Magazine article Artforum International

'80S Something

Magazine article Artforum International

'80S Something

Article excerpt

The New York art world's self-imposed amnesia regarding the '80s finds its purest expression in our contemporary response to the art of David Salle. As the archetypal bad boy of a generation that defined itself through its unmitigated brashness (Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat are as much his contemporaries as Barbara Kruger and Sherrie Levine), Salle has become an inviting target for those who, appalled by the decade's distinctive fusion of greed and egotism, wish the '80s had never happened. Others seem to be in denial that the artistic premises of David Salle's work - his peculiar fusion of iconoclastic vigor and jaded worldliness - have ever been credible. One thing both perspectives reveal is just how difficult it is to recapture that moment fifteen years ago, when Salle and his ilk held the art world in thrall. Even contemplating the gulf between now and then seems daunting, which is probably one reason to applaud the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam for choosing this moment to offer a close-to-definitive survey covering two decades of Salle's paintings.

As contradictory as it might seem, at least part of the animosity implicit in the contemporary reaction to David Salle has to do with the artist's own career management. Certainly the glib misogyny suggested by many of his canvases and the flagrant ambition he's always displayed seem conspicuously out of sync with the mood of the moment; indeed, it would seem impossible for an artist of Salle's savvy to have so thoroughly misread the zeitgeist. Yet this observation brings with it a companion idea, which is that any candid discussion of Salle's work must, at the very least, acknowledge the fact that the painter's persona of a half-jaded dandy has not ingratiated him to his public. More than any other active artist one can name, it's actually easy to picture Salle wearing an indelible smirk of disdain while he works. The spirit is infectious: His paintings resist any attempt on our part to identify directly with either their technique or their subject matter, leaving us to commune with them on a fairly rarefied plane, where fancy brushwork and the "death of the author" come together. Salle's knack for playing the prig might help explain why his work, despite its tendency to spill forth a cornucopia of pictorial incident, seems uniquely ungenerous. His public pronouncements about art (his and others') have often been gratuitously elitist and/or mean, and thanks to his unremarkable forays into film directing and ballet scenography, Salle's considerable intelligence as a painter has tended to become sidelined by an unrepentant streak of dilettantism. In short, Salle offers, on the proverbial silver platter, about as many reasons to dislike him as any single artist might muster.

Of course, if the Stedelijk survey ends up bolstering Salle's flagging reputation by proving that his work is greater than the sum of its dubious parts might suggest, it may also help us understand that much of the indifference, even anathema, felt toward Salle and everything he stands for may be misdirected, since his work appears to have its roots in a historical rupture whose effects are still being broadly felt today. In other words, as the first self-consciously "postmodern" American painter, Salle has long been accustomed to bearing the brunt of a disproportionate amount of the criticism leveled at his generation. When he emerged on the scene in 1981, his work was generally slammed for both its cynical appearance and its breezy, offhanded way of dismissing the possibility of the sublime in painting. Although curators and critics gradually warmed to his tactics, there was a take-no-prisoners aspect to the accompanying shift in public taste that left a great deal of rancor in its wake. Not only did Salle provide a devastatingly effective assault on the lingering mythology of the artist as genius, he did so with a cool lack of apology that only made the cozy embrace of the old school look more inviting. …

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