PETER SAUL'S ART IS NOT PRETTY, though it has many eye-catching pleasures. Nor is it polite. Indeed, the artist makes zealous efforts to ensure the opposite. In America today, he says in a catalog interview, “there’s a tremendous need to not be seen as racist, not seen as sexist. So I want to make sure I am seen as those things.”
What is the appropriate place for art that stirs together John Wayne Gacy and Angela Davis, Mickey Mouse and Ethel Rosenberg, Stalin and Willem de Kooning, Basil Wolverton and George W. Bush, then spikes the broth with prickly references to capitalism, Communism, homophobia, feminism, Black Power, racism, pedophilia and art-world politics andlast but not leastto the aging, decaying, self-lacerating artist himself?
Depending on who’s looking, Mr. Saul might be seen either to embrace or revile individual ingredients in this stew, though when his art is pressed to declare its loyalties, it gives no unequivocal answers. Indeed, it seems to be answer-averse, a species of painting as agitation, picture-making as button-pushing.
Mr. Saul, who was born in San Francisco, started pushing buttons in the late 1950s when he discovered that although he liked the way certain Abstract Expressionist artists painted, he couldn’t stomach the Existentialist mumbo-jumbo that surrounded their work. So he adopted the brushy style but dumped the pretensions. Instead of spiritual depths, he painted icebox interiors stocked with soft drinks, steaks, daggers, penises and toilets. In the process he created a painterly versionLarry Rivers did the sameof what would come to be called Pop Art.
Peter Saul, now 76, is a classic artist’s artist, one of our few important practicing history painters and a serial offender in violations of good taste. His career, while long, steady and admired, has never exceeded cult status. It’s an example of can’t-see-the-tree-for-the-forest visibility.
Read it all.
You be the judge.