David Salle

By Danto, Arthur Coleman | The Nation, March 7, 1987 | Go to article overview

David Salle


Danto, Arthur Coleman, The Nation


David Salle

In the craft or sullen art of DavidSalle, I sense a punk and glowering indifference to criticism so total as to constitute, for me, the chief if not the only critical interest of his oeuvre. It is not so much that the work is bad as that its badness seems willed even where there is no clear sign that the artist could do better if he wished to. The work appears to situate itself beyond good and evil, hence outside the sphere of critical discourse altogether, so that such snarls as Oh yeah? So what? Says who? Who cares? What difference does it make? Fuck off! are all the response I would anticipate to my questions and objections. It would be like engaging in moral disputation with an adolescent. But then an art this resolutely other and opposed acquires the curious strength of its negations. It is not the negation of erasure, as with Minimalism. Minimalism sought to identify and isolate the bare, essential purity of art--what remains after we have stipped away all the accidents of charm, depth, vividness, narrative and feeling--but it meant the essence to be that which underlies all the painting or sculpture the Minimalist regards as irrelevantly ingratiating or even profound. Minimalism belongs to the same history, complies puritanically with the same imperatives, that have always defined art. Salle's negativity is of an altogether different and more ultimate order. It nearest counterpart is the Nothingness discussed by Martin Heidegger in What Is Metaphysics?, a Nothingness that reveals the totality of Being by standing absolutely outside whatever there is. Salle reveals the boundaries of art by deliberately refusing to allow himself to be included within them. Alongside so complete a displacement of everything that has made are meaningful, Salle's compeer Julian Schnabel seems after all to be one of us. Like someone who has learned to give all the worst answers in a carefully weighted examination, Salle demonstrates a certain spectacular perversion of artistic intelligence: anyone this consistently awful acquires a certain reverse grandeur, like Lucifer. I clearly dislike Salle's work, but I admire someone who reveals the limits of the world in which my likes and dislikes can have come critical justification. There is more than one way for art to be a mirror.

The characteristic Salle confection hasfive components when fully equipped. There is, first of all, an appropriated image, usually from a work or a fragment of a work that has a locus in the history of art but sometimes a locus just in the stock of banal images of everyday life, a Christmas sticker for example. Then there is a component that looks, though painted, like a photograph in hideous monochrome, often of a nude or seminude woman displayed in a sexually humiliating posture. These two components are juxtaposed on large, or largish, panels and are overlaid, often, with limp and skimpy drawings marked by an utter absence of draftsmanly grace. The drawings look like the causal underpainting for an as yet unexecuted and perhaps abandoned work--as if their complete lack of interest were to be explained with reference to the fact that they are intended to be submerged by the painting to come. They also suggest that the work on top of which they have been superimposed has itself been abandoned, with the intention that the panel is to be recycled. But they have also the air of having been made by a passing vandal, for their vernacular is that of the wall or sidewalk scribble by a youth who is artistically illiterate but posses enough talent to be able to draw a likeness, say, of Popeye. The fourth component is some object selected from among the objects of the Lebenswelt-- a chair or table, or in one case a brassiere--attached in some fashion to the panel and giving the work a real third dimension. The final component is the title, which may resemble a scrap of overheard conversation (What Is the Reason for Your Visit to Germany? …

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