PETER SAUL and DAN DURAY in conversation
Saul’s paintings evoke political cartoons, graffiti, and the psychedelic offerings of Zap Comix. Day glo is the order of the day as is war, hedonism, Americana, self-absorption and crucifixion. They’re mish-mashes of raw material, I’ll learn at the studio, where he shows me sketches and words that will come together to someday form paintings (“Homosote,” he’s written down somewhere.
Doesn’t know what it means, but likes that it sounds like “homosexual.”) The radio offerings up North seemed to offer the same kind of emotions and politics he samples: overly personal Taylor Swift breakup songs, a station playing an Orson Welles serial based on “The Third Man,” and, of course, on the news: Trump, Trump, Trump. It rained, so only the colors were different. Grey and green.
Saul’s work is often classified as Pop, and like those works they’re a reaction to Abstract Expressionism, but nobody loathes such labels and movements more than Saul. His work is in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Centre Pompidou, LACMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Stedelijk Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, but he has done his own neon version of “Guernica,” and “Donald Duck Descending a Staircase.”
Saul is counter. Though he grew up in San Francisco—before it, like my Brooklyn neighborhood, was conquered by money—he is even counter-counter-culture, trying marijuana just three times, and learning of the hippie movement through a letter from his mother in 1958. Saul was living in Europe at the time. The letter said, “Some friends of ours joined us in Berkeley this weekend and wanted to go look at the beatniks in the cafe, but I don’t think it’s right to look at people just because they don’t take a bath. Do you?”
My parents are the same, earnest, kind of removed from everything. They folded laundry a lot and just couldn’t understand how Donald Trump had come to the head of a major party ticket. I was tired of talking about him, so I mostly hid in their sauna with some comic books from the basement, superhero things from my childhood that I wouldn’t miss when the heat disintegrated them.
“I read the comics that I liked,” Saul told me at the sparkling new two-story studio he and his wife Sally share, outside their nicely restored 1860s farmhouse. “‘Crime Does Not Pay,’ those kinds of things, back in 1939 through ’44.” It wasn’t until 1958, in Europe, that he discovered MAD magazine, and it only took him reading 30 seconds of it before he put it down, and went and made a painting based on it. “My parents lived on Octavia Street and every morning you would see Alcatraz,” he added. “The children of the Alcatraz guards went to the same school as me when I was a little kid. Crime got into my head early as a thing to be interested in.”
DD: I’m sure you’ve received some criticism for your portrayals of women. Do you laugh it off?
Peter: I try to. Frankly, it probably hurts me some, but nothing I can do about it. I just let it be. I take the advice, a little bit, from my first art dealer Allan Frumkin. After I had been showing for two or three shows starting in 1960, I was doing pretty good. I had a ton of money compared to most artists.
Everything was sold, of course, because of the vague resemblance to Pop Art, and I felt, “Hey, he must be happy with me.” So I fished for a compliment. I said, “I’m doing pretty good, don’t you think?”. He said, “Why don’t you just pay attention to what you’re doing and pay no attention to what other people think you’re worth, because what you want to do is like tennis: you get the ball in your court so you can slam it.” I said, “OK. I’ll give that a try,” and before I could even paint another picture, almost my art career collapsed. I mean I stopped selling, which is a normal event, but I didn’t know anything about this, being an isolated artist. What often happens, if not always, is that you sell a lot of pictures because you’re a young newly discovered artist. Then it suddenly stops, for a while anyway.
I didn’t realize this, so then I felt I was just holding to his word and I just continued and paid no attention to sales or reviews. Now, I don’t pay a whole lot of attention either because I feel if you don’t pay attention to the negatives, it’s unfair to pay attention to the positives. You might as well just not pay very much attention at all. That’s what I’m doing today … I feel loose and friendly… am I not being friendly?
Read the full interview in King Kong Magazine AW16 on Sale now.
Peter Saul “Some Terrible Problems.” on view at Michael Werner Gallery London through 5 November.