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Solving Salle's Mystery


David Salle is a big mystery. He is the '80s idea of a New York art superstar. Along with Robert Longo, Julian Schnabel and Eric Fischl, he became a media celebrity whose feuds, folkways and opinions are as sought-after as his montage-paintings of gray nudes, depraved cartoon ducks and overdressed Japanese golfers.

Salle's reknown is a big mystery to some people. Critic Robert Hughes called him the most overrated artist in America. It is a big mystery that anyone can find him more overrated than other artists currently being overrated.

After nearly a decade of pious hype, David Salle remains a big mystery on the West Coast. Even though he attended CalArts, this geography has never had a decent look at the work aside from the odd, well-intentioned gallery peek or a piece or two in a group show.

Now, at last, we are afforded a revealing spread in a career survey organized by Janet Kardon for the University of Pennsylvania's Institute of Contemporary Art. It visits the Temporary Contemporary wing of the Museum of Contemporary Art until June 14. Not a minute too soon. The way things are, Salle could drop back into obscurity any second. MOCA also needs a shot in the arm. Nothing much of artistic interest has happened down there since its semi-triumphant opening in December.

Salle's sally forth should give MOCA a good shot in the arm because no matter what anybody says, everybody has to see an exhibition of art by a famous mystery.

Confronted at last with the 34-work exhibition, somebody is bound to complain that it is shy about 10 works that were included when the show stopped in New York. However, this is not as important as the titivating questions, "Why is this work famous?" and, "What is the big mystery?"

Well, the most obvious conclusion is that the work is famous for being mysterious. Art-world devotees who write about Salle talk about how oblique he is. Real subtle. Always avoiding the possibility of interpretation. Elusive.

Walk into the show with that in your head and you are liable to think you've bumbled into the wrong place. "Excuse me madame, is this the TC on Central Avenue where it dead-ends just north of 1st Street?" No, this is the time when artistic resonance dead-ends into the tastes of a generation so shallow and literal-minded they think this work is profound because it takes two minutes to figure it out instead of the 14 seconds required by an Eric Fischl.

This work is about the thoughts of a sensitive, cultivated young New York guy made up of equal parts of Paul Simon, Woody Allen and Fritz the Cat. Like every city college kid salivating over the girls from behind his volume of Roland Barthes, he is obsessed with sex. And--like every garden-variety neurotic in his mental maturity group--his licentious longings fill him with hesitation and guilt so he is forever covering up with self-castigation and high-minded thoughts.

A girl lies nude on the beach in a pose sufficiently anonymous to be very inflammatory to a shy young dude. Lettered across the image is the name "Tennyson." It literally tries to cover up salaciousness with transcendence--the very illustration of sublimation.

The only way anybody could call this oblique is because it is so blatant everybody says, "Nah, that can't be it, it's too obvious," the way they did back when Jasper Johns painted the American flag.

"That can't be the American flag, it looks too much like it. It must be a ruse." By comparison, Salle makes Johns as esoteric as the Kabala and himself as subtle as a Jack Klugman TV commercial.

Funny. Salle attached a sculpted ear to Tennyson as if he's grabbing us by the lapels and saying, "Listen!"

And "listen" as much as "look" because the parts of a Salle painting come together based on the association of words that attach to the images.

Titles are glad to help. "Footmen" has one panel showing a kid staring down a railroad track. It is painted in gray, the color of thought. Get it? The other panel is red for danger and passion. It bears copy of a head from Velasquez's picaresque painting, "The Drinkers." Manet did a version of the same painting. Both are classic images of the male as a wandering poetic loner and ne'er-do-well. In the background are fuzzy silk-screen photographs that evoke the image of a pregnant girl in an empty room. You can practically hear Glen Campbell warbling, "By the Time I Get to Phoenix."

Salle is a more than decently gifted painter. Sometimes one wonders about that when he mushes around with his grimy washes or schematizes the painting of a face. But when he locks down on the head of a whippet in "Coral Made" he's as impressive as Eakins, and you know that all the other stuff is willingly altered to suit the purpose.

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