By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
In spite of the fact that painter Peter Saul has spent the bulk of his 50-year career pissing off (and on) the art world — along with pretty much every other enclave of pedestal-dwelling sacred cows imaginable — it’s still hard to wrap one’s head around the fact that his current retrospective is only his third ever in the U.S., is his largest ever, and is taking place in, of all places, Orange County. Saul has always received the support of insiders like show organizer Dan Cameron (New Museum, Artforum) and catalog essayist Robert Storr (dean of Yale’s art school), yet his content remains so controversial that the only art centers willing to host this show are Philadelphia, New Orleans and Newport Beach. Not that the OC isn’t host to numerous hot pockets of artistic activity, nor would many of Saul’s more extravagant grotesques seem out of place on Real Housewives — I mean as characters, not on the wall.
(Click to enlarge)
CO Itchee Bitchee (1964)
But it’s hard to imagine the taxpayers and museum trustees of this Republican stronghold being down with Saul’s seething topical deconstructions — Day-Glo comic book disembowelments, really — of issues like the Vietnam War, government persecution of militant black leaders of the 1960s, police brutality and capital punishment, let alone his scathing 2006 caricature of George W. Bush posing jauntily with a finger poking into what’s left of the face of a completely fucked-up Abu Ghraib detainee.
In fact, Saul’s penchant for the blasphemous, sexually explicit, ultraviolent needling of authority figures pretty much accounts for why this is only his third solo survey show in America. Over the past couple of decades, he has vented a good portion of his spleen on art-world icons: a self-portrait taking a shit in Duchamp’s iconic urinal, innumerable piss-takes on 19th-century history paintings, and — most ill-advisedly — a series of uncommissioned portraits of prominent art critics. These began with Minimalism cheerleader Barbara Rose in 1963 and culminated with the transgendered, self-penetrating (with a paintbrush!) Clemunteena Gweenburg (1971) — though the artist continues to poke occasional cruel fun at this most misunderstood, embattled and unappreciated segment of the art world (Oh! Do me! Do me!).
No examples from this particular series of broadsides made it into the current retrospective at the Fashion Island–adjacent OC Museum of Art, though there are always plenty of digs at art stars like De Kooning and Picasso — Saul even takes on Francis Bacon and Duchamp in a single painting. Ironically, it was these kinds of satirical half-homages that initiated Saul’s rehabilitation in the mid-’80s, and they are the works for which he remains best known.
Which is the single most melon-twisting aspect of this act of institutional redemption, since Saul has always been, for me, one of the two or three best painters of the original group of artists labeled Pop in the very early 1960s, when his work (with its jumble of consumer goods rendered in exquisite but skeptical recovered naiveté) looked like a mash-up of De Kooning, Dubuffet and Richard Hamilton. While Warhol was arguably more economical in charting the trajectory of painting’s eventual (if not ultimate) disappearance up its own arsehole, in the end he was better at drawing lines than he was painting. Lichtenstein and Rosenquist? Fuggedaboudit. Good painters with great shticks ... and timing. Saul’s painterly peers in the early Pop era were crackpot Europeans like Öyvind Fahlström, Sigmar Polke (pronounced pokey) and Gerhard Richter (pronounced Gumby), and L.A. transplants Hockney and Kitaj. All of whom went on to blue-chip currency. Except for Fahlström, who shared Saul’s inability to refrain from direct commentary on America’s habit of global imperialism. Mere coincidence? Perhaps ...
After a peripatetic education, including five years in a WASP boarding school on Vancouver Island, brief stints with his hometown’s San Francisco Art Institute, Stanford and the merchant marines, followed by the well-regarded four-year BFA program at Washington University in St. Louis, Saul spent almost a decade bumming around Europe — England, Holland, France and Italy — before relocating to the Bay Area in 1964. By that time, his loose, flat, funky and irreverent canvases stacked with interlocking, awkwardly morphing consumerist archetypes had elbowed themselves a provisional niche in the Popist canon.
These works — produced between 1958 and 1964, and peaking with his Icebox series — are exquisitely composed, subtly colored assaults on the status quo, executed in the most traditional of media: oil on canvas. Painted in a two-dimensional, coloring-book/map-game pictographic mode, they successfully absorb the argot of the commercial representation of the then-contemporary, everyday visual landscape into the language of Modernist painting. Not in the guise of clean-edged yet ethically indeterminate clinical appropriation, but as slippery, semiotic Trojan clown-cars erupting with convention-busting balloon animals (a.k.a. naked, twisted human bodies) at every crossroads.
Footnoted because of their lack of commitment to either side of the market-shaking AbEx/Pop divide, Saul’s early paintings are less of an anomaly when seen in the context of English Pop (which blurred the high/low boundary in a dozen eccentric ways), the Northern European CoBrA movement and Dubuffet’s huge continental influence. With this slight remove, Saul was able to seamlessly channel his rage and disdain toward contemporary Western consumerist culture into sumptuous rallying cries for the future of picture-making — while inadvertently producing one of the greatest single bodies of work in 20th-century painting, and maybe the dernier cri as regards any possible un-ironic reconciliation between high and low culture. But by 1964, when Saul returned to the States following the death of his father, and of JFK, Pop was already on its way out as the anointed idiom for The Art World.