in Features | 08 SEP 16
Featured in
Issue 5

Artists' Artists - David Salle

Artists write about a work of art that has influenced them

in Features | 08 SEP 16

Marsden Hartley, Granite by the Sea, 1937

Marsden Hartley, Granite by the Sea, 1937, oil and ink on composition board, 51×72 cm. Courtesy: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

All were big men. Philip Guston and Marsden Hartley were fully fleshed, meaty. Men of the earth, the sea. One looks at their wide faces and feels the heft of the man. Clifford Still was a lean tree trunk of a man, tall and upright with rectitude. All three painters advanced the lineage of American painting, the one concerned with the physical material of painting — paint as creational clay or fire, as a part of nature. They took painting head-on a little brutally. There is a truculence in their attitude — why try to hide it? Wrestlers of paint. A painting is grappled with, brought to the ground. It’s a Promethean effort. The artist prevails, but at a cost.

The effortfulness of their painting is meant to show; it has a purpose, which is originality. Each, in his own way, paints out of the loneliness that must be borne in order to achieve uniqueness. The story of these artists
is one of independence achieved, the American character redeemed. They are part of the creation of a new aesthetic identity, from the trauma of its birthing to the triumph of its independence — and, later, with Guston, its painful self-examination. They are different versions of an American type: the self-created individual of tamped-down grandiosity, artists before art was popular.

Their origins were various: the West, New England, small villages and also the cities. The built-up verticality of the metropolis in contrast with the open air, the horizon line and the sea — that was a part of their common story. They were like frontiersmen — someone who has learned to expect little from society. Craggy-faced, cranky, men-mountains, stoical in their separateness even from others like them — each one a kind of lonely peak.

A jagged clot of paint applied by palette knife with a slashing motion; a heavy, worried black outline that lassoes its subject; an impacted thicket of wide, assertive brush strokes, wet into wet, black paint defiantly dragged into red: these are the terms of engagement, alternately lyrical and militant, with which each artist defines himself. Each one’s style is a snapshot of the American character: rough hewn, scratched from hard soil or cut from granite or anthracite. A glacial lake after a long climb; a fire of mesquite, its fragrant trail of smoke rising through the night.

Hartley’s clouds, mountains, wharfs, roses, sailors — painted as if hacked from dirty marble or granite; Still’s craggy cliff faces and promontories; Guston’s blunt caricatures, the scrum and mush of outlines lost and found again — all externalizing an inner gloom. As in nature, disaster is always close to grandeur. Their painting is sturdy, durable — it rests on thick beams of wood or of steel, a bulwark against the taste of the committee. In this way, it is romantic, adolescent. The story of the individual separated from the many. This is what is meant by existential painting.

David Salle is a painter living and working in New York, USA. His solo show at Lehmann Maupin Gallery, Hong Kong, runs until 29 October. His solo exhibition at the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga, Spain, runs until 4 December and his two-person show with Cindy Sherman at Skarstedt, London, UK, runs from 1 October – 28 November. His volume of essays, How to See, will be published by W.W. Norton in October.