There are places in New York where the city’s anarchic,
unaccommodating spirit, its fundamental, irrepressible aimlessness and
heedlessness have found especially firm footholds. Certain transfers
between subway lines, passageways of almost transcendent sordidness;
certain sites of torn-down buildings where parking lots have silently
sprung up like fungi; certain intersections created by illogical
confluences of streets—these express with particular force
the city’s penchant for the provisional and its resistance to
permanence, order, closure. To get to the painter David Salle’s
studio, walking west on White Street, you have to traverse one of these
disquieting intersections—that of White and Church Streets and
an interloping Sixth Avenue—which has created an unpleasantly
wide expanse of street to cross, interrupted by a wedge-shaped island
on which a commercial plant nursery has taken up forlorn and edgy
residence, surrounding itself with a high wire fence and keeping
truculently irregular hours. Other businesses that have arisen around
the intersection—the seamy Baby Doll Lounge, with its sign offering
GO-GO GIRLS; the elegant Ristorante Arquà; the nameless grocery and
Lotto center; the dour Kinney parking lot—have a similar atmosphere
of insularity and transience. Nothing connects with anything else, and
everything looks as if it might disappear overnight. The corner feels
like a no man’s land and—if one happens to be thinking about
David Salle—looks like one of his paintings.Salle’s studio,
on the second floor of a five-story loft building, is a long room lit
with bright, cold overhead light. It is not a beautiful studio. Like
the streets outside, it gives no quarter to the visitor in search of
the picturesque. It doesn’t even have a chair for the visitor
to sit in, unless you count a backless, half-broken metal swivel chair
Salle will offer with a murmur of inattentive apology. Upstairs, in his
living quarters, it is another story. But down here everything has to
do with work and with being alone.A disorderly profusion of printed
pictorial matter covers the surfaces of tables in the middle of the
room: art books, art journals, catalogs, brochures mingle with loose
illustrations, photographs, odd pictures ripped from magazines. Scanning
these complicated surfaces, the visitor feels something of the sense
of rebuff he feels when looking at Salle’s paintings, a sense
that this is all somehow none of one’s business. Here lie the
sources of Salle’s postmodern art of “borrowed” or
“quoted” images—the reproductions of famous old and
modern paintings, the advertisements, the comics, the photographs of
nude or half-undressed women, the fabric and furniture designs that
he copies and puts into his paintings—but one’s impulse,
as when coming into a room of Salle’s paintings, is to politely
look away. Salle’s hermeticism, the private, almost secretive
nature of his interests and tastes and intentions, is a signature
of his work. Glancing at the papers he has made no effort to conceal
gives one the odd feeling of having broken into a locked desk drawer.On
the walls of the studio are five or six canvases, on which Salle works
simultaneously. In the winter of 1992, when I began visiting him in his
studio, he was completing a group of paintings for a show in Paris in
April. The paintings had a dense, turgid character. Silk-screen excerpts
from Indian architectural ornaments, chair designs, and photographic
images of a woman wrapped in cloth were overlaid with drawings of some of
the forms in Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors,
Even, rendered in slashing, ungainly brushstrokes, together with images
of coils of rope, pieces of fruit, and eyes. Salle’s earlier work
had been marked by a kind of spaciousness, sometimes an emptiness, such
as surrealist works are prone to. But here everything was condensed,
impacted, mired. The paintings were like an ugly mood. Salle himself,
a slight, handsome man with shoulder-length hair, which he wears tied
back, like a matador, was feeling bloody-minded. He was going to be
forty the following September. He had broken up with his girlfriend, the
choreographer and dancer Karole Armitage. His moment was passing. Younger
painters were receiving attention. He was being passed over. But he was
also being attacked. He was not looking forward to the Paris show. He
hated Paris, with its “heavily subsidized aestheticism.”
He disliked his French dealer … 2In a 1991 interview with
the screenwriter Becky Johnston, during a discussion of what Johnston
impatiently called “this whole Neo-Expressionist Zeitgeist
Postmodernist What-ever-you-want-to-call-it Movement” and its habit
of “constantly looking backward and reworking or recontextualizing
art history,” the painter David Salle said, with disarming
frankness, “You mustn’t underestimate the extent to which all
this was a process of educating ourselves. Our generation was pathetically
educated, just pathetic beyond imagination. I was better educated than
many. Julian”—the painter Julian Schnabel—“was
totally uneducated. But I wasn’t much better, frankly. We had
to educate ourselves in a hundred different ways. Because if you had
been hanging around the Conceptual artists, all you learned was the
Frankfurt School. It was as if nothing existed before or after. So part
of it was the pledge of self-education—you know, going to Venice,
looking at great paintings, looking at great architecture, looking at
great furniture—and having very early the opportunity to kind of
buy stuff. That’s a form of self-education. It’s not just
about acquisition. It was a tremendous explosion of information and
knowledge.”To kind of buy stuff. What is the difference between
buying stuff and kind of buying it? Is “kind of buying”
buying with a bad conscience, buying with the ghost of the Frankfurt
School grimly looking over your shoulder and smiting its forehead
as it sees the money actually leave your hand? This ghost, or some
relative of it, has hung over all the artists who, like Salle, made an
enormous amount of money in the eighties, when they were still in their
twenties or barely in their thirties. In the common perception, there
is something unseemly about young people getting rich. Getting rich
is supposed to be the reward for hard work, preferably arriving when
you are too old to enjoy it. And the spectacle of young millionaires
who made their bundle not from business or crime but from avant-garde
art is particularly offensive. The avant-garde is supposed to be the
conscience of the culture, not its id.3All during my encounter with the
artist David Salle—he and I met for interviews in his studio, on
White Street, over a period of two years—I was acutely conscious
of his money. Even when I got to know him and like him, I couldn’t
dispel the disapproving, lefty, puritanical feeling that would somehow be
triggered each time we met, whether it was by the sight of the assistant
at a sort of hair-salon receptionist’s station outside the studio
door; or by the expensive furniture of a fifties corporate style in the
upstairs loft where he lives; or by the mineral water he would bring
out during our talks and pour into white paper cups, which promptly
lost their take-out-counter humbleness and assumed the hauteur of the
objects in the design collection of the Museum of Modern Art.Salle was
one of the fortunate art stars of the eighties—young men and women
plucked from semi-poverty and transformed into millionaires by genies