually for a long time what I’m about to say, but last week in Paris I experienced it viscerally for the first time. Maybe it was a result of being in a hurry, but as I moved through the show I realized his work has little to do with the breakfast dishes on the table or with the woman in the bathtub. It has to do with the fact that all the subject matter in Bonnard deliquesces into this radiant sense of almost-form or not-quite-form. It’s hardly an original thought, but it hit me with the force of near-revelation. It’s taken me nearly fifty years to get past the subject matter of Bonnard’s work. But one does get past it. And you can come at painting from the opposite side as well. There are certain painters I have loved without giving much thought to what their work was about in terms of themes, and then fifty years later I realized, Oh, that’s a painting of the mistress when the wife just found out and that adds another layer of drama. Nothing is unimportant; composition is how you hold those things in some productive balance.

Yellow Fever, detail, 2015, oil, acrylic, silkscreen, crayon and archival digital print on linen, 78 x 108 inches. Copyright David Salle. Courtesy Skarstedt.

You talk about the immensely pleasurable sensation of falling into risk. Is that a wished-for condition in the making of a painting?

I think everybody likes a little risk, but I’m not a risk junky. I’m not courting it and I’d be perfectly content if everything was risk-free in painting. But I have to admit there is some element of satisfaction to be had from going through the risk and coming out with something that didn’t collapse.

You also talk about your search for a new kind of beauty. For a considerable stretch of time beauty was a four-letter word which nobody would dare utter.

What I mean by a new kind of beauty is really a question about how you organize in your head what you see when you look at something. Do you see something that has an exchange value, part of a social system; or do you see something that rearranges elements in a way which, however slightly, changes you when you look at it: the whole is more than the sum of the parts? The painting is more than the sum of its references.

Classicism, 2012, acrylic and silkscreen on metal panel with ceramic, oil on canvas, 68 x 72 inches. Image courtesy the artist.

Like painting, the novel is an art form that has not only been under serious scrutiny but whose death has been announced on a number of occasions. And again, like painting, it seems to be a phoenix art; always rising out of the ashes of its announced decline. When you talk about painting you talk about construction and you have written that painting is fundamentally about the making of structure.

The thing that’s gone missing from talk about art is the recognition that someone had to make it, or at least cause it to be made. Making is different from non-making. When we read a novel we engage with the characters and the setting so deeply that we tend to forget that someone invented it all. And they could’ve done it differently; they could’ve put a blue hat on the guy in the coach instead of a red hat. None of this is new, but every generation has to find it in a way that relates to their own experience. ❚

David Salle lectures in Winnipeg on Thursday, November 24 at 7:30pm as part of Border Crossings’ MATTER Lecture Series, presented in partnership with the Winnipeg Art Gallery.