On ViewNew Museum
Peter Saul: Crime and Punishment
Peter Saul (b. 1934) is a classic Pop artist who, with his current exhibition at the New Museum, is achieving the recognition he has long deserved. On the third and fourth floors of the museum are installed about 60 of his paintings, most of them large. The show is also accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog. In 2008, Hal Foster wrote: “‘Pop history painting’ seems almost an oxymoron.”1 He cited Gerhard Richter and Richard Hamilton as artists that belie this feeling, but Saul should now be added to that list.
Look at how Ice Box Number 1 (1960) dumps a quantity of consumer goods, as if they had tumbled out of the icebox, onto the picture plane. Here there is none of the orderly presentation of Andy Warhol’s slightly later Pop paintings. Then compare Saul’s Man in Electric Chair (1964) with Warhol’s own electric chairs. And consider how aggressively Saul depicts the cartoon character in Mickey Mouse vs. the Japs (1962), with none of the lucidity of Roy Lichtenstein’s images of comics. Other Pop artists depicted Superman, but who else has made a picture like Superman and Superdog in Jail (1963), which shows the titular dog drinking from an open toilet?
Saul creates potent political art. Saigon (1967) presents the moral decrepitude of our failed imperial adventure in Vietnam. Custer’s Last Stand #1 (1973) depicts that episode from 19th-century history. Columbus Discovers America (1992–95) should, I think, be placed in the Great Hall of the Metropolitan Museum, along with Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) in place of Kent Monkman’s tame realist pictures. Even as his targets change, Saul continues to make strong images. Stalin in 1943 (2007) presents the Russian despot firing his handguns at Nazis as if he were a cowboy. And Abstract Expressionist Portrait of Donald Trump (2018), a ferocious portrait, transforms its subject into an image in the process of being assembled by an Action painter. No one, however, is immune to error: Crucifixion of Angela Davis (1973) shows that famous activist in an aggressive picture that, as Saul has acknowledged recently, now looks mistargeted and obviously offensive.2
When I was growing up, Mad Magazine fueled my adolescent imagination. That publication, the catalogue explains, was one of Saul’s early sources. When I became an art critic, I asked Thomas Nozkowski, who worked at Mad, to recollect Saul’s early art.
Like everyone else, Peter was trying to find a way to move out of and forward from New York School painting. In Paris, at some distance from the main event, he devises this ecstatic mix of images: drawing from every corner of the visual continuum. Observation, art history, comics, fantasy—you name it, he throws it in. It's as if he takes the formal permission (to make any kind of stroke or blob) of Ab-Ex and expands that to include the permission to make any kind of image and bounce it up against any other kind of image.
In good art historical fashion, the catalogue cites numerous precedents besides Mad for Saul’s painting. But as Nozkowski says, Saul really is a law onto himself:
Strange, I think, that no [one] writes about this work formally because there is where its strength is. His best work is like no one else's—hell, his worst work is like no one else's, filled with extraordinary passages of pure painting, extraordinary colors, and maybe the richest and most varied vocabulary of shapes of any living painter.3
There is no space in Saul’s paintings, just heaps of stuff, like in a bombed-out city. His bodies lack all dignity. How do these people have sex? How do they commit their acts of violence? Indeed, how do they move at all? Like an octopus, they have no bones. The old masters show Christ crucified, but, however badly beaten, he appears as an intact human figure. Saul’s vision of the body is much more radical. His approach to political commentary is equally confrontational. While leftist protest in the 1960s was often backed up by utopian visions of what was possible, there is no redemptive dimension to Saul’s art. Displaying the evils of the present order, he gives no reason to believe that improvement is possible. Like Louis-Ferdinand Céline, whose early novels were admired by leftists, or the writings by his American admirer Charles Bukowski, Saul presents no alternative to nihilism. You feel, sometimes, that he would do anything (in his pictures) to get your attention.
The many paintings on display at the New Museum reveal all these aspects of Saul’s art, but their installation sometimes gets in the way. In the third floor gallery, paintings are installed in two rows, with the uppermost paintings almost at the ceiling. This double hanging discouraged close looking, turning Saul’s very diverse paintings into visual wall-paper. This problem is, perhaps, inherent in the architecture of the New Museum, which is almost always hostile to painting. In any case, the museum is closed, and now the paintings cannot be seen at all. Not to worry! In the meantime, listen to The Cramps’ classic, “Oh baby I see you in my Frigidaire”(1980). They are the Peter Sauls of punk. (The live 2006 Oslo performance on YouTube is best.)
Hal Foster, “At Inverleith House,” London Review of Books 30, 16 (14 August 2008): 37.
Andrew Russeth, “Vintage Violence: Peter Saul on a Show of His 1960s Paintings at Venus Over Manhattan,” Artnews (March 11, 2015). https://www.artnews.com/art-news/artists/vintage-violence-peter-saul-on-a-show-of-his-1960s-paintings-at-venus-over-manhattan-3753/
Thomas Nozkowski, quoted in David Carrier, “Peter Saul and the History of Pop Art,” ArtUS, 24/24 (Fall-Winter, 2008): 51-59.