How to See David Salle

Epaulettes for Walt Kuhn, 1987. How I See It: Two women are naked, presenting their asses, though perhaps not knowingly; they are standing on their heads, photographed from above. I do not see their faces. Their legs are cut off. A cow viewed from behind floats in an ochre blob over the second naked woman’s thighs; the cow’s ass is the woman’s ass; the woman is the cow. The third woman is naked from the waist down but wears a military band jacket. I see her mouth, an orifice, but not her eyes; her face is turned away from me. Her hands on her hips, her breasts pitched forward: a pose that burlesques a soldierly boldness even she seems to recognize is merely a bad joke when she’s the one wearing it. A chain like a leash hangs a loop to frame the delta of her pubic hair. A dead fish gapes in rigor, bedded in its oozes. Fish smell. Crabs, crabs’ claws, scuttling.

Eons ago, back in October 2016, the painter David Salle put out a book, How to See: Looking, Talking, and Thinking About Art. It did not enter my consciousness that this book existed until February, when I saw it displayed on the New Non-Fiction shelf at the library where I work, and I thought to myself, oh, what an ugly book, noting with distaste the blobby, glibly ingratiating computer-simulated-magic-marker-fast-food-franchise-font used for the title, primary red and blue on acid white, the words out of order in service of a visual pun: 2. to, 1. How, 3. See. The author’s name in the same kitschy mass-market font, soft gray, smaller print, in the upper right, to the right of the title’s “to,” the placement conspicuous in its self-aware awkwardness.  Then I scowled, obliged to recall David Salle had not ceased to exist. I have not read his book and I do not intend to. I did read the publisher’s description – “Internationally renowned painter David Salle’s incisive essay collection illuminates the work of many influential artists of the twentieth century.” – and a review written in the New York Times: “It’s serious but never solemn, alert to pleasure, a boulevardier’s crisp stroll through the visual world.” A boulevardier, I confirmed, is a “a wealthy, fashionable socialite,” someone with the resources to spend a significant portion of his time ambling along boulevards, in that languorous Parisian way, preferably in a top coat, kidskin gloves. According to the Times, if you are grateful to be talked down to in “witty” and “sunny” tones by such a man as he heaps kudos on the art of other rich men, his upper-crust friends, you will enjoy How to See, especially if you are so grateful for a moment’s idyll in the dazzling headspace of the aristocrat as to overlook repetitiveness, shallow analysis, and lack of original insight. Isn’t it fascinating enough to learn that Urs Fischer sups daily on delicious organic fare come lunchtime? In which tell-all essay, one wonders, will we get the official scoop on Jeff Koons’ squash game? May the circle jerk never ever end. The review in the Times concludes that if you are the type of person to be impressed by David Salle and his in-crowd pals, you will be charmed by this book; the Times is impressed by David Salle, and charmed, hence you should be as well.

Salle, emblematic boy wonder of the 80s New York art world, won critical and financial success with a prodigious output of paintings characterized by a layering of miscellaneous visual debris – e.g. candlesticks, African masks, meat, mid-century-modern furniture, male poets’ names – over images of depersonalized naked women. They are iconic paintings, the encapsulation of the lingering, though now ebbing, postmodernist ethos of cool irony, smirking indifference, self-satisfied self-absorbed nihilism. Salle’s paintings were (and are still) lauded for how they interrogate meaning, which is to say, asserting that meaning is passé, so too truth, everything is equally meaningless, phony; the sophisticated choice is to forego the hopeless, childish search for meaning and dwell instead in superficiality and introspective masturbation. Salle’s paintings are alleged to be interesting precisely because they are meaningless; they elude meaning and thus provide critics and others with a stake in voluminous babbling over art much opportunity to grope prolix toward an analysis, with a concerted focus on the formal. Much has been written about Salle’s use of collage, juxtaposition and superimposition, appropriation, the politics of representation, his inversion or coy repudiation of “art’s rules”—therein is the inventiveness and allure of his work, to a certain set in any case. It is art about art, an elitist onanism which, upheld as an appropriate, even righteous, fixation, has the salutary effect of justifying the detachment of the elite from every reality outside their own cocktail party shrimp canapé existence. With your head up your ass you are saved from bearing witness to the suffering of others. Injustice is as meaningless as everything else.

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David Hamilton, Ambassador of Artisanal Child Pornography, Dead

photographer david hamilton
“His sensitive eye noticed how, when spring became summer, the innocence and awakening self-awareness of the young girls were reflected in the flowers and the trees, the doves and the flocks of sheep. It was a world through which he wandered, as if unseen, in pursuit of dreams…”  // from the introduction to DREAMS OF YOUNG GIRLS, Hamilton, 1971 //

The British photographer David Hamilton, whose long career treated art appreciators and men everywhere to over twenty books bursting with soft-focus images of naked pubescent girls, died last week at age 83. It’s possible that he took his own life, as there are reports that when found in his Paris home by a neighbor, Hamilton had a plastic bag drawn over his head, a bottle of pills nearby. Perhaps, struck by a sudden, winter-of-the-soul realization of his role in normalizing – and providing fodder to fuel – the sexual objectification of girl-children by adult men, or of his own creative bankruptcy, Hamilton could no longer bear to live with himself. Or maybe he pulled the plastic bag over his head because four women had recently come forward with accounts of how Hamilton raped them when they modeled for him as children, and he could not bear the smear of being outed as a sexual predator. Since men’s consciences seem only rarely to suffer for either their crimes against females or for burdening the world with bad art, I’m going to say the latter is a safer bet.

Shortly before his death Hamilton denied the allegations against him, claiming he had done “nothing improper” and “nothing at all,” and threatened to sue one of the women, Flavie Flament, for defamation. In October, Flament published a semi-autobiographical novel in which she describes being raped by a famous photographer. Following the novel’s release, when she began to hear from other women whose experiences with said photographer mirrored her own, she publicly identified Hamilton as the “man who raped [her] when [she] was 13, the man who raped many young girls.” Since his death, Flament has charged the dead artist with cowardice for suiciding and depriving his victims the closure of ever seeing him convicted.

She is right that it was cowardly for Hamilton to abdicate responsibility by excusing himself from earthly existence. I wonder, however, if this act of cowardice is not such a sorry outcome. Are we to regret that he died? Frankly I am not up to the task of mourning his death. If he ought to have lived in order to be condemned, well, the majority of rapists escape conviction and in any case, under the French statue of limitations, the charges against Hamilton were too old to be tried. He never would have been convicted. And while I sympathize with the women’s desire to see their rapist treated as a criminal, I also question whether or not the established route of trial and penalty always, or ever, achieves real justice. With his suicide, Hamilton sentenced himself to death, a choice that rings of confession. Would an innocent man kill himself over false accusations? And what was he so afraid of, if not being known for what he was: a man who raped young girls? Hamilton’s suicide intimates his guilt, and although he is not here now to face the consequences, we can hope that the new posthumous stench of culpability will taint his artistic legacy.

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