David Salle

American Painter, Printmaker, and Stage Designer

Born: September 28, 1952
Norman, Oklahoma
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.

Summary of David Salle

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.


Progression of Art


Brother Animal

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.

Oil and Acrylic on Canvas and Fabric with Wooden Chairs - Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles



In Tennyson, we find the early onset of Salle's exploration into the female body as a provocative source of both guilt and glee within our communal psyche. A sensual nude lays on a sienna-colored plain reminiscent of a sun soaked beach, her back coyly turned toward the viewer. The monochromatic hue conjures soft porn images of yesteryear. The name of the noted Victorian poet spans the center in block letters of which only the first two are colored: "te," which when said aloud brings to mind the first syllable of an embarrassed giggle. A rust colored mark bisects the top half of the buttocks, as if evidence of a voyeur's presence in a water stain dropped accidentally on the pages of a dirty magazine. Swatches of turquoise and pink in the upper left hand corner provide an unassuming frame for a three dimensional ear carved of wood and affixed to the canvas. The ear, perhaps a rebus, asks us to "Listen." But listen to what? It may be the way we glorify the female body within the annals of desire, the way eroticism is something we shamefully keep secret, or the sounds of our childlike innocence as we awkwardly navigate the wondrous world of fantasy and desire.

This painting is a prime example of Salle's use of pastiche, in which he appropriates styles that imitate another work, artist, or period. We can see the jagged brushstrokes of Clyfford Still, the clunky assemblage of Robert Rauschenberg, the iconic lettering of Ed Ruscha, and the realistic, one-toned figuration of the human body as per Lucien Freud. This nod to other artists invites us to reflect not only on the individual painting's presumed meaning but also on the overall conversation perpetuated in the art world at large.

Oil, acrylic on canvas with wooden and plaster relief


Sextant in Dogtown

In this piece, Salle combines an eclectic mix of found images from a variety of sources, painted in his own hand, though nevertheless reminiscent of a collage. Although constructed within filmstrip-like boxes that hint at an overall performance, there is no clear evidence of a "story." As in much of his work, the viewer is left to draw his or her own connections, in no prescribed order, and thus surmise a meaning.

Yet the curious addition of "Dogtown" in the title asks the viewer to collude in a type of metaphorical association that Salle has admitted is more relevant to his work than literal interpretation. On top we see colorful male figures in garments reminiscent of circus costumes, indicating that they are performers of some kind. This sits in direct opposition to the black-and-white lingerie clad women of the lower panels. The figure at the top right operates an old oceanic navigation device known as a sextant, which was used as a sighting mechanism that allowed a shipman to take altitudes in navigation. Therefore, the female bodies in the lower frames, which are positioned in a sort of striptease as spectacles to be observed, might hint at the many ways we navigate through our societal perspectives of women within society as objects of disjointed desire. The act of seeing, or not seeing, becomes an important theme of the work with an implicit focus on how we watch led by the invisible orchestrations of a media-saturated society as dogs upon a leash. This move into a more critical commentary might be seen as a direct reaction to the more conspicuous consumption of America in the 1980s.

Oil and Acrylic on Canvas - Whitney Museum of American Art



This piece is composed of two distinct halves. On the left, we see four figures seated in a room, directly facing the viewer. The figure closest to the viewer is a smiling man in a suit. Two other men, also in suits, waft in the background. A young woman sits with her legs crossed and her chin in her hands toward the center of the image with a mischievous smile on her face. The right side of the canvas shows a domestic scene turned on its side, reminiscent of a midcentury advertisement for furniture. As with many of Salle's earlier paintings, the image of the room is partially covered by the collage-like application of additional images. These include an assortment of colorful butterflies framing a headless mannequin wearing a voluminous dress. Below it is a ruffled harlequin collar, a reference to which looks back toward some of his earlier paintings, including Sextant in Dogtown. It also evokes his artistic work on film and stage, particularly his collaborations with his then-former lover, Karole Armitage.

Because this painting presents motifs and objects used in earlier work, it stands to continue Salle's ongoing yet ambiguous portrayal of the roles and expectations of women in American society. The girl on the left is juxtaposed with the domestic scene and superimposed image of what appears to be a wedding dress on the right, suggesting the looming threat of domestication and homogeneity. Yet the girl's giggling energetic nature within a dominant sea of men, in contrast with the altered scene of seeming domestic bliss, might suggest a different idea; one in which she carries the power to topple our preconceived notions, freeing herself from the projections of her role as it might ordinarily stand. She asks us to question our participation in the communal joke where women are pigeonholed rather than uniquely expressed.

Oil and Acrylic on Canvas - Guggenheim Museum



In this composition we find three distinct images: a faintly smiling woman in a red top on a yellow background with scattered flowers and a vivid blue ceramic urn, a rear-view of a woman in a billowing white dress moving away from the viewer with her arms aloft, and a nude woman on her back with her eyes closed and knees bent. It is not clear if all three of these images depict the same woman. But it is clear that, although this painting again finds Salle revisiting the female form as an object on display, it does so in a more brightly stylized fashion than was his norm at the time. Even the name "Sestina" conjures the jubilant tone of poetry. In fact, when asked about the painting in 2003, the artist told The New York Times, "The painting is an exhortation to be happy."

This move away from some of the more ominous implications of Salle's earlier treatments of the female subject, hints at the injection of a newfound joy within the pleasurable celebration of femininity and sensuality. Because Salle has stated that the connection between the women in this painting is syntactical, or representing a set of rules by which to analyze them, we might detect an evolution within the artist's own visual language. Perhaps his exploration of societal objectification has come full circle to portray a more cohesive view of the female experience.

Oil on Linen - Private Collection



This composition blends together a variety of different media: a representational portrait of a woman in warm gray tones, a sexualized rendering of a cartoon character (distorted into a whirling vortex shape), and a small model boat on a wooden shelf, affixed to the canvas near the woman's right collarbone.

The cartoon character depicted at the bottom of the canvas is the 1990s anime and manga character, Sailor Moon, recognizable by her distinct buns-and-pigtails hairstyle and sailor suit, which mimics the naval styling of some Japanese school uniforms. Salle's manipulated image is an imitation of the original, belonging to the subgenre of anime and manga known as hentai, characterized by overtly sexualized characters, plots, and imagery. Most often, this sexualized reimagining of existing stories and characters is unofficial and off-brand. Ironically, Sailor Moon's primary audience was young girls.

The painting continues Salle's ongoing dialogue with pornography and the objectification of women in contemporary society, and also urges the viewer to further consider the idea of appropriation; namely, the use and re-use of another person's creative output to one's own ends. Here, Sailor Moon has been transformed into the fodder for sexual entertainment, and that hentai image is then transformed again, this time into the stuff of "high art." At the same time, the placement of the wooden shelf - in alignment with the jutting collarbone of the woman rendered in warm gray tones -- can also be seen as evoking a competing social standard of feminine beauty. This leaves the woman at the center literally surrounded by impossible, contradictory standards of "perfection": cartoonish, youthful hyper-sexuality, or static, sculptural angularity.

Oil on Linen with Wood Shelf and Found Object - Private Collection


Silver 1

With the Silver Paintings series, Salle evolves the painted collage-like compositions for which he is best known, by means of a more direct incorporation of photographic images. The artist had used photographs - taken himself and by others - as the basis for his paintings since starting out in the late 1970s and early 1980s, though this series marks a distinct move to mimic the appearance of an actual photograph.

Though more recent, this series of paintings is thoroughly rooted in the 1990s. The semi-nude male figure, wrapped in a blanket at the center, is the gallerist and performer Massimo Audiello, photographed in 1993 in front of incomplete works from one of Salle's series from the same period, Early Product Paintings. The works in the background are derived from advertisements for Gordon's Gin, looking back to the Pop art movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The male figure's shrouded head both evokes and revises the detachment and anonymity of some of the artist's earlier female nudes, turning the notion of the "male gaze" on its head. Produced through a process akin to silk-screening, the combination of the two images produces a painterly, imperfect effect by means of a mechanized process.

Pigment Transfer on Linen - Skarsedt Gallery, New York

Biography of David Salle


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

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.

Mature Period

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

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."

The Legacy of David Salle

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.

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