This Time with Feeling is an exhibition of new paintings by the American artist David Salle, which represents the culmination of his celebrated Tree of Life series. Populated with characters from Peter Arno’s mid-century illustrations for the New Yorker magazine, Salle’s vibrant new works set up an intriguing human drama as the backdrop for a reflection on painting and the history of art.
Across the large, multipartite canvases on view, brightly coloured trees seem to grow out of subterranean painterly worlds that evoke the visual language of Cubism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. These panels offer a distinct space for Salle to experiment with a more instinctive form of mark-making, which feeds the roots of the tree and animates the rest of the picture. ‘The art part’, as Salle calls it in a recent interview, ‘seemed to unlock some energies, some cultural forces that sparked in me a whole range of responses.’ In each one, he alternately pours, splashes and dabs paint in bright colours, sometimes overlaying anatomical sketches or Matissian felt cutouts in an experimental way that contrasts with the schematic narrative constructed in the upper sections. Invoking their predecessors found at the base of medieval and Renaissance altarpieces, Salle’s predellas represent the past, at once in a cultural, personal and art-historical sense.
In contrast to earlier Tree of Life works, the trees in This Time with Feeling are mostly bare, as though mirroring the series coming to a close. As a motif, they reverberate throughout the history of art, invoking the trees of the Garden of Eden, as depicted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1528, or the 19th-century drawings of Shaker artist Hannah Cohoon. Trees have also often been used in attempts to draw a direct lineage from French painting to American Modern art. All of these references coalesce in the new paintings by Salle, who identifies the tree with a form of collective experience, a lineage of which we are all a part. The tree also conditions the interactions of the characters on either side, held in place as they are by the branching structure.
Viewers are encouraged to identify with stylised black-and-white figures of men and women acting out a silent human comedy in the upper part of the paintings. These are drawn from mid-century New Yorker covers by Peter Arno, whom Salle admires for his ‘ability to sell a gesture or a situation with very few brushstrokes.’ The cartoons came to define New York society from the first year of the magazine’s publication in 1925 until Arno’s death in 1968. As F. Scott Fitzgerald put it at the time: ‘Perhaps Peter Arno and his collaborators said everything there was to say about the boom days in New York that couldn’t be said by a jazz band.’
Salle re-stages Arno’s characters in his paintings, removing any captions or dialogue to allow for ambiguity and misunderstandings to arise from the looks and gestures they exchange. Men, sometimes hatted in the style of the day, and society ladies in form-enhancing dresses seem to embody the dynamic between men and women that has underlaid Western society since the myth of creation. They are mirrored in the fragmented doll-like body parts found in some of the lower sections, playing with stereotypical representations of gender. In related, art-historical terms, the scenes seem to parody the myth of creativity as stemming from an encounter between a male artist and his female muse.
Like an encore, three large square paintings at the centre of the exhibition bring together the entire cast of the Tree of Life series. The groups of characters are looked upon bemusedly by groups of animals, just as in Cranach’s famous depiction of Adam and Eve. ‘David Salle’s Tree of Life is an invitation to investigate both ignorance and knowledge, good and evil, with the necessary humour’, writes museum curator Bernard Blistène in the accompanying exhibition catalogue. With ever-more gestural markings in the lower parts, the paintings in This Time with Feeling bear witness to the cacophony of modern life, or as Blistène describes it ‘something like what the world was at its beginning and what it would have unfailingly become.’
Salle’s fractured compositions eschew any linear interpretation. The everyman and woman, represented in the Tree of Life series as types, invite viewers to project their own experience onto the scene and form their own understanding of the characters' dramatic interactions. In the same way, the multiplicity of visual references across the various components of the painting generates what the artist calls the ‘malleability of meaning’ that is at the heart of his oeuvre. The paintings are engaging without being descriptive. ‘They're like music, in a way,’ states Salle, ‘being able to identify the notes doesn’t say much about what it feels like to listen to the music.’
The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue with an original essay by the former director of the Musée National d’Art Moderne-Centre Pompidou, Bernard Blistène.