When the audience for visual art expanded from small circles of artists and collectors into broader culture, the way art was experienced shifted from aesthetics to explanation. Art, it became thought, should be about something. But David Salle rebukes this literal-mindedness: according to him, what we think and feel when reacting to a piece of art is more authoritative than what’s written on the label next to it. A painter, sculptor, and filmmaker, David is also the author of How to See: Looking, Talking, and Thinking about Art, a highly regarded book on artistic criticism.
David joined Tyler to discuss the fifteen (or so) functions of good art, why it’s easier to write about money than art, what’s gone wrong with art criticism today, how to cultivate good taste, the reasons museum curators tend to be risk-averse, the effect of modern artistic training on contemporary art, the evolution of Cézanne, how the centrality of photography is changing fine art, what makes some artists’ retrospectives more compelling than others, the physical challenges of painting on a large scale, how artists view museums differently, how a painting goes wrong, where his paintings end up, what great collectors have in common, how artists collect art differently, why Frank O’Hara was so important to Alex Katz and himself, what he loves about the films of Preston Sturges, why The Sopranos is a model of artistic expression, how we should change intellectual property law for artists, the disappointing puritanism of the avant-garde, and more.
Watch the full conversation
Recorded August 18th, 2021
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today, I’m honored to be sitting here with David Salle in David’s studio out on Long Island. David, I would describe, really, as a force of nature. He has spent most of his life creating art, often as a painter, but not only — also sculpture and film. He directed a movie produced by Martin Scorsese. David is perhaps best known for his rise to fame in the 1980s, where he heralded the revival of a certain style of figurative painting.
David is someone who is thought of as being able to work in ballet and theater, in virtually every genre, and being able to integrate disparate elements of the artistic craft, figure out how they work. He has also written a highly regarded book of artistic criticism called How to See. He’s working on a memoir and has three shows coming up this fall. You can think of David as someone who has done virtually everything. He has, in fact, also interviewed Scarlett Johansson. David, welcome.
DAVID SALLE: [laughs] Thank you very much, Tyler. I’m very happy to be here.
COWEN: Let me start with a few quotations from you. I’ll read them off, and you tell me what you meant. Here’s the first one. “It sounds strident, but I feel my whole career represents my stand against — or an alternative to — literal-mindedness.”
SALLE: I think it’s true. What does it mean? It’s certainly nothing particular to me, or rather, not only to me. However, I feel that starting from when? I don’t know, from the ’50s or the ’60s or ’70s — at a certain point, the experience of culture — whether it’s painting or something else — the nature of the experience shifted to something that had more in common with journalism than with what we might call “an aesthetic experience,” that works of art were thought to be about something.
What that “about” was, or is, is something that could be more or less easily grasped. It’s the aboutness which, for me, is a short-circuiting of the art experience. When I say what I’m opposed to — or find myself in opposition to — is literal-mindedness, what I mean is just that. Let’s not be so literal. Let’s not take everything so literally. Is there to be no metaphor? Is there to be no invention? What I meant in that statement—gnomic though it might sound — is essentially, let’s have more fun, and let’s use more imagination.
COWEN: Here’s another quotation from you. “Well, a good work of art does about 15 things simultaneously when it hangs on the wall.”
SALLE: I think people might underestimate the decorative function of painting. Painting has various functions. A good painting satisfies most of them or all of them, pretty much at a high level. One of the functions, historically, is to make the room look better, to make people’s emotional temperature quicken slightly when the painting is in the room as opposed to when it’s not in the room. That’s a decorative function. It’s an important one.
I remember the first time I met Jasper Johns. He actually said to a friend of mine, who was standing with us, “The first obligation of a painting is to make the wall look better that it’s hanging on.” It is one of those statements that is so simple-minded it brooks mystification, but it’s just a simple fact.
What else does painting do? Obviously, we want it to do more than just be decorative. I think any good painting — really good painting — expresses something true about the time in which it was made and about the maker. But that’s another level and doesn’t have to be apparent in the same way that its decorative value is apparent.
What else does it do? It locates the maker in a certain history, a certain dialogue, a certain discourse. It sometimes takes sides. It sometimes provokes arguments. These are other things that paintings can do. Maybe 15 is a slight exaggeration.
COWEN: Here’s another. “It’s easier to write about money than to write about art.” And I write about money.
SALLE: I don’t mean to imply totally that writing about money is simple —
COWEN: It’s easier than your job, is it not?
SALLE: — I’m sure it’s quite difficult. To do it well, it’s difficult.
There’s the obvious problem in writing about art. Art is visual; language is language. When we write about literature or sociology or something other than music, the medium with which we use to describe it is somehow aligned with the experience of it in the first place. With painting or sculpture — when I say painting, I mean visual arts generally — there is always an approximation or translation that is challenging. To do it well is challenging.
COWEN: What has gone wrong with art criticism today? What is your structural model for how and why that happened?
SALLE: There are so many parts of the answer, I’m not sure where to begin. Part of what happened in art writing and part of what happened in the visual arts — in America anyway but also, I think, probably all over the West, and maybe even all over the world — is the expansion of the audience.
At a certain point, artists decided — not that anyone got together and voted, but collectively — as a result of living through a certain time, artists thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice not to be put in the art ghetto any longer, be kept in the art ghetto any longer, but to enter into the broader culture, have more of a dialogue with the other arts or the more popular arts or even entertainment. We don’t want to be kept below 10th Street anymore.” And they got their wish.
I don’t think anyone quite realized that achieving that was going to come at a cost, and the cost was a dumbing down and simplification — whether it’s over or not, I don’t know — it’s a matter of debate. The audience greatly expanded. The awareness of the visual arts in the general public expanded enormously. With that, there was also a need for interlocutors and interpreters, people who could explain the art to the audience.
It was a growth industry for a while, not so much anymore. A lot of people tried their hand at what, in the past, might have been a very, very select group of people who had some intimate connection with the people they were writing about. Increasingly, art writing just resembled journalism; that is to say, it’s reporting on this person having a show here, and this person’s themes are X, and this person comes from this culture — just a catalog of either identity markers or subject-matter markers. In other words, which clubs that artist belongs to.
It’s all fine, good, and probably necessary, but it’s not criticism, and it’s not thoughtful. Maybe it has a deleterious effect on the art experience itself, if we can use that term — sounds grandiose, to say it like that.
COWEN: If I want to learn how to read better, to learn about art and read about art, and if there’s something wrong with art criticism today, what is it that I best should do? Your own book aside, of course.
SALLE: When I wrote my book, I took a page from another artist-critic by the name of Fairfield Porter. Fairfield Porter was a painter who lived in Southampton who made very high-level paintings in a French realist tradition — landscapes, still life, whatnot.
He was also a very serious reviewer and critic. Fairfield wrote in one of his essays — and I’m paraphrasing — that one’s immediate reaction to a work of art is not dissimilar to the way one reacts to meeting a new person. That is to say, when you meet somebody, you know within a millisecond whether that person is likely for you or not. You, of course, can be wrong, and you can change your opinion. But we form first opinions, first impressions when we meet people, and that’s part of life, part of the discourse of life.
What Fairfield was making was an analogy between that experience which we all have every day — or most days — and the visual art experience, where we know what we feel about something usually, but unlike meeting people, when we meet art, we don’t trust that feeling. We have to then go to the wall label, and the wall label tells us X, and then we get confused because the wall label doesn’t really describe what we think or feel about it.
Maybe we think or feel nothing in particular. Maybe we think or feel boredom, but we’re told the work of art is about X. If we’re good students, we commit that to memory and repeat that. Pretty soon, it becomes the thing that everybody says about that painting. It just simply may not align with anyone’s actual experience.
The very simple piece of advice — if that’s even the right word —the simple procedure is for people to simply ask themselves, “What is it that you really find yourself thinking about when you’re looking at something?” The answer to that might, in fact, be boredom or nothing or something unpleasant. And that’s fine. There are plenty of other things to look at. Just move on.
The very simple piece of advice — if that’s even the right word — simple procedure is for people to simply ask themselves, “What is it that you really find yourself thinking about when you’re looking at something?” The answer to that might, in fact, be boredom or nothing or something unpleasant. And that’s fine. There are plenty of other things to look at. Just move on.
I think without the ability to tell the truth about it — what the experience feels like — then we’re stuck. Then we have to manufacture all of these other criteria, which may or may not be true. They might be true. They might, in fact, impact things in a meaningful way. But there’s always the danger that those criteria take on a life of their own and that they become a substitute for the experience, rather than the actual experience.
Now, that being said, the experience can and probably will change. But as long as one is alert to what that change is, that, to me, seems healthy and part of the process. I don’t know, does that make any sense?
COWEN: Yes, but just to be very concrete, let’s say someone asks you, “I want to take one actionable step tomorrow to learn more about art.” And they are a smart, highly educated person, but have not spent much time in the art world. What should they actually do other than look at art, on the reading level?
SALLE: On the reading level? Oh God, Tyler, that’s hard. I’ll have to think about it. I’ll have to come back with an answer in a few minutes. I’m not sure there’s anything concretely to do on the reading level. There probably is — just not coming to mind.
There’s Henry Geldzahler, who wrote a book very late in his life, at the end of his life. I can’t remember the title, but he addresses the problem of something which is almost a taboo — how do you acquire taste? — which is, in a sense, what we’re talking about. It’s something one can’t even speak about in polite society among art historians or art critics.
Taste is considered to be something not worth discussing. It’s simply, we’re all above that. Taste is, in a sense, something that has to do with Hallmark greeting cards — but it’s not true. Taste is what we have to work with. It’s a way of describing human experience.
Henry, who was the first curator of modern and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, was a wonderful guy and a wonderful raconteur. Henry basically answers your question: find ways, start collecting. “Okay, but I don’t have any money. How can I collect art?” You don’t have to collect great paintings. Just go to the flea market and buy a vase for 5 bucks. Bring it back to your room, live with it, and look at it.
Pretty soon, you’ll start to make distinctions about it. Eventually, if you’re really paying attention to your own reactions, you’ll use it up. You’ll give that to somebody else, and you’ll go back to the flea market, and you buy another, slightly better vase, and you bring that home and live with that. And so the process goes. That’s very real. It’s very concrete.
COWEN: What is wrong with the incentives of museum curators?
SALLE: The incentives?
COWEN: The incentives. There’s a structural problem there, which you can identify for us as you see fit, and where does that problem come from?
SALLE: It’s really interesting to even think about curators’ work as being incentivized in the first place. I think that’s a brilliant formulation.
COWEN: They might be too risk-averse, too conformist. There are a lot of stories you can tell.
SALLE: Sure. In this country, the curators answer to the director, and the director answers to the board of directors. There’s a lot of oversight and a lot of people who have to be — not pleased or mollified; it’s not so controlling. However, nobody wants to make an unpopular show or make a show which is controversial in the wrong way. Controversial in the right way might have been good a while ago, but now any controversy so quickly shifts over into being the unwelcome kind that it definitely has made it more risk-averse.
Beyond the obvious aversion to that kind of risk, there are as many different kinds of curators as there are different kinds of artists, obviously, and they have different intentions, different sensibilities. But there is this problem which we first started talking about in terms of how criticism has changed. It all stems from trying to redefine the nature of the public art experience. What is the experience the public is meant to have with art? And what is it that we’re trying to encourage them to have?
The curator’s, in a way, caught in the middle of this dilemma that they’re hired because they’re experts in something. They all have done very diligent research and work in publishing in various areas in which they’re expert. They want to share their expertise with the art-viewing public.
That expertise may not be in a particularly popular area, so what are they meant to do? The shows in big museums like the Museum of Modern Art, for example, are usually planned five years ahead at least, if not longer. The amount of logistical effort and the amount of money required to produce a major show in a major museum is daunting. No one wants to make a mistake. That’s not always a healthy situation to be in.
It is a profession — and again, I’m not in it, so I’m talking about it, looking at it from the outside; I could be wrong — it’s not a profession that has encouraged or rewarded mavericks very much. There have been some. Walter Hobbs was one example. I was fortunate enough to have been friends with him and worked with him a number of times. Walter has a fearless view of what constituted 20th-century art, and he was very comfortable communicating to people.
But there have been few. And the way that curators are educated in the graduate schools and the way they’re promoted in the museums doesn’t exactly encourage that kind of risk-taking, and I’m not sure it would be rewarded in the art press if they did. But again, it’s hypothetical. I feel like I’m getting away from the question.
COWEN: No, that’s a good answer.
Philosopher David Hume had suggested that the closest we could come to a final standard of aesthetic quality was some notion of the test of time — what survives and is appreciated by future generations. Do you agree? And if not, why not?
SALLE: It reminds me of the Wittgenstein dictum — not that we’re playing competing philosophers here —
COWEN: We can, yeah.
SALLE: — the Wittgenstein dictum that for the meaning of something, consider its use. I think things can have — things, meaning art objects, art things — can have short-term use. They can have long-term use. They can have use that comes and goes, comes in and out of focus. They can be put to different uses in different times.
All of that seems natural and fine to me, and I’m not sure that there’s one long-term test which all great works of art would pass, or that something is so durable that it doesn’t change. And again, test of time according to whom? Who’s judging? Who’s the judge?
COWEN: But say, Angelica Kauffman, who was much heralded in her lifetime in the 18th century, is now considered a good painter but somewhat of a curiosity — important for her role in getting women into the arts, but not a great painter anymore. That would be one example. Should our default assumption be to trust these judgments of history?
SALLE: No, I don’t think so. I think one should make one’s own judgment, and it might differ greatly from accepted opinion.
COWEN: If you look, say, at the abstract expressionists and their reputations and what they did, what would be an example where you think the test of time is wrong? You have Pollock, you have Kline, you have Motherwell. They all have their reputations. Where has the test of time messed up there?
SALLE: You mean which one’s overrated and which one’s underrated?
COWEN: In your view, yes.
SALLE: I’m one of those people who has so deeply bought into the whole mythology of the abstract expressionist generation that I don’t find them overrated.
I find them fundamental and central. I find them foundational in 20th- and 21st-century painting. They’re irreplaceable, and they are so for very specific reasons having to do with an unrepeatable historical set of events that produced in these particular people some response that was unprecedented and long-lasting and, for me, still reverberating — probably not so for other people, younger people, although who knows?
There are times when artists collectively move the needle forward in a way where it stays moved. There are people who came right after that particular group — what’s called the second-generation abstract expressionists — perhaps they didn’t move the needle any further. Maybe the needle couldn’t go any further in that particular direction. Those people — we now feel many of them were overrated in their time or have simply faded into another kind of level.
But the people who really fuse baseline materials and make out of that fusion something which is both unique to that person and also addresses the broader aesthetic situation — and also, one step further, opens the door for other people — those people are rare. When it happens, I don’t think it’s an accident that they rise, and I don’t think it’s something which goes away.
Now, as I said earlier, it might simply be of less use to this generation than to that generation, but if you bother to look at what it actually is or how it was constituted, I think it can come to life again.
COWEN: As you know, the 17th century in European painting is a quite special time. You have Velásquez, you have Rubens, you have Bruegel, much, much more. And there are so many talented painters today. Why can they not paint in that style anymore? Or can they? What stops them?
SALLE: Artists are trained in such a vastly different way than in the 17th, 18th, or even the 19th century. We didn’t have the training. We’re not trained in an apprentice guild situation where the apprenticeship starts very early in life, and people who exhibit talent in drawing or painting are moved on to the next level.
Today painters are trained in professional art schools. People reach school at the normal age — 18, 20, 22, something in grad school, and then they’re in a big hurry. If it’s something you can’t master or show proficiency in quickly, let’s just drop it and move on.
There are other reasons as well, cultural reasons. For many years or decades, painting in, let’s say, the style of Velásquez or even the style of Manet — what would have been the reason for it? What would have been the motivation for it, even assuming that one could do it? Modernism, from whenever we date it, from 1900 to 1990, was such a persuasive argument. It was such an inclusive and exciting and dynamic argument that what possibly could have been the reason to want to take a step back 200 years in history and paint like an earlier painter?
COWEN: But if you think modernism is now exhausted, which is a plausible view at least, and you need to go somewhere, and you can’t get any more abstract . . . but still people don’t go back pretty much at all.
SALLE: No, I totally agree with your formulation. But people are going back. It’s just not so easy. The first time I saw John Currin’s work, for example, there was a show that MoMA did. I think Laura Hoptman did the show of John and who else? Maybe Elizabeth Peyton, maybe even Lisa Yuskavitch. I can’t remember, there might have been three of them, a triple whammy. First thing I thought when I saw John’s painting is, “Oh, this guy owes nothing to modernism. He just doesn’t care.”
It was my first awakening that there is a generation for whom it was really no big deal. John had started out his career making abstract paintings, very credible, very likable abstract paintings, but he clearly realized that he was the tail end of something, not the beginning of something. John’s one of the few artists who had the talent, the skills — took the time to acquire the skills — to paint in a way which would have been out of reach for many other people. We’re just at the beginning of that next phase.
There might be people painting like Velásquez in the next decade. It’s unlikely because the truth of it is that there were very few people in 17th century that painted like Velásquez. There really is only one Velásquez, there’s really only one Manet, there’s really only one whoever you think is really great. There’s really only one Pontormo. It’s not that everybody in the 17th century or the 16th century was painting in a certain way. There were always these exemplars, and what allowed them to reach this other height, this other level is very mysterious and probably a whole other conversation.
For want of a better word, the academic style of painting is something which is hard to do alone. It’s part of a whole culture, a whole academy of looking, a whole way of looking and setting up the studio and having a certain kind of assistants, a certain kind of pigments, a certain kind of tests of drawing, and things that contributed to the look and feel of those paintings. One could do it. It would just take a tremendous effort of will, and then, what exactly would be the point?
I think here’s the point: We think that art is like a menu in a Chinese restaurant for the artist. The artist surveys the history of art and says, “I’ll have one of those and one of those and one of those. I want to paint like Rembrandt in the morning and like Titian in the afternoon. Then I want to paint like Georgia O’Keeffe before I go to bed.” That’s not the reality. The reality is you’re stuck with what your own body can do, your own aptitude, your own level of coordination and control. It’s more like athletics, more like you can’t —
COWEN: But athletes just seem to get better with time. I tend to think there’s something about urgency. To be Cézanne or Velásquez, there was something you had to feel was extremely urgent. And it’s simply impossible, today, to feel those same things as being urgent because they’re either taken care of or they’re irrelevant or they’re not part of your society or politics, and other things feel urgent.
SALLE: Yes, and I think that’s true. It is a matter of urgency. It’s also a matter of what . . . If you try to imagine being Cézanne, what was painting like immediately preceding Cézanne? If you look at Cézanne’s early work, which basically answered the question, we don’t know exactly what allowed Cézanne to break out of the dark, dour, brown, heavily outlined, agitated, congested paintings of his youth into the Cézanne that we all know. But it didn’t happen overnight. It was a long, slow, and probably torturous process, and something for which he was not immediately rewarded.
It is always the individual plus the cultural and the technological, you could say. The technology of painting in his lifetime was X, and he added Y to the X. Part of that is unknowable because the secret resides with him. It’s interesting to think about. What is it about the culture today that’s producing the art today? I think that’s the question. Is that’s what you’re asking?
COWEN: Yes, so the rise of photography would be one of many examples.
SALLE: Right, my answer was going to be, we’re in a documentary mode, and I’m sure the rise of photography — not just the rise — let’s say, the deluge of photography.
COWEN: And the centrality of it.
SALLE: The centrality of it has contributed to that, for sure. This is, in a way, the most obvious thing of all. The artists we mentioned, in the past, were able to do what they did because they didn’t have cameras, so they were required to document things in a way which is no longer required of artists or painters. But in general, we’re in a mood, a cultural moment that favors the documentary as a meaningful expression of our time. That would certainly not have been the case in 1950 or 1940 or even 1960.
COWEN: If I think of some painters, when I see their works all together in the form of a major retrospective, I enjoy them more, and they make more sense to me. Roy Lichtenstein or Jasper Johns would be examples. There are other great painters. Cy Twombly — I saw a big retrospective of his work. I didn’t like it less, but when I walked out of it, I didn’t feel especially enriched.
You may disagree on who belongs to what category, but what differentiates the artists who do much better when you see a retrospective of all their work together? What’s the extra thing you’re learning or gaining?
SALLE: It’s a very good question. You can almost divide artists into two categories: the ones who constantly evolve, constantly change, take on new challenges, even take on almost new identities versus the ones who don’t.
I don’t think the ones who don’t are lesser necessarily or that they’re less good when they’re good, less profound when they’re profound, less deeply pleasurable when you engage with their work. But they’re definitely less rewarding as retrospective material because the work is more all of a piece. Everyone’s work is all of a piece, but all of a piece just in terms of its surface attributes.
Yes, Cy, having found his process, his way of picture-making, varied in that process less, say, than Jasper, certainly less than Roy. Even Roy clung to the black outline throughout his entire career and up until the very end. If he had lived longer, we would have seen works where the outline itself was jettisoned, but that was the unifying principle of all of his work.
Jasper is a really fascinating example, but I think quite rare in that early Jasper is very different from work of the ’70s, which is very different from the work of the ’80s, ’90s, et cetera. Yet it is unmistakable. When you see a painting by him from whatever date, it’s unmistakably his.
But his concerns changed, his technique changed, his scale changed, certainly, his subject matter changed. The very idea of having subject matter changed. There’s just quite a lot of movement, and if it’s coherent and consistent and graspable as the expression of one personality, however diverse within that personality, it’s a very exhilarating experience to have.
It’s also a question of the curator. The curator has to make the road map which one can follow.
COWEN: Now, we’re sitting here in your studio, surrounded by your paintings. You’re a relatively prolific painter, always working. What are the biggest just purely physical problems you encounter being a painter?
SALLE: I like to paint at a certain scale. These pictures that we’re looking at now — they’re tall. Some of them are 10 feet tall, 10 feet square. Making a painting that size just requires a certain physical energy, reach, and stamina. It’s very different from making a 30-inch-high portrait. It becomes natural to me, that physical engagement with the canvas at a certain scale. It’s something that I’ve always done. I’ve always had that sense of scale in my work. Other artists might have a completely different sense of scale.
Regardless, painting is a physical activity, and it requires concentration, obviously mental concentration, but also just physical stamina. I think I’ve said this other places: It is one of the things in life that you can get better at with the age, instead of worse, but you do reach a point where the physical body is a limitation, just how many hours a day you can work, how big you can work.
COWEN: When you walk through a museum as an artist, how is it you do that differently?
SALLE: You mean differently from someone who’s not an artist?
COWEN: Right, but someone who has some background in looking at the visual arts.
SALLE: In my experience, artists are both more patient and more impatient than the nonartist in a museum setting. I am so impatient. I do not want to linger in front of things that don’t interest me. I don’t care who made them. I don’t care what time frame they were made in. The incredible backstory of how that thing ended up in the museum just couldn’t interest me less.
I just want the visual hit of that adrenaline rush of some visual piece of interior feeling, knowledge, insight, and without it, I’m gone. When I find it, I can stay in front of a painting for hours. People of sensibility would long since have moved on.
In my experience, artists are both more patient and more impatient than the nonartist in a museum setting. I am so impatient. I do not want to linger in front of things that don’t interest me. I don’t care who made them. I don’t care what time frame they were made in. The incredible backstory of how that thing ended up in the museum just couldn’t interest me less.
COWEN: What do you think is the biggest thing wrong with leading American museums today?
SALLE: I remember a conversation with a Whitney trustee a long time ago, maybe 30 years ago. I can’t even remember what show we were talking about, talking about the slate that they had scheduled. This guy said, “Oh, no, you have to understand, what we want is bodies through turnstiles.”
Okay, that’s what we want. Museums need a great deal of money to operate. Where does it come from? It doesn’t come from the government. It comes from ticket sales and private individuals and corporations. It’s neither good nor bad, just a fact of life.
How to make it better? We were talking last night — there are so many regional museums that serve specific populations and, I’d agree with you, do such a great job of giving access to visual experience of various eras and various types to people. If anyone just wanders in, he’s going to get something out of it. I’m a great fan and believer of museum culture, and museums in whatever city I’m in forming the backbone of my travel experience.
What was the question? What’s wrong with American museums?
COWEN: What’s wrong with them? Looking at them as an economist, I see they put out maybe 5 percent or 10 percent of their collections, or sometimes even less. That, at least on the surface, appears inefficient. I understand why they hoard an endowment. It’s a signal to donors that they’ll be reliable, that they won’t sell the painting to somewhere where it has a lesser value. But it still seems to me that’s wrong. It has to be wrong to lock up so much wonderful, interesting output more or less forever, right?
SALLE: The thing that all museums have gotten caught up in — and European museums as well in the last 50 years — is the building boom. The architecture bonanza has been great for architects, where a museum has to claim architectural singularity to get press, to get attendance, to get donors.
So much of the attention and the money has gone into the making of the buildings, some of them good, some not so good — many of them not so good. But many of them, I think, to a fairly surprising degree, are not necessarily hospitable places to look at art.
They might be incredible examples of urban intervention or the building arts, but they’re not necessarily places that are particularly congenial to, certainly, looking at paintings. Maybe looking at other kinds of art — they’re ones that could well be suited for that. I sometimes wish that less attention and less money went into the creation of these vast buildings and more to, as you say, just showing off the collection.
We’ve all been to these great museums in Europe which are, essentially, repurposed industrial buildings with very little in the way of amenities, and these have great stuff you look at. I’d like to see more of that.
COWEN: When you make a bad painting, what is your best account of what it is that has gone wrong in you?
SALLE: That’s a great question.
COWEN: It’s not like my hand slipped or I fell off the ladder. It may happen sometimes, but —
SALLE: Yes, that happens too. There are so many ways a painting can fail, most of them disheartening. Probably the most disheartening is when the whole pictorial conception was wrong. I visualized this thing that was going to be so great, and it’s not that I didn’t execute it properly. I executed it properly and looked at it and realized the concept was stupid, or was insincere, or was involved in some way with something which wasn’t true and was a lapse in taste, or was juvenile or something. That’s not fun.
The other thing that’s not fun, but may be more honorable or less full of self-reproach, at least the way I work — sometimes pictures, to reach a height, depend on a gamble. I’m placing a bet and wager that if I put this thing next to that thing, magic’s going to happen, it’s going to catch fire, and I just know it. I just know it, but sometimes it doesn’t work, but at least I tried. I tried something. Okay, it didn’t work, didn’t pay off. Get rid of it. Those are two common paths to failure.
There are other paths to failure which are truly embarrassing, which is, I just wasn’t paying enough attention. I thought that was the right blue, but it wasn’t the right blue. Anyone paying attention would have known it wasn’t the right blue. That sounds so mundane, but that’s probably more often the case.
COWEN: If you could, for us, please trace through the history of two of your paintings that could be imaginary, so to speak, ideal types. One is a very good painting that did very well and helped your reputation a lot, and the other is a so-so or below-average David Salle painting. Just trace, like, who buys them or where they end up. Give us the two hypothetical paths on how they differ. A really good painting — how does that go well for you?
SALLE: You mean how they differ in terms of their journey and growth?
COWEN: Their history, like who buys it? David Geffen buys it, and 16 years later, it’s donated to MoMA. That would be a happy story, right?
COWEN: Tell us the happy story — you don’t have to name names — and then tell us the less happy story.
SALLE: Hmm, it’s hard to do it without naming names.
COWEN: Just “a prominent collector of high renown” would be fine.
SALLE: There are so many self-delusions that are involved in being an artist, in the life of an artist, I think probably most of which are necessary, especially when you’re a young artist. And you have no right to think these things or feel these things or presume any of these things, but sometimes you’re encouraged by the people around you — dealers or collectors or other artists — that these delusions maybe are legitimate.
I remember making a painting in the very early ’80s that I just thought was a winner. My dealer at the time was basically just told, or she thought I wanted to hear, “This is a painting which we’re reserving for a museum.” In artist parlance it’s “museum only.” She even made a list of which museums would be likely. No museum was interested in this painting. No major collector was interested in this painting.
I can’t remember what happened to the painting. The painting went to some collector, then it went to auction, then went to some other collector, went another auction. I don’t even know where it is today. I’ll be happy not to know where it is, but this was a painting that, at the time, I thought, “This is museum only.” The artist might be the last to know.
There have been a few happy stories. The happy stories are usually a result of a personal relationship with a collector or with a curator — someone who has followed what you’ve been trying to do and has been sympathetic with what you’ve been trying to do, and therefore is more attuned. Their antenna is more attuned to when something is an opportunity.
There was one painting — actually the painting that you were looking at in the book earlier this morning — that was purchased by a very, very good collector on the West Coast, who is a very good friend of mine and someone who is very generous with other museums and with other artists.
The collector opened his collection to a curator from MoMA, basically saying, “Take whatever you want.” We thought sure that the curator was going to take this painting, which we had all agreed at the time had reached that level. But guess what, the curator didn’t take that painting, took a much lesser painting. We were baffled. But anyway, it was the curator’s choice.
Then the painting, let’s say the A painting — I’ll use this horrible expression — kicked around for a while. It was in some other collection. It was shown in London a few times and then finally ended up in a very good collection in New York. This is the vagaries of commerce and taste that paintings are subjected to or are somehow intimately tied up with.
SALLE: I’m not sure, Tyler. I can’t think of what they have in common. They seem to me — and I would probably add a bunch of other names — it’s hard to generalize about them, honestly. They seem so different, one from another. I guess you can say their motivations are similar. For some reason, this work speaks to them, and they have arranged their lives in such way as to be, to a certain extent, themselves defined by this body of work that they’ve collected.
They didn’t create the work, but they created the context of the work. It’s a kind of transference, a kind of produceorial arrangement. It’s no accident, I think, that some of the most active collectors have been producers — movie producers or theatrical producers. There’s a will toward making meaning. There’s a will toward wanting to say something about one’s time and place. They’re all very interesting and very laudable.
Sometimes it’s just greed. They just love these things. They don’t want to part with them. They don’t want anyone else to have them. They just want them. That seems fine with me. But most of the really great ones, the active ones, sooner or later, maybe just out of practical considerations of wanting to share their collection with the public, which is certainly the American system that we’ve evolved.
COWEN: How are artists different as collectors? You have a collection of your own, right?
SALLE: Yes. I do find artists collect more from an informational standpoint. The artist owes nothing to the art world vis-à-vis their collection. The artist isn’t making a statement about the world in their collection, nor is the artist judged by their collection. Their collection is really a private matter. It’s more like a library. I know, for example, my friend Jeff Koons collects Courbet paintings, which I would do if I could afford them. I think that’s great. He doesn’t collect art like his own. He collects art very, very different from his own.
I collect things that are very different from what I make, and I don’t actually live with my work in the house. The way in which an artist uses another artist’s work is sometimes very eccentric and hard to trace, or hard to see at first. I think artists’ collections have more to do with wanting to be reminded about something, wanting to be nudged by something, wanting to have something as a touchstone.
Sometimes it has the spiritual component of a Buddhist scholar’s rock or something of the sort. Sometimes it’s something relatively insignificant, but it’s a reminder or a link to a whole other world, another experience.
SALLE: Definitely. Frank was important to Alex for a number of reasons. Probably the most important reason is that Alex is a great consumer of and connoisseur of poetry generally, and New York School poetry in particular, and they were contemporaries and friends. It’s inconceivable that Alex wouldn’t have been interested in or close to Frank O’Hara.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to meet Frank O’Hara, but I discovered his poetry when I was a kid. It spoke to me for whatever reason. It’s very easy, as poetry goes, to grasp. He continues to epitomize something about that time and place of the late ’40s to the mid ’60s, late ’60s, which still remains a touchstone and is also still full of mystery and full of sensibility. Let’s say it’s where one finds the roots of a certain sensibility, which for me is still very much alive, maybe not for anybody else.
He is the certain kind of painter’s poet par excellence. He is the poet of nouns, poet of things, the poet of appearances, and the poet of connections between things. In a way, he’s the perfect poet. It’s a list of names, but it’s more than a list of names. It’s what happened at the party, but it’s also about mortality. It’s about beauty, but it’s also about degradation. It’s very accessible and very musical. I don’t think it’s an accident. I think that many, many painters would like his work.
COWEN: Which is your favorite Preston Sturges movie and why?
SALLE: They’re all so great. I think the one I’ve seen the most — doesn’t mean I think it’s necessarily the greatest — but the one I’ve seen the most is The Lady Eve. I’ve seen it at least 20 times. I still laugh. It still cracks me up. I think of Sturges’s all five of the great films as one film. It’s actually one super-long film which just keeps playing in my head. Hail the Conquering Hero is certainly the most complex and, in a way, almost painful, psychologically painful.
COWEN: And at the time it was made, it was quite radical, that most viewers may not have seen that.
SALLE: Yeah, it’s a great film. It’s a great achievement. The crowd scenes, the image of the town. I love Sturges’s depiction of a town, the light of a town. His other films are centered on much smaller social groups. In a way, it was his Frank Capra film — maybe Sullivan’s Travels is the most delicious. I don’t know, they’re all so great.
COWEN: That’s my favorite.
SALLE: Sullivan’s Travels?
COWEN: The complex narrative of what art should be for, which can be read in a number of different directions.
SALLE: Yeah. There’s an obscure early one called The Sin of Harold Diddlebock. You know that one?
COWEN: No, I don’t.
SALLE: With Harold Lloyd. It’s this weird film. A guy who works in a bank who’s never had a drink in his life. He finally gets laid off at the bank, takes the money — his severance pay — goes to a bar for the first time in his life, and we see him the next morning having purchased a circus, which he brings home. He’s living with his sister. Anyway, crazy Preston Sturges plot. Now, Sturges is fabulous; he’s something I think about a lot.
COWEN: Why do you find the TV show The Sopranos so interesting?
SALLE: Very much like the way I think about painting, the way I think about art in general, but The Sopranos show is someone who took the conventions of the day of gangsters, mafia, cops, and made out of it something which hadn’t existed, just psychological realism that had a texture, an almost granular texture of life as it’s lived so that people who have no . . . Most of us have no encounters with the mafia, really. We all imagined that we were part of the mafia, and we all projected ourselves into these families and social groups in which this mafia behavior was completely normalized.
David Chase made out of this convention something so psychologically dense, so much about the family, the damage that families do to one another, the constraints of society versus the individual, the stifling of imagination. He managed to make out of this crime drama metaphors for almost every dilemma in American society, from the inability of the individual to be different, to survive.
All these issues which we now think of as commonplace — that you could locate them inside of a weekly drama about a crime family still seems to me to have been miraculous, and also a model for what art can do or how it should think of itself, that it’s the engagement with certain givens, and then who the hell knows where it’s going to go after that.
COWEN: How should we change intellectual property law for artists?
SALLE: I am somewhat vague myself on what it even says now. There had been some cases — I’m not sure how they were settled or to what extent they’re landmarks. But I do feel, in terms of visual culture, I’ve spent a good part of my career appropriating things that other people did. You could say it’s just wrong. Often, that would certainly be a position that would be hard to argue with.
My position is very different — that everything that exists, exists in the present tense, and that everything can be material for someone else without violating its original status, and that one thing doesn’t impinge on the other. It doesn’t need to be protected because if it’s any good, it protects itself. That’s my view. I don’t know what the law says.
COWEN: In my view, it’s too hard to appropriate images, whether in painting or in rap music, or the difference between who can have the rights to a painting, the rights to a photograph. Just seems too complicated. I think there should be more open access.
To close, I’d like to offer three different statements from you, as we started, and you can tell us what you meant by each one. Here’s one, and I quote, “One of the principal cultural alliances is between the avant-garde and sexual libertinism.”
SALLE: I wish it were true.
SALLE: It seems as though the avant-garde is no more protected from puritanicalism than any other segment of society, so I think I was wrong on that one. I think it was wishful thinking.
COWEN: Here’s another one from you. “It may surprise you, but my work is full of love.”
SALLE: Well, the second part is true. The surprise part — obviously, it depends on who you ask and what day. I don’t know if it would be possible to make a survey, or who would give you an honest answer, but I wonder if every artist, or rather how many artists feel that the views to which their work has been put in public, and then the fact that it’s been put to any use at all is already a huge privilege and something that I’m grateful for, and I think everyone is grateful for.
However, let me try to rephrase it. If the gap between the way one’s work has been perceived and the way one perceives it oneself — how big is that gap and why is it so big? Is the fact there’s a gap a failure on the part of the artist? Quite possibly, that’s certainly one way to read it. Is it simply a matter of more time is necessary? I like to think that’s the answer, but I could be wrong.
Over time, the acid in the paintings gets dialed down or actually just leaks out, and what’s left is — I don’t know if its opposite is exactly right, but something very different. Let’s put it this way, Tyler: Making a painting — as you just said, even appropriating something is a lot of work — making a painting is a lot of work. Making a painting that hangs together — it holds together, the elements hold together, the colors are in the right intervals, and all the formal elements work and subject-matter elements work — it’s a hell of a lot of work.
To go to all that trouble just to be a smart-ass — it’s not worth it. You have to have a little bit bigger game in mind. Anyone who makes a painting on any level is trying to communicate something fairly complex and fairly involved with, for want of a better word, human emotions. Again, to return us to our original question, the language that we use to talk about these things — that these things are cool, these things are hot — I’m just not sure that any of that stuff means anything.
COWEN: The last question is a hypothetical one you posed to your former teacher, John Baldessari, and I quote, “Which is better for an artist, to be loved or feared?”
SALLE: [laughs] I think to be loved is much better, but I’ve known artists who would choose the other option.
COWEN: David Salle, thank you very much.
SALLE: Thank you, Tyler.