‘I feel that the only thing that really matters in art and in life is to go against the tidal wave of literalism and literal-mindedness – to insist on and live the life of the imagination. A painting has to be the experience, instead of pointing to it. I want to have and to give access to feeling’
A rich painterly chorus of overlaid, inset, transformed and translated imagery, Dean Martin in ‘Some Came Running’ (1990-1991) is an exhilarating work from David Salle’s celebrated series of Tapestry Paintings. These monumental works, which teem with the visual juxtapositions that are the hallmark of Salle’s postmodern approach, are so called because their pictorial backdrops are derived from Renaissance tapestries – or rather from modern copies, themselves made by an anonymous Russian weaver whose work Salle saw printed in a magazine. The present work’s tapestry background shows women and men in feathered caps drinking and playing backgammon; it has been transposed to grisaille, and its Cyrillic caption is visible to the lower right corner. Atop this festive medieval scene, Salle has applied dripping smears of peach-coloured paint, ghostly outlines of chairs and tables in khaki and pink, colourful fragments of Modernist and tribal sculpture, and a cartoonish, Pinocchio-esque face that emerges from a sequence of discs and cylinders. There are three smaller canvas panels set within the work. To the left is a chiaroscuro painting, based on a photo taken by Salle, of a woman in antiquated dress drinking from a glass. At the lower centre is a fiery-coloured painting based on a 1935 photograph by Hans Bellmer of one of his Poupée sculptures – Surrealist assemblages made from the body parts of female dolls. To the right, made from a negative exposed directly onto photosensitised linen, is a photograph from a series that Salle shot in the studio with his longtime model Beverly Eaby, who posed behind a bedsheet to create the pictures that were the basis for his 1992 Ghost series. In this chaotic symphony of image, which reflects a plunge into art-history that Salle describes as ‘a tremendous explosion of information and knowledge’ (D. Salle quoted in J. Malcolm, ‘Forty-One False Starts’, New Yorker, 11 July 1994), meaning seems to hover tantalisingly out of reach.
Malcolm describes the ‘mysterious dark-haired woman’, who recurs in a number of Salle’s paintings, as a figure who both ‘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). It is this very sense of half-recognition, of burgeoning or submerged significance, which is so vital to Salle’s work. There are myriad layers of representation in Dean Martin in ‘Some Came Running’ which add to its distinctive and disorientating quality. An antique tapestry becomes a modern copy, then a printed photo, then a painting. A Surrealist sculpture is photographed in monochrome in the 1930s, then translated into paint and plunged into colour six decades later. A contemporary act of performance in Salle’s studio is photographed and then painted, or transposed straight to linen. Salle was a central figure in the explosive 1980s New York scene where both Neo-Expressionist painting and Appropriation Art reigned supreme, but his mastery of paint has often meant that his use of photography within his works – not just found photographs, but also pictures directed and taken in the studio specifically to paint from – has been frequently overlooked. Alongside his raiding of art history and contemporary culture, Salle is actively involved in constructing and capturing the imagery that goes into his compositions.
The interplay between the myriad elements in a Salle painting is elusive, and seems sometimes purely visual. In Dean Martin in ‘Some Came Running’, a chromatic rhyme between the Bellmer sculpture and the tribal mask illuminates no obvious link. The folded fabric in the inset Ghost photograph echoes the voluminous clothes of the tapestry figures, but any critical implication remains obscure. The work’s title, which refers to a mid-century Frank Sinatra movie adapted from a novel, hints distantly at a further transformative layer of drama, roleplay and cinematic lensing. But how are we to decode the painting’s content? Salle offers no answers. The quality of his work lies not in a clear narrative but in its epic and eclectic pictorial orchestration, in a totality of colliding imagistic force that operates somewhere between meaning and its mysterious 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).