The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 10-JAN 11

All Issues
DEC 10-JAN 11 Issue
Art In Conversation

PETER SAUL with Irving Sandler and Phong Bui

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

On the occasion of his recent survey Fifty Years of Painting, at Haunch of Venison Gallery (November 5, 2010 – January 8, 2011), the painter Peter Saul stopped by Art International Radio to talk with Rail Consulting Editor Irving Sandler and Publisher Phong Bui about his life and work.

Irving Sandler: The first paintings of yours that I saw, Peter, dated around 1960; they contained images of common objects, very often kitchen objects, such as refrigerators, iceboxes, and items that would be stored in them. The most famous of these, the “Icebox” series, anticipate Pop Art, which really doesn’t emerge until 1962. What prompted you to begin to paint these common household objects?

Peter Saul: Actually, nothing did. It simply came to me as an idea and, never having been a graduate student, I simply accepted all my ideas as they came to me. I didn’t ask if it was good or in accord with somebody else’s ideas; I just started doing it. But I didn’t commit myself to anything until some time in March 1958, when I went to Paris. It was then that I started to put together, quite consciously, what I thought was an art style.

Phong Bui: And unlike the flat and delineated images that were painted by, let’s say, Lichtenstein or Warhol, your images were very painterly. They’re painted wet-on-wet, with all sorts of blurring and dragging devices.

Saul: Well, I don’t consider Warhol a painter; he’s a photographer who prints on the canvas, which is a whole different thing. Rosenquist, for instance, is a painter; so was Lichtenstein. They were very prominent starting in ’62.

Sandler: Did you know their art then?

Saul: Within about six weeks of the first museum survey of American Pop Art, curated by Walter Hopps at the Pasadena Art Museum in January ’62, my mother sent me a long article from the San Francisco Chronicle, and there were mentions of Rosenquist, Lichtenstein, Wesselmann, among others, along with my name. I felt a little uncomfortable because my own paintings seemed the least radical. And the only thing I knew about modern art was that it needed to be radical. It needed to have something the matter with it in a big way. And my own art didn’t seem to have as much the matter with it as some of these other people. And that kind of made me uncomfortable.

Sandler: When you were in Paris in the early ’60s, there was a movement called the New Realism, championed by Pierre Restany, which included Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely, Arman, Christo, and Martial Raysse. Were you aware of them at that time?

Saul: I never met Restany or other critics of his circle. I never read their articles. [Laughter.] Didn’t know a thing about them. The only people I knew were a handful of completely unknown Americans, and if I knew any French person it was one critic, Marcelin Pleynet.

Sandler: But, as the Managing Editor of the influential Tel Quel magazine from 1962 – 1982, he was more prominent within abstract art.

Saul: Yeah, but I knew him personally. I’m sure he didn’t see any sense in my painting.

Bui: While you were in Paris you met several people: the painter James Bishop, who had also gone to Washington University in Saint Louis, where you had gone as an undergraduate from 1952–1956, and Roberto Matta, among others.

Saul: It was a very funny situation because, even though I only met Matta twice, he did introduce me to Allan Frumkin, my future art dealer, which was a miracle—it saved my life, kind of. Matta actually didn’t seem very friendly to me, and my ex-wife was just as unfriendly to him, so I don’t know what was going on, frankly. I just spent my days painting. My social life was a jumble.

Bui: Do you have an affinity with Matta’s work?

Saul: Oh, yes. Well, the thing is, I didn’t really know his work that well: I was let off of studying art history in art school. Halfway through my first year, the art history teacher called me and a few other people in and said, “If you’d like to quit the class, I’ll give you a B, because I don’t want you snickering in the back of the room.” [Laughter.] And I said, okay, more time for painting. So I didn’t actually know Matta’s work—or anyone else’s—very well. I may have heard of Max Ernst, or Dalí, but in general I didn’t have any knowledge of modern art, especially when I left art school, so I’d never heard of Matta, or Gorky. I first saw Matta’s work at the Galerie du Dragon—a show of his drawings. I thought that, if he saw my work, he might like it. And that’s all there was to it. But some of these people I knew who were unknown artists considered me a real make-out type person—someone trying to get to know people, you know. So it took about a year to get his address.

Bui: The reason I bring up Matta is because he had a significant influence on Gorky, in particular, but the rest of the New York Abstract Expressionist painters didn’t really appreciate him that much.

Sandler: That was because they didn’t think he was that good. At any rate, Peter, this is possibly not a question I should ask, but I’ll try it: If you look back in the early ’60s—1960 to, say, ’64—it’s interesting that both in the United States and in France, in New York and in Paris, these realist styles—Pop Art, the New Realism—emerged just at the moment that your work was being shown for the first time.

Saul: Yeah, I had a lucky break, definitely. Otherwise, I was selling newspapers—the Herald-Tribune. I basically lived on one dollar a day. They didn’t think that was possible, for an American to live on a dollar a day, but it was quite possible in 1959.

Anyway, Abstract Expressionism was over with by that time, I suppose. Besides, I never had the urge to come to New York and meet Abstract Expressionist artists or people in the art world. I don’t know why. Partly social inadequacy. And partly idealism.

Bui: Irving, how did you see Peter’s work in the context of the New York figurative expressionism of the ’50s?

Sandler: Peter seems to use some of the open brushwork of Expressionism, but the subject relates both to the New Realism in Paris and to Pop Art.

Saul: There is one painter I do relate to. I try to suppress this, but I do relate to Diebenkorn, who made some figurative paintings—mostly women standing against a blue sky. The reason I suppress this is partly because he was a great favorite of Time magazine—a wonderful middlebrow artist in the opinion of the Luce publications. I just did not want to face up to this resemblance. So I was glad to have my iceboxes: “Oh, thank god I’ve got an icebox, [laughs], a stove, a washing machine. I won’t have to use those women.”

Bui: Does that count for David Park and the rest of the Bay Area?

Sandler: How about Elmer Bischoff?

Saul: Diebenkorn was world famous. Bischoff and Park were not known by someone like me.

Peter Saul, “Jesus in Electric Chair,” 2004. Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 68 in. Harkey Family Collection, Dallas. Courtesy of Haunch of Venison New York.
Peter Saul, “Jesus in Electric Chair,” 2004. Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 68 in. Harkey Family Collection, Dallas. Courtesy of Haunch of Venison New York.

Sandler: Let me jump ahead. What were your feelings about the Vietnam War? Did it politicize you? It certainly politicized your art.

Saul: Well, yes. I had strong leftist leanings, especially in those years. But, essentially, I took advantage of the war to make some art. Again, not having been a graduate student, I don’t really look into the pictures I’m making to seek out all their ramifications. Like, is this a good idea? [Laughter.] Will this be appreciated by women, and so on? It never occurred to me to ask things like that. I simply began the painting immediately, in a thoughtless manner, and I enjoyed doing it. And I was hoping, truly, that I would be able to make some use of this in getting art shows in San Francisco or the Bay Area. It was a big deal in California to protest the war. I even had specially made photographs of some of my early Vietnam paintings and I took them down to show Joan Baez, which was pretty crazy, because she was not amused. [Laughter.] “Get that stuff outta here!”

Sandler: So you would consider yourself a political artist.

Saul: I’ll certainly use political subjects, yes. But am I trying to paint for a certain audience? No. It’s like any other painting. It’s for the same small group of curators, collectors, and students, whatever. There’s a misunderstanding about politics in art—that you’re trying to convince somebody of something. This is not true, at least in my case.

Sandler: But your image of America is of a kind of deranged place. [Laughter.]

Saul: That’s right, it’s very negative. I have a sort of anti-authority feeling. It’s not America’s fault that it became deranged in my art. It’s the way I saw it because I needed to be an artist, and that was the only way I could get my personality into the thing.

Sandler: But another thing that you’ve said about your work is that you yourself were involved in bad behavior?

Saul: Jeez, I did? Well, I don’t know what bad behavior is.

Sandler: There’s a kind of absurdist quality in your work that is not political at all. The figures you depict are grotesque.

Saul: That’s true. I like distortion. I can’t understand why one would return to realistic drawing after Picasso. I’m amazed. I never thought it would happen. Things happened that surprised me, and that’s one of them.

Sandler: In spite of these marvelously grotesque images, your painting is actually very beautiful. And I mean that in the best sense of the word. You’re really involved in the craft and the beauty of painting itself. And the two don’t often seem to want to meet.

Saul: I try to take the low and bring it up. I do it a favor, I think. I like to take things that have been disregarded graphically and help them out by making them more beautiful, glamorous, and thoroughly done.

Bui: You’ve used the term “art interpreters” to describe people who can make or break an artist’s career. You haven’t wanted to depend on what is considered in or out: what is considered fashionable today could be passé tomorrow. Do you remember when you took this position?

Saul: In art school. I felt that I would not be successful in getting to know the important people in the art world. I did not think I would achieve friendship with Harold Rosenberg, given my ideas. And I think there was just a feeling that my best bet was to do my art the way I wanted and to try and find an art dealer, whom I seemed to unrealistically regard as some kind of savior. Although it’s true! I’ve had wonderful relationships with art dealers. It’s just astonishing. They must be a bunch of masochists. [Laughter.]

Sandler: You also said that you considered yourself a history painter. Once when you were asked what painting in history you most admired, you mentioned 19th century French history painting, specifically Bouguereau and Gérôme. Does that have to do with the quality of their paintings? Or the fact that they’re interested in historical subjects?

Saul: Well, they’re looking for a beautiful woman, a beautiful peasant on the farm, to be their model. I can understand that. Rosa Bonheur also influenced me greatly. Her “The Horse Fair” was the first old painting I paid attention to. “Ploughing in the Nivernais,” the one at Musée d’Orsay. But I am finished looking at them. Now I’m looking for something else to look at.

Bui: You’re one of the few artists who appreciate both content and technique instead of the combination of form and content. It’s interesting that you like Monet and Manet in the same way that you like Bonheur and Bourguereau.

Saul: I think you’re supposed to have your own content, but there’s not enough content to go around. I feel extremely fortunate that I latched onto something in painting.

Sandler: Your work shares elements of the Chicago school. Have you spent any time in Chicago?

Saul: I have no knowledge of the city, except for the two weeks in 1964 when my wife and I were passing through. We had an apartment, which Frumkin had arranged for us, but I didn’t meet any artists. I was very disappointed. And I asked Frumkin later why I wasn’t able to meet any of them, and he said, I don’t know—it was somehow my fault. I wasn’t smooth enough; I wasn’t sophisticated enough. I took it to mean more social inadequacy. I just thought, oh, to hell with it.

Sandler: In one sense, your work doesn’t really apply to Pop Art or New Realism. It may relate more to a pathetic or absurdist stream in American art; I’m thinking of Paul McCarthy or Mike Kelley, for example. What do you think of that tendency?

Saul: I’m grateful to all of them. Those people’s existence is helpful to me, just like the Hairy Who and Guston—the more the merrier. You need to be part of some huge wave if you’re going to get anywhere.

Peter Saul, “Icebox,” 1960.  Oil on canvas, 69 x 58.5 in. Harkey Family Collection, Dallas. Courtesy of Haunch of Venison New York.
Peter Saul, “Icebox,” 1960. Oil on canvas, 69 x 58.5 in. Harkey Family Collection, Dallas. Courtesy of Haunch of Venison New York.

Bui: Why do you think that, in the ’80s, people like Leon Golub benefitted from the newfound attention to Neo-Expressionist painting, and you did not? And what do you make of the fact that it has been through the more radical performance artists, rather than through painters, that your work has been rediscovered?

Saul: I don’t know, but I’m grateful to it. About 15 or 20 years ago, I began to read in magazines that my work was very interesting to young painters. I was astonished because my actual relationship to the young painters I knew through teaching at the time was completely disastrous—not good at all. I couldn’t understand where this idea came from.

Sandler: Occasionally, or more than occasionally, you look for outrageous subject matter because it is outrageous.

Saul: Yes, I feel helpless in the face of an art world without strong painting, and at this present time I am most grateful for the early pictures I made that still stick out as awful, like “Subway I” (1979) and “Clemunteena Gwenburg” (1971). I’m most grateful for this because it’s the fashion now to discover older artists who for some reason have been overlooked—like they moved away from New York or something happened. It was those paintings that helped me to stick out and not just become another one of those cases. Even now you cannot incorporate them into the art world all that easily. They’re still offensive and I’m very happy about that indeed.

Sandler: I have this quote where you say, “I look for something sensational, it usually means something sensational that I think up like vomiting, hence vomiting, that’s a good idea.” Doesn’t this work against the marketability of your work?

Saul: I think I understood the nature of the art dealer early on. The art dealer is someone who, for some reason, already has some money, even though he complains about the agony of paying the rent: “Oh my god, I gotta pay the rent on this place.” What he really wants from the artist is some excitement, some reason for having the gallery. The artist who thinks that his purpose is to make money is crazy. An artist gets paid better for creating a little tremble.

Bui: And at some point in the mid-’50s—Christmas of 1956 to be exact—you decided to paint with brighter color, which led to the “Icebox” paintings. By the mid-’60s, in paintings such as “New China” (1965) and “Typical Saigon” (1968), the color became more intensified; the surface gets thinly painted and the forms get fragmented and dispersed all over the canvas. What was the impulse behind that change?

Saul: I discovered Day-Glo paint. A Mexican company called Polytech had an office in San Francisco with a store. There was a very nice man running it and he encouraged me to use these Day-Glo paints, which I did. Frankly, it was just a drift of the times. I also discovered acrylic paint at the same time when I got to California. I did try to paint with acrylic I had gotten in France a year earlier, but it was poorly manufactured. The paint was so stiff and dried so quickly that the brush would get stuck on the canvas. That’s all it was good for.

What I did then, and still do a lot, is plan out the drawing and then start painting, leaving the guidelines showing through the paint. I wasn’t thinking a whole lot when that change took place. Some people felt I didn’t have a good excuse for what I did, and it’s true.

Sandler: Has your work ever been censored?

Saul: Not to my knowledge. I was in Texas for 19 years and never had any trouble.

Bui: Peter, can we follow up on where we left off before about Allan Frumkin? In addition to showing Philip Pearlstein, Leon Golub, and H.C. Westermann, he also showed a few West Coast artists like William T. Wiley. And it was T. Wiley who invited you to U.C. Davis.

Saul: That’s true. I taught there for three months.

Bui: While you were there did you also get to know Wayne Thiebaud?

Saul: I never met him even though he taught there. He simply wasn’t in the room I was in.

Peter Saul, “Clemunteena Gweenburg,” 1971. Colored pencil and gouache on museum board. 41 x 31 in. Collection of Sally and Peter Saul. Courtesy of Haunch of Venison New York.
Peter Saul, “Clemunteena Gweenburg,” 1971. Colored pencil and gouache on museum board. 41 x 31 in. Collection of Sally and Peter Saul. Courtesy of Haunch of Venison New York.

Sandler: It’s interesting that Wiley’s name should come up because some of his humor relates to the humor in your work.

Saul: I guess so, but he just presented himself as, “Hi, I’m William T. Wiley.” There was a knock on the door and there he was, working about 200 yards away. I got to meet Bruce Nauman as a student, who owes Wiley a lot.

Sandler: Yes, he does.

Saul: While I was there I did try to get on with the Bay Area artists, but I don’t think I did very well; again, I don’t think I had the experience of talking to people and relating to them. There’s a big drawback to being by yourself or with a girlfriend in a big metropolis and not even speaking the language. My life was very isolated.

Sandler: But your work always managed to be in the art world’s eye or in the back of our minds.

Saul: I certainly hope so because I didn’t want to be “no place.” I used to just want to have an art career—I thought the art career consisted solely of the paintings. I didn’t quite understand that the artist also, or even primarily, is what people are interested in. I couldn’t figure that out and by the time I did I was 60 years old.

Sandler: And you didn’t really need it anyway.

Bui: Can we go back to the beginning for a little bit? You discovered art in the late ’40s while you were in boarding school, mostly through, as you’ve said, what you saw in Life magazine: color reproductions of paintings by Eugene Speicher, John Steuart Curry.

Saul: Yes. I looked at them very carefully. Also, my mother had one art book, which I was fascinated by, that had Paul Cadmus’s “Coney Island” (1934), Thomas Hart Benton’s “The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley” (1934), and Peter Blume’s “South of Scranton” (1931). These puzzling paintings interested me a great deal when I was at this incredibly crazy school where, one afternoon a week, you had a choice between pursuing a hobby or hauling logs in the snow. [Laughs.] No contest. I tried stamp collecting and that was a failure because the room devoted to stamp collecting had no heat, so you couldn’t even touch the stamps. They kept dropping on the floor and my fingers were numb. So my mother gave me this little box of paints.

It was very upsetting to my parents that I wanted to be an artist. They presented it to me as a kind of family tragedy: “Who will take care of you after we’re dead?” I was treated like a crippled child.

Sandler: Wasn’t it your parents who insisted you go to Paris?

Saul: There were two reasons: my father insisted, but also we were thrown out because we’d been in Holland for over a year without a visa. So we had to leave anyway. I was glad, frankly. It was beautiful but there was no future as an artist in a small town in Holland, or even in Amsterdam. They have little tiny art or kunst circles, private art schools all over, so we rented space in one and met some of them. They’re pretty funny, really. One guy said “Peter Saul, you can never be a famous artist because your name has an ugly sound in Dutch. Sah-ool cannot be.” I guess he thought I should quit art.

Bui: How was your training at Washington University? Who were your teachers? Was your training traditional?

Saul: Fred Conway was one of my teachers, and most painters in the classroom painted in the manner of Conway: a sort of Midwestern semi-abstraction. Max Beckmann had been to the school, but had died two years before I got there. My teacher was Walter Barker, Beckmann’s best student, because he spoke German and would translate for Beckmann in the classroom. But Barker and I had an instant dislike for each other. He saw me for who I am: a total smart aleck, laughing at important things—just hatred. He gave me a D.

Bui: I understand that you endured intense beatings in boarding school. I have to wonder whether your sense of humor arose out of necessity.

Saul: Probably. There were a handful of kids there who didn’t seem to mind getting beaten. That was pretty formidable: five or six of them out of 80. I was impressed. I minded almost too much, actually. I think I’m easily frightened.

Sandler: Humor can also be very dangerous in art because it’s equated with a lack of seriousness.

Saul: How can modern art be serious? That’s an incredible notion. [Laughter.] When someone comes to me, like a student or teacher, with a big gray canvas that looms over us and starts to tell me serious ideas—I can’t believe it.

I don’t know why people who made modern art allowed rules to be imposed on them, rules of seriousness. I haven’t. It’s like being religious, and I don’t believe in anything except stop at the red light and start at the green and you’re less likely to get killed.

Sandler: But for many of us art is a quasi-religion, which is supposed to be serious.

Saul: But how did that happen?

Bui: Once Paul Tillich, the theologian, gave a lecture at the Union Theological Seminary about religion or spirituality and someone asked, “If Babe Ruth committed to hitting as many home runs as he could, would that be considered a spiritual act?” He said, “Yes, it would.” So in that same way, one would think being an artist who wishes to make the best pictures as he or she could has a similar aspiration.

Peter Saul, “Vietnam,” 1966. Oil on canvas, 79.25 x 67 in. Collection of Sally and Peter Saul. Courtesy of Haunch of Venison New York.
Peter Saul, “Vietnam,” 1966. Oil on canvas, 79.25 x 67 in. Collection of Sally and Peter Saul. Courtesy of Haunch of Venison New York.

Saul: I think in a way it could be making a sort of monument to yourself to be left behind after you’re dead—a sort of tombstone, a fancy one, in the same way people leave companies, orchards, and buildings. Crocheted blankets. [Laughter.]

Sandler: I’m really very taken that you don’t find your work as outrageous as I do. Paul McCarthy is similar: he thinks he’s just doing something absolutely ordinary.

Saul: I’ve only met him once. He came to Austin and we made a small picture together.

Sandler: I keep going back to the fact that I find your painting both marvelous and outrageous. We were talking about seriousness: I can’t imagine Piero or Velázquez saying that if he had enough money he’d paint a big statue of Castro wiping his ass with dollars.

Saul: I like Castro a lot, though at this moment he doesn’t interest me politically. But Latinos are so macho that it’s fun to change sex on them—you know, Castro as a woman. It entertains me, the dangerous bride. [Laughter.]

Sandler: I find it very interesting as a historian who is interested in dates that you discovered Mad in 1958. Pop Art doesn’t emerge until 1961 or ’62, possibly ’60 with Oldenburg and Dine. But you’re thinking in this direction very early.

Saul: Unfortunately, in modern art, to “emerge” means to show in a prominent art gallery.

Bui: At the right time.

Saul: Yes, and I have to admit that right now I am trying to “emerge” at Haunch of Venison. [All burst into laughter.] Having already shown at other places.

Sandler: What about de Kooning’s series of paintings of women?

Saul: Oh yes, I was very interested in that. I painted eight or nine of versions of de Kooning’s “Woman I.”

Bui: You did a wonderful spin-off of his “Woman and Bicycle” at the Whitney.

Saul: I do like artists who I picture as rebelling against things. Sometimes they’re talented and sometimes they’re not, is what it amounts to.

Bui: Could you talk about the painting “Oedipus Junior” (1983), which you considered to be a landmark painting for you?

Saul: I had a studio and I got things together after years of chaos. The studio was three miles from the house so I had to walk it and felt like taking a nap by the time I got there. Eventually I met an architect who built a beautiful studio in our house and the first painting I made was that one. I was so thrilled that I made it look as good as I could and I got the idea of using some oil paint on top of acrylic. Some art teacher must have told me I could do that. That’s it; I started off my mature work right there.

Sandler: I wonder what kind of an art critic you’d make.

Saul: [Laughs.] I hope a good one.

Bui: You also made a painting of Peter Schjeldahl and Hilton Kramer.

Saul: That wasn’t a very good painting, actually. I could have done it better.

Bui: Would you do it again with other critics?

Saul: I should and I could, but I haven’t. I’m trying to make friends with art critics at this point in my life.

Sandler: Not with Clement Greenberg. I think your portrait of him got him spot on.

Saul: I did those paintings because there was a feeling in California of psychology being just a tremendous thing. A friend of my mine told me I should make a bunch of paintings where just anything happens: everybody fucks everybody, just crazy-crazy. Bill Geis was his name, and we were crossing the Golden Gate Bridge when he said this. I said I’d do it. I got some cardboard and started out. For artists I used those little pictures in the front of Artforum as the source of my likenesses; I still do if I ever need anyone like that.

Sandler: What do you think of the critical reception of your work over the decades?

Saul: At first it was terrible but it started to get better about 20 years ago. Now I feel very good about it. I’m one of the luckiest artists, and I think that’s terrific.

Bui: Now that the situation in the art world has changed so much—there is no predominant style; it’s spread out horizontally—what would be the advice you would give to a young artist?

Saul: Oh gosh, I’m not sure I know. I draw a blank when it comes to advice. Perhaps it’s best not to take advice. I’d say don’t take any advice.


Irving Sandler and Phong Bui


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 10-JAN 11

All Issues