NOTHING IS SACRED FOR A PAINTER WHO KNOWS THAT WHAT’S PROVOCATIVE IS INTERESTING
by Sarah Fensom
In early October, Rizzoli/Electa published Peter Saul, the first major monograph focusing on the work of a California-born artist whose colorful paintings are known for skewering pop culture and political figures in a signature style that is equal parts Mad magazine and Willem de Kooning. The production of this hefty volume, which weighs in at 320 pages and retails in the United States for $85.00, was overseen by Saul himself. It features the largest selection of the artist’s work that has ever appeared in reproduction in book form.
Although Saul has been an active and influential figure in the art world for six decades, recent years have seen his star rise notably, and the visibility of his art increase. He’s one of those painters around whom there always seems to be plenty of buzz, especially from and among other artists.
Peter Saul, the book, comes on the heels of a survey of his work that was presented at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York late last year (for which an accompanying catalog was also published), and of joint exhibitions of the artist’s paintings and works on paper that opened at Michael Werner Gallery and Venus Over Manhattan, also in New York, this past summer. Saulmania also found expression last year with the publication by Bad Dimension Press of Peter Saul: Professional Artist Correspondence, 1945-1976. Now sold out, that book was issued in an edition of 1000 copies.
Rizzoli/Electa’s newest offering probably is not the last word that will be heard anytime soon about this artist, but it does seem to provide the fullest picture up until now of the scope and history of its subject’s career and achievements.
Born in San Francisco in 1934, Saul studied at the California School of Fine Arts and at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, before decamping for Europe in 1956. In the early 1960s, while living in Paris, he began attracting attention with showings of his work at Alan Frumkin’s galleries in Chicago and New York of his “Icebox” series of oil-on-canvas paintings. Rejecting the self-conscious seriousness of Abstract Expressionism, these brushy, humorous works featured intricate compositions filled with semi-abstracted images of refrigerators, foods, and everyday objects. With their bold, sometimes acidic colors, they sapped some of the spirit of Pop Art.
In the young Saul’s work, the influence of Mad, copies of which the artist had discovered in a Paris bookstore, and 1940s-era comic books like those featuring the superhero Plastic Man, fused with his interest in Surrealism and in such works as Paul Cadmus’s bawdy-feeling, crowd scene Coney Island (1934, oil on canvas; now in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). Saul’s increasingly complex compositions of oozing, flexible forms, with their funny, sometimes vulgar undertones, seemed to emerge from his interest in such source material. Through his paintings, Saul, who was not directly affiliated with Pop Art, showcased the darker side of American life; he depicted such popular comic-strip characters as Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, and Superman, as well as other pop-culture subjects, in what could be seen as provocative or even objectionable contexts.
Take, for example, his 1961-62 painting “Mickey Mouse vs. The Japs,” whose title, today, would surely offend some viewers. In 2015, on the occasion of an exhibition of his work at the Hall Art Foundation’s galleries in Reading, Vermont, Saul commented on this particular painting, saying, “I gave [it] the title ‘Mickey Mouse vs. the Japs,’ because it does have a fair amount to do with Japan, as you can see […]. However, I didn’t tie myself down to that subject completely. I would lay anything else in. There’s a can of motor oil that has no purpose having to do with Japan. There’s Del Monte canned goods, which has nothing to do with Japan.”
After Saul moved back to the U.S. in 1964, the Vietnam War became one of his subjects, as in such paintings as “Saigon” (1967) and “Target Practice”(1968). Starting around that time, political figures — Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Fidel Castro — began popping up in his pictures, too.
Peter Saul includes informative essays about different aspects of the artist’s life and work by Bruce Hainley, the author of Under the Sign of [sic]: Sturtevant’s Volte-Face; Richard Shiff, a professor of art history, specializing in modern and contemporary art, at the University of Texas at Austin; and Annabelle Ténèze, the chief curator of heritage and director of Les Abattoirs, Musée – Frac Occitanie, in Toulouse, France.
In the new book, Shiff traces the emergence of Saul’s style in the 1960s. He writes about the painter’s reaction to Pop Art, which saw him push forward into darker, more unsettling territory than that of the consumer-culture focus of the stars of that movement. Shiff quotes Saul as saying, revealingly, “My contribution to art is probably one desperate idea of how to attract more attention, if there is no other: violence, sex, exaggeration, politics, and Day-Glo add up to a list of things deliberately not done by artists who know better.” Schiff writes convincingly that Saul has always known exactly what he has been doing.
In her contribution to this new book, Ténèze examines Saul’s relationship to Pop Art, politics, and war — and to other artists. Hainley, a critic, writer, and poet, concerns himself with Saul’s painting “The Execution of O.J.”(1996, acrylic, oil, and alkyd on canvas), which depicts O.J. Simpson holding a bloody knife and other memorable subjects from the television coverage of the former football star’s 1995 trial for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman, for which he was acquitted. In his engaging text, Hainley gives a critical voice to Nicole Brown Simpson from beyond the grave.
Perhaps the most valuable contributions to this well-illustrated volume are Saul’s own comments about his work, which appear alongside reproductions of his paintings. Printed in bold, hot-pink type, Saul’s remarks cut to the core of and make clear his artistic motivations.
For example, with regard to his painting “Icebox #9″ (1963), which is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Saul notes that it has long been a favorite of “serious” viewers, who, he observes, “would prefer the pictures they admire to be interesting to think about rather than interesting to look at.” He adds, “With this picture, such a viewer could finally address important questions of style and not be distracted by interesting details.”
A year earlier, Saul produced “Crime Boy’s Secret Bathroom,” a picture featuring a bloody knife, a toilet seat running on its own legs, a human figure with a telephone for a head, and a somewhat louche-looking Mickey Mouse in a composition that is a riot of surreal-punk fantasy. In his commentary, Saul explains that he made this painting following his first New York gallery show and in the wake of Pop Art’s initial success. He writes, “I decided to go my own way [away from Pop, that is], use my imagination, and have fun painting the picture.”
The “Crime Boy” in his painting’s title, he notes, refers to a comic-book character, Crimebuster, whom he recalled from the early 1940s; otherwise, his 1962 picture’s narrative may be seen as completely free in form. About it, Saul writes, “One shape reacted to another in a way that I hoped would look like a story was being told, but I had no idea what the story was.”
As for “Saigon”(1967), Saul points out that, after having depicted such subjects as Superman sitting on the toilet and Donald Duck strapped into an electric chair, he sought material with which his viewers had not grown accustomed. Thus, he notes, “The most promising idea was ‘politics.’ I found that what brought the picture to life was a certain craziness, having the wrong attitude about almost everything.”
Viewed from the vantage point of 2021, however, Saul’s “Saigon,” which is now in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, might not convey “the wrong attitude” after all. Instead, for some viewers it might seem to encapsulate the absolute historical-strategic-military-political clusterfuck of an aimless, costly conflagration that was the Vietnam War.
Whether or not Saul intended “Saigon” to be seen as an antiwar protest picture, with its explosive color and boisterous composition — there’s a Coke bottle, along with palm trees, Vietnamese showgirls, and what looks like a menacing bomb — it still points to the same sense of lost innocence and drug-fueled nihilism that can be felt in other works evoking the United States’ misadventures in Vietnam (especially Francis Ford Coppola’s gripping film Apocalypse Now, from 1979).
Saul’s “The World is a Bowl of Flowers” (2020) offers his riff on a still life, featuring insects and cartoonish human figures with bulging eyes enmeshed in a bouquet of flowers, sawing through or cutting the beautiful plants’ stems with big scissors. A broad, blue-colored vessel holding the flowers teeters on the edge of a table, ready to fall over. “It’s a real pleasure to mess up what is traditionally a pleasing subject,” Saul writes, adding that, prior to creating this picture, it had never occurred to him to paint a bowl of flowers, and that the approach he took to making it ended up not being typically “Peter Saul” — meaning, as he puts it, “no bullets, knives, etc.” Instead, as he set out to depict a bowl filled with flowers, his aim was to “just do it very wrong.”
About this painting, which he describes as being in the style of 1930s and 1940s propaganda imagery, he notes, “The bees represent the living creatures, horses, lions, ducks, etc. The people represent the various races. The whole thing being on the edge means if people don’t behave better, over it goes, crash!”
The notion that we mortals might — or should — be punished for not behaving “better” is, whether the artist cops to it or not, an implicit current in Saul’s work. His paintings depict figures who are well known or not so well known, as well as others who may be strongly associated with transgressive or, at the very least, dubious or controversial activities that have been reported in the media. (Think O.J. Simpson, Donald Trump, the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, or aggressive, trigger-happy cops.)
Saul frequently has been quoted as saying that his portrayals of violence, gore, and characters of ill repute are an eye-grabbing tactic — his way of attracting as much attention to his work as possible. Shiff, for instance, quotes Saul, who says, “A picture concerning murder is going to be more interesting than a picture of a person reading a book.”
If this has long been Saul’s art-making modus operandi, his work has succeeded in spades. Still, his comment about “The World is a Bowl of Flowers,” along with the impact of many of the works that are reproduced in this new book, may well prove a point that was unwittingly made by Mad’s satire-filled pages many decades ago and, even earlier, by such social satirists as the 18th-century British artist William Hogarth.
That is that, sometimes, some of the most mischievous, provocative, or exaggerated pop-cultural statements can turn out to be very moralistic ones, too. What’s more, sometimes the most “shocking” artists can turn out to be much less hard-edged than their callous images or messages might suggest.
One way to understand the Peter Saul whose art and ideas are examined in Peter Saul is as an artist of immense, Day-Glo-colored sensitivity.
Peter Saul, with essays by Bruce Hainley, Richard Shiff, and Annabelle Ténèze has been published by Rizzoli/Electa (ISBN: 978-0-8478-6866-7). Its retail price in the U.S. is $85.00.
Publisher’s website page for this new book: