“At 100, I shall be a marvelous artist.” Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)
In the 1980s —I can vouch—the mean age of artists showing in significant exhibitions of contemporary art across the globe was probably under 30. The ageist tide has turned. Since the new millennium, it is the artists that are past middle age that are currently responsible for some of the most interesting art on the international scene, with works both recent and across all stages of long careers. Some, like centenarian Carmen Herrera, born in 1915, many (mainly, but not only, women) first received wide attention later in life, while others have had career ebbs and flows, and a few, concerted attention from the start, ongoing, whether widespread or niche. Peter Saul, at 85, just as his immediate regional predecessor Wayne Thiebaud, born in 1920 and still at it, falls into the latter. Peripheral to avant-garde waves, accrued accolades have targeted his winking, slippery figuration and unwavering commitment to topical politics in painting.
WHAT: Peter Saul: Crime and Punishment
WHERE: New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York, NY 10002
WHEN: February 11, 2020—May 31, 2020 ( Museum is temporarily closed due to COVID-19)
The organization of Peter Saul: Crime and Punishment, which spans nearly six decades (1960-2018) with pruned selections, highlights the consistency of his mashed up but ultimately unique artistic identity—part Surrealist, part Thomas Hart Benton, part Pop Art, part postwar cartoons, and, in hindsight, part Kenny Scharf, for starters. Installed across two floors, the knock-out gallery is off the elevator on fourth, in which break-out mural-esque works from the mid-1970s segue to his latest hair-raising (pun intended) Trump take-downs. Double-row hanging echoes the visual overload of each wackily-animated scenario. A central piece, “Washington Crossing the Delaware“ (1975), parodies iconic sacred cows and mythic narratives through raucous, infantilized art taste via Silly Putty anatomy and a psychedelic poster palette at a monumental scale.
The sanctified source is a painting by little-known academic painter Emanuel Leutze. It became fodder for many socially conscious American artists around the time of the U.S. Bicentennial, including Peter Saul’s Bay-area compatriot, Robert Colescott, whose version, “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware” (1974-75), may now be the best known. Both artists seized art historical appropriation early —both featured in the Whitney Museum’s 1978 show, “Art about Art”—an art-irreverent acknowledged “adult comics” vibe perhaps most associated with R. Crumb, and an affinity with graffiti art.
Closely related to the “Washington Crossing the Delaware” painting is Saul’s “Custer’s Last Stand #1” (1973), which is more typical of Saul’s overall exploitation of cartoon-type violence. Splattered limbs and bloody blobs punctuate much of his oeuvre and can be, at times, wincingly visceral as well as frighteningly Freudian.
Saul’s “Saigon” (1967) is one of the most disturbing displays among the artist’s graphic critiques of the Vietnam War that are grouped in an anteroom. In these, his rubbery Rube Goldberg anatomy is weirdly sadistic and supplemented by slogans that shame U.S. perpetration, or penetration, of inhumane actions and policies. He will continue to push viewers to the brink of tolerable tension between the evident painter’s joy and excruciating content, often featuring the victimization of women. Climactic in this regard are images of a brutally martyred green-skinned woman with a purple Afro in “Crucifixion of Angela Davis” (1973), and a strung up sacrificial nude in “Beckmann’s The Night, 2009,“ an unabashed remake of “The Night” ( 1918-1919), the Expressionist’s haunting painting. Quite possibly, Saul was influenced by exposure to Beckmann’s motivations while at Washington University, St. Louis (mid-1950s), where Beckmann was a strong presence just prior.
“Columbus Discovers America“ (1992–95) picks right up from his earlier revisionist history paintings. Rounder edges and smoother paint application softens a bit the follow-up visual blow of spiritual and physical confusion and desperation in the dense tangle of bubbling brown bodies. Elsewhere, Saul parades a cadre of ruthless bobble-headed warmongering rulers and psycho criminals ripped from the headlines, slipping in myriad references from popular culture.
For the current U.S. president, Saul delivers biting caricatures that recall Honore Daumier’s jail-baiting grotesques of Louis-Philippe, like the swampy crocodile hybrid of “Donald Trump in Florida” (2017), and a hysterical abstract of orange toupees swirling in brushy Ab Ex slime.
The third floor gathers the artist’s earliest work, namely deconstructive stabs at emerging slick Pop. In these Superman, Mickey Mouse, groceries, Duchampian plumbing, sex murders, and G.I. jerks are variously scrawled out, redacted, retraced, morphed, and juxtaposed, as in, for example, Saul’s “Ice Box” (1960). The late “bad painting” of Philip Guston, another considerable postwar presence in St. Louis, lends a precedent, and Jean Michel-Basquiat, a descendant.
As mentioned, and sure to be furthered by the edgy energy of this show, many much younger artists across three subsequent generations have discovered Peter Saul, including street-art star KAWS (aka Brian Donnelly), a Saul collector. Age is by no means just a number but signifies cumulative experience, continually whittled back by Saul to an adolescent-like unfiltered outrage and a gaming mindset vis-à-vis painting through an American lens.