Crime and Punishment, the title of Peter Saul’s retrospective at the New Museum, is fitting. His art is all culpability and implication, no restorative justice, hardly even a trial. In a Dostoyevskian need to unload, Saul thrusts everything onto the table: cruelty and comedy, pop culture and pedants. All the while, it’s not clear whether Saul is working towards some scattershot magnum opus, or just trying to stay afloat.
It’s a disorienting experience, one that Saul honed over his decades-long career. The crude figuration of his early work, which has its own niche market, still allows for a certain vaguity and distance. It’s his later style that can really make you itch; when Saul gives himself over to precision, whether it’s an animate wooliness or delineation, burnished colors or an incessant pea-green. There’s often something devotional about meticulousness. Certainly Saul’s painting is the result of painstaking effort, and he speaks often about reworking, retrying, revisiting. But to what is he in service? The lowbrow? The ugly?
There are many who view Saul as a kind of prophet, set to speak the good word against an art world Babylon. Or maybe it’s better to imagine him more as a populist, with canvasses and interviews being his grandstand. Saul’s oeuvre is composed of noise: loud colors, undulating motion, filled space, allusion, labels and speech. He is the anti-minimalist – there is no absence-as-creation. There are no four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. This can feel like a class clown sort of insecurity – someone who is willing to be anything but dull. But I doubt it’s really so pathetic. On the contrary, it seems that through ambience Saul has managed a stronghold over his narrative. By condemning, punishing and declaring so many bad guys, Saul may have actually accomplished a post-critical feedback loop.
This is pressing because racism, misogyny and violence haunt a large proportion of his output. It’s the sort of thing you wouldn’t expect to see on museum walls, not now. For example, his 1967 painting Saigon is an orgy of sex, gore and caricature. Bright yellow women in nón lá, adorned with huge breasts and buck teeth are raped and massacred. Take Self-Defense, from 1969, or his Angela Davis paintings of the early 1970s, where the cartoonish female body drips with rancid erogeny, all vulnerability and flesh. Take the characters in Execution of Jesus Christ or All the Money in Palestine. It’s a parade of the absolute worst, the bottom of the barrel. It’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder: Why this brutality against women? Why the racist stereotypes? How is this permissible?
The most egregious of these works comes equipped with a reflexive self-excusal mechanism. That being its pretense, which is generally laid out clearly through text. In the aforementioned Vietnam painting, Saul writes in the lower-left corner “white boys torturing and raping the peiple of Saigon.” Self-defense presents the police as villainous and abusive, and The Crucifixion of Angela Davis, by nature of its title, suggests outrage at her treatment. These are progressive universals – the sadism of the Vietnam War, the structural racism in the U.S. judicial system – which land Saul, at least politically, on the right side of history.
But Saul doesn’t want to be didactic. He wants nothing to do with, as he puts it, the “good-intentioned pit” of 1930s art. In a way, he doesn’t want his art to be about, or for, anything. “A lot of artists don’t want to sit around and talk about what their work means. That culture doesn’t interest them. And I think that’s totally legitimate,” Dan Nadel told tablet Magazine, on the occasion of a 2015 group show featuring Saul. Sure, but certainly not all art is the same. And one of the dues to putting something out into the world is being attached to its legacy. Sometimes you have to answer questions. If anything, this resistance is of a bygone entitlement. Saul wonders why the artist must be confused with their work, alluding to another white man of privileged beginnings, Vladimir Nabokov. But through this he views only the beginnings – him, and what he wants to paint – and not what the image could mean. This is irresponsible.
By his telling, Peter Saul didn’t come to political subject matter through any moral imperative. Instead, it came from his “struggle to gain attention,” and the pivotal moments of social justice he chose were the ones playing heavily in the collective focus. This may well be a diversion tactic, another attempt to deny us easy categorization; Saul is always running serpentine, flitting towards morality only to find refuge in the egregious. “I think the pictures that have problems are more interesting to look at. I want to see the sexist and racist ones first when I go to a museum. Usually, there aren’t any,”
THE CRUCIFIXION OF ANGELA DAVIS, 1973
A.M. Homes, writing for Vanity Fair, referred to Saul’s work as the “uncorking of the artist’s id.” This muddles the waters of culpability. By employing caricature, Saul is pulling from prefab images of racism. The implication is that these are shared, belonging to our cultural unconscious; thus, we’re all guilty. By this logic, their use is permissible. But Saul is a white artist; unlike, say, Kara Walker, he owns the history from the wrong side. Anyway, the idea of id itself is fraught. The course of Modern fine art has taught us that searching for the spigot to our primal, our true, leads mostly to destruction, anthropocentrism and fascisizing manifestos. Saul, despite his endless positing as an outsider, is very much a child of this impulse. He is also, much more directly, born of the alternative comic boom of the 60s and 70s, when Joost Swarte and R. Crumb, to name a couple, were pulling from the sort of caricatures that could make your skin crawl. The cartoonist Kim Thompson describes Crumb as someone “trying to honestly explore his own misogyny and racism.” The same could be said for Saul. Is it then original sin, whittled away through art?
There’s a certain biological essentialism to all this, in the vein of he who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man. As Christian Viveros-Faune puts it, Saul is “blessed with a chronic case of artistic tourettes.” The idea here is that Saul can’t help it. But compulsion grants access to what is normally undermined by propriety or socialization. Put otherwise, Saul is an artist who is submissive to his beast, and there is an implicit truth attached to this. The thing is, this underlying animal isn’t an individualized experience, but rather one shared by all people. This is why we really care about Saul (or, for that matter, other violent artists like the Viennese Actionists or Francis Bacon;) because he is not just speaking but speaking a truth. Even if we were to buy that Saul is exploring his own racism or misogyny, we’re not to really take it as his. Through being an intermediary of the world’s ugliness, Saul accomplishes a disorienting refraction of blame. In effect, he is able to paint whatever he wants.
Peter Saul is an artist that may well be underappreciated, which has earned him not just fans, but defenders. They are happy to cradle his legacy and protect him from the subjugating forces, the Blue Chip in particular. But as art institutions have finally come around to his brand, the appellation of ‘rebel’ grows stale; instead, it enables a disingenuous symbiosis, in which the artist retains their sempiternal edge and their shows come with a built-in tagline. The same goes for the rest of his mythology, too. To pay such attention to Saul’s marginalization is to deny that, for all of time, creation has been at the seat of power. By not only creating forty years of imagery, but a whole mythos along with it, Saul is much more powerful than he seems.
Dana Burns is a writer and artist based in Queens, New York. She deals in poetry and prose, and has written music reviews for The Boston Hassle. Dana has also hosted a radio show called Horror Vac and has experimented with bookmaking and collage. These days she’s working on free distribution of information, co-producing a monthly newsletter called Two by Two that can be found in the free sections of bookstores and coffee shops around New York City. Her work can be found at www.d-brns.com.