THE FETCHING AUDACITY OF PETER SAUL

By Gabriel Thy • Art Criticism, Artist • 28 May 2010

THIS NEW YORK TIMES ARTICLE ON LA artist Peter Saul was handed to me by my buoyant friend and fellow artist, Cianne Fragione, with the sidebar that she had a notion that I’d like him, and that his work reminded her of my own. Initially, after scanning the one or two images published in the newsprint and reading the article, I decided that I was in mild disagreement with my friend’s assessment. No disrespect to Mr. Saul, I just didn’t see it. Nearly two years later I found myself desperate to google any information I could find to reassess my artistic relationship to this aging Orange County artist, which is all I could remember about him initially.

PETER SAUL’S ART IS NOT PRETTY, though it has many eye-catching pleasures. Nor is it polite. Indeed, the artist makes zealous efforts to ensure the opposite. In America today, he says in a catalog interview, “there’s a tremendous need to not be seen as racist, not seen as sexist. So I want to make sure I am seen as those things.”

Israel

He succeeds. What museum would be the right one for a painting of a knife-wielding O. J. Simpson strapped down for execution as a buxom blond angel points to a blood-stained glove and intones, “This is why you have to die”? Or for a picture of Christopher Columbus slaughtering New World natives who themselves hold platters of chopped human limbs in their arms?

What is the appropriate place for art that stirs together John Wayne Gacy and Angela Davis, Mickey Mouse and Ethel Rosenberg, Stalin and Willem de Kooning, Basil Wolverton and George W. Bush, then spikes the broth with prickly references to capitalism, Communism, homophobia, feminism, Black Power, racism, pedophilia and art-world politics and—last but not least—to the aging, decaying, self-lacerating artist himself?

Depending on who’s looking, Mr. Saul might be seen either to embrace or revile individual ingredients in this stew, though when his art is pressed to declare its loyalties, it gives no unequivocal answers. Indeed, it seems to be answer-averse, a species of painting as agitation, picture-making as button-pushing.

Mr. Saul, who was born in San Francisco, started pushing buttons in the late 1950s when he discovered that although he liked the way certain Abstract Expressionist artists painted, he couldn’t stomach the Existentialist mumbo-jumbo that surrounded their work. So he adopted the brushy style but dumped the pretensions. Instead of spiritual depths, he painted icebox interiors stocked with soft drinks, steaks, daggers, penises and toilets. In the process he created a painterly version—Larry Rivers did the same—of what would come to be called Pop Art.

Peter Saul, now 76, is a classic artist’s artist, one of our few important practicing history painters and a serial offender in violations of good taste. His career, while long, steady and admired, has never exceeded cult status. It’s an example of can’t-see-the-tree-for-the-forest visibility.

Read it all.

You be the judge.

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