‘The tapestry paintings … were a culmination. They have an energy, an invention, a kind of gorgeousness, and an atmosphere of success, of having pulled something off against heavy odds, that set them apart from Salle’s other works’
A vast and multi-layered composition of dizzyingly diverse imagery, Mingus in Mexico (1990) is an outstanding work from David Salle’s pivotal series of Tapestry Paintings. The work was included in the major 1999 retrospective David Salle: 20 Years of Painting at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, which later travelled to the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna, and the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Castello di Rivoli, Turin. So called because their pictorial backdrops are derived from 16th and 17th century tapestries – or rather from modern copies, themselves made by an anonymous Russian tapestry-maker whose work Salle saw printed in a magazine – these monumental paintings are among Salle’s greatest achievements, marking a new maturity in his practice. At the vanguard of Appropriation Art and Neo-Expressionism in New York, when Cindy Sherman was clothing herself in filmic cliché and Renaissance costume, Jeff Koons was ransacking high and low culture and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s image-poetry took the world by storm, Salle was a crucial figure in the 1980s art scene. In Mingus in Mexico, his maelstrom of juxtaposed visuals includes outlined chairs, tables, lamps and African sculpture, overlaying a scene of bacchanal or battle. The background teems with togas, horses, Renaissance faces, muscular bodies and melodrama. The light fittings drip with flat yellow paint. A bold orange speech-bubble hovers centre stage, but is totally empty, thwarting any hope of narrative explication. There are two smaller monochrome canvases inset within the work: the left-hand panel – similar to the shots that were the basis for Salle’s 1992 series of Ghost Paintings – is a screenprint of a photograph taken by Salle of a model posing beneath a bedsheet. The larger right-hand panel is a chiaroscuro painting, also based on a photo taken by the artist, of a woman in antiquated dress drinking, intently, from a glass. As dissonant and disorienting as Salle’s superimposed images are, the overall painting is held together by an uncanny compositional instinct. Meaning seems to hover somewhere, just out of reach, in the organisation of this riotous tableau. The work’s title refers to the jazz musician Charles Mingus, who died in Mexico in 1979; Joni Mitchell herself made a painting called Mingus Down in Mexico for the cover of their collaborative album released the same year. Salle was using her former studio in Santa Monica when he painted this picture. Mingus’s music married European-influenced technical sophistication with wild, improvisatory intensity and stylistic eclecticism. This idea of music is an apt analogy for the vertiginous thrill of Salle’s painting, which he has described as performative, unplanned, and allowing no room for error.
In her celebrated 1994 profile of Salle, Janet Malcolm singled out the image in Mingus in Mexico’s inset right-hand canvas as one of particular power. ‘In several of David Salle’s paintings,’ she wrote, ‘a mysterious dark-haired woman appears, raising a half-filled glass to her lips. Her eyes are closed, and she holds the glass in both hands with such gravity and absorption that one can only think she is taking poison or drinking a love potion. She is rendered in stark black-and-white and wears a period costume – a dress with a sort of Renaissance aspect. The woman disturbs and excites us, the way people in dreams do whom we know we know but can never quite identify’ (J. Malcolm, ‘Forty-One False Starts’, New Yorker, 11 July 1994). This sense of half-recognition, of burgeoning or submerged significance, is vital to Salle’s work. We might learn of the source of his tapestry backdrop, or hear that the lamps are probably drawn from a book of mid-century lighting design given to Salle by the architect Philip Johnson, but this doesn’t help to explain the painting’s effect on us. Its quality lies in its epic and eclectic pictorial orchestration, in a totality of imagistic force that operates somewhere between meaning and its absence. As Arjen Mulder has put it, ‘The fact that the material “arranges itself” gives Salle’s paintings that impersonal, unnameable, precisely right quality, by which the attribution of meaning (having come about through their painterly reproduction) is consistently neutralised. That which was meaningless becomes meaningful; that which was full of meaning becomes free of sense: such painting hovers above these two fathomless depths’ (A. Mulder, ‘Images That Come from Outside: The Experiential Paintings of David Salle’, in David Salle: 20 Years of Painting, exh. cat. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 1999, p. 26).
While Salle’s combinatory technique might seem to share ideas with such Pop image-collisions as the Combines and Silkscreen Paintings of Robert Rauschenberg, his imagery is never collaged or unmodified. Filtered instead through his own brushwork (or photography, or both), it takes on a distinctive air of simultaneous detachment and personal involvement, as well as a unique relationship to the grand history of painting. Standing apart from most Pop artists or Appropriationists, Salle insists that his work ‘has absolutely nothing to do with popular culture … there are very few real references in the work; and the references are not to popular culture or to art, but perhaps to art-like things. I think there’s confusion between an image that comes from somewhere and a reference. I don’t think of things as references unless they really refer to something else’ (D. Salle, quoted in R. Pincus-Witten, ‘David Salle: Things as Reference’, Flash Art No. 123, 1985). Rather than diagnosing and dissecting contemporary life, Salle explores images’ fundamental function: rather than confronting art history, he transcends it. Unmoored from structures of decodable reference and brought to the brink of meaninglessness, a chill of melancholy irony may fall over the work; the blank speech-bubble of Mingus in Mexico might bespeak a kind of mute bewilderment. Yet Salle’s composition triumphs. The work’s jostling registers of domestic design, mannerist fantasy and furtive sensuality ignite one another. This is no reductive, flattened art, but an opening up of each image’s potentiality. With its polyvocal richness and endless ambiguity, Mingus in Mexico is a compound, flowering conglomerate of communication. ‘What you do in life is to constantly find equivalents for feelings’, Salle says. ‘We are constantly finding and using expressions, jokes, puns, images, innuendoes, insults, gestures, music, tone, timbre, touch, rhythm, inflection, frames within frames, halls of mirrors, sweet and rough things, etc. All of it. This is what I apply to the work. It’s not programmatic at all. The way to know what to do in a painting is the same as to know what to say to someone on the telephone’ (D. Salle, quoted in F. Tuten, ‘At the Edges: An Interview’, in David Salle: 20 Years of Painting, exh. cat. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 1999, p. 19).