I love the flamers of art history—the hysterics, hell-raisers, tantrum throwers, and storm birds. Artists who bring transgressive subject matter and flamboyant personalities into close contact; who are always on about something; whose emotions are messy, even if their art is neat; who are so full of their own feelings that targets cease to matter. More than wackos or crackpots, they’re checks and balances built into a system that skews sanctimonious at the drop of a dogma. I’m thinking of Dalí, George Grosz, or early Kusama. More recently, there’s R. Crumb, Paul Thek, Sean Landers, Paul McCarthy, Tracey Emin—though I like the idea of her work more than the work—maybe the Chapmans and Vito Acconci, and certainly the late greats Dieter Roth and Jack Smith. I’d add the maharishi Martin Kippenberger, except he lacks the crucial paranoid component.
While some flamers go mainstream, most don’t; all thrash around regardless. A lifetime member of this confederacy, and a founder of funk, is Peter Saul, who—after living in Austin, Texas, for the last 20 years—moved to New York last month. He’s been exhibiting here since 1960, mostly at the Allan Frumkin Gallery, after first showing his work to the 57th Street dealer in the lobby of the Hotel Lutetia, in Paris. Saul’s a voracious visionary and a painter of charged political subjects; at 66, he still paints with the fire of a young man.
Everything Saul paints, he paints hot. A great unrecognized colorist, he brings outrageous levels of pictorial realization to his work. His compositions are undulating morasses of visual complexity; at the same time, they’re shot through with something bracing and vivid. A go-for-the-throat antiformalist, Saul used incendiary subject matter 30 years before someone like Kara Walker. Leaving no sacred cow unskewered, he’s painted a black girl sucking Ronald Reagan’s cock, an Asian woman being eaten out by American soldiers, and Martin Luther King as an octopus.
All this makes him a first-class flamer. And, if it’s true, as D.H. Lawrence wrote, that “somewhere, deep in every American heart lies a rebellion,” Saul’s heart is also deeply American. He hates masters, has an abject suspicion of his fellow citizens and an inner uneasiness that amounts almost to mania, is antagonistic toward control of any sort, and squawks a lot about what he’s not. In other words, Saul cares enough to hate. To get a better fix on his rebellion, however, it helps not only to look at his work, but to read the diatribes that are often included in his catalogs. Accompanying this show is a doozy of an interview with the painter Carroll Dunham.
Saul, who describes himself as “a pygmy carrying on a war against modern art,” claims “there’s too much socialization needed to back up” most art. “The mainstream,” he says, “is a sewer”; abstraction, “some kind of responsible, adult research project.” He calls Cézanne “an amateur,” Guston “too mild.” Ditto Dine, Poons, Lichtenstein, Motherwell, and Rothko. Judd’s “confidently and energetically uninteresting.” Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, and Carl Andre are “harmless,” though he cuttingly observes that maybe Andre was trying “to get a woman’s body to resemble one of his sculptures.” Basically, Saul thinks, “as soon as Jackson Pollock was appreciated . . . things went to pot.” In some weird way, Saul speaks to the skeptic in all of us, the part that sometimes wonders if all the stuff we tell ourselves about art is true. His opinions are as definite as they are contradictory and veer from radical to conservative. “I’ve decided,” he says, “to make my pitch direct to the viewer.”
Ironically, his latest pitch is relatively traditional. With all the tirades about modernism, these 11 paintings and drawings of heads, dating from 1986 to the present, are direct descendants of his bêtes noires. Disfiguring his heads in proto-Cubist/surrealist ways, he uses colors that are as wild-beastly as any Fauve’s. One psychedelic drawing even depicts a gynecologist kneading the head of Picasso, as the über Cubist cracks, “Artistic abuse is not a joke to most women.”
To understand how he fits in and stands out, imagine walking through the 20th-century wing of any museum and coming upon one of Saul’s paintings, say the 1986 Untitled Head (“Rong”), an intensely realized, tenderly rendered phallus-Cyclops thing that would make Picasso envious. Right off, and in spite of the anomalous date, you’d think, “This is one of the weirdest Picassos I’ve ever seen.” While Saul adds a dose of funky vernacular not usually found in the older masters, “Rong,” like the other works in this imaginary museum, is a sophisticated exercise in the manipulation of form, keyed-up color, density, illusionism, brushwork, composition, and compression.
While many of Saul’s recent heads look a little cornball and don’t grab me, four do: “Rong,” No Problem, Man Looking for a Bathroom, and Telephone Call. Moreover, these four paintings provide a hit of something most of us never had a chance to experience: how original, astonishing, assertive, and radical modernism looked the first time around. Saul inverts the terms of seeing: He puts the visionary out in front of the stylistic. Saul makes you understand on a gut level that all great art is not of this realm, and that every good artist is, at heart, a flamer.