WHAT MATTERS MOST IN ART IS NOT THE WHAT, BUT THE HOW. The artist David Salle was born in 1952. He divides his time between his studio in Brooklyn, New York City and his studio in East Hampton, Long Island. His eclectic talent encompasses being a painter, a photographer, a print maker, a stage designer and a writer.

This interview is available as a podcast.

David Salle, how did you start?

I had a kind of experience when looking at art when I was a child of nine and then I started a formal art education – drawing, painting, color theory, composition – with a couple who were very gifted teachers. When I was 17 I went to the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles, which was brand new in 1970; I was in the inaugural class. I came into contact with an entirely different idea of art and being an artist. My work is the result of trying to bring the traditional academic art skills of drawing, painting, and composition into sensitive alignment with the new tradition of so-called conceptual art, post-studio art.

Do you put them together in your collage work?

Lots of different things can happen in a collage space. It isn’t a new idea, but ideas are the easy part. The hard part is finding the form, finding something you can contain the ideas in that is convincing and gives you enough latitude.

Do you take you a long time to complete a work?  

It’s unpredictable. When I start a painting I have no fixed idea of how it will end up. It’s like a poem, additive line by line, image by image, phrase by phrase, until it reaches a sense of completion. The active process can start with a certain momentum, but each step along the way raises the stakes and makes the degree of difficulty greater.

How do you begin?

I start with one image, and the image can be anything. It can be a photograph taken in the studio; a model; a cartoon; coffee cups. I simply build out from there.

How do you work?

I work a lot. Every day is different. I usually read and write in the mornings, and I work in the studio in the afternoons and evenings ‘til 9 or 10 at night, and I have a late supper. It takes a lot of time to do what I do. I’m in the studio for many hours a day, most days, and it’s a slow, cumulative effort. I have an assistant who’s here a couple days a week, but it’s mostly solitary.

The inner gyroscope compels me to keep searching, keep changing.

Flying Rainbow Sandwich 2019, oil acrylic and charcoal on linen, 78 x 60 inches

© David Salle, ARS NY courtesy of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London · Paris · Salzburg

David Salle, you also worked in the theatre with the choreographer Karole Armitage? 

I got the theatre bug when I was asked to design an opera set for the avant garde director, Richard Foreman whose work I admired so much. I used that occasion to learn about it and understand how to stage a particular work. I just loved doing it. About the very same time I met Karole, and she asked me if I would like to work with her. She had been a dancer with Merce Cunningham, so was very familiar with enlisting visual artists to contribute to stage decor. We worked together very intensely for 7 or 8 years, and I continue to work with Karole occasionally. We did a dozen major productions which were presented in opera houses in New York and all over Europe.

What about your work as a photographer?  

I’m not a photographer really, but I use photography in my work, as many artists do. My father was a photographer in the army in World War Two, documenting the Pacific campaign from the Philippines to Tokyo in 1944. Back in civilian life he maintained his photography studio near our house in Kansas, and when I was eight years old he gave it to me, so I had a portrait studio and a dark room.  

And your print making?  

Print making is an adjunct of painting, a way to extend the painting into another dimension, and maybe simplifying the image. There are many people who are much better at it than I am.  

Your main work is as a painter. Why do you use collage? 

There are basically two kinds of pictures. There are pictures of something with a consistent sense of realism in the painting. Then there are paintings that do something different, the nature of reality shifts from this side to that side and it’s more about the fragmentation. Collage means the painting doesn’t show one consistent reality from edge to edge. Once you break apart the edge to edge realism, anything can go with anything else.  

Why were you a figurative artist at a time when figurative art was not in vogue?  

The generation that came of age in the 60s and 70s simply wasn’t interested in or connected to figuration. It wasn’t part of their worldview. It wasn’t the sensibility. The next generation, my generation, didn’t really care what the previous generation thought. If we were interested in figuration then that’s what we were interested in. It’s about the ebb and flow.  

Can we define you as a postmodernist or as an expressionist?  

I am myself. I don’t even know what postmodernist means exactly. The modernist project is big enough that we’re still operating inside that awareness. My work has always been evolving, from the first day. It is not static. Sometimes I wish it was less so. I don’t approach it as a strategic idea. I’m in the studio working and things start to change and then a year later I realize I am actually doing something quite different, and then explore that idea. The problem with art is not having ideas. The problem is deciding which ideas are worth exploring.

What kind of artist are you? 

I am not interested in the consistency or the repetition that the art world and the art market and the art commentary runs on. The single image kinds of artists (like Fontana) that stick in the mind’s eye are generally rewarded with a certain kind of slow building appreciation. The other kind of artist, and Picasso is probably the best example we have, is rarer. I’m a very restless person. I get easily bored by repeating myself. The inner gyroscope compels me to keep searching, keep changing. Certain things are happening you don’t have control over.

The journalistic conventions used to talk about art are overly focused on the what. What really matters is how it was done.

You are also an art critic, or an art writer. How is it to be an artist yourself and write about others?  

I’m interested in writing for its own sake and write about what I know. The thing I know best is painting and sculpture. Interacting with another artist’s work on a level that’s sufficient to be able to say something meaningful about it, as opposed to the received wisdom, is both a great exercise for oneself and one’s own understanding, and also it’s a great exercise for a writing project.  

Why did you pick Francis Picabia to write about?  

Writing for magazines, I’m obliged to write about what’s in the museums and exhibitions. Within that world I pick the things which I think I have something to say about that’s different from what other people have to say.  

Is what you say about Jeff Koons and what you say about Picabia linked? 

What matters most in art is not the what, but the how. When someone makes a painting of a clown what matters is how the clown is painted, how they approach it, how they compose it, their style of painting. The clown, the subject, is relatively unimportant. The journalistic conventions used to talk about art are overly focused on the what. What really matters is how it was done. The late sculptor Kenneth Price, a wonderful artist who first emerged in the 60s, said nothing I can say about my work is going to make it look better. I don’t care what people say about their work. 

Once artists used to do mostly mythological or religious subjects. Now there is freedom and Campbell’s Soup has arrived?

But the same the same thing applies to Campbell’s Soup. It was only partly the soup that was so startling. It was the way the soup was painted, the convincing illusion of being dead flat, of being untouched by human hand. That was what was coming through.  

How do you recognize an artist that is really going to last?  

That’s a question that no one can answer. We all have our opinions but nobody would claim to know what might happen 30 years down the road.  

Do you produce many paintings?  

It’s all relative. The paintings can take a long time. Sometimes it can take two or three months to finish. Some years there might be fewer paintings and others more.  

What about your vortex series?  

That was a specific series of paintings that lasted a couple of years. The vortex is something that turns in on itself like a spiral that gets tighter and tighter, like a tornado.  

What about your work with anamorphic images? 

I followed the idea of the anamorph, which you see in paintings from the 17th century, when it was a royal game, an entertainment when painters made images that could only be seen in a convex mirror. As an example, something that looked like a fish would all of a sudden become a face and be a portrait when you looked at it in a convex mirror. 

How do you do it?  

I did it with the computer. I don’t know how the hell they did it. I had this idea from my friend the painter Eric Fischl, who was using the computer as a compositional tool. He is a friend of mine, we were in school together. I’m very anti computer, a Luddite when it comes to the digital age, but Eric said to me, you know, you’re making a mistake, it’s very interesting. The computer has a program that allows you to make an anamorph just by pressing a button. It’s not such a major thing, I don’t make too much out of it, it’s not a central idea in my work.  

Do you have preferences amongst your work?  

Since the work is always evolving and life is always evolving and one’s self is always evolving, I think of it as a coming together of attributes that have to line up in the right way, and that alignment is something which is only achieved intermittently. Whenever it happens, that alignment is perfect and those works are highly resolved. In the other works, maybe the alignment is not quite in sync. They are still interesting paintings, but they don’t have that sense of complete alignment and rightness. It ebbs and flows, ebbs and flows.  

Your paintings are in several museums, from the Tate Gallery to MoMA, the Guggenheim and others. Do you like the paintings that they have or do you say, oh my God, why do they have this one instead of this other one? 

They’re not infallible. It’s often accidental why it’s this painting and not that painting.  

What is your current judgment on museums?  

They’re trying to make the kinds of juxtapositions that artists make, trying to juxtapose this work from the 1910s with this work from the 1960s, and it’s very hard to do. They’re trying to show a kind of cultural relativism, that these things are in some way commenting on each other, or they’re in harmony, or they’re participating in something similar. I have a feeling they’re not very good at that sort of thing and that’s not what they do well.

Untitled 2019, oil on linen, 25.5 x 20 x 1.25 inches (64.77 x 50.8 x 3.175cm) © David Salle, ARS NY courtesy of Galeria Javier Lopez Fer Frances, Madrid and Skarstedt, NY

The Kelly Bag, 1987, oil and acrylic on canvas, 78 x 96 inches, © David Salle, ARS NY courtesy Skarstedt, NY

Serenade 2019, oil and acrylic on linen, 74 x 91 inches © David Salle, ARS NY courtesy of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London · Paris · Salzburg

Mingus in Mexico, 1990, oil and acrylic on canvas 84 x 114 inches  © David Salle, ARS NY courtesy Skarstedt, NY


Swamp Music, 2013, oil on canvas, acrylic and silkscreen ink on metal, 75 x 65 inches, © David Salle, ARS NY courtesy Skarstedt, NY


Maybe no artist is really understood, not in their lifetime anyway.

Who are the artists you really admire? 

Manet is the foundation of everything that I am interested in up to a certain point, but beyond that point there’s so many other people who kick the ball in a totally different direction. I think of Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still, and Willem de Kooning is absolutely fundamental. I couldn’t live without them, they’re essential. I feel the same way about Marsden Hartley, a very different kind of artist. There are many painters in the last 150 years whose work is exemplary and a touchstone, some of the pop artists, someone like Francis Bacon for sure.  

You have written about Urs Fischer, one of the young artists who lives here. Do you think art is lively now in the new generations?  

I think that art became a product, and people like Urs are very much involved in the product world. It probably starts with Jeff Koons as a serious product maker. The question is, as the product quotient goes up does the art quotient go down?  

What do you mean by the product?  

There’s no absolute definition. I don’t have a Geiger counter that I can say this is 82 percent product. You feel it in the work. Everything is bigger. Everything is spectacular. People are pitching their work consciously or unconsciously toward a superficial ideal, and it has worked spectacularly commercially for a number of artists. I don’t want to detract from them, but it’s not of interest to me personally and I don’t want to be a part of it. Every artist, including Titian, makes products, it’s not like we’re just making pure ideas, but it’s a question of emphasis. What is paramount is how much room is left in the artwork for the imagination to really run around, and how much of it is simply a statement, a kind of objective fact.  

The world of today seems to like that kind of art and pays fortunes for it? 

I’m neither an art dealer nor an economist, so I don’t have an opinion about it. It is largely a function of the amount of money in circulation. It’s not a judgment on the quality of the art particularly. 

And nowadays some artists are very, very wealthy?  

I think it’s great. It’s wonderful. Titian was also very wealthy. Michelangelo was the largest property owner in Florence apart from the church, so there is nothing new about it.  

More and more people in the world are interested in art and it is becoming ever more popular? 

There’s more attention, more superficial knowledge and name recognition, but the question is, is there more understanding?  Jeff Koons, for example, happens to be a very good friend of mine. I have known Jeff for many years. He has critical acclaim, museum validation, and auction house love. But is his work understood? Perhaps not. Or not by many. Maybe no artist is really understood, not in their lifetime anyway.  

Do you need a hundred years before knowing?  

I was recently in Copenhagen to see a show by the American artist Marsden Hartley. Most of the paintings were made between 1910 and 1940. Now his work is really coming into focus. To really see, it takes time before judging.


Brooklyn. October 22, 2019.

Portrait of David Salle by Robert Wright

David Salle “New Work”
22 January – 29 February 2020
Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac 
7, rue Debelleyme
75003 Paris