In the 1980s David Salle’s achingly cold paintings of layered and collaged images helped define postmodern sensibilities. More recently he’s emerged as an idiosyncratic voice in art criticism, publishing essays in ARTnews, The Paris Review, Artforum, and (from 2013 – 15) in a regular column in Town & Country. He’s collected the bulk of this in the handsome new volume How to See: Looking, Talking, and Thinking About Art (W. W. Norton & Company, 2016). We met in his Brooklyn home to discuss fancy prose styles, the shifting role of irony in art, and the loneliness of images.
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): Have you noticed that every generation someone publishes a book about the “crisis in criticism”? I wonder if that is actually a fundamental aspect of criticism, to perpetually conceive of itself as “in crisis.” Regardless, writing about art today is interesting because no one is steering the ship—no one is in control of the language so the discourse is just a kind of static. Which means it gets to be reinvented. How does your writing in How to See intersect with this situation?
David Salle: I’m not sure I agree that no one’s steering the ship—something is steering it. There is a consensus type of criticality; it’s informed by the October sensibility, more or less, although watered down, and made accessible in varying degrees of rigor by others. It starts from a received idea that criticality is good and the absence of criticality is bad; and it’s divorced from what something looks like. It’s not exactly arbitrary, but it’s pretty unreliable. It’s part of this thing that we’ve come to expect from art, a kind of social consensus: certain kinds of people are expected to be in agreement with certain kinds of things, and art writing reflects that. Sometimes I think the impulse for consensus itself is the problem. I’m more interested, to take an example out of left field, in Tolstoy telling Chekhov that, as a dramatist, he was even worse than Shakespeare. You don’t have to agree with it for it to be compelling. So what to do? If you work on the writing as writing it shifts the focus. Making the writing better improves the thinking. That may sound backwards, but it’s not really. To your question, How do I situate myself? I don’t know where I fit. To be honest, I don’t read much art criticism anymore—
Rail: That is what everyone says! Who does? Apparently no one! Which, strangely, doesn’t mean that they don’t buy books and magazines.
Salle: I read other kinds of criticism—music criticism, literary criticism, theater criticism, political criticism. But art criticism is either breathless, or the opposite—too long winded. And the arbitrariness of some of the judgments is jarring. There are some notable exceptions, of course.
Rail: Maybe what I meant is that, while you rightly identify consensus art-critical language as warmed-over third-generation October, I don’t think anyone is reading that and saying, this is vital, alive, and important! No one.
Salle: Yes, but it is how people talk. It has become the default vocabulary. Like appending the word “practice” after the word “art” or “painting”. What does that even mean?
Rail: Which is why we get to find new ways of talking—I think about that Dana Schutz painting all the time called How We Would Talk (2007). How did writing this book come about?
Salle: It was influenced to some extent by the class I taught with Dan Duray at the Bruce High Quality Foundation University (BHQFU) in 2014 called “Writing About Art From a Non-Theory Head Perspective.” Even though most of the pieces had already been written by the time of the BHQFU class, working with the students there clarified the desire to make the book something useful. Some of the classroom exercises, or party games, came directly out of that class.
Rail: I heard it was mobbed. How did you organize it?
Salle: We started out with a huge crowd; ultimately, about forty or fifty people stuck it out and did the assignments. What was apparent on the first day of class—it sounds a little condescending but I don’t know how else to say it— was that not many people had been exposed to much that I would call good writing. It just wasn’t something they had grown up with, so to speak. They had read anthologized texts of postmodernism, or the latest thing in Artforum, but they had never had an opportunity to savor good, essayistic writing. Where would they have encountered it? They’d mostly been to art schools. So basically we just did a lot of reading.
Rail: What were the texts that felt most important to read?
Salle: It was by no means a comprehensive list. I looked through my bookshelves and thought about what had made an impression on me, writers whose prose style unlocked a worldview, whose style is specific and personal, where the style becomes content in a way. A. J. Liebling on boxing is a good example. Manny Farber writing on movies is another. I first read him when I was in high school, and I remember thinking the writing was so eccentric, so unlike anything else; it represents a whole approach to life. It’s contrarian and ill-tempered but also full of wonder. I never forgot it. I met him a few times over the years: he was a crusty, kind of unhappy camper, but the writing really stands the test of time. The class read one of his essays on Godard in which he describes Eddie Constantine’s face in Alphaville as being “stamped by a defective waffle iron.” It’s still funny. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not—it’s better than true. We read Ken Tynan, and Renata Adler—not the essays, but her fiction, Speedboat— for the specific texture of the social observations, and the very open, ultimately heartbreaking way of describing her milieu. We read James Salter as a lesson in concision. There’s a beautifully compressed passage in his memoir: he’s driving back east after leaving Colorado with his much younger second wife, to start the next phase of his life. He sums up the situation in four words: “Health good, outlook fair.” All this is just to say we approached works of criticism, or non-fiction generally, first of all as writing.
Rail: What kinds of assignments did you give?
Salle: I’ll tell you one. To emphasize the importance of a lead sentence, we played a little game using Artforum. I’d read the first sentence of an article out loud, and then we’d take a vote: Does this make you want to read on? Yes or no, show of hands, please. It was always, NO! We then tried the same thing with Daniel Mendelsohn. I read the first sentence of the essays in his first collection and asked the same question: Does this make you want to read on? YES! Okay—what is the difference?
Rail: How did the experience of that class alter your approach to writing criticism?
Salle: If anything, it brought home the importance of trying to steer clear of rhetorical clichés and jargon. Also, that there’s a hunger in the art world for writing that’s more communicative.
Rail: All of those are examples of terrific writing, but there is this pesky business of actually writing about art. How does the process of writing change when you are writing about visual art?
Salle: Yes, that’s the question. We’re not writing Haiku. Representing visual experience with language is hard work. It helps to focus on what we actually know about that visual language, and not to take anything for granted. I asked the students to really interrogate their own responses. Is that really true? Where exactly do you see that? The class reviewed Christopher Wool’s show at the Guggenheim; some people liked it and others didn’t, which of course is fine, but I asked that they try to connect their opinions to description. It increases the chances that their opinion will feel valid to the reader. If you can physically describe something convincingly your opinions will carry more weight.
Rail: In order to do that you have to be interested in actually looking at something, which should be a baseline for about writing about art, but it isn’t.
Salle: As I say in the book: many people who write about art have no particular visual fluency, something I used to find surprising but no longer do.
Rail: Across your essays in How to See “irony” is used negatively. In an interview you did with Peter Schjeldahl in the late ’80s you defend irony, as “something that is often denigrated in art as being not of the highest seriousness but, I think, in our world, irony is the most rigorous mechanism of natural selection because of its ability to admit complication and progress. That is to say, process of thinking.” How has irony changed culturally since then?
Salle: That’s a quote from me? It sounds so smart I thought you were quoting Peter! Well, back in the mists of that long-ago time I was probably defending irony because the so-called straight painters were antagonistic toward anyone who played fast and loose with style. In my own particular case, I was deemed insufficiently serious, or too smart for my own good. I probably wouldn’t feel compelled to make that defense today. If anything, the situation is reversed. I think I was talking about irony in the work, part of its internal DNA, which comes out as a kind of double-ness: the ability to hold two contradictory feelings at the same time. It’s a vibrational thing—not just winking at the audience—and as such vibrates at different frequencies, depending on one’s formal vocabulary. Is Artschwager ironic? Is Roy Lichtenstein? Jeff Koons? What about Picasso? The trick is to differentiate between something that is in the work, or is just an attitude surrounding it. Thirty years later, irony has become more of a strategy: how to stand in relation to certain cultural signs. It’s now closer to camp, or cool, and as such is rather impersonal. I’m still on the side of complexity.
Rail: Running through the book, a lot of your formal analysis is keyed to emotions. Some time after yours, I taught a class at BHQFU called “Emotional Formalism” that looked at the relation between emotions and form, which is very strange—how do you understand it?
Salle: Isn’t that what we should be looking at? That is really all I’m interested in. I can pretty much only write about someone if I have that sense about their work, if I can identify the place, the form, where the emotion is generated. To reach for a really high example, it’s what Edmund Wilson does, and with writers of his own generation like Hemingway and Fitzgerald especially so because he could recognize their situation so clearly. His first essay on Hemingway is called “Gauge of Morale”—isn’t that a beautiful title? I like your term, emotional formalism, and whatever you can do to help people develop their antennae for that is good.
Rail: How do you think the emotion in your work has changed since the 1980s?
Salle: When I look at some of my early work I’m taken aback by how emotionally available it seems, because that was not how it was perceived at the time. I probably helped to shut it down myself, because I was reluctant to talk about my work in those terms. Now that doesn’t faze me in the least. But maybe that’s not what you asked. Do you mean: has the tenor of the emotionality itself changed? I think it changes all the time, but always seems to include a dose of melancholy. I’m not melancholy as a person, but it’s the emotional register that I was given, so to speak. I don’t think it’s only that. Of course melancholy itself has several different registers.
Rail: Early on your work was primarily discussed as “intellectual” and cold.
Salle: It was nothing I had any control over, although, as I say, I probably didn’t help. Some people just don’t like to be asked direct questions in public. But I was surprised that people didn’t see it. Of course, some people did. But that’s partly the nature of art. Its open-endedness makes it vulnerable to a certain amount of attitudinizing.
Rail: What does that mean?
Salle: There is a certain agreement around some artists, assumptions about motives and personality, and that is what gets reviewed. Another word for it is “reputation” (funnily enough the same word that was used in the old days to demean girls who were sexually adventurous). For the BHQFU class, I made one rule: you could not review the posture, that is to say, you could not write about the word on the street, the reputation; you had to talk about your own reactions to the art itself. It’s a big difference.
Rail: There are two things you’ve said in different contexts that I wanted to put together. One is from the conversation you had with Richard Phillips in the catalogue for the show you did together, Your History is Not Our History: “The emotional current that runs through much of the best work of the ’80s—and in some ways its real subject—is loneliness.” Then, in the interview you did with Hal Foster for your Ghost Paintings catalogue you say: “I think one of the things the ’80s was about was the readjustment of our readings of images.”
Salle: That’s brilliant—thanks for making the connection. What is it that my generation noticed about our connection to images? Images in this culture work to edge you closer to the well of loneliness that we all live with; that is our inheritance in a way. This is George Trow territory: the illusion of intimacy created by certain images. Their power is their ability to ameliorate and intensify loneliness at the same time. That was a big part of my early work, and also a number of other people. Jim Welling and I talked about it in a piece from, I think, 1981 : Images that Understand Us.
Rail: Something I’d like to understand better: in your essay on Christopher Wool you talk about moving through the Courbet show at the Met and approaching the large late painting of a dying stag. “As I rounded the corner I was momentarily surprised to see Christopher there too as I wouldn’t have thought him susceptible to such high purposed melodrama. In that moment I realized that his work is also the dying stag, that he reaches for the same talismanic power to enchant, to confront head on whatever representation of the sublime the culture would accept, it just looks different today.” I don’t really understand how you made that connection.
Salle: It’s a pretty big leap. Let me see if I can explain it. I had had a bit of a blind spot where Christopher was concerned. I probably thought his work was primarily about cool, that it was big-time stylistic representation of a certain variety of cool. My looking more deeply at his work had already started, but the meeting at the Courbet show—just a chance encounter, really—did sort of give me an image to work with in my thinking of his work. It was a simple thing, but it cleared the way for what I had been wanting to see, or feel, in his work. I had underestimated the depth of his investment in painting—he’s aiming very high in terms of inserting himself into that history. He does it by stripping away everything that he deems extraneous, that is, the stuff he can’t generate sufficient belief in, and then finds a form, or style, as a result of his novel painting process. What could be more appropriate? He’s also a modern Romantic; he’s reaching for that big, tragic feeling, but it’s clothed in today’s fashion, so to speak.
Rail: One of the things I thought was interesting about the Wool essay is the extent to which it is so clearly about you. It starts with an anecdote quoting two critics talking about art, and then you say they were actually talking about your work but the same could apply to Christopher Wool. There is all this entanglement between you as an artist and the work you’re writing about. I think this happens consistently in your essays—the artists become surrogates for you in the writing.
Salle: I say in the introduction that for an artist to write about other artists, especially their contemporaries, will also entail writing about themselves. The questions that I ask of the artists I write about are the same ones I ask of myself. I wrote about Christopher in the way I did because I had made a similar mistake to the one people made about my work when it first appeared—that I was just someone using painting.
Rail: Right, on that note you have a recurring distinction in your essays between a “form-giver or an appropriator.”
Salle: Roberta Smith had an insight into an early work of mine, an installation piece from the ’70s that was in the Pictures Generation show at the Met. In my memory of what it felt like at the time, I thought the piece was kind of hot. I still think it’s interesting, certainly not like anything else. But Roberta honed in on one aspect of it: the piece uses a rather mournful Tim Buckley song as one of the elements, and she said the song was doing too much of the heavy lifting.
Rail: That is the problem with songs, they have a stronger emotional gravity than pictures.
Salle: Yes, as every filmmaker knows. Roberta was right. I hadn’t actually seen that before.
Rail: In art criticism there are complicated dynamics that are mostly rendered invisible: you have the relationship between the artist and the thing they made, the critic to the artwork, the critic to the artist, the artist to the public, critic to public, on and on. Every leg of that is subject to projection and various forms of desire exchanged between them. I think one of the reasons why Janet Malcolm could write “Forty-One False Starts” about you is that those charged interpersonal dynamics are central to your concerns as an artist, mirroring hers.
Salle: Which are?
Rail: The psychoanalytic relation between the parts: between the people who construct the meaning of the painting, and in the tensions between the parts of your paintings themselves. It’s interesting to note that Malcolm’s never written about another painter besides you—all the rest of her art essays are on photography, which as a medium foregrounds relationships, like between photographer and subject. One of the reasons her essay on you is so tremendous is that it identifies and explores that element of your work, between the two of you.
Salle: Yes, as you say, one of Janet’s main themes is the analytic process itself. And it is something we share. Her research for that piece went on for years; it was very much like an analytic situation, with the difference that no one was billed. And then at a certain point, we terminated, so to speak. Janet and I became great friends afterwards. Come to think of it, I’m social friends now with my actual, real-life shrink.
Rail: How has your relation to psychoanalysis evolved? It seems it was there, at least on an intuitive level, from the start.
Salle: I have always been attracted to the language of psychoanalysis, the knotty metaphors, the notion of transference. It’s a cast of mind, really. It’s given me a lot, and I think it’s very much part of what an artist does. It’s also the language of transformation—how psychic energies become embodied, or get turned into symbols, which can then be organized into relationships. I don’t know where it comes from, really. I’m married to an analyst now, but it started much earlier. I’ve been around people who engage with that world one way or another most of my adult life. Could it be generational? Do you think younger artists today have a similar cast of mind?
Rail: I don’t know, but I think psychoanalysis got such a bad rap within criticism: either it treats the artwork as a cultural symptom to analyze a larger structure, which moves you so far away from the actual art work, or it purports to psychoanalyze the maker, which is really yucky. What I’m talking about is a kind of analysis of an artwork that is psychoanalytically aware of human complexity but don’t necessarily have to bring that to bear directly on the object.
That brings me around to a larger loop, which is: writing these essays and publishing this book is a way of framing yourself publicly today; how do you understand it and what did you want from it?
Salle: I did the book partly because a number of people asked me to, one way or another. I did it because nobody else was going to do it and I had appetite for it. Incredibly enough, I’m sixty-four years old, and experience does count for something. I couldn’t have done it even ten years ago. I think it takes a long time to really know anything about art. And then I became very interested in writing itself, as a creative endeavor. I found that crafting those similes and making those imaginative leaps gave me a deep pleasure. It was brutally time-consuming. I often felt it was taking too much time away from my own work. Alex Katz would call up and say, Hey David, want to go to the movies? And I’d say, I can’t, I’m on a fucking deadline. And he’d say, It’s important, stay there and finish it! As for what I want from it: I think how we talk about art matters, and it’s important to me to offer an alternative. As my mother used to say, you’re not allowed to complain about something unless you can come up with an alternative. Ultimately all this is about what kind of person you want to be in the world. Or rather, how you want to frame your experience in the world.
Rail: Do you see any relationship between the writing you’ve been doing and the subsequent visual art you’ve been making?
Salle: I feel lighter. You don’t really know what you think about someone’s work until you sit down to write about it. You have opinions, but only in the act of writing do you come to understand what someone was up to, what was at stake for them, and that’s very valuable for an artist. Getting beyond the generalities. When you can do that in someone else’s work you can get beyond them easier in your own. Everybody should do it.