“Peter Saul: Crime and Punishment” at The New Museum, New York, NY

Peter Saul, Art Critic Suicide (1996), acrylic and alkyd on canvas, 66 x 84-1/4″; courtesy George Adams Gallery, New York
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“Peter Saul: Crime and Punishment” is a disappointment in that it omits my favorite Saul painting. Let me amend that: “favorite” is a strong word. Art Critic Suicide (1996) has proven memorable because of the response elicited from its subjects: Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker’s longtime art critic; and Hilton Kramer, the one-time critic for The New York Times and co-founder of The New Criterion. In the painting, both men are rendered with cartoonish hyperbole and set awash in a garish purple-pink, each firing not one, but two guns into his respective temple. In his review of this New Museum show, Schjeldahl mentioned his surprise at coming upon the painting some years back—in particular, having been paired with “an intellectual antagonist of mine.” This irony won’t be lost on anyone conversant with contemporary art criticism. It certainly wasn’t lost on Hilton. “Exactly why we should be linked for the honor of serving as Mr. Saul’s principal villains is a matter I can only guess at,” he wrote in The New York Observer in the year 2000. The artist is seen at the bottom of the canvas, a pimply faced homunculus gleeful at the turn of events. “Is it possible,” Hilton wondered, “that Mr. Saul objects to readable prose?”

Having followed Saul’s work over the years, I can report that objection is, in fact, his modus operandi. Objection to what, you might ask? Pretty much everything, and never are the objections stated mildly or shaded with nuance. The friend with whom I attended the New Museum show described the pictures as “ejaculatory,” and it would be difficult to locate an adjective more apropos to Saul’s over-the-top brand of grotesquerie. The targets of his ire are subject to torturous distensions. Physiognomies are stretched and kneaded to Silly Putty–like extremes. Imagine the sinuous distortions of Mannerism amplified through a Day-Glo prism, and then delineated with the pin-prick intricacy of outré cartoonists like Basil Wolverton and S. Clay Wilson. As a paint-handler, Saul pat-pat-pats at his sizable canvases with what appears to be a cotton ball. In doing so, he wrests light and lyricism away from pointillist facture, bringing squishy dimensionality to ballooning forms. The color palette? Josef Albers undergoing sugar shock. Saturated tones are the rule, eye-popping, acidic, and sickly sweet. Sex and violence, those old things, are constants.

Installation photo of “Peter Saul: Crime and Punishment” at The New Museum; courtesy The New Museum
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Contact with Saul’s paintings can cause nausea. A few years back, I toured the galleries on Manhattan’s Fifty-seventh Street with a group of students; among our stops was a Saul exhibition at the Fifth Avenue branch of Mary Boone Gallery. Shortly after entering the venue, I noticed that one of my charges went missing, ultimately locating her, doubled-over, on the avenue. “Why,” she exclaimed, “would anyone want to paint these things?” Art critics we know about, but what else has Saul seen fit to castigate? The list is long: capital punishment, serial murderers, presidents (Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, especially), “Yankee Garbage,” Christianity, capitalism, racial inequity, Joseph Stalin, Chairman Mao, classical antiquity, Manifest Destiny, the modern city-state, “woman’s arts,” spaghetti and meatballs, Andy Warhol, O. J. Simpson, Max Beckmann, and, not least, himself. How much you indulge the work depends on whose ox is being gored. Missing from “Crime and Punishment” is a self-portrait in which Saul is seen using Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain for the purpose it was originally intended–kind of. “Found objects ain’t worth a good shit” reads the caption. You get the idea.

Is it recommended that visitors to “Crime and Punishment” bring an air sickness bag? Saul would likely take it as a compliment, but he is, on the whole, a cheery figure—not hard to like, harder to take seriously. During the afternoon I attended the exhibition, visitors greeted the abundance of pictures, installed salon-style, with joyous exclamations, appreciative laughter, and then deadly quiet. The unrelenting nature of Saul’s vision—a temperament forever at its satiric boiling point—is, over the long haul, dulling. Notwithstanding the histrionics—or, rather, because of them— Saul’s art is resistible, even when you might be on the same page regarding this or that topic. “Consistency,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is the hobgoblin of little minds.” It’s also the pitfall of the exuberantly vituperative. All the same, one can’t help but wonder how the imagery might sit with younger audiences. Taking Republicans, law enforcement, and patriarchy to the cleaners is well and fine, but Saul’s depictions of the Yellow Peril, Angela Davis, and Native Americans are stridently unwoke. Maybe he’s the lone old white guy to get a pass on such things.

Peter Saul, Super Crime Team (1961-62), oil on canvas, 59 x 63″; courtesy the Hall Collection and The New Museum
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Subjecting “Crime and Punishment” to the puritanical requisites of Cancel Culture would only add to Saul’s reputation, of course. As it is, let me put in a brief for Saul’s early paintings–those ramshackle agglomerations of cartoonish glyphs and stray bits of verbiage, put into motion with hasty-bordering-on-slapdash brushwork and compositional strategies derived, albeit in a roundabout manner, from Cubism. Forget canny pasticheurs like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg: Saul is the real bridge between the New York School and Pop Art. His everything-and-the-toilet-seat commentaries on the ubiquity of mass media, the perils of consumerism, and the limitations of civil society retain their antisocial vigor some six decades after the fact. Saul is the rare painter who poaches upon the fly-by-night anarchy of graffiti and manages to retain its outlaw ésprit. (The scratchy appropriations of Jean Dubuffet and Jean Michel-Basquiat are, in comparison, polite conversation pieces.) Super Crime Team (1961–62), Girl #2 (1962), and Superman in the Electric Chair (1963) are as rude and ready as they want to be, employing scatology, iconoclasm, and overkill as a form of vanitas painting. Within these patchwork rebuses lie Saul’s contribution to the culture of our time. The rest is one man’s unrelenting misanthropy—pre-digested, prettified, and taxidermied to perfection.

© 2020 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the December 2020 edition of The New Criterion.

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