‘Sometimes I see myself, dopey as it sounds, as a kind of synthesiser. Maybe that’s not too bad – I just read somewhere that Proust didn’t know what genre he was writing in’
‘Memory, eroticism, illustration, allegory, those are things which I think float in and out of time, you know, that have always been around, and will probably always be around’
Originally held in the Saatchi Collection, A Couple of Centuries (1982) is a breakthrough work by David Salle. Alive with the postmodern, neo-Expressionist energy that launched him to stardom in 1980s New York, the painting presents a large-scale diptych of vibrant and disjunctive impact. Fixing her hair in the red left-hand panel is a female nude, painted with monochrome, chiaroscuro clarity. She is joined by a small grid of warped Mondrian-esque abstraction, and a ghostly chorus of long-necked, expressively painted figures in diaphanous pale blue. To the right, a yellow panel employs cartoonish dark blue line to depict two semi-clothed dancers in an antiquated music or dining hall, with a seated pianist in black tie; superimposed above this intriguing vignette, which is based on a painting by the popular 1930s artist Reginald Marsh, are a red motorcycle and a crouching male nude. The work’s offhand title captures Salle’s bravura attitude to collisions of visual history. A zeitgeist figure in contemporary art’s triumphant return to painting in the 1980s, he is famed for a century-hopping postmodern approach which mingles and juxtaposes a variety of imagery – art-historical quotation, advertising appropriation, abstract intrusions, consumer objects, and nude figures – in vivid, cacophonous tableaux. Salle’s layering method recalls the ‘transparencies’ of Francis Picabia and the hallucinogenic experiments of Sigmar Polke as much as it anticipates the kaleidoscopic, fragmented pictorial worlds of ‘post-Internet’ art production today.
Salle often employs diptychs, triptychs and inset canvas panels in what Lisa Liebman has called his ‘quest for resonant incongruity’ (L. Liebman, ‘A Prairie Picaresque,’ in David Salle, New York 1994, p. 19). In A Couple of Centuries, the diptych format seems to propose a pairing or direct contrast between its two sections, but any such links remain tantalisingly open and unresolved. The yellow panel’s motorbike speaks of Americana, machismo, teenage rebellion; its sketched dancehall scene has an air of Golden Age decadence. The spectral characters and abstract grid in the red panel conjure both Die Brücke and De Stijl, while the nude has a distinctly photorealist feel. Indeed, a frequently overlooked element of Salle’s paintings is that their nudes are less often derived from found imagery than from carefully posed photographs of live models taken in the artist’s studio. This choreographed level of mediation literally frames the nude through a contemporary lens; painted and placed in the disorienting context of A Couple of Centuries, the image’s crisp modernity highlights and destabilises the notion of the nude as a timeless arthistorical subject. The inclusion of the male figure to the right perhaps hints at a game with the masculine gaze. How are we to decode the eclectic idioms of style and eroticism that charge across these canvases? Salle stages a drama of divergence, dissonance and dislocation, offering no answers but a monumental and captivating spectacle. ‘Some images,’ he has said, ‘reveal something deep about how the world works; it seems as though they can access how consciousness is structured. Paintings exist in the present tense, yet somehow, because of how it’s structured, it can move backwards through time as well … That present tense-ness is the deepest pleasure’ (D. Salle, quoted in. J. Bradley, ‘David Salle,’ Interview Magazine, 4 May 2015).