David Salle

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So why should I be fascinated with David Salle’s work?

On the one hand, his fugitive style was a welcome break from conceptual art and minimalism – although he continued to work with monochrome fields. Whilst he was influenced by ‘Pop Art’, and in fact used photographs extensively in his work, Salle is not a story-teller.

He was more interested in renewing painting, to create new vocabularies, now defined as post-modernism.

Unitled (Camus), 1976
mixed media on paper
108 x 156 inches

He was  influenced by Minimalism, though he wanted painting to do more. Similar to Minimalist works, his canvases use scale and (monochromatic) colour.

And there is no beginning or end in his work. It just ‘is’.

Rainy Night in Rubber City, 1980
acrylic and conte crayon on canvas
58 x 88 inches

His work is always epic, demanding attention. I am not going to get into his subject matter – in early days he  featured female nudes, occasionally bordering but not quite being pornography – and occasionally he was criticised because of that.

More relevantly, he used tracings of photographs that he took to create drawings before he painted, so the figures often have a radically ‘posed’ look.

From the essay Ghost Paintings (2013):

‘The figures that populate Salle’s canvases are .. appropriated. … Almost all of the figurative motifs in his paintings derive from scenarios that he staged in his studio, photographed, and then reworked as fragments in his canvas’. (pg 9)

What also attracts me is that Salle’s canvases became more complex. I have seen many exhibitions of his work, and find it is hard to walk past any one of his paintings and not ponder awhile. I think it has a lot to do with his intention. The ‘slow down and look’ effect on the audience seems exactly what he planned.

Kevin Power, in the catalogue for the show at the Staatsgalerie in Munch in 1989, described Salle’s work as having ‘fields’ and ‘screens’. The ‘field’ is an open, inclusive place where things come together, in harmony though with disconnection. ‘Screens’ use layers of imagery, with shallow depth, to create new perspectives.

Salle projected an almost endless series of styles and themes onto his canvases from the world (and history) of plastic art – yet somehow the end result appears deceptively simple.  Carter Ratcliffe, in the Boymans catalogue, says:

‘In all their vexed complexity, [the paintings] take on the air of the simple, the self-evident, the given’. (pg 38)

Coral Made, 1985
acrylic and oil on canvas with wood
108 x 168.25 inches

So, Salle was instrumental in re-invigorating painting. The first time we saw Salle was at the Boymans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, in 1983. Ingrid and I visited what was his first one-man show outside of a commercial gallery.

I was especially intrigued by the diptychs Salle employed. Each half complements the other, yet also stands alone. As Beeren, in the Boymans catalogue questions:

‘To what extent is it possible to see twice 50% as not being 100% each’? (pg 20)

His diptychs have come back to my mind as I grapple with the Cambodia project.

My latest WIP took separate, yet parallel tracks, with negatives and positives. As I think about how to move this work forward, and eventually to present it, there is much to learn from Salle’s diptychs.

Miner, 1985
acrylic, oil, wood tables wtih metal frames and fabric on canvas
96 x 162.25 inches

Yet, as noted above, Salle was not (and still isn’t) a classical storyteller. There is never a clear narrative in any one image – and even the titles rarely resonate with the subject matter. Nor is there a sequence of images. Each is unique.

He thus lets his work stand on its own terms, not quite with the sterility of ‘art for arts sake’, but close. Salle creates images which tend to ignore both the subject and the audience. They demand attention, but to what end?

Carter Ratcliffe, in the Boymans catalogue, writes:

‘He presents us with artworks that deserve to be seen first as artworks, as visual forms’. (pg 25)

Is that something I need to explore, to break through the rather pedestrian approaches of traditional documentary work?

We’ll Shake the Bag, 1980
acrylic on canvas
48 x 72 inches

Salle’s work is film-like, with fleeting and haunting imagery, always carefully drafted. Yet somehow the totality stands higher than any of the components in his work, wherever it is ‘borrowed’ from.

When I first saw his work, each canvas felt complete, context not necessary.

Ironically each canvas IS a a form of story in its totality, but not in its details.

Poverty Is No Disgrace, 1982
oil, acrylic, and chair on canvas
72 x 96 inches

I have noted before how this MA keeps inviting to dig into my art heritage, and then hopefully move my image making forward in new ways.

In his opening comments on the Boymans catalogue, Beeren suggests that Salle’s work had progressed:

‘… from a  deliberate planning of the visual information within a rigid framework towards a violent presentation, aggressively rendered on a massive surface‘. (pg 17)

The Blue Room, 1982
oil and acrylic on canvas
90 x 177 inches

Let’s see where David Salle takes me.

Some early experiments.


Beeren, W.A. L. & Schoon, Talitha (Eds). 1983. David Salle. Rotterdam: Museum Boymans van Beunigen.

Fuchs, R., Mignot, D. & Mulder, A. 1999. David Salle. Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag.

Mileaf, Jean (Forward). 2013. Ghost Paintings: David Salle in Conversation with Hal Foster. Chicago: Arts Club of Chicago.

Power, Kevin. 1989. David Salle: Seeing it My Way. Munich: Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst.

Images from:

Salle, David. 2018. Website. Available at: http://www.davidsallestudio.net. (Accessed 16.10.2018).