What’s eating David Salle? A slide lecture at Christie’s becomes a reflection on ‘legacy’ in art

David Salle speaking last night at Christie's. ()
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At 6:15 p.m. yesterday in a meeting room at Christie's auction house, a few people sat around waiting for a slide lecture by the artist David Salle to begin. A slight, intense-looking man in a gray blazer and dark blue jeans silently set up some equipment in the front of the room. It was only when someone came up to greet him and the slight man said, quietly, "I tend to go through slides of my work very fast," that it became clear that he was David Salle.

Was the group seated near him ignoring him because they didn't recognize him, or because they recognized him and didn't care? There was certainly a time, in the 1980s in New York City, when such a scene would have been impossible, when Salle wouldn't ever have been busying himself while other people—art people—chatted and went about their business. It was a time when Salle and his enormous paintings, postmodern canvases remixing fragments of art history, were symbols of the booming art world—Mary Boone's gallery, long nights at the Odeon, Julian Schnabel, Basquiat. They were heady times, and Salle was at the center of them. In 1982, Peter Schjeldahl wrote of one of the artist's early shows at Boone that "it would be an Event if catered with a box of Chiclets and held in a subway toilet."

David Salle in 2010 is not quite David Salle in 1982, and though several emails had been sent to the effect that his lecture, sponsored by the American Federation of Arts, was sold out, there were many empty seats. For about 40 attendees, Salle showed images of the work of artists he likes: Matisse, Dana Schutz, Carroll Dunham, Amy Sillman. He read part of a Frank O'Hara essay. We saw photos of the installation of a show of art from the '80s that he curated with Richard Phillips at Christies' Haunch of Venison gallery this spring. At the end he raced, in a self-effacingly cursory fashion, through almost three decades of his own mesmerizing, unsettling paintings.

It was a rather mystifying but seductive lecture. Early on, Salle, whose voice is regular and relaxing, drew a distinction between the way artists talk to each other about paintings (the right way) and the way that critics, academics, and gallery types talk about them (the wrong way). The implication was that now we were going to learn, from a legendary artist, the secrets of the right way. As became clear when Interview magazine tested this premise in its heyday—that only "creative types" were qualified to interview other "creative types"—it turns out that artists talk about their paintings in the same terms with which they discuss their friends, as having, Salle said, "pizzazz" or "life" or "energy" (these seem strange ways to talk about one's friends, but all right).

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There was something reactionary in the way he resorted to tried-and-true ribbing of critics and academics: He sounded, presumably unintentionally, like a Republican in the '90s culture wars. He said, ludicrously, "The whole idea of aesthetic values is suspect in academia." Yet there was a poignant tinge of insecurity in the criticisms. Though he started with a comfortably accessible vocabulary—your paintings are like your friends!—he soon turned to vaguely defined uses of "pictorialism" versus "presentationalism," "romantic" versus "classical" art. He crammed in literary references—Edmund Wilson, Gertrude Stein, Coleridge. He briefly digressed to muse about why Hemingway had ended up more popular than Stein—a small but telling irruption of Salle's incurable obsession with rank, with reception, topics that dominated Janet Malcolm's legendary New Yorker profile of him.

Caring about what the critics say might naturally interest an artist with the potential to last, to be remembered. But for all his calm, Salle's interest in his reception had an unpleasant edge. He criticized what he calls "the academic view of what the 1980s represent": a sharp distinction between "the neo-Expressionists" and "critique art." (This was also the straw man of the Haunch of Venison show, which had the aggressive title "Your History Is Not Our History.") The academics, he claimed, recall him and his other, mostly male "neo-Expressionist" colleagues as "not just retrograde but patriarchal," and even "complicit in the rise of Reaganomics."

Salle, Schnabel, Francesco Clemente, and the rest of the gang have doubtless come in for a large share of criticism over the years, but Salle's resentment of their, and his, treatment seems almost childish given the hugeness of his success, and the near-certainty that he will enter the canon. Even on a small screen, his paintings—which are many feet by many feet large—exert a pull, particularly the early ones, in which darkly colored, enigmatic images are moodily grouped and superimposed atop one another. Salle discussed the paintings as if they were someone else's, speaking with slightly disconcerting candor about his opinions of them. A few are certainly bad—recent experiments with Photoshop-esque effects (suggested by Eric Fischl) are busts—but the most recent paintings have a haunting emptiness. Inspired by George Caleb Bingham's classic The Jolly Flatboatmen, the paintings remove the figures and are left with a rowboat that may also be a coffin.

MOST OF US KNOW THAT WE WON'T BE REMEMBERED, in the grand scheme of things, while for the true greats, the Mozarts and the Picassos, it's a done deal. Salle, though, is in that weird place from which he could go either way. Nearing 60, for someone as sensitive as he is to critical opinion and his place in the pantheon, it must be nervewracking.

At a certain point in his talk, Salle took issue with critics who say that his work chronicled—and, in its density of images, epitomized—the "media glut" of recent decades. "I couldn't care less about media glut," he said, with surprising vigor. "I don't have TV, I don't have a radio, I don't even read The New York Times anymore." That an artist would be so eager to broadcast his detachment from the real world speaks painfully to the state of our culture, but also to the near-desperation with which Salle's eye rests squarely on immortality.

But whoever was being addressed by the name of the Haunch of Venison show, "Your History Is Not Our History," the history of David Salle will not be his to control when he's dead and gone, for better or worse. It will be "ours," whoever "we" are.