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Weekly Update — Peter Saul’s super heat at PAFA


This week’s Weekly has my review of the Peter Saul retrospective at PAFA. Below is the copy with some words added back in. And here’s Libby’s and my chat with Saul at the show’s preview party.

PETER SAUL - Icebox #7.jpg
Peter Saul. Icebox Number 7, 1963; Oil on canvas, 74 1/2 x 63 inches (188 x 160 cm); Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Bill Lenox, Dallas

Peter Saul is not a pacifist or a left wing radical. And he’s not a communist, because, he says, he never did find where the party hung out. But the wry contrarian—now having a major museum retrospective at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts—skewers all brutes and evil-doers with eye-popping paintings that are existential and satirically political. Unbelievably, he’s never had a solo museum show in New York. Now, at age 74, the lion of barbed political narratives has a major retrospective at PAFA. And according to PAFA curator Robert Cozzolino, the show has been drawing both laughs and outrage from viewers.

Donald Duck Crucifixion, 1964; Oil on canvas, 63 x 59 inches (160 x 150 cm); Collection of Karin E. Tappendorf
Donald Duck Crucifixion, 1964; Oil on canvas, 63 x 59 inches (160 x 150 cm); Collection of Karin E. Tappendorf

Beginning with early paintings and drawings from the 1960s, the show introduces an artist of loose works that are a jumble of pop culture icons (soupcans, Donald Duck, toilets, Superman, money, police, Kleenex). With their bold fields of color or grid backgrounds they suggest domestic interiors or confused board games while feeling intimate and personal. Somewhere in the mid ’60s the artist changes subject matter with works like “Woman Being Executed,” “Donald Duck Crucifixion” and “Sex Crime.” These pieces are no longer intimate or domestic and instead deal with larger social themes. The colors get brighter, the paint handling tightens up, and, as the show continues—with work through 2007—there is more confidence and controlled fury. The technique becomes so pristine it looks similar to air brushing. (It’s not, the artist works by himself, stretches the canvas and uses a dry-brush daub technique).

Patricia Hills, David Curtis, Daniel Heyman, Peter Saul, Jane Irish
Patricia Hills, David Curtis, Daniel Heyman, Peter Saul, Jane Irish, at the symposium on Saul, art and politics at PAFA, Nov. 1.

At the symposium on art and politics at PAFA on Nov. 1, Saul was asked about his motives for painting. Speaking cryptically, he explained that at the time when people told him his work was too “pop” and that “Pop was dead.” He saw the Vietnam War being televised according to the artist, he “made it my next subject … to save my career.”

PETER SAUL - Columbus Discovers America.jpg
Columbus Discovers America, 1992-95; Acrylic and oil on canvas 96 x 120 inches (243.8 x 304.8 cm); Levy Family Collection, Dallas

And he compared himself to faux memoir writer James Frey whom Oprah Whitney took to task on her show after his book, “Million Little Pieces,” turned out to be a con job.    Said Saul, “… I’m boring.  I never saw a dead person…I recently put my cat to sleep and couldn’t stand it.  I left the room crying.”  In other words, for all the bombast in his paintings, he’s a little pussycat himself.  He said he’d defend his paintings on Oprah if it came to that.  “What if a person’s never been to war or is not black…it’s not fair to restrict an Anglo Saxon to (making) harmless pictures,” he said.

Saul says he’s fascinated with rebels. “First of all I read [Truman] Capote. It incited me to bad guys,” he said. Then he belonged to a psychology book club. “I only concentrated on criminals and not the self-help books,” he admits.

Peter Saul, installation at PAFA
Installation at PAFA showing two Vietnam war paintings by Saul.

Some of the most hallucinating and biting works in this show—the ones with the most electric colors, twisted bodies, oozing blood and punctured body parts—are the Vietnam War paintings, made throughout the 1960s. Hard-edged works for a hard-boiled subject, they describe a modern-day Hieronymus Bosch hell on earth. Their blinding reds and greens and acidic yellows and hot pinks hurt the eyes and dare the viewer to stay with them.

Saul’s larger narrative paintings are ambitious. He may be using cartoon-like methods but he’s making work “for the same audience Kandinsky painted for.”

PETER SAUL - Bush at Abu Ghraib 2006.jpg
Bush at Abu Ghraib, 2006; Acrylic on canvas 78 x 90 inches (198.1 x 228.6 cm); Hall Collection

The traveling exhibit includes 50 paintings and drawings supplemented by notebooks from the artist’s studio. PAFA has programmed up a storm to supplement the show.  Don’t miss a lecture by Robert Storr, Dean of Yale University School of Art and a long-time friend of Saul’s, on Dec. 5.

Peter Saul: A Retrospective.
Through Jan. 4.
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts,
118-128 N. Broad St.

And for word on more political art don’t miss Tara Murtha’s cover story on our great local artist of furious imagery, Zoe Strauss. Here’s the audio slide show the Weekly did featuring Strauss talking about her work.