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.

CO Itchee Bitchee (1964)

Cold Sweat (1999)

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.

Minimalism was gazillion more apolitical than Pop, which — contextually — was gazillion more apolitical than Abstract Expressionism. But context was already Saul’s nemesis. The same ambiguity that allowed both Pollock’s drips and Lichtenstein’s dots to be read as symbols of freedom and inclusiveness — while coincidentally looking great over the couch and making a fantastic conversation starter — could easily enfranchise the positive initial reception of Saul’s softly rendered piles of material goods as harbingers of the American way. Things had to change.

Much has been made of Saul’s subsequent shift to more explicit content — recognizable celebrities, political figures, historical events and other artworks — and this development seems superficial compared to his work’s simultaneous but less-mentioned stylistic transformation from accumulations of Milton Avery–esque Post-it notes to obsessively modeled three-dimensional pointillist orgies of extruded puppet extremities. From the crude, collagelike elegance of Bathroom Sex Murder (1961) to the hydraulically choreographed oozings of Typical Saigon (1968),this queasy modulation from deceptively sloppy Brut formalism into kitschy faux-airbrush obsessiveness is at least as topical as any of the narrative political content.

Probably more so, given the narrowness of his target audience — the painting establishment for which the convoluted dimensionality and systematic modeling technique of Saul’s late cartoon illusionism were a deliberate affront to sacrosanct conventions of Modernist flatness. At the same time, Saul embraced a so-wrong pallet of acidic near-fluorescent primaries, ensuring the paintings’ formal aspects were armed with the same lurid impropriety as their subject matter. Even this aspect of the work — the joyous wallowing in taboo stereotypes of sex, violence and power — can be seen to be directed at Automatist Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism’s claims to embody uncensored communiqués from the unconscious. Squiggles? Drips? I got your uncensored communiqué right here, pal!

It worked on me. Although they never failed to make me laugh, I never cared much for Saul’s later works. That is, until I saw them in person at OCMA. Saul’s late style of dimensional stippling derives largely from pulp illustration, and, as such, translates effectively into magazine and catalog reproductions. What I didn’t understand viscerally until I saw the paintings in the flesh was the continuity in terms of subtlety and craft in paint handling, composition and color. What had been pushed to the surface of the picture plane in 1962 is still there, only now it doesn’t seem quite so proud of itself. And it’s not so sure its cleverness and beauty justify the inequities that it depicts — inequities that prop up any art object’s position as a bankable embodiment of virtue balanced at the pinnacle of civilization. You wouldn’t know it from the surface, but stuffed into these writhing coils of bitter sausage is this summer’s must-see West Coast painting show. To get at it, you just have to be able to deal with the outrage, the humor and the traffic on the 405.

PETER SAUL | Orange County Museum of Art | 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach | Through Sept. 21

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