Beautiful, Vivid, Self-contained–A Pretty Good Show With “Such a Flimsy Premise”*

Hill Art Foundation, April 21 – July 21, 2023

David Salle, “Reliance” (1985)

A long time ago a dealer visited David Salle’s studio and commented “Oh, I get it, Francis Bacon for straight people.” As he explains in an essay that accompanies the show, Salle has been thinking about it for years and he is inclined to think there might be “a grain of truth in it.” He has curated this show as a group of pairings of art works that might have something to do with each other—or might not.
He also poses a lot of questions about what constitutes artistic influence. Here’s a confusing one: “Can artists of different styles—different surface attributes have a similar relationship to their intention?”*

A box of candy and a bouquet can have the same intention while looking nothing alike. Two artists might be keen or half-hearted in relation to their intention, but I’m lost.

How are fish and music the same? They both have scales.

If words are to have any meaning, and sometimes one wonders in the art world, Bacon and Salle are opposites, whatever your sexual orientation: Dionysian and Apollonian, those wonderful and necessary antagonists.

Francis Bacon, “Study for Figure II” (1953)

Bacon is Dionysian, ecstatic, we are animals, we crawl and suffer. We can’t understand why we are being bombed from the sky—for example. In the portraits we are not recognizing, we are not hearing, we are looking beneath the words, beyond the normalization of human relationships to their strangeness. Why does the pope scream? For the same reason that the monkey screams. And the paint is made flesh.
Does Bacon make me uncomfortable and fearful? Well, I’m already that. Also when I am looking at a great Bacon, and this is the crazy thing, no matter if it is a bloody side of beef, my first response is  “How beautiful.” I then go on to a series of thoughts and feelings but somehow they are wrapped up in the sensual experience.

When I first saw Salle’s work in 1979, I laughed; it was a thrill of recognition. There is no single way to depict reality, there are multiple visual languages and I am fluent! Salle doesn’t paint images—he alludes to them and it’s a terrific joke. He’s not didactic, no spelling it out, and he’s economical—just enough to know intellectually, objectively, coolly what he’s referring to. You don’t have to know all of his references to read the painting—in that sense he could appeal to anyone. Neither the whole nor the parts are beautiful in a sensual way—that would detract from the experience of looking at the painting.

It might be worthwhile to make a couple of points here. First, that Salle reminds me of Walter Benjamin. Benjamin identified the problem of mechanical reproduction before it was even a problem and Salle created his works from cut-out magazine pictures before the internet —as if he had foreseen this Tower of Babel. Which by the way seems to be having the same result as the original: “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” Genesis 11:1-9

Secondly, Salle has influenced many artists, some of whom are included in this show. Many grasped the idea of images as images, but not that underlying understanding of what Salle identifies as grammar. Others have leaped on the idea that art is about art and that an intellectual distance is the best way to view (and collect) it!

Edgar Degas, “Cavaliers sur une route” (1864–68)

I think I might have enjoyed the show more if I had just looked at it as a hodgepodge of available works. There are good paintings here, but instead of just looking at them, I kept trying to understand the curatorial motivation of pairing them and by the end without even knowing which ones were paired. It might be proximity, it might be how they are arranged in the catalogue—nobody seems to know.

I like the Degas—it’s beautiful, the woodgrain of the support shows through;  there is also a feeling of early morning expectancy. The white horse on the left and the dark horse on the right set the field in motion into deep space

Walter Price, “Discomfort” (2022)

Aside from a beautiful transparency, Walter Price’s Discomfort has nothing to do with Degas. What is interesting here is the compression of the figures in a shallow horizontal space that contains an intriguing web of human relationships—a group of figures that might be at a party, in an audience, or is it a waiting room?

Amy Sillman, “Untitled (blue, black)” (2023)


Pablo Picasso, “Femme aux Mains Jointes” (1938)

Amy Sillman’s painting Blue is next to Picasso’s Femme…. Whether that means they are paired, I dunno. Seen next to each other, some congruence in the shapes may be found. She is more connected to the De Kooning hanging opposite and not much with Albert Oehlen (whom she was paired with in the NYT review.) But I think it is other De Koonings that Sillman is in connection with and opposition to. The paranoid portraits of woman as “Other”—she has replaced them with woman as “Self.”
Just as important as being “influenced by” is working “in opposition to.”

Frank Auerbach, “Head of Julia” (1985)

I was most moved by Auerbach’s Julia. I didn’t see any other painter in the show that was influenced by him or who particularly influenced him and that is too bad. It comes across almost as a shock to see a painting “painted from life” in a group of abstractions, works painted from photographs and/ or the imagination. The emotional impact is not directly planned by the painter—it slowly comes into existence because of a series of their actions: looking, relooking, painting, repainting.

I hope you will take these comments as a caution: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

But see the show for sure.


*  “A painting of mine next to a Bacon—would they have anything to say to each other? This was more or less an idle thought exercise, a fantasy that periodically floated to the surface of consciousness only to be dismissed, as it was impossible that any museum, public or private, would ever venture such a far-fetched comparison. Cue Tom
and Janine Hill.
I can imagine the reader’s reaction at this point. How could I attempt to make a group
show based on such a flimsy premise, and worse, one so patently self-serving? What could excuse such an act of hubris? How could I ask friends and colleagues to participate in such transparent self-promotion? It’s a fair question and one to which I have no real answer.”

Beautiful Vivid, self-contained, catalogue essay, David Salle

The entire essay can be accessed through the exhibition page at Hill Art Foundation here