From Pop to Punk: Peter Saul
February 25th – April 25th, 2015
Venus Over Manhattan
980 Madison Avenue, FL 3
New York, New York 10075
Peter Saul, who will be 81 this year, has been happily making trouble for over 50 years. Marginalized by the mainstream art world, he is a role model and an inspiration for many artists who have followed. So there is much to say about a career this long, and Roberta Smith covers a great deal of it in a long, thoughtful New York Times review of his current show at Venus Over Manhattan, including the import of Saul’s first and long time dealer, the late Allan Frumkin.
The paintings and drawings in From Pop to Punk bridge a critical early period when Saul switched from oils to acrylics. Common now, acrylics were a relatively new medium in the 1960s, with the water soluble version first made available for use by artists in 1955. Introduced as an alternative to oils, many artists to this day attempt to replicate their look and feel, a goal that often ends in lackluster results. For Saul, acrylic’s slicker surfaces and acidic color range offered an exciting expansion of painting’s vocabulary and syntax. The advantages of this new medium for Saul are immediately apparent. Looking at Superman and Superdog in Jail, an oil painting from 1963, we see that most of the artist’s pictorial vocabulary is already present. The use of cultural icons, highly elastic (apparently boneless) figures, social commentary, and humor are all front and center. The paint application is loose and mottled, with the color bright and off kilter; Superman’s blue costume has turned a tarnished green. Affinity to the Bay Area Figurative Movement is still present (Saul was born in San Francisco and attended the San Francisco Art Institute) and it would not be difficult to imagine Saul developing in the vein of fellow native Californian Wayne Thiebaud.
But it was the 1960s: Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California, Angela Davis was at UCLA, and the Vietnam War was escalating. Saul was engaged in social commentary from the beginning, as Superman and Superdog in Jail shows, but this hardly prepares us for what comes next. For with his adoption of acrylics, sly allusion gives way to a scathing caricature and political satire on par with Honoré Daumier or George Grosz. (I specifically mention these two precursors because the number of artists who successful made political art is a very small group indeed.) Whether Saul’s conceptual leap was inspired by the acrylic’s unique qualities, or his adoption of the acrylics was motivated by his developing political vision, one need only look at The Government of California, 1969, to see how wild and wildly effective is this marriage of medium and message.
It’s almost as if Saul turned a knob and everything that was fuzzy and indistinct popped into razor sharp focus. Where the figure of Superman is faceless in the previous work, here the faces of Reagan and King are as unmistakable as the Golden Gate Bridge and city of San Francisco in the background. His paint application, previously loose with clearly visible brushstrokes, is now completely sublimated in favor of the narrative. Drawn lines are no longer indistinct, but sharply delineated, as are the artist’s politics. And if we’re still unclear, Saul literally spells it out for us with words embedded throughout the composition.
These works have a intense, manic quality that is actually heightened by the artist’s tight control over the composition; our eye is forced to be in constant motion over the canvas because every area is activated with either line or color (or often both). Indeed the color is exceptional on multiple levels. First and foremost, Saul’s colors are aggressive, hot, and bright in a way previously unseen in painting. They are also, thanks to the particular substances found in certain acrylic colors, extremely unnatural. By that I mean, they can contain not only the natural earth colors found in most oil paint, but also those derived from synthetic chemicals, for instance phthalocyanine. Secondly, they are, I believe, intimately tied to the artist’s sense of moral outrage. One cannot escape the observation that many of Saul’s paintings contain extremely prurient images; nudity, rape, torture, graphic violence are all in ample abundance.
Yet in using such an incredibly acidic palette, Saul would exact payment from the viewer. Yes, the colors pull your attention in like a neon sign, but extended looking actually hurts your eyes. They’re just too hot; it’s almost like trying to stare at the sun.
Saul’s (underground) comic book inspired caricatures bite deep, his wit is razor sharp, his political critique dead on. But the ingredient bringing these works to critical mass is Saul’s absolutely merciless palette.
One more thing.
After viewing the Saul show, my daughter and I headed over to the Metropolitan Museum to see the exhibition The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky. While weaving our way through the museum we came upon the new installation of Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today mural from 1930. The Regionalist movement, in which Benton played a major part, has largely fallen from our contemporary consciousness. Superseded initially by the Abstract Expressionist art of Pollock – Benton’s most famous student – and his contemporaries, and the endless parade of contemporary movements that followed. But looking at America Today it is hard not to see a connection, to see Benton’s portrayal of striving Americans reaching out across the decades to Saul’s struggling Americans forty years later, two unquiet Americans in conversation.