‘The Sheer Excitement of Being an Artist’

Art © David Salle/Licensed by Vaga, NY, NY
David Salle: Tennyson, 78 x 117 x 5 1/2 inches, 1983

In an article on André Derain in How to See, his first collection of art writings, the painter David Salle says that, as “a former enfant terrible myself,” he has been drawn to the French artist’s story—that of a figure who was crucially a part of the beginnings of modern art and then notably came to reject the modern spirit. Salle’s point isn’t exactly that, like Derain, he was a pathbreaking painter who has become a traditionalist. Salle would seem to mean by “enfant terrible” (a term with which he refers to himself elsewhere in these pages) more that, as Webster’s Collegiate defines it, he was once a “young and successful person who is strikingly unorthodox, innovative, or avant-garde.”

This would fit Salle, who by the beginning of the 1980s, as he was turning thirty (he was born in 1952), was making some of the most powerful of the new works that were dramatically altering the art scene. Of course, many of the arriving artists of the time were to a degree enfants terribles in the sense that they were young troublemakers. Whether they were painters and included, along with Salle, Julian Schnabel, Eric Fischl, Terry Winters, Carroll Dunham, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, or whether—as Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince demonstrated—they were artists who used photography (rather than being camera artists on the order of Walker Evans), the new figures of the early 1980s, in their different ways, were turning upside down the rules and shibboleths that had guided the art scene for over a decade.

Conceptual art, which dominated that scene, had put artists (in Europe as well as the States) under a spell. Serious new work, the thinking went, could not be about beautiful, collectible objects, and it was certainly not about the torments or strivings of heroic individuals. It was, rather, closer to being an anonymous quest to document, measure, or question aspects of experience—as when, for example, Douglas Huebler, in 1970, exhibited a group of photographs taken every two minutes during a car trip that lasted twenty-four minutes. Not that conceptual art blanketed the art world. Plenty of artists went on making innovative and striking works that had no connection to it. Yet from the late 1960s onward it could seem, based on what was being shown, taught, and written about, that challenging new art had become a sort of neutrally spirited, faceless, even morally reproving enterprise. It created an era when, as Salle writes, much contemporary art made “people feel stupid.”

Into this rulebound and exasperating art realm there stepped a generation of artists whose concerns were precisely what had been deemed of no account: images on canvas and on film of people, things, and places; ambivalent or admiring acknowledgments of the ubiquity of…

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