Signs and the Times

Article excerpt

What can one say about David Salle's paintings on the eve of his European retrospective? Well, at the very least, one can say that the paintings must exist for the retrospective to take place. They must be there, on the wall, for the party to begin. Whether they will be taken as the true occasion for the party, however, is another question altogether, since, at the moment, David Salle's paintings are not nearly as legendary as Salle's artistic persona, and Salle's artistic persona is not nearly as legendary as the progress of his artistic career. That is the object of wonder. The career - that first glorious decade during which Salle was widely touted as one of the major painters of the late twentieth century - and the dire second decade during which his reputation has plummeted to the status of high-dollar roadkill.

No discussion of Salle wanders far from the mystery of this dazzling trajectory, which is usually construed as a moral narrative in which the artist is alternately cast as undeserving victim of the zeitgeist or equally undeserving beneficiary. Logic would suggest that one of these narratives must be true, but logic presumes the validity of its terms, and "zeitgeist," as a term, doesn't mean or explain anything. Zeitgeist (or the fantasy of periodicity, if you like) is nothing more than an all-purpose excuse that transforms everything in its transcendental aura into a hapless, cause-less effect. David Salle, however, is neither a fashion victim nor a lucky fool.

The unavoidable fact is that Salle's paintings caused their public vogue. For nearly a decade, a great many sophisticated people with broad experience in the world preferred looking at Salle's paintings, talking about them and spending money on them, to looking at, talking about, or spending money on other works of art. For nearly a decade, we found uses for David Salle's paintings, and lately we haven't. This sea change in fashion is presumed to constitute some kind of moral censure of Salle's endeavor. All it really means is that we no longer like what we thought they meant. One of the hoariest axioms of art criticism is that old eyes can see new work, but only new eyes can confirm it. So, even though the clamor that surrounded Salle's emergence constitutes solid evidence of the strength and efficacy of his paintings, it doesn't mean we got them right the first time.

Maybe we got it wrong back in the '80s. If we did, we were far from the first audience to acknowledge the power of an artist's work by willfully misinterpreting it and then rejecting the work when we soured on our own misinterpretation. In this regard, it helps to remember how little use we had for de Kooning and Warhol twenty years ago not because they had "lost it" but because we no longer believed in what we thought their paintings meant. Without implying that what's "good once" is "good forever," then, I would like to suggest that Salle's paintings at the present seem to be very different objects than they were in the moment of their apotheosis. They have virtues and qualities that were simply not visible in the atmosphere of their original interpretation. To state the case simply, there being no credible, visible evidence to support the widely held presumption that Salle's work is somehow "ironic," the painting in hindsight seems more a cri de coeur than a critique of contemporary culture, less a deconstruction of historical iconography than a diary of cosmopolitan disappointment.

The paintings haven't changed, of course, but our eyes have, as they always do. We are emerging from an epoch in which the critique of institutions was gradually transformed into an institutional criticism whose hubris was virtually all-pervasive. Artists, art critics, tenured professors, and social activists during this period were all assumed to be pursuing the same progressive ends by different means. After the "end of art," it was presumed, everyone was a critic, and this presumption of "critical distance" was so strong that it was easy to mistake candid confession for cold critique in any work of art that threatened to reveal the intimacies of an anxious and unhappy existence - for no better reason than that artists during this period were not granted the privilege of expressing their personal disease and dysfunction. …