Back To Top

Dissecting the Collage: An Interview with David Salle

By Amelia Abramson 


Walking down Hong Kong’s Pedder Building’s fourth floor hallway toward Lehmann Maupin, I can already glimpse the bold colors and varied techniques that make up the David Salle’s paintings. It’s the preview of Salle’s solo exhibition and he is due to present a talk on his works, which in this exhibition ranges from his signature large-scale compositions to smaller canvases, the latter of which represents his most recent creative evolution.


Lauded as a leading figure in the development of American postmodern sensibility, the New York-based artist is best known for his collage-like work in which he combines traditional painting techniques with vibrantly colored pop culture imagery. The works speak for themselves, figuratively and literally—across these surfaces float snowmen, bowls of mysterious green liquid and even subjects as mundane as waffles. Although these enlarged and hyper-detailed motifs dominate the space at Lehmann Maupin, at once bringing up sensations nostalgic and unsettling, there is also something cryptic about their arrangements. Their creator is similarly elusive; while Salle spoke eloquently about broader dialogues on contemporary art during his artist talk, he revealed little about the conception of this new show.


The next day, I sat down with Salle at the gallery to discuss narrative theory, his move to New York from Wichita, Kansas, his oeuvre and the creative process that produces these paintings.

Are there particular paintings in this exhibition that have an interesting narrative you would like to share?


That’s really a semantic problem, because narrative is the wrong word. But we don’t have another one, so someone needs to invent another word for what language the mind uses to construct a gestalt based on what the eye perceives. It’s not exactly narrative, but it’s not not narrative either. There’s a pictorial narrative, and that’s actually what pictorialism means. It’s hard to explain in two seconds to a general audience. This is really like specialist talk. However, let me give you an example. There’s a painting by Edward Hopper, Ground Swell (1939) and in the foreground there’s a sailing boat, a little sailing skiff with some guys, I think it’s a man and a woman on the boat and it’s in full sail. Very simple, very austere, an iconic Edward Hopper painting from 1939. It shows a clear, dew, summer New England day; it’s a painting of a certain privileged lifestyle, there’s a certain idyllic East Coast American rightness, and yet there’s some strange undercurrent of unease in the painting that’s very hard to put your finger on. There’s something unsettling, disturbing about it. Because if you just look at what the images are, a sailboat, a beautiful day—what could be better? But there’s something in the painting that is wrong.


I’m not saying that I necessarily agree with this, but I heard a lecture by a very interesting art historian named Alexander Nemerov, who happens to be the nephew of Diane Arbus. Coincidentally, Alex very convincingly made a case that the painting was about the moment Franklin Roosevelt announced the declaration of war on the radio. People were so stunned that their only reaction was to take a sailboat out and go sailing to try to digest the news. There’s no way you would know that just by looking at the painting, though.


Not at all.


So that’s a “narrative.” Someone else could have a different one, but I kind of like that one. I like to think that’s what it is.


That brings up the debate about how important artistic intent is in comparison to audience interpretation.


What it’s really about is paying attention to every single thing in the painting and also the context. The context goes a long way in supplying a narrative.


In a TateShot interview you said that you had been painting the same painting since you were 14. Can you elaborate on that comment?


You can’t take everything artists say about their work literally. But when I was 14 or 15, because of the kind of art school I was in and the kind of ideas I had about painting, my subject was a solitary female figure in an interior space. That was what I was painting, and I was a bit surprised to realize that I was still making a version of that painting 40 years later. It’s not the only thing I’ve done, but it is kind of funny just how consistent things are.


How do your paintings originate? From an aesthetic perspective, the final painting appears as though you undergo a spontaneous creative process.


It’s certainly not spontaneous. It’s tied to the pictorial states. I’m used to saying this analogy, that I think of it more like jazz—you know jazz is improvisational but you know there’s a musical structure, a time signature and a melody. Within this structure, there’s a designated period for improvisation.


Do you take images from a specific place and then tie them together in a premeditated fashion?


Just think of it like poetry, it’s not . . . people are making way too mysterious a thing out of this. Like, you don’t ask of a poet, “where do you get your words from?” Everybody has the same language, we have the same dictionary.


Alright then, I would ask what makes them put those words together in that order.


That’s a different question.


In which case. . .


Whatever makes you put them together in that order is a question of what it all means. Everyone has the same language. So, using language isn’t a privilege, it’s the style specifically. The answer to that is just to—you have to look at it. You can describe it yourself.


And so, can you share the thought processes you go through?


I see something I like. For example, a stack of suitcases, which I thought was really amusing. To see is a specific visual event, which is not the same thing as an idea, or a concept or intention. It’s visual. I want to describe the sensation of how birds sound like in a tree outside of a window. And then, the art process starts. But seeing suitcases in that accordion-like way seems to be an interesting visual event.


You have this technique of photographing details of paint, digitally magnifying it to print onto canvas, then applying it onto a painting. This layering effect of the canvases adds another dimension when you look at the work close up. Can you speak a little about this process?


From a viewer’s standpoint, you won’t get an answer. Yes, everything I’m painting is premeditated, but it doesn’t mean the same thing as premeditated murder. These terms are making it sound more complicated than it is. Yeah, it’s a process. Everyone has a process. My process has more components than other people’s, but you know, it’s just a process. It’s not even interesting to talk about. I mean if you want to talk about process you ask, “What brush are you using?” You know what I’m saying? But you don’t care about that.


I don’t?


I don’t think so. You hadn’t asked. Because no one ever asks what kind of brush you use. For a painter it’s more about the materials than it is about anything else. The paint and the brushes determine the painting more than anything else.


Could you elaborate more on how the transition to New York when you were 22 helped to develop your practice?


I’m not sure if I can say how, but I know that it did. If I had stayed in Kansas, what kind of paintings would I be making? Obviously we can’t know, but I doubt I’d be making these types of paintings.  I don’t know what I’d be doing, but I mean, I don’t even know what that New York is like now. I still live there, but New York when I first went there, when I was young, was such a specific context of established standards and a brutal elimination of the weakest, a brutal survival of the fittest.


I was always interested in the context of the New York school of painting. And I always took energy from that and took a certain kind of identity from that. I don’t think it’s possible now to do that, but you know maybe it is. It’s hard to imagine young people doing that now. But it helped me a lot. I met a lot of really great artists when I was young.