80’s Art Star David Salle On Seeing Art The Way Artists Do

David Salle,new book

In his new book  ‘How to See: Looking, Talking, and Thinking about Art’ 80’s art star David Salle aspires to teach nonartists to see art the way artists do!  I was eager to hear what Salle had to say to Lorin Stein, editor of ‘The Paris Review’ when Salle was interviewed for a book launch, co-presented by BAM and Greenlight Bookstore.

Salle started off saying artists will ask questions like: “Does this line have conviction?”  Salle said that artists can look beneath the surface of another artist’s work. Artists can glimpse the inner veracity in the undercurrent of an artwork’s creation. Good painting, he said, requires an acute presence of mind that muscular motor skills marry. He likened painting to catching the pass of a football or playing the cello. Artists, unlike actors, cannot create authentically if they inhabit another person’s spirit when they create.  How do we know when a painting is true? Salle says “a good painting looks forever immediate”.

Salle did note, by the way, that his use of the word painting or his addressing primarily painters, is meant as a synonym for all art forms.

Salle gave examples of how the purpose and personality of an artist rhyme with their brushwork. Georg Baselitz, Salle said, “paints like a boxer. He forces you to lean in only to make you take one on the chin. Baselitz aims to bruise with visceral colours and slashing brushwork.”  Salle then mentioned he is a long-time friend of the artist Frank Stella. Salle asked Stella once, “ Who is your favourite artist”?  He was surprised to learn that Stella’s favourite artist was Velázquez. This does seem curious considering how the charged political brush of Velázquez compares to Stella’s seamless stripes and dots.  Salle pointed out that Stella’s clean linear abstractions are Stella’s own way of expressing and ordering his complicated inner world.  Stella’s spirit speaks through conflicts of colour in his controlled painting.  Salle said a different era and a different training dictates the difference in the painting styles of Velazquez and Stella.

Stein asked Salle “ Who are your favourite artists?”  Salle sighted John Baldessari ( to whom Salle’s book is dedicated) and Alex Katz.  On the surface, these two artists are stylistically polar opposites.  Salle said that what both artists share and what Salle cherishes, is these two artists’ ability to uplift the banal into poetry.  Salle showed a slide of a large landscape painted by Alex Katz. The image was a swamp in Maine. Salle admired Katz’s seemingly haphazard hurried brushwork. However, Salle pointed out that Katz’s ‘controlled abandon’ was preceded by a lot of preparation.  Katz always rehearses for large paintings with sketches and smaller caricatures before he steps on a ladder to paint the final piece.  Salle praised the freedom of paint application. He admired the perfect harmony between the shapes of the trees, forest, and brushstrokes. He called the Katz piece a masterpiece because the subject matter does not outweigh the style or vice versa. Salle admitted that in his own paintings, he has occasionally allowed greatness of subject to overtake the technique.

Salle spoke at length about his friend and mentor John Baldessari.  Baldessari was Salle’s teacher for 5 years while he was earning his BFA and MFA at Cal Arts.  He recalled a moment that stuck with him from one of his early classes. Baldessari had told the students that self-loathing was an engine for art.  Baldessari said that everyone has a dose of it and self-loathing was a positive force. For some reason, this comment by Baldessari, relayed by Salle, is what stuck with me as I walked home from the talk.  I have always maintained that the difference between an artist and a non-artist is whether or not a person can forge past their reaction  “this sucks” after they have made something. I believe, it is the gruelling courageous commitment that an artist makes through the inner editorial process that develops into mastery.  Reflecting on Baldessari’s statement, I realised self –loathing ( present company included ) is actually a feeling that comes from a deeper expectation for greatness. If one can accept the challenge of prodding beyond one’s perceived mistakes and limitations then one can find one’s authenticity and draw that line with conviction.

Words/Photo Lizanne Merrill © Artlyst 2016