Imagine a painter who shoots himself in the foot and then puts his foot in his mouth. That’s how I’d sum up Peter Saul. His paintings are always the opposite of whatever is considered to be right. And they continue to earn him a reputation as one of the most brutally honest storytellers in postwar, comic-influenced American painting.
I met Saul after he generously drove a half hour to pick me up at the Rhinecliff train station, about two hours north of New York City, on the banks of the Hudson River. In minutes I was riding shotgun with a man I thought I knew well—from years of looking at his paintings—but who was, in fact, a total stranger. Based on the attitude of his paintings, I was anticipating a grumpy 81-year-old hell-raiser ready to give everyone a piece of his mind. But after only a few minutes in the car, I realized I’d have to throw this caricature away. Why? Because he was nice!
While we gently traversed the hilly landscape in a modest Subaru, I started telling a story about a friend of mine, a painter, who used to wear his Saul Influence on his sleeve.
“I’m flattered,” Saul replied, without hesitation.
“He rarely left his studio, even to eat. There was a confessional quality to his paintings. They could be raunchy and embarrassing. They reveled in their tackiness and bad taste.”
“I’m flattered,” Saul repeated, politely.
“But there’s more to the story. My friend wasn’t getting anywhere in his career. So, he started seeing a shrink.”
Saul nodded, his eyes glued to the road and his ears on me.
“And after only a few sessions, he went and cleaned out his studio and threw all of his weirdo, perverted, psycho-killer paintings into the nearest dumpster.”
Saul made a right turn into his gravelly driveway, and we drove up to an old clapboard farmhouse. He turned off the car and sat motionless in his seat. “So, then what happened?”
“Then he started making these handsome, palatable abstractions without any real content. They had been scrubbed clean of the imaginative stuff.”
“And then what happened?” Saul asked, staring straight ahead at the windshield.
“Then his career took off! Now there’s, like, a two-year waiting list for one of his paintings.”
We got out of the car and headed to the house. “You must love being out here in the boonies,” I commented, already feeling at ease. “That’s my dream.”
Again, Saul’s answer completely threw me for a loop. He expressed how happy he was to live so close to New York City. And how pleasant the commute was whenever he went into the city to attend one of his colleagues’ openings and dinner parties.
Suddenly I felt very immature. Why was I so “anti” art world? Why did I have this chip on my shoulder? And why did I expect Saul to have this same chip on his shoulder? “Whenever I set foot in an art gallery I begin to sweat profusely,” I said, searching for comic relief. Saul laughed and, putting me at ease, offered that he too is one to break out in a sweat at an art opening.
But I didn’t buy it! Saul’s nice-guy routine had to be a ruse. I couldn’t accept that the man whose paintings I’d been studying in books since my years in art school was anything other than a Unabomber.
The more we spoke the more I realized Saul was in no way a loner. He told me that he had taught for many years at the University of Texas in Austin. “You must have hated teaching,” I said. But Saul explained that he enjoyed his years teaching in Texas, hard as it was to gauge if his students had ever seen his paintings. He added, cheerfully, that he could think of few activities more relaxing than a drawn-out faculty meeting. Had he ever been as nasty and off-putting as his art?
I was then led on a quick tour of the house, where I laid eyes on an anomaly hanging over the fireplace. It was a pastoral landscape by Saul from the 1990s, which he painted for his mother-in-law, who had since passed away. The painting stopped me in my tracks. It was somewhat conventional compositionally and yet entirely psychedelic (in a Charles Burchfield sort of way). I studied it more closely, admiring a row of shapely, almost rump-like bushes off in the distance and the cheap lawn furniture and bird feeder awkwardly placed in the foreground. Everything in the painting was dabbed with a repetitive soft brush. I felt the air compress around me, and a quietness grab me by the ears—my peripheral vision was long gone. A great work of art can have such an effect.
We walked back outside and entered Saul’s studio. We passed by a large kiln with some of his wife’s ceramic works in progress and some sort of mysterious metal cage (it appeared to be a muskrat trap) and proceeded up a set of stairs to an open room with four grand Sauls leaning up against the walls. These were two-thirds of what Saul was painting for his show in November at Mary Boone Gallery in Chelsea. “The next painting will be on that stretcher bar over yonder,” Saul said, pointing across the room. “It will be titled, ‘The Birth of Venus.’ ”
Saul was making a concerted effort to see that I was comfortable. He was preoccupied with finding me a good chair and setting up a small table where I could set down my tape recorder. He asked if the temperature was OK. He’d already fixed me up with a strong cup of freshly brewed coffee. I was all set and ready to dig into these wonderfully grotesque paintings.
I stared ahead at the visual insanity before me, as I replayed in my mind the dialogue we had just had in the kitchen, while we were waiting for the coffee to finish brewing. Saul had mentioned an article about kids getting high off powdered caffeine and dropping dead of heart attacks. “It’s a very lethal substance,” he said. “One teaspoon and your heart just locks up.” Somehow the morbid, cartoony quality of his story had some of the same qualities as a Peter Saul painting.
I took out my mobile phone and began taking snapshots of the paintings and of Saul at 81. As I framed him in my viewfinder, I realized he still had the disposition of a man in his 50s. He was lean, dressed in faded blue jeans and a T-shirt, and he had a full head of white hair. And there was plenty of bulk in his upper body. I asked him how he stayed so fit, and he replied that it was entirely through the active use of his imagination.
I see Peter Saul as a spleen, like the French poet Charles Baudelaire. A filter that somehow traps the debased and discarded and abject and takes a kind of sick, almost erotic pleasure in their diseased state. The world, as I see it, is beginning to seem more and more like a Peter Saul painting. I credit Saul for envisioning and articulating many of the excesses and corruptions of our society, long before the rest of us. I applaud him for having not only the imagination to hallucinate the toxic world that we all currently live in but also the guts to tell us about it.
Saul’s work is nothing if it isn’t about storytelling. He has a way of absorbing the world through his emotions, and then, with the fertility of his imagination and sense of humor, transforming these emotions into vibrant visual anecdotes, which aggressively deface his own pristine canvases like graffiti. In the large surreal canvas in front of us (which he referred to as an “Abstract Expressionist Cowboy”) there were numerous objects—horse hoofs and snouts—floating precariously on top of a swirl of fluorescent, hazmat-green sludge. I simply could not conceive of a Peter Saul who isn’t up all night surfing the web for shocking images to in turn appropriate and incorporate into his paintings. But Saul insisted that he rarely uses a computer to do anything and that his work comes directly from his imagination. And that his imagination gets stronger the more he uses it.
I began to study one of the other “history paintings” in the room. This one was of Napoleon on horseback crossing the Alps. It filled me with curiosity. “What is it that drives you? Rage?” I asked him.
“No, terror,” Saul quickly snapped back. “Anxiety! The anxiety of fitting in too much. The anxiety of not sticking out enough!”
By now he had led me down to his smaller drawing studio with flat files and he had pulled open a drawer that was overflowing with drawings of all kinds, many with familiar characters like Donald Duck in unfamiliar, somewhat compromising situations—though the very facile drawings could have all been rendered by a Disney animator. Perhaps Saul was not so much a “misfit of the Art World,” but more a “juvenile delinquent of Disneyland.”
I thought about Saul’s first well-known paintings from the early ’60s. How sloppy they were and crammed full of stuff. And how they were painted with a kind of slap-dash authority that had never before been seen. In a painting from 1963 called “Sex Boat,” everyday objects like a pack of Lucky Strikes litter a white countertop. There is a little thought bubble toward the top that reads, “Bad Skin,” written sideways and coming from a floating pimply redhead. Every shape looks slightly swollen or inflated. The painting seems to collect its own bloopers—like a record of its own inadequacy. A fail. A space that is filled with germs and bodily excrement that will soon have to be hosed down completely.
The Sauls from the early ’60s seem to have a dialogue with Cy Twombly’s work from that era. Like Twombly, Saul seems to be collecting blemishes—and skids, and scrapes, and smears. Both of their canvases from these years appear to gain density slowly through a series of isolated incidences, one after the next. Both are like composites, or blank stages to “act out” on. Both accumulate as they erase. Both depict or record a choreography of steps and missteps, stakes and mistakes. Both comprise moody, inchoate false starts. Saul confessed that he did, in fact, visit Twombly’s studio in Rome in 1962, when Saul was also living abroad, where he eyed a large unprimed canvas with a little scribble in pencil here and there. “I went to his house for lunch,” Saul remembered. “It was a wonderful old apartment in the middle of Rome.”
Around that time, Saul began to, in a sense, contrive his pictures outside the intuitive act of painting—to resolve the pictures in drawings before moving on to the canvas. “I began to be more focused on the subject,” he told me. “Like the decision to paint a man getting fried in an electric chair.”
“What influenced that decision?” I asked.
“I just thought it was exciting.”
I no longer think of Saul as a spleen. I no longer see him as a clogged toilet or any kind of a waste-management system. On the contrary, Saul, it seems to me now, has always been on the offensive, trying to conjure images that will ruffle our feathers and entertain. His ultimate goal is to contaminate! His output has been toxic from the get-go to the point of being disconcerting, and while he succeeded in outing himself in his paintings as a hundred-percent certifiable weirdo (which he is not), he also succeeded in scaring off many collectors, dealers, and museum curators, who have been slow to give him the kind of full-career retrospective he deserves. The only dealer to support him, through thick and thin, was the late Allan Frumkin, who would always purchase works straight out of the studio and send monthly checks, keeping Saul afloat for the entire stretch of his long career. And for many years there was a tiny cadre of collectors who bought Saul’s work from Frumkin, to keep the whole endeavor going.
As I spoke to Saul I was moved by many of the stories of his artistic coming of age. He described how his only way of knowing anything about cultural advances came from periodicals such as Life and Time magazines, where there would be the occasional article on an artist or a trend, the most memorable of which was a feature on Jackson Pollock, photographed by Hans Namuth. “I was a serious artist before Jackson Pollock was in Life,” said Saul, causing my head to spin. “I was only 13 in 1949.”
I wanted to cut Saul off and argue about how great Pollock was and ask him how he could possibly have seen himself as a mature painter at 13. But I figured I’d better shut up. “It never occurred to me that Pollock would be taken seriously,” he insisted. “There was a whole series of fads after World War II. Phone-booth stuffing and Hula Hoops. And dripping paint off a stick, instead of using a brush, was just one more of these fads. It really and truly looked like a linoleum pattern to me. Like the kind with a splatter motif being used for kitchen floors.”
But during the formative years of Saul’s painting and drawing, Life did spotlight a number of other artists such as Paul Cadmus, Larry Rivers, and especially Francis Bacon, who met with Saul’s approval. “The artists I paid attention to in Life were artists of a gloomy type,” he explained. “Their art looked like they had something to worry about.” Then he began to rave about a double-page spread of Francis Bacon’s screaming pope in Time. His mother bought him a paint box, which he brought along the following year when he was sent away to a boarding school in Canada he describes as abusive. Over the next six years, he began to use art as a means to escape the harsh reality of his life.
“To live through this experience,” said Saul, “which was not too pleasant, I painted. There was one afternoon a week for so-called hobbies. I got a tough start in life. My nerves were shot. And I turned to smoking cigarettes. We all did. And painting. It was my way of controlling a tiny portion of my life. Plus, I was suffering from anti-Semitism. Though I’m not Jewish, as far as I know. I was accused of being Jewish. It is the only time in my whole life that this ever happened. The first day I was there, I went into this room to have some cookies and tea with this lady who was welcoming the new kids, and she slapped at my hand and said ‘You little kike.’ I didn’t know what that meant. So, I asked my friend later. And my friend said it means ‘You’re Jewish!’ I said, ‘I’m not Jewish!’ And they said, ‘You have to be a Jewish, kid, you wouldn’t have a name like Saul if you weren’t Jewish! Anyway if you are Jewish it’s bad news, bad blood. It means that you won’t be loyal to the team. It means you’ll have a lot of brains and try to make money.’ I said, ‘I’m not trying to make money!’ Six months later I asked my father, ‘Are we Jewish?’ and he said, ‘Of course we’re not Jewish.’ So, I just let it go. But it influenced me far more than it should have.”
I swiveled in my chair and zeroed in on Saul’s “Raft of the Medusa” (a new version of the “Raft” not to be confused with his similar 1990–92 painting). In this topsy-turvy, more-or-less nauseating picture, we discover an exotic crew that includes a one-eyed man with three teeth and a gold earring; a bald man with porky jowls; a bearded man waving a tiny French flag with an Afro beard and a ratty hat tipped over his eyes; and another man with his hands tied, who disappears into the mouth of a shark—his lips are stretched wide open (dentist style), and his few existing yellow molars are on display along with an infected-looking tonsil which protrudes outward like a sickly sex organ. Still another man, whose brain appears to be swelling from within, literally has two tongues that resemble a double-barrel shotgun. And there’s still another sailor. This one is dead, his purplish, naked body being sliced up like deli meat, while his legs are engulfed by a bright red squid that seems to have been washed aboard the raft.
Is this painting anything like Géricault’s raft painted in 1819? Does it line up with the story of a shipwreck that left 150 French naval officers adrift on a raft for thirteen days where they had to resort to cannibalism for survival?
Before I met Saul, I would have seen a painting like this as a cautionary, moralistic, or allegorical tale. But now I’d be more inclined to see it for what is: an entertaining story for a society that loves to be entertained and is finally ready to stomach Peter Saul, the archetype of the “Rebel Jew” who isn’t Jewish.
Late in my discussion with Saul, a very interesting subject came up regarding Dada. Not too long after his experience of anti-Semitism at boarding school, he decided to get some kids together and form an “art club.” One of his friends came across an obscure pamphlet about something called Dada, which in those days was totally foreign to most people, even in the art world. Dada’s anarchistic approach made a strong impression on Saul. What he gleaned from the small pamphlet was fairly basic. “You do everything wrong,” Saul said, with a big grin, “and that’s Dada.”
“Like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa?” I asked with increasing enthusiasm.
“I never even knew what Dada looked like,” the painter replied. “It was based purely on what I read. And so I decided to just ‘live’ Dada at the school.”
“How did you live Dada?” I asked, with growing curiosity.
“Well, you know, we were forced to play on teams, and I started to drop the football as much as possible. I would sabotage things.”
He still does.
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