David Salle on his own work

I recently came across this great lecture by painter David Salle from 2010, speaking at AFA Christie's.

In opposition to most critical writing on the contemporary art coming out of NYC in the 80's, he asserts that while critics saw a distinct divide between the Neo-expressionist painters and the culturally and politically critical conceptual artists, these artists not only knew and worked along side each other, but didn't view their own work to be at odds with each other at all. 

He makes his points by talking about an exhibition he co-curated that put the work in mention alongside each other for the first time. He also argues that successful painting, in his mind, blend pictorialism and presentationalism.

As someone who studied art history, but pursues painting, I find this really refreshing to hear. It's easy for critics and theorists to separate conceptual thinking and the practice of painting, but hard to reconcile in painting. Salle is a prolific writer and critic himself, so his ability to articulate his thoughts will be helpful for anyone who thinks about the critical value of their own work. Especially if they are a painter. He understands the theory, but it is a painter down to his core. 

Recent work - "For certain undamaged lemons II"


"For certain undamaged lemons II" 2015, 38"x40", mixed media on canvas.

This one is new, and the first completed in the studio space (I've moved my painting out of the garage). Some different moves here that came as a surprise. There is definitely an affect that comes from working in a new space, let alone one that is more open and comfortable. I've also added some new materials to my kit, namely spray paint and graffiti pens.  These have little to do with street art, but I have always perceived my canvases as a space to collect the markings of "a passerby". This is always me. The way the surface can collect the debris of working, and the building up and tearing down of layers has been a consistent theme since I began painting in earnest in the early 2000's.

Detail of 3 of my own skateboards from the 80's and 90's.

Detail of 3 of my own skateboards from the 80's and 90's.

Recently I found myself describing my love of the way a skateboard collects the markings of it's own activity. A once pristine graphic illustration, most likely silk-screened or heat transfered on, meant to instill the identity of the pro rider who's name is on the board, quickly gets taken over my the insistence of the boards rider. His stickers have been added, and scared by curbs and pool coping. It becomes something new, merely by becoming a mediator between the rider and surface.

I might hate it tomorrow. Right now I still like it. 

How I Discovered Process

Note: This was originally posted on Medium. This is it's new home.

A small mural I painted in 2011 for a solo show titled "Modified Structures". It was a painting with no plan.

A small mural I painted in 2011 for a solo show titled "Modified Structures". It was a painting with no plan.

The first time I understood creative process was through studying jazz. In about the 6th grade I started getting exposed to jazz through being involved in the school band program, and throughout high school, I spent most of my day time hours in a band room behind a drum kit.

Blue Notes are Awesome

I couldn’t read music very well. Notes on a page never made sense to me. So I primarily learned by listening to records, and feeling my way through a given piece. My favorite records were Bebob and Hardbop from the 50's and 60's. The structures of these types of songs, at least in how we were taught to think of them, was essentially a main melody, or “the head”, leading up to a solo. A collective statement, leading to an individual response, followed by commentary by other soloist. The solos were the whole point. They were a dialogue with the experience in real time. Once you got to the jazz solo, anything could happen. There were guiding principals that lead the ear — chords, rhythms and scales — and from those came an endless chain of thoughts, statements, experiments and expressions.

A great entry point for understanding “the head” vs a solo can be seen in this performance of Miles Davis’ “So What” from 1959.

If a horn player or piano player had those chords and scales as the core of their language, I similarly had the entire sound of a drum kit at my disposal. You learn fairly quickly that hitting the batter head of a drum is only the beginning. The rims, shells, metal tubes of the stands, and every possible edge of a kit could be incorporated into a given statement. Speed it up, slow it down, make it up as you go. Mistakes only lasted as long as it took to exit a passage and often times those offered surprise and excitement. The “blue note” — technically an expressively flatted note in a scale — was jokingly used as a catch-all description for a dropped stick, an odd note, or a rhythm that just stretched time.  

It would be clear fumble of some kind, and you learned quickly how to recover a passage out of sheer panic. This moment of fear was what taught you most about improvisation, process, and how to incorporate a near-disaster into an overall statement. If the accident occurs, absorb it into the overall statement, but whatever you do, don’t stop.

Mistakes really only had to do with how well you dealt with the situation…

This is what made jazz human. No two players sounded alike, even if they were equally boring. And any given musician had the potential of blowing it. But mistakes really only had to do with how well you dealt with the situation, and the more experienced you became, the better you got at dealing with them. It by no means meant you didn’t make them. It just meant you weren’t afraid of the risk.

The Middle Makes It

Visual art for me is very much the same — be it a design project for a client, or a painting. When I started pursuing abstraction seriously, it was merely an extension of what I had learned playing the drums. If there was an ending to a song, it was everything that happened in the middle that made it what it was. The ending was more or less determined by a player finishing a thought or just stopping at the end of their 36 bars. A painting is merely a beginning and end, but it’s the middle that makes it what it ultimately is.

I didn't plan this wall piece. I just started.

I didn't plan this wall piece. I just started.

The first marks on a canvas, or the first cut piece of paper for a collage, are typically just a beginning. Not a planned strategy. Just this material, on that flat surface to see what happens. The Dadaist and Surrealists perfected this kind of approach. They called it Automatism, and had much more interesting (or boring) explanations for the how’s and why’s behind it.

The important thing was that it happened without a preconceived idea in mind of how something should end. The outcome was not predetermined. The only thing that is decided in any good work, even if it’s a monumental installation that takes planning and logistics, is that it begins.

All that is needed from the maker is patience, and willingness to make a mistake. Sometimes the mistake forces you to white-out a complete section. That move alone could be what takes you in a direction you never would have thought of by following a plan.