With its riotous chorus of imagery, Picture Builder is a monumental work from one of David Salle’s most important series: the Early Product Paintings. Spanning nearly three metres in width, it offers a rich repository of reproduced pictorial fragments, spliced from their original contexts and re-orchestrated in bold contrapuntal layers. Initiated in 1993, Salle’s Early Product Paintings marked a new degree of sophistication in his practice, which since the 1970s had combined appropriation with neo-expressionist painterly tendencies. Synthesising a number of his most pertinent themes – advertising, interior design and erotica – these works riffed on the concerns of American Pop Art, looking back to the era when ‘products’ were first splashed across magazines and television screens. In the present painting, flashes of seductive imagery combine with an inverted logo for ‘Texaco’, a half-hidden crowd of people – one of whom carries a doctor’s bag – and an image of a domestic fireplace. To this, Salle adds a number of surreal motifs that recur throughout his practice: a crumpled handkerchief, blueberries, a hat, and the draped sheet that first appeared in his Ghost Paintings of the previous year. Whilst his titles are frequently oblique, Picture Builder seems to allude to his own fascination with the poetics of composition. Indeed, as Sanford Schwartz has written, Salle is best understood not as a painter, but rather as ‘the inventor of a great picture-making device’ (S. Schwartz, ‘David Salle’, The New Yorker, 30 April 1984, p. 108).
Frequently associated with New York’s so-called ‘Pictures Generation’, Salle’s work is distinguished by its symphonic, near-cinematic collisions of imagery; indeed, he would go on to direct his first film the year after the present work. Whilst his early paintings recalled the fluid, hallucinatory surfaces of Francis Picabia and Sigmar Polke, by the 1990s his compositions had taken on a cool, crisp rigor that has since invited comparison with artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist. Diego Cortez, meanwhile, identifies a Surrealist quality to the Early Product Paintings: the American advertising industry, he claims, was itself an extension of Dada principles, with its relentless blasts of unrelated objects and ideas. ‘What seemed most visible to [Salle] in advertising was the grammar of the images, the grammar of the gestures’, he writes. ‘He attempted then, within his paintings, to take that grammar and shatter it, as an atom smasher’ (D. Cortez, David Salle: Early Product Paintings, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 1994, p. 11). In Picture Builder, Salle fuses Pop-style imagery with his own recurring signifiers, lending the composition a dreamlike tenor reminiscent of René Magritte or Giorgio de Chirico. Though styled like an advertising billboard, the work takes on the quality of a nostalgic still-life, recasting the ‘early product’ era as a neo-classical reverie. ‘These are history paintings, he seems to be saying, to succeed the classic masterworks of pop’, suggests Lisa Liebmann. ‘…With their billboard archaeologies and cap-and-gown motifs, they seem actually to be announcing some sort of grand departure or graduation or apotheosis. They are pictorial valedictories, optimistically addressed to posterity’ (L. Liebmann, David Salle, New York 1994, pp. 68 & 207).