This show of new work by Peter Saul followed on the heels of the well-received touring museum retrospective organized by the Orange County Museum of Art, where it debuted last year. The six large canvasses and the group of works on paper in the more recent show proved the San Francisco-born Chicago Imagist veteran to be in fine acerbic form. Saul uses his twisted cartoon imagery to tackle, or rather, attack, a host of topics ranging from Cold War politics (Stalin + Mao, 2009) and gratuitous sex (Viva la Difference, 2008) to Joe the Plumber (Plumber Meets Francis Bacon, 2008) and Bernie Madoff (testicles of a Billionair, 2009), part of a series of raunchy portrayals of the Ponzi schemer as a self-emasculating oaf.
Swipes at art-world values appear in a number of works, including Better than de Kooning (2008), a wildly exaggerated pastiche of the maestro's venerated "Woman" series from the 1950s, which Saul has reinterpreted in his own work periodically since the 1970s. The 7-by-6-foot canvas's airbrushed-looking surface of finely dappled brushwork in garish hues, is a send-up of Ab Ex's revered gestures and impastos. Further skewing de Kooning's iconic image, Saul adds to the swirling morass of breasts, teeth and hair a large and grotesque penis.
Elsewhere, he is more deferential to artist-predecessors. Over the years, Saul has acknowledged the influence of Paul Cadmus and Max Beckmann, and he pays homage to the latter in Beckmann's The Night (2009). This nightmarish image features an armed figure with a knife and pistol on the right attacking a naked woman to the left. In the lower left corner, a head in the style and likeness of a Beckmann self-portrait licks the foot of a screaming man in his underwear hanging from a noose. Updating the Expressionist idiom of Beckmann's The Night (1918-19), Saul, in this ghastly scene, brings it to a whole new level of brutality and violence.
Saul's ongoing struggle to bore ever more deeply into his own creative psyche is evident in two of the show's most striking works: the obvious but hilarious My Lousy Brain (2008), showing a blocky figure with knife in hand, who examines the brain he has just carved out of his own skull; and a more playful composition and the exhibition's tour de force, Bad Restaurant (2008). Here, four well-defined self-portrait heads top diminutive bodies. The figures, undulating above a dining room table, traverse a quasi-surrealist space. On the far right, a figure squeezes a red fish; another, holding a giant pickle, slogs through a big bowl of spaghetti. On the left a hot-dog figure with Saul's head glares pop-eyed at an olive hovering above an overfull martini glass, the artist's reward, perhaps at the end of a long and productive day in the studio.
527 West 29th Street, Chelsea
Through May 23
The irrepressible Peter Saul, now 74, continues his cheerfully acerbic, riotously goofy ways. The paintings in this entertaining show are made in Mr. Saul's signature Pop-Surrealist cartoon style. With their rubbery, pneumatic forms neatly rendered with a spongy, semi-pointillist touch in glowing colors, they are like much-enlarged stills from a twisted animated film.
There are three different types of pictures: weirdly personal, violently political and insouciantly art historical. In "Viva la Difference," a grinning bon vivant in pajamas with a martini in one hand wraps his arm around an amorphous blob that sprouts multiple breasts and is perforated by numerous vaginal orifices. (Talk about your male gaze!)
On the political front, there's "Stalin & Mao," in which the dictators are represented as giants punching the heads off enemy soldiers. As for art history, "Better Than de Kooning," a translation of de Kooning's "Woman" paintings from the 1950s into a picture of bulging, writhing, tubular forms, is visually captivating and amusingly Oedipal.
"Beckmann's the Night" is based on a 1919 painting by Max Beckmann. In Mr. Saul's version, a green maniac armed with a knife and a pistol attacks a naked blonde tied by her wrists to an overhead beam, while Beckmann himself licks the swollen foot of a half-naked man who hangs by the neck. A careening bullet rips through the flesh of the strung-up victims. Mr. Saul's picture reminds us that few sights are more gripping to behold than scenes of horrific carnage.
Saul's recent paintings continue to electrify peaks and pits of narcissism—grandiosity and self-loathing, in arrogant and abject fantasies of murder, rape, and all-around depravity—with sweetening effects of effulgent color (purple-shaded purples, green-shaded greens, and so on) and pillowy texture. Why is it interesting to behold Stalin and Mao beheading legions of Nazis and Chinese Nationalists, respectively? Well, they do it against a field of sumptuous blue. Like a kid seeking the aid of his older brother in a fight, Saul dials up Willem de Kooning, with a quite wonderfully boop-boop-a-dooped "Woman." Through May 23. (Nolan, 527 W. 29th St. 212-925-6190.)
Peter Saul, who turns 74 on Saturday, 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.
The influence of Mr. Saul's paintings, with their cartoony figures, lurid-lush colors, splatter-film expressionism and contrarian take on topical subjects, pervades recent art. It has contributed mightily to major careers, like those of Carroll Dunham and Elizabeth Murray. And it has paved the way for the neo-Surrealist noodlings of countless student painters spilling out of art schools and straight into the arms of a ravenous market.
Yet his own welcome by the market has been, until fairly recently, less than avid. His reception by museums has been marked by indifference, if not avoidance. That the retrospective of his work at the Orange County Museum of Art here in Southern California is not scheduled to go to New York City, where Mr. Saul now lives, says much.
True, the Museum of Modern Art, with its white-box politeness, is not a natural home for his visual perversities. Nor is the Metropolitan Museum, despite its vaunted embrace of "challenging" new art. But why hasn't the Whitney, which owns one of Mr. Saul's grandly scathing Vietnam War paintings, stepped up to the plate? And where is the new New Museum? Totally lost to painted prettiness these days? (The Saul show of 50 works is organized by a former New Museum curator, Dan Cameron.)
Mr. 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."
He succeeds. What museum would be the right one for a painting of a knife-wielding O. J. Simpson strapped down for execution as a buxom blond angel points to a blood-stained glove and intones, "This is why you have to die"? Or for a picture of Christopher Columbus slaughtering New World natives who themselves hold platters of chopped human limbs in their arms?
Peter Saul is some kind of national treasure. Just what kind of national treasure is hard to say.
Perhaps that's because his best paintings refuse to be ingratiating, while the tides of popular culture that wash over us like a daily tsunami are all about gaining our favor. He's a Pop artist, but he doesn't play by the usual rules.
Saul wields his brush in ways certainly meant to get a viewer to look at his pictures long and hard, using complex color and refined form in sophisticated, eye-grabbing ways. But the contemptible, despicable and even humiliating are what you're likely to encounter in his imagery. The clanging dissonance between hot form and chilling content can be oddly riveting.
There is something odd and persistent about Peter Saul's mixture of social
commentary, bad-boy imagery, and his ever-evolving cartoon style. While his '60s
paintings seemed clearly anti-Vietnam War, Saul was never a hero of the liberal
left, unlike Leon Golub, probably because his work had no clear moral message.
Never politically correct, Saul's paintings continue to be tinged with imagery that
could potentially be read as both racist and misogynous, playing with a
self-described attraction for pictures with problems. Recently, younger artists
seeking a model for addressing the dilemmas of contemporary life and politics
have generated a renewed interest in him. In the '60s, Saul's cartoon style led
many to assume he was associated with the Chicago group of artists known as the
Hairy Who. Actually, he's originally from California, and was living in Europe when
Allan Frumkin discovered him. He returned to the U.S. and lived in California
before teaching at the University of Texas. After living in upstate New York for the
last five years, Saul decided he was finally ready to be closer to the art world and
recently moved to New York City's Upper East Side. The day after he and his wife moved, we met over coffee at his kitchen table.