‘Salle shows how the most up-to-the minute thing about contemporary life can often be its enthusiasm for the recent past’
Part of his celebrated Early Product series, David Salle’s Bigger Rack (1998) is a fragmentary accumulation in which images cavort and converge across a large canvas. Salle has divided Bigger Rack into two sections each predominantly devoted to a mid- century advertisement painstakingly rendered in glossy acrylic and oil paint. On the left-hand side, Salle has copied a bust of Basil Hayden, Sr., the titular grandfather of Old Grand-Dad Whiskey which has been manufactured in Kentucky since 1840; these figures were gifted to distributors and meant to be displayed. To the right, two women in matching dresses pose against a dandelion yellow background. The scene was lifted from a 1950s campaign for Post Grape-Nuts cereal. Joining these two disparate halves is a smiling mouth in black and white appearing to laugh at the discordant association. Superimposed over the whole of Bigger Rack are blue rectangles which reveal and obscure vaguely erotic scenes in miniature. By varying their opacity, Salle has painted rectangles that look like silkscreened images, a clever twist that winks at the viewer: Bigger Rack knows it is a painting pretending to be otherwise.
Part of New York’s influential Pictures Generation, Salle mines mass media and art history. His Early Product paintings – as suggested by the title – take consumption as their subject. Accordingly, these paintings have been repeatedly likened to James Rosenquist’s Pop pastiches, from which they have often directly appropriated, but they also make reference to René Magritte’s narrative imaginary filtered through the slick surfaces of trompe-l’oeil. Indeed, Magritte’s work in advertising informed his surreal poetics which has in turn offered Salle a visual language rife with combustion, ‘repressed emotion and chimeric eroticism’ (L. Liebmann, David Salle, New York 1994, 58). By quoting the whole of art history, time itself has become Salle’s subject: every image and icon in his pastiche paintings seems revelatory despite having already lived a life elsewhere. As critic Janet Malcolm writes, ‘For all their borrowings, [Salle’s paintings] seem unprecedented, like a new drug or a new crime. They are rootless, fatherless and motherless’ (J. Malcolm, ‘Forty-One False Starts’, The New Yorker, 11 July 1994).
Salle’s paintings clash loudly but symphonically, a swell of images whose meanings double and negate one another. These sonic descriptors are further underscored through his inclusion of teal sheet music, an abbreviated snippet of a punchy allegro melody stamped across Bigger Rack. Salle’s paintings, as such, seem wholly dimensional, animated by a cinematic sensation that critic Sanford Schwartz describes as the ‘gentle diaphanous effects … of different images simultaneously drifting back into and rising up from other images’ (S. Schwartz, ‘The Art World: David Salle’, The New Yorker, 30 April 1984, p. 107). These compositions are never fixed and demand active involvement by the viewer who must sift through a rhythm of incongruous and humorous juxtapositions; for Salle, meaning is always in flux. Whether Bigger Rack conforms to a single understanding is beside the point. Rather, it stages formal and intellectual oppositions, a viewing experience that exists both in the past and entirely in this moment, a collection of temporalities, brash, illogical and vibrant.