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Features

QUESTION MARKS

Making Melancholy Beautiful with Artist DAVID SALLE

By Tyler Malone

March 2012

“Picasso had periods. Mr. Salle has question marks,” wrote David Colman in The New York Times when discussing the work of artist David Salle. Colman is right, for Salle’s paintings are like poems–and what is poetry if not a series of spooning question marks?

When I caught up with David Salle earlier this month, he described himself as “anti-literal,” and spoke of the “un-moored” references in his art. I was reminded of the words of author E. M Forster: “A poem is true if it hangs together. Information points to something else. A poem points to nothing but itself.”

A David Salle painting is true because it hangs together, it points to nothing but itself–even if it is, by contrast, endlessly allusive. It’s this “un-moored” and “cast-adrift” quality of the juxtaposed references that, according to the artist, “offers the possibility of a new kind of beauty.” Even after all these years, he’s still making incredibly interesting paintings; still, in his own words, “trying to make the melancholy beautiful.”

Tyler Malone: “Picasso had periods. Mr. Salle has question marks.” I wonder how something like that resonates with you? It reminded me of a quote from Bertrand Russell: “In all affairs, love, religion, politics, or business, it’s a healthy idea, now and then, to hang a question mark on things you have long taken for granted.” Do you see your paintings as question marks?

David Salle: What I’m trying to do in my work–apart from the basic challenge of making a painting that holds the wall–is to drive a wedge between the “name” and the “named.” I’m anti-literal. Maybe it’s a problem I have with authority; I want to evade the automatic assumptions that are re-enforced as a consensus of the cultural mind. That sounds a little high-blown, but it’s another way of saying I want the painting to have autonomy. That autonomy is expressed through style–and style in turn gives rise to a kind of syntax. The painting creates its own syntax–that’s more or less true for any serious painting.

TM: You’ve been accused--I think wrongly--of painting art that is very difficult to interpret, but to me your paintings are like poems which can be read quite easily in one way, but then only deepen in meaning (and mystery) upon further reading/viewing/interpreting. Is this poetic aspect something you yourself see in your work? Is it something that you strive for?

DS: Difficulty for its own sake is not a virtue, but I don’t see anything wrong with art being difficult if it’s earned. I don’t think of my pictures as particularly difficult; taken all together, I think they’re an open book. Not everyone sees them that way, apparently, and if people find my work difficult I’m not going to try to talk them out of it. What does that really mean–that something requires attention? I’m not trying to frustrate the viewer–I’m trying to make something that feels true.

I think the analogy to poetry is apt. And a lot of poetry can be difficult–Emily Dickinson is certainly not easy, not if you really look at it. Difficult in the sense of requiring effort to extract a precise meaning from it –but the feeling of a poem, it’s tone and rhythm as well as its imagery–that is often enough to have a palpable relation to the author. Who can say what a John Ashberry poem means? It’s fluid, and open–that’s its specific quality. Sometimes the “qualities” are the meaning. Put another way, I don’t make any distinction between ideas and feelings.

TM: Though your paintings are open to various interpretations–like question marks, like poetry–not all interpretations of them are equal, wouldn’t you agree?

DS: The notion of how to interpret art easily leads to confusion. There is a commonly held belief that each viewer brings his own interpretation to the painting–and that everyone’s interpretation is equally correct. Obviously that can’t be true–it’s not true with poetry–why would it be true in painting? Joseph Brodsky wrote a wonderful essay about Robert Frost in which he walks the reader through a specific interpretation of a difficult poem–it’s a lesson in how to “enter” a work of art. I think that there are just a few more or less viable interpretations of a painting. I also don’t think it’s that hard. A lot of what we call interpretation is really just paying close attention–if it’s any good, the picture will tell you what you need to know. In the art world generally, the talk has gotten ahead of the works themselves. A lot of what passes for understanding a work, for interpretation of it, is really just a list of good intentions, or “themes”–none of which helps the work in the long run. I often tell students to pay attention to what they actually find themselves thinking about when looking at something–as distinct from what they think they are supposed to be thinking about.

TM: Your paintings are heavy on juxtaposition–of various images within one painting, and various styles of painting in the artwork as well. In a way your paintings are a sort of surrealistic synergism which incorporate all of art history, and all of history en total perhaps, and both set up and deconstruct the very binaries which history has had to wrestle with throughout time. Is this something you’re consciously engaging with? These sort of dialogues?

DS: I’ve been trying for some time to work with imagery in a way that feels true to the way we actually talk and act. Life is full of references–appropriations or imitations of other things, pastiche, partially remembered fragments, mash-ups, whatever. It’s partly a kind of dialogue with art history, though that sounds too grand. More to the point, I think the references are kind of “un-moored” from their settings–it’s their “cast adrift” quality which offers the possibility of a new kind of beauty. That’s why the historical reference kind of interpretation doesn’t get one very far. What matters, and what we understand instinctively, is that the tone–the way the reference is invoked carries the meaning. The how is just as important as, or even more important than, the what. It’s the “how” that carries the speaker’s intent–his style and personality.

TM: Now, of course, it is not so simple, as I’ve heard you say, of just “understanding” or “interpreting” a painting. Works of art, or at least great works of art, do more. I read an interview where you said: “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.” Is there a way to talk about the “singing” aspect of an art piece or is that something purely internal, emotional, and irrational? In other words, perhaps my question should be phrased as something as broad and banal as: How are we to properly experience art? Is there a “proper” way?

DS: There is no one right way–and you can get different things from different artworks, or the same artwork on different days. In general, looking at art is a heightened version of what you want out of life generally. You can try to decode it, or you can empathize with it, or let it wash over you. One has to try to at least stay open to whatever the work is doing. The aesthetic response has been decried as a culturally indicated one, something false–but I don’t agree. A response to visual form might be cultural, but it is also real, like a response to rhythm, or a musical chord, or the kinesthetic response some people have to dance. It’s a real thing–it seems absurd to deny it. Something doesn’t have to be “universal” to be real. The way in which art differs from other way people spend their time has to do with the demands it makes on us–to get anything out of it at all, it demands that we stay open to it at precisely that point when we might most want to turn away from it. That is the opposite of popular culture–art doesn’t necessarily flatter us, but its buoyancy, when it occurs, soars way beyond our expectations.

TM: I wonder what it was all those years ago that made you decide to be an artist? And if you hadn’t become an artist what do you think you would be doing right now?

DS: God only knows.  I consider myself very lucky to be an artist.

TM: Your art is very literary in a way, and so I’m curious who some of your favorite writers are?

DS: There are so many, it’s hard to narrow it down. But to name two much under-read writers, from very different periods in literature: Jane Bowles and Harold Brodkey. Their work is unlike anything else that I know.

TM: Since I’ve asked about your favorite writers, I suppose I’d be remiss not to ask about artists. Who are some of your favorite artists–whether your forefathers, your contemporaries, or the next generation of young artists?

DS: There is a cascade of talent and achievement at the moment. Many artists of my generation and older are doing some of their best work, and a sizable number of artists in their 30s, 40s and 50s routinely delight and challenge me. I just bought a painting by someone 23 years old! This is a very good time for painting.

TM: Lastly, could you tell me a bit about what you’re working on currently?

DS: 30-some years on, I’m still trying to make the melancholy beautiful.

David Salle is one of the most important American artists that emerged in the early 1980s. He continues to make incredibly interesting art, living and working in New York City.

LINKS:

David Salle Studio Official Website

Written by Tyler Malone

Photography by Robert Wright / Paintings by David Salle

Design by Marie Havens

Captions:

Page 1/Cover:

David Salle, Photography by Robert Wright

Page 2:

Pierrot
2012
silkscreen on galvanized steel and oil on canvas
78 x 68 inches

Art © David Salle/Licensed by Vaga, NY, NY. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, NY. Reproduction without permission is prohibited.

Page 3:

Closer
2011
oil and acrylic on linen
82 x 104.25 inches

Art © David Salle/Licensed by Vaga, NY, NY. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, NY. Reproduction without permission is prohibited.

Page 4:

Yellow Sail
2010
oil and acrylic on linen
44 x 68 inches

Art © David Salle/Licensed by Vaga, NY, NY. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, NY. Reproduction without permission is prohibited.

Page 5:

Time is a Frame
2010
oil and acrylic on linen
84 x 102 inches

Art © David Salle/Licensed by Vaga, NY, NY. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, NY. Reproduction without permission is prohibited.

Page 6:

Childhood
1998
oil and acrylic on canvas and linen
96 x 118 inches

Art © David Salle/Licensed by Vaga, NY, NY. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, NY. Reproduction without permission is prohibited.

Page 7:

Mingus in Mexico
1990
oil and acrylic on canvas
84 x 114 inches

Art © David Salle/Licensed by Vaga, NY, NY. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, NY. Reproduction without permission is prohibited.

Page 8:

Tennyson
1983
oil and acrylic on canvas with wood plaster relief
78 x 117 inches

Art © David Salle/Licensed by Vaga, NY, NY. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, NY. Reproduction without permission is prohibited.

Page 9:

Drumming Rabbit
1997
oil, acrylic and photosensitized linen on canvas
84 x 144 inches (213.36 x 365.8 cm)
Art © David Salle/Licensed by Vaga, NY, NY. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, NY. Reproduction without permission is prohibited.

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