On Modern American Art: Selected Essays

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview

DAVID SALLE 1985

Working under the banner of Realism, painters continue to stare at and to describe with pigment on canvas this or that isolated fragment of the vast visible world out there, whether it be as palpable as the sagging flesh we scrutinize on a nude model within arm's reach or as ungraspable as the reflections on a bottle of vodka in a still-life set-up. But Realism, of course, is the most slippery of words, and in the late twentieth century, it is more slippery than ever. At a time when the image on the TV screen keeps usurping the gravity- bound reality of the tabletop below it, when the original painting in the museum looks like an offshoot of its color reproduction rather than the other way round, when we rush to look at and record a memorable tourist spot with a portable camera rather than see it with our own eyes, then we know that many artists are going to have new things to tell us about whatever it is reality might be today.

David Salle is one of these artists. Although only in his early thirties, he has already called into being a full-scale vision of what this new reality might be about. Conjured up as if by free association, a mirage of seemingly disconnected fragments from art and life is suspended in an elusive twilight zone that never stops seesawing between tangible matter and filmy phantoms, between the codified languages of abstraction and those of figurative art. At first glance, the typical Salle painting is a kind of visual Tower of Babel, an inventory of magnified quotations from a contemporary image-bank that can include anything from the schematic chiaroscuro drawing style taken from the coarsest popular illustrations to thick pigment scribbles excerpted from an Abstract Expressionist canvas. Both surfacing and disappearing within these wide-screen vistas, Salle's compilation of floating parts may be as assertively real as a chair leg or a stuffed duck head that actually projects from the canvas, as impalpably ectoplasmic as the translucent grisaille figures that hover, like the after-image of a photograph, in some unchartable depths, or as matter-of-factly flat as a swatch of some 1950s patterned fabric collaged onto the canvas and running both over and under the ostensibly 3-D images.

In all of this, a strange chill and neutrality appear to reign. If we are deceived for a moment into thinking that a rapidly painted scrawl is a mark of impulse and spontaneity, we are rapidly undeceived when we realize that it is probably a close citation from, say, a painting by Riopelle and that it is given equal time with passages of light-dark modeling as impersonal as the diagrams in how-to-draw manuals. And as soon as we decide to capture the illusion of a rounded, shadowed image, it is instantly taken away from us by a cropping edge

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