Here’s what I realized about David Salle’s art after taking in his survey at The Brant Foundation in Greenwich, Connecticut: His newest paintings (about one third of the 56 works in the show were made since 2016) aren’t markedly different in aesthetic than the many earlier ones on view, going as far back as the late 1970s.
That’s not necessarily the case for artist-peers of his who’ve followed a similar professional trajectory, roaring to prominence in the 1980s with visually distinctive, signature styles that enraptured New York City’s booming art scene. As cases in point, Julian Schnabel’s focus has veered wildly over the years, and even a recent redux of his famed broken-plate paintings demonstrated an as-yet-unseen level of precision; and the scenic narratives in Eric Fischl’s more recent paintings reveal crisper details and subject matter less inclined toward eroticism.
But Salle, a quintessential artist of the Pictures Generation, has remained steadfast in his ways. His paintings take the shape of composites created from found images—often from print publications and photographs, which suggests a broader consideration of ephemerality. As he translates each reference onto his canvas, he’s careful to replicate its precise graphic attributes. His process has never fundamentally deviated from this system, and so his paintings have never deviated from their cobbled-together, loosely photorealistic configurations.
In a 1987 work titled The Kelly Bag, two lavishly accessorized female bodies—revealed from knees to cheekbones and rendered in grisaille—loom on either side of the composition, as if in a diptych. Superimposed over a dark backdrop in the center are brightly colored rectangles framing a stylized female statuette and, elsewhere, a floral-patterned vase. An irregular oval over one of the grisaille figures contains an eye. Equivalence, made decades later in 2018, also resembles a diptych. On one side, a black-and-white scene, which looks to have originated in a comic, features a female nurse kneeling next to a male patient’s bed. Opposite, a grayscale illustration shows a woman from the shoulders up, with outlines of houses appearing over her chest.
In any case, the results don’t necessarily evoke any explicit, let alone linear, narrative—except, perhaps, for the one behind the scenes, of Salle scouring his media environment for images to use as compositional building-blocks. Salle’s paintings, then, individually and collectively, can be understood as crystallized snapshots of life in an ongoing and ever-evolving societal epoch characterized by a cacophony of visuals—relentlessly available yet, from any single instance to the next, rarely memorable in the grander scheme of things. —Rachel Summer Small
David Salle, Old Bottles, 1995. Oil, acrylic, and photosensitized linen on canvas, 96 x 128 inches. © David Salle/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Private Collection, Dallas, TX