David Salle’s NeoExpressionist-style Modernism

History always repeats itself - when it comes back, it reunions us with new features that speak to the evolvement and development of the society. The return to the large-scale figurative oil-on-canvas paintings in the 1980s marked a new trend in the art world, labeled Neo- Expressionism. Before that, conceptually based art occupied the galleries and not enough work that was handmade or meant to looked at for aesthetic pleasure.[1] Among the neo-expressionists, David Salle is known for appropriating images from existing art and the mass media, using oil on canvas, meanwhile underlining the consciousness of their art making.[2] According to him, “It was because painting is so charged, so weighted down by history, so lumbering, so bourgeois, so spiritual – all these things that had made them so ‘incorrect’ – I came to see this is what gave painting such potential.” [3] Despite his intention of the empty form, Salle’s work involves the discussion of the meaningfulness behind superficiality among the critics. This paper briefly surveyed three paintings of Salle’s from 1980s: The Worst and the Most General, 1981; Yellow Bread, 1987; and Canfield Hatfield VI / Woman Holding Picture, 1989, to discuss how David Salle employed different elements of figural painting and mass consumption in the work, together with photographing technique, to create his extreme cancellation in meaning of images and figures.

During the period where photograph was promoted as the art, Salle chose to used photograph as one of the materials that helped him composing and arranging his paintings. He combined the two controversial elements, showing that it was not necessarily an exclusive relationship between oil paintings and photographic images. On the left panel in Canfield Hatfield VI / Woman Holding Picture, Salle painted a woman naked, holding a photograph of a boy, roughly the same size of her shoulder’s width. On the right panel in the same painting, he depicted a man in tight clothes, holding an architecture model in his right hand. His use of color in the two panels made it clear to the audience that both panels were transferred from the original photographs. The blue and orange were saturated and used as the only colors in its own panels, speaking to the printing process of a black-and-white photograph. On the right panel in The Worst and the Most General, Salle presented a man’s body from his lower wrist. Here, however, the painting looks like a photograph with overexposure – the background seems utterly bright in the middle section. It also looks like an x-ray photograph, as the legs of the body were more prominent in dark gray. Similarly, in Yellow Bread, the artists depicted a three-quarter view from the front side of a woman body (left) and a three-quarter view from the back side of the same body, using the black, gray and white tone that was similar to the black-and-white photographs.

Besides photographs, Salle was also influenced by the devices used in movies, such as the split screen, jump-cut, slice, zoom, and dissolve.[4] In The Worst and the Most General, the artist divided the canvas into two equal parts. In Yellow Bread, the artists divided the canvas into three parts – two equal size vertical panels and one horizontal panel on top of them. In Canfield Hatfield VI / Woman Holding Picture, he divided the canvas into two equal parts.

Despite the effort of going back to the easel painting, Salle’s work was not isolated from the early influence of art world. Within and between the figural panels, the artists appropriated motifs like architecture in The Worst and the Most General; an image of a dog and a bread in Yellow Bread; and a page of a book and a single eye image in Canfield Hatfield VI / Woman Holding Picture. The sizes of the subjects appropriated in the paintings were unrealistic – some were larger than the reality and some were smaller. The positions between the motifs and the large panels were randomly composed as the artist’s acknowledged, he would begin a painting by identifying with a certain image from the photograph he took, then intuitively reacting to it by putting something next to it or adding something, and so forth, until the picture “reaches a point of fullness and complication.” [5] In addition, there is an element of process art in The Worst and the Most General. On the right panel is a painting with yellow and orange background and 15 rounded geometrical circles arranged in order but rendered in an organic way, as the light is hitting toward the circles from different angles. The three columns of geometrical yellow circle reminded the viewer of Ishtar by Eva Hesse in 1965 (see Figure 4), where she employed two columns of geometrical balls in organic techniques as well. The linking of painting and photography, past and contemporary when “both were in a polemical combat contributed to both his work’s relevance and its controversial nature” that attracts the viewer to walk closely to the paintings to understand the paintings in terms of their relationship with the political issues.

It is very easy for the audience to link Salle’s nudity with feminism art or the discussion of homosexuality.[6] Many critics see Salle’s work as a response towards feminist work, as woman represented was usually more unclothed than clothed - breast may be revealed, but not crotch or vice versa.[7] However, Salle repeatedly denied any political intent in his work, claiming that “there’s no narrative. There really is none.” [8] For him, a woman was “stylized into sterility”, where she became pure empty form.[9] This disturbed critics like Schor who concluded that neo- expressionism disregard the effort of feminist artists in diminishing the objectivity of the female body. According to Schor, “Salle’s lack of belief in the meaning of imagery [stands] in striking and significant contrast to much work by women artists.” Salle, on the contrast called his art “participate[ed] in meaninglessness” and even pronounced it “dead.” Even though he acknowledged that his imagery was heavily loaded with references to sex, art, and popular culture, he denied the implied meaning of the objects. [10] In Yellow Bread, the female model was dressing in crop tops and sexual stockings, holding a light-bulb like an object in her hands. In between Salle presented an image of a dog. Above the female figures was a horizontal panel with two primitive face masks and an image of a bread in between. There was no specific meaning that can be assigned to the composition, apart from the artist crop the head of the two female figures on the top and aligned the masks humorously toward where the heads should be. Thus, rather than generating content, Salle aimed for “extreme cancellation,” or the “draining away of recognition or of meaning even as you look at it.” [11]

Despite the artist’s desire to “divide the meaning of the thing in the painting from the meaning of the thing in the world” has troubling consequences, many of his audience found it hard to believe in his intent and found it interesting to see how he uses light and shallow to conceal some parts of the body in his figures. [12] In Yellow Bread and Canfield Hatfield VI / Woman Holding Picture, he covered the upper body of the female figures, exposing the crotch. However, he also chose to use shadow to avoid describing the details of the crotch. This is

particular distinctive in The Worst and the Most General, where the crotch of the male figure is awkwardly painted in a triangular shape black. This unique composition draws attention on the artist’s selection on obscure and his autonomy on what to revel and what not to. According to the artist, he was not representing a realistic scene in his painting; however, “you know it's there, so it's not obscured. By the time it gets turned into a black and white photograph, the darks are darker and the lights lighter than they would be if you were looking at this person. By the time that gets turned into a painting the contrasts become more accentuated.” [13] Thus, the artist denied that he was purposefully hiding certain part in his painting; instead, he let the light and shadow, the transformation of mediums and the human observation to decide what to include in the paintings and how to depict it.

In his work, Salle attempted to empty its history and content of significance. However, the subjectivity he picked to render in his works were too controversial to isolate them from their original context. Many audiences questioned the originality of his work for appropriating photographs and mass culture the paintings. Salle responded that “originality is in what you choose. What you choose and how you choose to present it.”[14] Thus, Salle’s originality comes from picking and choosing his subjects, arranging them in an intuitive way and presenting them with no intention of heated contemporary political discussion. This idea is a shift from Conceptualist traditions back to “the mystification of Modernist painting,” as Craig Owens concluded. As the history has the tendency to repeat itself, whether neo-expressionists were leading the art industry to return back to the traditional aesthetically pleasing paintings is worth analyzing in a great depth.



Sandler, Irving. “Chapter 8: American Neoexpressionism.” Art of the Postmodern Era. Hape Collins Publishers. 1996

Kalb, Peter. Art Since 1980: Charting the Contemporary (Page 70). Pearson HE, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Marsh, Georgia, and David Salle. "David Salle." BOMB, no. 13 (1985): 20-25. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.bu.edu/stable/40423718.



1. The Worst and the Most General, 1981, Acryl on canvas, 2 parts (Picture from: http://www.artnet.com/artists/david-salle/the-worst-and-the-most-general-a-qbd- tmgtauw7iCqWOLtUYw2)

2. Yellow Bread, 1987, Acrylic & oil on five attached canvases (Picture from: http://www.artnet.com/artists/david-salle/yellow-bread-a- 1aYWmv3vOgqEACxXaRli9Q2)

3. Canfield Hatfield VI / Woman Holding Picture, 1989, Prints and multiples, Etching, aquating, photo etching (Picture from: http://www.artnet.com/artists/david-salle/canfield-hatfield-vi-woman-holding- picture-a-KUd3g5CmIOnQr_vgs2sPVQ2)

4. Eva Hesse, Ishtar, 1965 (I think I took a photo of this artwork during an exhibition, but it was too long ago so I lost the citation. I appologize for that)



1 Kalb, Peter. Art Since 1980: Charting the Contemporary (Page 70). Pearson HE, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
2 Sandler, Irving. “Chapter 8: American Neoexpressionism.” Art of the Postmodern Era. Hape Collins Publishers. 1996

3 Salle quoted in Sandler

4 Sandler, Irving.

5 Sandler, Irving.
6 Kuspit, Donald. "DAVID SALLE: PHOTOGRAPHIC SYMPTOMS." Aperture, no. 125 (1991): 74-76. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.bu.edu/stable/24472414
7 Kuspit, Donald.
8 Kalb, Peter.

9 Kuspit, Donald.

10 Kalb, Peter.
11 Ibid.
12 ibid.

13 Marsh, Georgia, and David Salle. "David Salle." BOMB, no. 13 (1985): 20-25. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.bu.edu/stable/40423718.
14 Salle quoted in Sandler