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David Salle: 1979-1994.

Critics who enthused about David Salle in the early '80s became briefly notorious, like O. J. Simpson lawyers. "How could you?" was an attitude encountered among upstanding downtown art folk, while a new species of art reptile rampant in that suddenly entrepreneurial moment presumed that, in supporting Salle, one had to be playing a selfish angle. "So. What do you want?" hinted their glittering eyes. I thought naively that Salle's work was so terrific, such an effective device of all-around consciousness, that people would relax into discussing it on its merits. Didn't happen.

The Salle affair proved that the art world's only two ways of dealing with success are celebrity and politics. Either the successful artist's personality, money, connections, and so on become the hot issue or the artist's supposed ideological agenda becomes the hot issue. What the artist actually does, by way of generating revelatory experience for individuals and a working challenge to other art, is not the hot issue, and if you think it is you end up talking to a wall.

Fair enough. Every game needs rules. There are reasons why the art world's operative values aren't about art much. To resent what can't be changed is doltish. Meanwhile, art can wait. At some point, Salle's best work will be looked at by a generation without axes to grind, and its peculiar glories and permanent importance - as, among other things, a mighty influence, thoroughly unacknowledged at present, on any number of subsequent artists - will become common knowledge. There's no hurry, which is a mercy, because the time is not yet.

Assessed by our rules, this seductively produced monograph seems calculated to shore up Salle's artistic bona tides as he pursues his ambition to be a cross-media culture wizard. (I'm thinking of his recent movie.) The pursuit strikes me as quixotic, because I don't believe that the niche it aims for exists. Jeff Koons couldn't find it. Even Andy Warhol struck out in Hollywood. As one who learned a whole new meaning of loneliness as a fan of Salle's dance-theater collaborations with Karole Armitage, I marvel at the persistence of his dream of melding a sophisticated, catholic audience of our culture's barbarically and terminally fragmented cognoscentis.

In art terms, Salle's ideal is an apotheosis of painful glamour, an esthetic Sublime on a world-embracing scale. His work is a billboard advertisement for beauty that hurts, or for anguish so delectable you want to rub it all over yourself. The fantasy informs everything about this book, which Salle created with an all-star crew: design (and "direction," it says) by Richard Pandiscio, editing by David Whitney, and text (libretto?) by Lisa Liebmann. Apposite quotes from writers Salle regards as fellow exquisite sufferers - Peter Handke, Thomas Bernhard, George W. S. Trow, Richard Foreman, Harold Brodkey, Sanford Schwartz - pepper the proceedings. Every third or fourth turn of a page discovers an astonishment of electronic-collage layout.

Not being a book maven, I won't go into the volume's bibliographical arcana. As an art critic, I'm most interested in the performance of my fellow exquisite sufferer, Liebmann, who took accurate note of Salle early on and went to bat for him in Artforum at a time (1987) when public loathing of him was all the rage. Her present text adds little except detail to what she has already written, and how could it have done more? It's hard to advance in a conversation where your interlocutors limit their contributions to frothing and sulking.

Liebmann demonstrates why Salle is a writer's artist, especially in his work pre-1987 or so. She has less to say about his art since then, which has come in thematically controlled series - "The Tapestry Paintings," "The Early Product Paintings," etc. - that sharply narrow the range of a writer's or anybody else's response. That Salle has simmered down into the ranks of New York-ish professional painters, alongside the take-it-or-leave-it likes of Roy Lichtenstein and Alex Katz, should hardly be held against him, I remind myself. But my passion, evidently like Liebmann's, remains fixed on Salle's licentiously imaginative output of ten or more years ago.

Liebmann is great about that stuff, as when conducting a guided reconnaissance of the 1983 masterpiece B.A.M.F.V. She concludes the tour, "All of these figures - the assessing woman, the parental grotesques, the nasty duck - seem to converge from out of their parallel universes to gaze provocatively, even critically, upon the viewer." Check! In Salle's key works, as in the dreams of Delmore Schwartz's famous title, begin responsibilities. How to assimilate as particular knowledge a flood of dissonant images and sensations is the rousing problem Salle poses, to which the solution is a self-defining, exacting confession of what one feels in what one sees.

Liebmann has the ideal talent for registering this process: a prehensile grasp of nuance, expressed in perfect phrases. She nails tone after tone, with a special feel for the self-mockery that plays like St. Elmo's fire in even the most aggressive Sallean dramas. At one point she catches "a succinct and yet ineffable gesture: pie-in-the-face rude but oddly old-fashioned, as in 'wrongo.'"

As for the specter of Salle-bashing, Liebmann addresses it gingerly in a chapter called "Trouble" that deals at length only with a grimly moralistic 1988 attack by Robert Storr. Feminist insistences on interpreting Salle's nudes politically seem to bewilder and depress her, as they do me. One endures a painful impaction of loyalties when political principles one accepts are set against esthetic loves one feels. Thus divided, one is in no shape for robust argument, just wishing pathetically that everyone would please lighten up.

Salle's early achievement lured more critics than Liebmann and me into an ordeal of mixed emotions and intellectual vulnerability, not least by his association, as the paradigmatic hot young artist, with the reptile element that was to the '80s art world what gangsters were to '20s Chicago, only without their charm. I have recoiled from Salle often, but then I am looking again at one of his great pictures and remembering that art has its reasons that conscience knows nothing of. "I want it all, Lord/the heights and the depths," goes the flag of a quote from Theodore Roethke that is raised at the end of this book, and a veteran Sallemane has no choice but to snap off a weary, game salute.

Peter Schjeldahl is the senior art critic for The Village Voice, New York. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship this year, and he is working on a book.
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Author:Schjeldahl, Peter
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1995
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