What he is not
This is an artist of whom it’s easier to say what he is not, as opposed to what he is. Peter Saul (born in 1934) is not a pop artist in the true sense, as you will often read.
His style is indeed characterized by bright – even garish – contrasting colours, among other things, but he tends to paint scenes that caricature reality. Peter Saul does not employ found images; he recycles them using extreme distortion. You might even say that he creates them. Because you have to stand very close to the canvas to appreciate the extent to which he is a true painter. Let’s take his painting “He Forgot Something” from 2019, currently displayed by Paris’s Almine Rech gallery alongside nine other works. When you’re right up close to the canvas you can almost see the pointillist technique in the blue jacket in this composition. Incidentally, he produces no more than 10 works per year. But Saul clearly wants 1) to have fun 2) to provoke.
While we cannot automatically read his work in relation to the clownish reality of Trump’s America, it is this grimacing vision of today that it seems to reflect.
Peter Saul’s father was English, but nonetheless you could say he’s a Californian through and through because he shares a strong sense of irony with other local artists, like Jim Shaw for example.
Peter Saul cultivates an image of flippancy, but he is in fact nothing of the sort. And Saul is in no way one of those artists who delight in their belated newfound success.
Peter Saul is modest, accessible and receptive. But as the interview is due to start he admits that he would really like to take a nap.
Being good-natured, he says that he has always been lucky, but this is not entirely true. Not long ago his prices were still relatively low.
Nowadays they’re climbing steadily under the impetus of his dealers Venus Over Manhattan, Michael Werner and Almine Rech.
His exhibition “Crime and Punishment” at the New Museum, comprising around sixty works and opening on 11 February, will have the inevitable consequence of fuelling interest in this veteran of Californian painting.
But Saul remains true to form. In Paris during the terrible transport strikes the artist didn’t surrender his routine: he took the metro when he could and every day he also took a walk for an hour and a half with his wife, who is also an artist, Sally Saul (she’s exhibiting at the same time as him at the Almine Rech gallery).
Musée des Abattoirs
Before that he was the subject of an exhibition at the contemporary art museum in the South of France in Toulouse, the Musée des Abattoirs, and the catalogue highlighted a key element of his biography: he had been traumatised during the 1950s while staying in a very strict American boarding school, where he was badly treated because they thought he was Jewish. But aren’t these early traumas forgotten with age? Apparently not.
A real painting?
Saul could have deliberately resorted to the usual clichés in his habitual answers to journalists, but in this video interview he went further than that. I remark again, on approaching one canvas: “this is real painting, isn’t it?” “Yes, yes, it’s real painting,” he replies, before realizing that this description could pigeonhole him within one category and countering: “But no, it’s not real painting. It would have to be even more extreme to be more interesting.”
Peter Saul is a fan of saying Yes and No at the same time. This in-between state is perfectly captured in his works, as paintings in the true sense but also ones which could, if you were to look at them on a superficial level, meet all the requirements of a cartoon.
Peter Saul: crime and punishment at the New Museum, New York. 11/02/20-31/05/20.
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