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Artists David Salle
David Salle Photo

David Salle

American Painter, Printmaker, and Stage Designer

Movements and Styles: Neo-Expressionism, Postmodernism

Born: September 28, 1952 - Norman, Oklahoma

David Salle Timeline


"Once established, a successful style looks like an inevitability - maybe that's the definition of a successful style - but there's often the time when it looks like anything but."
David Salle
"For me, art history is like a feather bed - you fall into it and it catches you."
David Salle
"I remember this girl once - she had these very romantic ideas about art. She asked me, 'Where do you think your art comes from?' And I said, 'Other art.' She got totally turned off."
David Salle
"I wanted to live in a Frank O'Hara poem, and I did what I could to get close to that. It is really O'Hara's New York that I carry around in my head, and, to the little extent that I can, live in."
David Salle
"It kind of amuses me to be seen as a pornographer. Except that it's not true. I've rarely used images from outside of my own studio."
David Salle
"I started when I was nine. Really, everything I know about color theory, composition, drawing, and painting, I learned when I was a kid."
David Salle
"I thought of myself as being on a path - part of a chain of connectedness to the New York School. That was the excitement and the reward."
David Salle
"It sounds strident, but I feel like my whole career represents my stand against - or an alternative to - literal-mindedness."
David Salle
"When I was younger, I was interested in obscurity - almost for its own sake - partly as a way of slowing things down. I don't think that's the case anymore. One does change, over time. Things that might have bothered me 35 years ago, interpretive, narrative things wouldn't faze me now."
David Salle
"Most if not all art reaches backward to earlier models in some way; every rupture is also a continuity. The "reaching back" might be to unexpected sources, but imprints of earlier achievements are what give art its gristle and grit. What's different is the mode of seeing."
David Salle

"I feel that the only thing that really matters in art and life is to go against the tidal wave of literalism and literal-mindedness - to insist on and live the life of the imagination."

David Salle Signature


David Salle's career in art was incubated in the distinct hotbed of post-studio artists under the tutelage of the renowned John Baldessari. At a time when the art world had posited painting as past its prime, or important only within the confines of a new and austere minimalism, Salle along with his peers, were reinvigorating the form in bold new ways. Whereas modernist-era painting was rigidly fixed to the idea that a presentation of an image should stay as true to the authentic experience of that image as possible, Salle was using these same realistic based images as components of overall pastiche works that compelled the viewer to also see them as shape, color, and form, pushing them onto a heroic scale hinting at Abstract Expressionism. This marriage of traditional figuration with Pop art's obsession for disparate images, rejuvenated postmodernism and Neo-Expressionism by creating within the genre a pictorial space infused with humor and theatricality. Salle's work in the field of theater furthermore lent a sense that each painting was a stage on which actors - whether they be body parts, clowns, or furniture advertisements were all a part of a roving cast of subliminal characters in the ongoing drama of our lives. It is as if Salle's paintings are snapshots of singular moments within the constant stream of simultaneous superficial thoughts and visuals that perpetually dwell in our minds - non-literal and random bits hearkening to the beauty of ambiguity.

Key Ideas

For Salle, the process of collage was not limited to the usual juxtaposition of manifold cultural references or innocuous Pop. He also considered the combination of various painting styles from historical to photorealistic to cartoonish on the same plane as essential ingredients in his constructions as well as the use of various fabrics and opposing textures. Even differences between the black and white scale and color fields offered parallels in his work. Salle coined this element a "Vortex," a visual maelstrom left open to one's individual interpretation.
The use of pastiche measures heavily in much of Salle's work, a device by which he often imitates the style or character of another artist's work within his own. Pastiche allows for a recycling of past themes and modes of artistic tradition into a contemporary context. This reconfiguration of artists and works that came before allows Salle to celebrate and incorporate them into the evolving postmodern dialogue as contributors.
In much of Salle's work, familiar images are shown upside down or skewed from an average relativity. His use of body parts, floating by themselves in planes of blank space are a prime example of this desire to strip literalness from his subjects and instead present them, much like dancers upon the stage, as form rather than human. By placing common objects in these different perspectives, he asks us to process information in a new way, considering items for their shape or placement, jarring our associations from what is normal to what might be seen anew.
Salle's work off the canvas, most notably as a stage designer for dance and performance and then later into his career as a filmmaker, has bestowed his paintings with a theatrical element, in which we may come to view his compositions as frozen slides in the overall performance of our life and what we choose to show of ourselves, swirling in the ephemera of our thoughts, deeds, and obsessions at any given moment. This adds a directorial element to all of his work, which blurs the line between what is representational and what is authentic.
Salle not only created works of art but also wrote about art for such esteemed publications as ArtForum and Andy Warhol's Interview. His reputation as a prolific arts commentator adds weight and depth to his career, solidifying his role as Renaissance man in the art world, alongside his supplementary work in theater, stage design, and filmmaking.

Most Important Art

David Salle Famous Art

Brother Animal (1983)

This painting showcases Salle's desire to present various images that come together to inspire multiple readings. In it we see two distinct visual frames: on the right, a couple rendered in deep blue can be seen in the bedroom. The man looks over his shoulder at a woman, who looks away, a stern expression on her face. On the left appears a large-scale rendering of a vital organ - perhaps a brain, liver, or kidney - on coarse brown upholstery fabric. Alongside the woman's palpable, strong emotion, the disembodied organ seems to hint toward an imminent crisis, or looming major decision. Judging from the evident detachment between the man and the woman, it could be a problem within their relationship that one - or both - of them is choosing to ignore.

Layered over the image of the couple are two legless chairs, a pink sketch of what appears to be an apartment complex, and a pair of clowns in the white wedge toward the center of the canvas. These hovering objects might symbolically represent the couple's memories or thoughts made visible. Alternatively, the several varieties of broken or defective pairs surrounding the couple may underscore the fact that their relationship seems to be on very shaky ground.

A number of critics have observed that Salle's paintings merge Pop art's morbid fascination with consumer culture and the heroic scale and abstruse nature of Abstract Expressionism. This is very much the case in this painting, in which various images - each intelligible enough alone - come together to form a whole with a more elusive and subjective meaning.
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David Salle Artworks in Focus:



David Salle was born in Oklahoma but spent his formative youth in Wichita, Kansas. His parents were working class people of Russian Jewish heritage; Salle was among the second generation of his family to be born in America. As a young boy, he took life-drawing classes through a local art organization in Wichita. His interest in drawing and painting persisted throughout his adolescence, and he continued to take classes several days a week as a high school student.

Early Training

David Salle Biography

In 1970, Salle entered the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, north of Los Angeles. There, he studied under John Baldessari, whose paintings often dealt with altered photographic imagery. In a 2013 interview with his former teacher in Interview, Salle says, "He was my mentor when I was a student at CalArts in the early '70s, and it's fair to say that meeting him redirected my trajectory as an artist - as it did for innumerable others. His legendary class in Post-Studio Art bestowed on those of us with enough brains to notice, a feeling of unbelievable luck of being in exactly the right place at the right time for the new freedoms in art - we arrived in time for the birthing, so to speak." The friendship between the two men has lasted over 40 years.

While a student at CalArts, Salle explored various mediums, including video, installation art, and conceptual pieces. He also focused on abstract painting. He earned a BFA in 1973 and stayed at CalArts for graduate study, earning his MFA two years later.

Salle then left Southern California for New York, where he supported himself with a number of part-time jobs throughout the late 1970s. He taught art classes, worked in restaurants, and worked for the designer and installation artist Vito Acconci. One of his more unusual gigs consisted of doing page layout and paste-ups for a pornographic magazine. When the publication went out of business, Salle took some of the stock photographs to use for his own work. These included sexually explicit nude images, as well as generic 'news' materials.

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David Salle Biography Continues

Mature Period

David Salle Photo

In 1980, Salle was living and working in a converted loft space in the city's Tribeca neighborhood when he began to find success as an artist. Following his first solo show in New York City, he formed his association with noted gallery owner Mary Boone, who continues to represent him today.

During this time, the painter expanded his practice to include theatrical design. He designed the set and costumes for Kathy Acker's The Birth of the Poet, and went on to design staging and costumes for productions by the dancer and choreographer Karole Armitage. The internationally renowned dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov asked Armitage to create a new work for the American Ballet Theater; Armitage then approached Salle with the project. The collaboration was a fruitful one: the ballet was a success, and Salle and Armitage became lovers, living together for seven years. He met with a tremendous amount of success as an artist during the early 80s, and though his popularity slipped somewhat during the 1990s, he earned a very comfortable living as an artist.

Salle continued to challenge his creativity through the exploration of different art forms. During the 1990s, he began producing sculptures, and also started exhibiting his photography. Many black-and-white images became the basis for his painted canvases. Salle made his Hollywood directorial debut in 1995 with Search and Destroy, an adaptation of Howard Korder's stage play about a washed-up, middle-aged businessman who wants to adapt a self-help book into a movie. Though the film attracted some major Hollywood names including actors Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, and Ethan Hawke, with Martin Scorsese as producer - the film met with a mixed reception.

Current Work

David Salle Portrait

Salle eventually moved out of Tribeca to Long Island. He now lives and works in the coastal town of East Hampton, New York.

Over the years, he has become a prolific writer on art, contributing to Artforum, The Paris Review, Town and Country, Interview, and a number of other publications. He has given a number of interviews in art publications as well as mainstream glossies such as Vanity Fair and Architectural Digest, and while he is candid about his philosophy of life and his creative process, he consistently reveals very little about his personal life, friends, or family.

From 2004 onward, Salle has experimented repeatedly with the vortex motif, mixing representational images with what has typically been an abstract and cartoonish form. One of his more recent series, Late Product Paintings, revisits his Early Product Paintings series of 1993, in which collaged renditions of product advertisements provides the basis for an exploration of the complex relationships between image, subject, and object.

Though his romance with Armitage did not last, the two remain close friends and resumed their collaboration on her dance productions in the mid-2000s. In a 2007 interview, Armitage observed that Salle "has an uncanny ability to understand the requirement of a huge range of media from stage to film and even dance costumes - which have very specific technical limitations. I don't understand how he is so facile and intuitive while also keenly analytical."


Salle's creative endeavors as a painter, printmaker, and stage designer have played a significant role in shaping the sensibility of postmodern art, often mingling 'high' and 'low' art together on a single canvas and blending disparate images and styles into an innovative form of pastiche that speaks to the unique joys and frustrations of life in a late-capitalist society. Though he has been an influential figure in the American art world since the 1980s, his popularity has never been without controversy; he has drawn consistent criticism from feminists who object to his frequent use of nude and scantily clad women in his painting.

Along with his contemporaries, among them Robert Longo and Julian Schnabel, Salle ushered in a return to large-scale, gestural expressionism following the minimalism of painting and sculpture in the 1970s. His work has had a major impact on a number of artists, including the Pop-inspired collage canvases of Jeff Koons, multi-panel compositions of found photography by Julia Wachtel, and the lampooning of American media saturation, comic-book heroes, and religiosity in the paintings of Jerry Kearns.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
David Salle
Interactive chart with David Salle's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
View Influences Chart


Paul CézannePaul Cézanne
Rene MagritteRene Magritte
John BaldessariJohn Baldessari
James RosenquistJames Rosenquist
Henri MatisseHenri Matisse

Personal Contacts

Ross BlecknerRoss Bleckner
Mary BooneMary Boone


Conceptual ArtConceptual Art
Abstract ExpressionismAbstract Expressionism
Pop ArtPop Art

Influences on Artist
David Salle
David Salle
Years Worked: 1976 - present
Influenced by Artist


Jeff KoonsJeff Koons
Julian SchnabelJulian Schnabel
Robert LongoRobert Longo

Personal Contacts

Eric FischlEric Fischl


Appropriation ArtAppropriation Art

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Jen Glennon

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jen Glennon
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols
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Useful Resources on David Salle






The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.


David Salle (1994) Recomended resource

Edited by David Whitney and Lisa Liebman

David Salle (1991)

By George Trow

David Salle (1998) Recomended resource

By David Salle and Massimo Audiello

SALLE (1987)

By Peter Schjeldahl

More Interesting Books about David Salle
Artist David Salle's Colorful Refuge in East Hampton

By Mayer Rus
Architectural Digest
Nov. 3, 2015

Reviews: David Salle Recomended resource

By Dennis Kardon
Art in America
Sept. 7, 2015

There Are No Rules in David Salle's Pop Culture Mashups Recomended resource

By Abby Ronner
'The Creator's Project' (Vice)
May 5, 2015

Structure Rising: David Salle on 'The Forever Now' at MoMA

By David Salle
Feb. 23, 2015

More Interesting Articles about David Salle
TateShots: David Salle - Studio Visit

Brief 2012 interview with Salle in his studio

Culture Now: David Salle Recomended resource

Lengthy (90+ minute) discussion by Salle of his exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London

in pop culture

ARTST TLK Episode 2

Producer and musician Pharrell Williams' 2012 interview with Salle and KAWS

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