I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
David Salle and Georgia Marsh touch upon the lines drawn between pornography and eroticism, penetration and degradation, and the “tender gesture” of drawing.
Georgia Marsh In the dining room of the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia, above the sideboard, is the naughtiest Courbet I have ever seen. It is a painting of a woman lying on a riverbank, naked except for her socks. She is on her back with her legs up over her chest, coyly looking back at the viewer (to make sure she is being watched) as she pulls off one of the socks. It’s a great crotch-shot, right there in the middle of his evening meal …
David Salle Robert Rosenblum called it “the preeminent beaver shot painting in Western art.” He assumed I had seen it. I haven’t seen it. My painting is from a photograph I took without having any specific, art historical reference in mind.
GM You’ve used that crotch shot in several paintings. It seems to be a favorite …
DS Well, different kinds. The reason that one works has a lot to do with chiaroscuro shadow, with the way the shadows fall. And that’s generally what makes an image interesting to me, or makes it useable in paintings.
GM There’s something I noticed about the shadows and that is even though you’re dealing with a very direct shot, you never show a cunt.
DS Actually, the genitals themselves almost always fall in shadow. I don’t know if it’s intentional, fortuitous, or too bad. In a sense it’s one of those inside jokes about a realist painting where someone asks why a certain thing is there, and the answer is, because it was there. That’s the way shadows fall on the female anatomy. They obscure it instead of revealing it
GM Who takes the photographs?
DS I take the photographs.
GM So you’re obscuring it.
DS It goes through different kinds of physical, mechanical translations. You know it’s there, so it’s not obscured. By the time it gets turned into a black and white photograph, the darks are darker and the lights lighter than they would be if you were looking at this person. By the time that gets turned into a painting the contrasts become more accentuated. That’s part of what makes the painting have the kind of feeling it has, as opposed to an evenly lit anatomical presentation i.e., realist painting. What makes these paintings different from the realist paintings has something to do with shadows …
GM So you’re more loyal to your photograph than you are to your subject.
DS Well, the subject and the subject being developed by its shadows are very reciprocal. I’m not sure which is the real subject. The subject exists inside of its shadows. That’s part of the way we see the subject. It’s not about dragging something out into the light, some glaring gaze. It’s about something being developed or caressed by shadows, or revealed within shadows, or just falling into shadow. But also, all the pictures follow very simple physical laws of seeing which is that you can’t see a light unless there’s a dark shape next to it. It’s just that alternation of light and dark shapes that allow you to see the image. It’s not a diagram.
GM There’s always a sort of sketchy, homemade little figure stuck in there somewhere.
DS There are some that have the linear drawing on top of the chiaroscuro image. They can be pretty anatomically explicit. I remember one in particular that must be remarkably similar in pose to this Courbet painting of Barnes’s, as I imagine it. There was a woman with one knee up and one ankle resting or the opposite knee so you could see her head between her legs. This was a drawing of mine on top of a painting. In other paintings, the cunt was a disembodied image, detached from its … Unlike a cock, when a cunt is detached from the body it exists in, it’s not necessarily recognizable. It could just look like a lot of things. You know what I mean? Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote in one of her letters; “Hymen without his saffron robe is just another forked radish.” Devoid of its context it’s not even necessarily recognized as a shape. Whereas a cock is always a cock.
GM Well, what about the slit shapes in say, Bigger Credenza. I mean you’ve got this fantastic woman in this crotch-shot, and no crotch at all, and on the other side you have all these slits.
DS Gashes, slits, holes, circles, they’re all orifice-like, for all of time, as far as I know. What else?
GM The asses.
DS What about the asses?
GM You’ve got an awful lot of those, too.
DS Yes, it’s strange. I don’t know what to make of it, exactly. There’s an essay by Octavio Paz in a book called Conjunctions and Disjunctions: in various cultures and various times from ancient to rather recent history, there was an equation made between the ass and the face. There’s actually a Goya painting of a face superimposed on an ass which is reproduced in the book. Maybe it’s a Velásquez that Goya copied. Anyway, apparently this is a long standing theme for Spanish speaking people, but not only for Spaniards.
GM Is it in the language? Is there a similarity in words?
DS I think it’s an anatomical and basic, not to say profound, reciprocity between the ass and the face and between other parts of the body and the face; how other parts of the anatomy become like faces. The most famous example would probably be Magritte’s Female Torso, where the breasts look like eyes, the nose and the pubic hair is like an upturned smile. Well, this Paz essay is a little more interesting than the Magritte painting. The ass is the opposite end of the person, so to speak, the most ignoble part of the person and the face is the most noble, the site of all that specificity. Or the noble unspecificity of the ass is …
GM Is the unsmiling orifice?
DS Well, unsmiling and if it’s expressive, it’s expressive in the wrong way. It expresses something you don’t want to have expressed. The superimposition of asses and faces is a continuing theme. I’m working on some pictures using that again. I think it’s a confluence of several things, some of which are conscious and some of which are not. I seem to be backtracking to the original inspiration for the superimposition paintings, which many people have assumed to be Picabia’s transparency paintings. Actually, I didn’t see those Picabias until I had made the overlaps and superimpositions. Remember the scene in Apocalypse Nowwhere Martin Sheen’s head is in the lower left-hand corner of the screen and superimposed over that is a ceiling fan in the room that he’s having hallucinations in? The fan turns into helicopter blades and the soundtrack is the Doors’s This Is the End. It’s a great moment in the history of cinema, I think, one of the great cinematic events.
GM Certainly a great cinematic event for your painting.
DS That was in 1979. It was not the actual concrete source of the idea for those paintings but it made me feel so clearly that I was on the right track.
GM The paintings from 1977–79 were shy compared with the ones now.
DS They feel restrained now.
GM I’d say tentative.
DS Tentative, maybe, I don’t know.
GM Of course, that’s hindsight.
DS I made some pieces in 1974 with photographs that were much racier and had more pizazz than those early paintings. But for some reason when the material went from photography to painting it became shy …
GM You still seem to be carrying that over, this sort of bold pizazz in one part and the tender gesture of the drawing on the other.
DS My way of drawing is about straightforward observation. It’s not about translating the image into some bold pattern of marks. It doesn’t have a whole lot of character. It doesn’t have the same kind of originality feeling of other people’s drawings … There’s no license taken with the subject, that’s the point. Most people have distinctive drawing styles. What that really means is they take a lot of license with the subject, and I don’t take any. It’s realist drawing but it’s not realist drawing in the sense of realism that’s confused with hubris, false hubris. You know what I mean?
GM The drawing is a tender gesture.
DS Certainly it has a tender component.
GM When you’re drawing, is your subject in front of you?
DS They’re mostly drawings from life … Sometimes they’re drawings of drawings, mine or other people’s drawings, but mostly they’re drawings of models. Usually the over drawings, when they hit the canvas, are drawings of drawings but the originals are usually from the model.
GM I’m thinking about the painting, Pauper, the one with the red duck, and all that red drawing over it. There’s this very deep, dark woman in a bra strap and panties on the other side, it looks like the red caressing brush strokes, are crawling over to touch her.
DS That’s a nice image. Especially since the red brush strokes of course, are a mob scene. But it’s a well-mannered mob scene.
DS The original drawing of the mob scene is some Dutch Communist worker uprising. But it looks fine, it’s not nervous-making. It has a nice optimistic, pretty kind of funnily bourgeois feeling to it.
GM Funnily bourgeois feeling?
DS It’s not all that aggressive, as an image, even though it’s an aggressive event, which is probably what allowed me to use it in that painting; as opposed to one that’s really uncomplicatedly agit-prop. I don’t think I could use that.
GM How come?
DS That’s very difficult to put into words: why one image can be used and another can’t. But, that image has a kind of sweetness to it.
GM Oh, it does! I thought of the right side and the left side as being feeling and sentiment … . There was one painting that was very different from all the others. It was the-one-lonely-guy-without-a-sexy-broad painting.
DS You mean the coal miner?
GM He looks like real “film noir.”
DS Film noir or newsreel?
GM No, film noir. It’s the one painting that doesn’t have a woman in it. I thought a lot about Godard when I saw that one.
DS That particular painting?
GM I think it probably has to do with the era, the early ‘60s. The Johnson’s building in the painting takes you back very quickly, and the ugly man. He’s a cross between a Bogart image and Belmondo. Those were Godard’s favorite heros at the time.
DS You have a much more romantic reading of that painting than I do. I just thought, that painting doesn’t have the sexy broad because …
GM That’s what made it romantic.
DS I see that now. But to me it was just the world without any women in it …
GM Yeah, see what I mean: Yearning, Desolation …
DS No. It was simply beyond a guy that didn’t have a woman. The feeling was more documentary.
GM You get the documentary images in the Pauper painting with the crowd scene. You’ve not afraid to stick the sexy woman next to that one.
DS Well, but the crowd came at the end. And as I have said, is such a sweet, benign, homey …
GM What makes it sweet and benign?
DS Well, that’s what is hard to say. It’s a documentary you don’t have to pay attention to.
GM Well, what about the guy without the sexy broad?
DS He’s also in the documentary mode. I just think that painting doesn’t have room for a woman. It may be … she just would not fit.
GM It’s almost redundant. But there’s no men in the other paintings with women, they don’t fit together?
DS That’s a good question.
GM I mean, does the presence of the man in the painting displace you as the painter?
DS I’ve been wondering about that because I have started to paint men just recently. I haven’t figured out yet what to do with them, in terms of what the images can be matched up with …
GM I had another thought too, about all those women. Who are the women fucking? Are the women Everyman?
DS That’s an interesting assumption. I’ve never been convinced that they were fucking anybody.
GM You have these women with their shorts down, obviously displaying themselves. I mean, they’re not lying around taking a nap. They are expectant, promising.
DS I think of them, for all their openness as somehow chaste.
DS I know it sounds like a contradiction.
GM That’s why I thought of them as being Everyman.
DS They’re fucking everyone?
GM No. The women are Everyman. Like medieval Everyman plays.
DS There was a time I thought that they were me, just very literally me.
GM That’s what they look like to me. I have another thought and that is that they seem to be masculinity hiding behind glamour and pushing the body of woman out as a decoy. Are the duck heads an allusion to the woman as decoy?
DS Not intentionally. I think of a lot of images I use as having a real sweet emotional texture. The kind of soft, satiny, feathered sheen of a duck’s head. I think that the predominant feeling is a tender one. In almost all the works.
GM Given that tender feeling, how do you think your paintings align themselves with the New York School of the ’60s.
DS I wanted to make pictures that had that quality of unassailable identity, but also wanted to make pictures that you could look at for a long time.
GM I’m thinking of Leonardo’s St. John the Baptist, where St. John is a little flacid, a little done-in. He is turning his finger and pointing seemingly to every weakness, every perversion.. . the murky underside of every private act is contained in that finger pointing to heaven.
DS Underneath human frailty you probably find perversion. That’s an important painting, an important gesture in painting. But that range of feelings in paintings was so successfully eradicated …
GM I’d like to talk about Classicism. Wasn’t the American ’60s gestalt work “the closed door of classicism”?
DS I don’t know. The kind of classicism I’m thinking about now is something which I think admits great emotional depth. Just right underneath the surface of the very self-assured, there is great emotional depth. The two are visible simultaneously. And you feel one through the other. Really, the point of classicism is to experience one through the other, not to seal one off from the other.
GM But it’s a set up. I mean you establish one kind of aesthetic or discipline and because it’s set up, you don’t need to worry about it anymore—then you can deal with more complex emotions. You can’t have it all at once.
DS The point about classicism is this: that the official emotions are exactly congruent with the private ones. Then it’s successful. I think that the private emotions exist in the successful painting of the ’60s, like Lichtenstein or Warhol’s paintings. But for the most part, it’s there in such a submerged way that you have to dig down deeper to find it than the structure of the painting will allow.
GM Isn’t the cost of that classical structure an acceptance of authoritarianism?
DS I think the feeling of intense poignancy of time passing and of the forms of nature; the mortal fact underneath our sensation of time is best expressed with some kind of classical vehicle. I don’t think it really matters to me whether it is societally authoritarian or not. Everything is societally authoritarian, one way or another. It doesn’t matter what it’s called.
GM Society versus the individual.
DS Society is authoritarian. Of course, I think that classicism’s real function and force is having to do with, as I said, feelings produced from the contradiction between momentary, fleeting feelings and the eternal nature of time.
That’s classicism, regardless of its political, authoritarian uses. It was invented to deal with that emotion, to contain that emotion in a useful way.
GM All the time that we’re talking I keep thinking of Watteau’s Giles.
DS Yes, that’s a very important painting.
GM Watteau is both proper and improper. You know all his drawings of the enemas?
DS Oh, yes. Those famous enema drawings are great. But he was a little bit embarrassed by them …
GM His drawings are prim because they are so licentious, in contrast to the Hogarth engravings and all those sort of titillating, obscene, scatological, 18th century …
DS That’s a completely different realm of sensibility. There’s nothing Hogarthian about his sensibility. There’s plenty of scatological obscenity in all kinds of classical paintings. It’s one of the standard late-medieval, early Renaissance themes. There is a Brueghel painting in Berlin. It’s really a fabulous painting. There are two people who are so intertwined, that they shit through the same hole. He shows this.
GM Is that the kind of unity you’re trying to get with all those asses in the air, David? Are you identifying yourself …
DS That was an example of a time. There’s something humorous, something astonishing because they exist. But they don’t have any effect on the private sensation of communication … nothing similar to the Watteau drawings, at all. It’s just a fact of life that’s depicted.
GM Yes, but the Watteau enema drawings are not just about a fact of life. In the 18th century medicine was constricted to what goes in and what comes out. The only cures were to either bleed someone or give them an enema, in order to get the disease out of the body. And yet the Watteau drawings are not about purging and they’re not about …
DS Yes, I’m making a distinction, that at that time regardless of what medical source is in imagery, there’s a sense of extreme intimacy, whereas in the Brueghel painting even though it’s actually a picture of someone shitting, there’s nothing intimate about it. It’s just biology.
GM It’s about penetration as well.
DS Partly it’s about penetration. I think it’s about sensibility in style wedded to this image of penetration. I guess penetration is really one of the keys to how the image works. Where the idea of penetration and the penetrating gaze come together, and yet Watteau rendered in this extremely gorgeous drawing style, a very soft, feminine drawing style. Feminizing …
GM To be specific, back to the Pauper painting: the woman in it is the most transparent. My thought was: if you crawl into the transparency of the drawing, you find the psychological opacity of the woman. She’s not opaque like the drawing on lead. She’s overlaid by the ying yang transparency and yet her body is a mass, impenetrable. It might also have to do with the fact that it’s seen from the rear. There’s no orifice available, there’s no way to enter into it.
DS What about the ones where the woman’s body is really imaginatively as penetrable as possible? Do you think that’s a general emotion in the paintings?
Actually, there’s a painting inside that I’m working on that I’ll show you … it’s a woman with her underpants around her knees. She is facing the viewer but the whole top of her head and shoulders are obscured by a giant amputated male arm and foot that’s painted in oil on top of her chiaroscuro image.
That’s actually something I saw in a Gericault painting. You may want to say that it’s amputated body parts, which seems somehow particularly applicable right now. The disembodied but still incredibly corporeal aspect of these things seemed perfectly suited for my purposes …
GM You sound like Dr. Frankenstein!
DS Sometimes that’s the way I feel! But I left the foot open, as it were, I mean I just painted the outline of the foot so that you see her hands in a praying configuration. You see them through the opening of the heel of the foot.
GM Some of your paintings are very sad. Some of them are very violent in their sadness, too. Wrenching. I’m thinking of the one with the women with the cones.
DS I always thought it was. The original piece was not a painting, but a series of photographs. I like the painting better. That’s an interesting image because you know it was set up so that it could be photographed. So that it could be shown to you like that. Which is every similar to pornography in its mechanism. What’s compelling about pornography is knowing that someone did it. It’s not just seeing what you’re presented with but knowing that someone set it up for you to see it.
GM The degradation in it is very close to pornography too, maybe that’s the source of the sadness, I don’t know.
GM Well, it’s so wildly complicitous in its degradation, that’s what makes it so painful.
DS I don’t know, do you think that degradation is sad? First of all, you think it’s degraded …
GM Well, the human being, the horrible, aggressive cone shapes, it’s beyond the figure of clown, therefore ridicule, and yet it’s more like self-knowledge than ridicule.
DS Right. And in pornography it’s also set up so that you can see it and that parallel is very poignant, it can be very sad.
DS I think photography and representation, are only interesting insofar as they are ways of getting at the body and its connection to feeling, its way of making feeling visible.
I always thought of that painting as a really beautiful image … knowing that it would be sad. And pornography, though it can be sad, is seldom beautiful.
GM Pornography doesn’t haunt you.
DS I guess that’s the difference. I mean something transgressional is there but it’s such a fait accompli transgression, that the transgressional aspect is not primarily what you see. That’s also its distinction from pornography. The transgression, in a sense, has already occurred.
GM Oh, long before the photograph.
DS Well, it’s like an ideal world. A world where all the transgressional acts have already been, are already givens … . It’s analogous to a room of very sophisticated people where you don’t have to explain anything. The shape the conversation takes … you don’t have to explain anything to anybody.
GM The world as a given?
DS All of human nature, in all of its complexity, is a given. So nothing has to be … everything is already understood. That’s a starting point of a lot of the images.
GM Is that like Sade listing all of the human corruptions? The list?
DS Well …
GM The tyranny of the List?
DS He’s too heavy-handed for my tastes. More like Peter Handke’s Offending the Audience, which is a work of extravagant beauty, many pages of monologue telling the audience all the possible variations of what could happen on the stage. Why they’re in the theatre, why they came, the things that could be wrong with their lives that made them be there that night.
GM Are you telling the viewer that?
DS You don’t listen to the list and think, Oh, my god, this is what’s being revealed. In the first word, you know that that’s already a given. And what makes you know it’s a given is the fulfillment of it’s being listed. That list only has to be listed in order to confirm the fact that it’s already been a given.
GM Is that why the acts in your paintings are so non-specific?
DS The acts? How do you mean?
GM That they all seem to be that listing of acts, a random shuffling. You don’t really have to pay attention to what’s going on, it’s not important that you know why the woman is bending over backwards and showing you her cunt. There’s something about it that’s not specific, even though it’s an incredibly specific image.
DS And yet the beginning point is this a priori-ness of everything. You already understand about all the bad reasons you’re in the theater.
GM All the bad reasons why you’re interested in looking at your paintings?
DS Something like that. I mean you’re one of the few people who’s told me that they see that in the work. It is certainly the starting point of the work. That’s what allows the image of the woman with the cones to exist.
GM It seems to me as though the viewer is the painting.
DS Uhm, let me think about that, I’m not sure. Let’s say the viewer is inextricably tied up with the painting.
GM What did you think of Catherine Millet’s very Catholic reading, something about “the viewer who has ventured into a David Salle painting is a fallen viewer.”
DS What Catherine wrote in general I like quite a lot. That one image was one that seemed French and Catholic … and not to have terribly much relevance to me. I don’t think about people as being fallen or not fallen.
GM A couple of years ago when you had that show at Castelli’s, I remember thinking the Castelli aesthetic must be over with because he has found an artist who encompasses and caps his entire post-war career.
DS That’s a very flattering comment …
GM I didn’t mean it to be flattering.
DS The truth of the matter is that everyone, I think, I’ve never asked anyone else this, but it’s my suspicion that in the last five or six years those artists who have done shows with Leo, probably all in their heart of hearts, wanted to believe they would be the last artist. I think that all of us wanted to be the last male heirs that Leo would attach himself to.
GM So you seemed to have just opened up your doors to it. If you can’t beat them, join them?
DS Something like that.
GM Isn’t that the source of your classicism as well?
DS Very much so.
GM I mean you accept these things as givens and use it as the Word.
DS To be showing work which subsumes the Castelli aesthetic, in Castelli’s space, is very gratifying. The amusing part is, and the reason why I’m telling this story is, it’s a self-deprecating story, that the fantasy’s so deflated because as it turns out, Leo would show practically anything that came along, that had a certain pedigree of newness to it.
GM Do you have to do something that looks like the last thing you did?
GM That’s a very new and a very specific idea, making a painting that doesn’t look like the other ones that one’s done. I look back to Cezanne who was doing those god-awful figure drawings and doing those sublime landscapes at the same time.
DS And so did Picasso, who jumped around from neo-classical drek to Cubist-Surrealist, to decorative stuff day by day.
GM And why not?
DS The reason why not is that we want to believe that there’s more behind art than just personal will, personal desire. We have wanted to believe there’s something beyond ourselves that’s governing it.
GM The Idea?
DS Well, let’s say necessity … The post-war American painters in the male line of ascension, part of what gives post-war American paintings their strength, is that you know it’s strong because it’s part of something which is a proven strength …
GM Capitalizing on the series?
DS The fact that it exists in a series is a kind of faith in the ability to pass on characteristics, to use characteristics which are in a sense, like the male lineage, expansive and have the need to expand and take over territory. One thing that I’ve always thought about my paintings, regardless of how similar they look after they’re done, my opinion about them when I’m working on them is that there’s very little carry-over from one painting to the next, each painting is closer to starting over from scratch than any of the other painters in that aesthetic grouping that we’re talking about.
GM That’s part of my problem with that aesthetic grouping. If we’ve swallowed that hook, line, and sinker—then we think that the historical necessity is a personal necessity, the “you’ve-only-got-one-painting-in-you” idea.
DS That was the program for several generations of artists, to make personal necessity and historical necessity identical. That was the job. But once you’ve done that, then you’re absolutely stuck with it. The point is to have a working process that is that intuitive and chancey and have results that are still able to live within this post-war American painting aesthetic.
GM So you’re recognizing your bastards?
DS It’s a little bit feminizing the patrilineal line … Something as arbitrary as Jasper Johns’s beer cans or the targets feels official. That’s what I think is the beauty of the patrimonial power. When the arbitrary can be elevated to a given. That’s, I think, an admirable goal.
GM I don’t know if it’s admirable, but that’s the goal.
DS I think it’s admirable and I think it’s terrific. I mean what else is there to do in a culture that’s worth doing? In the sense of having anything to do with culture?
GM There’s an Alexander Pope poem about fashion I’ve thought of it as being about classicism in the way that we’ve been talking about it. Be not the first by whom the new are tried/nor yet the last to lay the old aside.
DS It makes me think of why some images are elevated to infamy. Some images are elevated to cultural uses which seem to be so far away from what they contain. You see, these are the kinds of things that psychoanalysis should be addressing now.
GM What do you mean?
DS There must be something about certain images … on such an unconscious level that no one can ever chart it out … can never predict it. I mean, could you have predicted that beer cans would become an emblem that would signify 25 years of post-war cultural history? How do you explain the fact that it happened? See, I don’t think Roland Barthes could explain that. I don’t see any single thing that I’ve done becoming emblematic. Maybe my work as a body …
GM Maybe that’s why you’re slipping over into the matrilinear power.
DS Why? That I haven’t contributed a single emblematic image to the culture? Except, you know, the image of myself, working. (laughter)
GM … The complexities of the sexual act. Most art of the ’60s and ’70s packaged it in such a way that it was impervious to an organic complexity that would leave room for doubt. The Bachelor Machine approach acts as an exploiter because it doesn’t admit to the nature of the sexual act: the simultaneous admission of weakness and strength. You recognize this. Perhaps that’s your contribution.
DS Well, Johns’s work is not sexless but it’s covert. He did more in terms of integrating the complex self and projecting the complex self directly onto a kind of integrated picture-consciousness field, than anybody. But no one really took his example. They often took other things, but not that thing. You know what I mean, that’s the symbolist side of Johns, and everyone that took anything from Jasper, which is just about everyone, took everything but the symbolist side. It’s the symbolist side that connects it to classicism which interests me.
GM But most of this patrilineal line you’ve been talking about is homosexual.
DS My point is, homosexuality in the ’60s had to be hidden. The genius of painters like Johns and Rauschenberg was that they developed a covert language for feeling that developed into one of the dominant styles of the patrilinear line of painting. It was the ironclad, irrefutable look, rather than the covert symbolist undercurrent standing in for private feelings—but never succumbing to the diminutization of private language—that got taken up by successive waves of patrilinear claimants and the connection to feeling is only just starting to resurface.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee