A funny thing happened as I legged it around Peter Saul’s tidy, intensely powerful, history-charting retrospective at Haunch of Venison—I could swear I heard the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” drumming in my head.
A show of paintings as underappreciated as it is both excoriating and endlessly entertaining, this exhibition arrives at a time of dire cultural stagnation in New York. Full of colorful fantasies of old-time pogroms and futuristic lynchings, this selection of 50 years of Peter Saul’s Hieronymus Bosch–like canvases lifts the safety catch on the pleasures of symbolic violence. Few contemporary expressions in art feel more satisfying today. Should you visit this show, remember to swap out Saul’s painted victims for your own customized company of bobbleheads (mine includes, among others, smarmy Jeff Koons, cracked Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, the cast of Glee, and unctuous French art profiteer Philippe Segalot). You, too, may drift off into ecstatic contemplation of imaginary murder and mayhem—perhaps also with Mick and Keef along as inner audio guides.
The 76-year-old Saul is exactly the sort of machete-wielding painter that contemporary art needs today. Blessed with a chronic case of artistic Tourette’s, he delights in japes at the most varied cultural targets—Republicans and Democrats, hedge funders and hipster artists, bandwagoners and vanguardists alike come in for his savage Sioux scalping. An artist committed to what George Orwell called “significant mental rebellions,” he has spent a lifetime avoiding easy critical definition, while being sometimes fecklessly lumped together with other artists—since the early 1960s, he has been transitorily associated with San Francisco’s “Funk” movement, Chicago’s “Hairy Who” group, and, more durably, Pop art. All along he has garnered the cult status of a figure like R. Crumb (whom he is said to have influenced). While churning out decades of astoundingly deft painting in his signature cartoon style, he has become that much-prized-but-rarely-encountered cultural commodity: a genuinely nonconformist, Mark Twain–ornery, American original.
Saul has been sniping at the culture since leaving his St. Louis art school for Europe in 1956. Combining comic book aesthetics and tasteless subject matter before his contemporaries did (including the older Philip Guston), he quickly searched for and found an artistic grail he later called an “enemy to react to.” His first pegging of this frenemy was the blowhard heroics of Abstract Expressionism, which he was temperamentally born to razz. Then came pop’s serial deadpan irony, which he defaced by hand with sardonic offensiveness. His “mature” work—he challenges the idea that he has personally matured in interviews—expanded his art’s reach to include past and recent history as well as the trifling boundaries of good taste. Witness, for instance, this exhibition’s inclusion of the canvas Jesus in Electric Chair (2004), which features a cyclopic Almighty throwing the switch on his only begotten son. This luridly colored, fine-tuned grotesquerie makes one trait about this artist perfectly clear: If a sacred cow grazes among the corn fields of popular culture or on the clipped lawns of the art world, you can bet Peter Saul will haul ass there to tip it over.
As with legendary comedians Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce, there’s no such thing as off-limits material or a taboo subject for Saul. This, of course, has invariably resulted in his alienation from what he terms “the official world of Art.” Paintings like Vietnam (1966) and Typical Saigon (1968)—each featuring neon-colored landscapes of sexualized, battle-addled cruelty in which, to borrow from the Stones, every soldier is a criminal, and all the killers saints—significantly cooled his reception among American curators, critics, and collectors (everyone, really, but a growing cadre of artists on whom he has been hugely influential). At a certain point in the early 1970s, he recounts, “I began to get so-called ‘good advice’ from intelligent viewers: Don’t paint war if you haven’t been there. Don’t paint blacks if you don’t have black skin yourself. Don’t use any psychology that isn’t ‘the truth’ (something you feel or believe in). Don’t distort women because it means you don’t like them.”
The admonitions proved as effective as waving a warning flag at a bull. “The reason I do it,” he has said about his recent flouting of art-world prohibitions against political paintings, “is because it was a banned subject and so I just couldn’t resist.”
Saul’s breakthrough brushy Icebox pictures—the earliest works in the exhibition—already carried the caustic germ of pitiless lampooning within them way back in 1960. Paintings of disgorging American refrigerators full of everything from La-Z-Boy recliners to the family dog, they channeled his partly nostalgic, European-eye view of American consumption through what he has termed his own “grim yet laughable psychology.” Clemunteena Gweenburg (1971), a more acerbic mid-career work portraying late Modernism’s most august authority, demonstrated exactly how far the artist was willing to push the corrosive envelope (all the way!). But it was a subsequent picture, Oedipus Junior (1983)—a self-portrait in which he blinds his left eye with a brush and castrates himself with a chainsaw—that proved the final launching point for what would become this painter’s final, high-octane visual style. As he took on controversial subjects, he would increasingly do so in the guise of his poster-flat, gonzo-inspired, history–as–Mad Magazine painting style.
Take The Execution of O.J. (1996). A work featuring Orenthal James Simpson being shot full of battery acid as commanded by his dead wife’s ghost (“This is why you have to die,” the picture’s winged Caucasian cherub says, pointing at a bloody glove), the image pushes a second L.A. riot’s worth of buttons while thankfully providing no “constructive” social commentary to resolve its evident moral morass. Much like Pieter Breugel’s demonological The Triumph of Death (1562), it’s Olympic-grade misanthropy as high art. In this painting and many others confected throughout a laudably cussed 50-year career, Peter Saul puts the Freud right into the schadenfreude and—by golly—keeps it there.