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Art & Object

Peter Saul’s Big, Life-Changing Break

July 6, 2020

Installation image the exhibition titled Peter Saul Crime and Punishment at the New Museum in 2020

Peter Saul: Crime and Punishment, New Museum, 2020

Painting by Peter Saul titled Government of California from 1969

Peter Saul, Government of California, 1969

When the 86-year-old artist Peter Saul, who currently has a retrospective at the New Museum in New York, graduated from the Washington University in St. Louis in the mid-1950s he packed up and headed straight to Europe, but the luck that was awaiting him there would eventually turn the Pop Art precursor into a superstar back in America.

Living in Paris in 1960, he was introduced to the Chicago and New York art dealer Allan Frumkin by the Chilean modernist Roberto Matta, whom Saul had never met but to whom he had sent him some drawings after seeing his work. When Matta suggested Saul meet Frumkin in a bar of a hotel, the artist showed him his work, which the dealer bought and continued to acquire and show in his galleries for the next thirty-seven years.

When the support eventually ended, an expanded contemporary art world—one with a revisionist eye—was finally ready to fully embrace Saul’s powerful paintings and wildly wonderful works on paper.

Born in San Francisco in 1934, he was the only son of an oil executive and a secretary. Primarily brought up by a nursemaid, he was sent off to a strict boarding school in Canada at age ten, which helped shape the life-long rebel he would become. Smart, but awkward as a youth, he graduated high school at age fifteen and quickly decided that an office job was not for him.

“I went to art school in St. Louis and graduated in 1956 and went right away to Europe,” Saul said in a lecture at the New York Studio School in 2017. “I had a girlfriend who was like-minded to me. We decided to go to Europe and live a beautiful life. We pictured a life where we could do crazy stuff on canvas and send these works to some art gallery somewhere in the world and money would result. It was a very simple view of life and one that suited me. After a certain length of time, a certain number of years, it actually came true.”

After three months in England, Saul and his partner settled in the north of Holland, where they painted landscapes. As their money was beginning to run out they got expelled because they had never bothered to get visas when they entered Holland the previous year. Realizing that he may have to make some compromises and make something that might sell, they headed to Paris, where there were galleries and a thriving art market.

Living on the outskirts of Paris and surviving on a dollar a day from funds his parents provided, Saul found a shared studio space at the American Students + Artists Club, where the Cartier Foundation is now, for $12 a year. The popular art on the Paris scene at the time was Art Informal, a more somber version of Abstract Expressionism, which Saul found more energetic.

Having seen expensive hardcovers featuring popular American Abstract Expressionists like Pollock, De Kooning and Rothko in the bookstore windows of Amsterdam before departing for France, he decided that’s the kind of art he should make, too. Never having previously painted in this style, he discovered it was easy to emulate, but regrettably found the results to be quite boring. Remembering an ARTnews article on how the AbEx artists found it annoying to have their work exhibited alongside Depression-era Americana paintings, Saul decided to work from a bad-boy angle and chock his paintings full of this type of imagery to get under their skin.

Roughly painting the outline of an icebox on the canvas, he filled it full of representational objects—some that might be found in a fridge, like meat, cake, and drinks and other things that had no business being there, such as a pack of cigarettes, a lamp, and a bed—in the way that an Abstract-Expressionist painter might push splotches of color around a canvas. Making drawings in a similar manner, Saul saw an affinity between his witty works and the cartoonish abstract drawings of Matta, which he had recently seen in an exhibition at the Galerie du Dragon in Paris.

Mentioning the Matta show to Roger Barr, who taught Wellesley art students at the American Students + Artists Club, the teacher said he knew the Chilean artist and had his contact information. However, as Saul shared with the New Museumretrospective’s co-curators, Gary Carrion-Murayari and Massimiliano Gioni, in an interview in the accompanying catalogue, Barr said, “I’m not going to give you his address. You’ll just send him drawings and then you’ll get famous.” But after months of persuasion, Barr relented and gave him Matta’s address and phone number. And—sure enough—Saul immediately sent him some drawings and a note requesting his help to get a gallery to show his work.

Waiting a few months without a reply, Saul telephoned the Chilean abstractionist, who said he remembered his drawings and told him to quickly go visit his American dealer, Allan Frumkin, who would be staying in Paris at the Hotel Lutetia for a couple more days. When Saul rang up Frumkin, he was told to immediately bring some work to the hotel and to meet the dealer in the Runting Room. Not sure of where he was actually going, Saul dashed to the hotel and found Frumkin seated at the basement bar drinking coffee.

“He said, ‘Show me what you’ve got,’ and I did,” Saul continued in the catalogue conversation. “As soon as I finished, which took maybe five minutes, he said, ‘Let’s do business. What do you want for them?’ I said, How about $15 each? And he said, ‘We can do better: $25. And any time you need more, just send me four more and I’ll send you $100. So I had money immediately, and that was the end of the money problem. Within days or weeks of his buying my work I landed a gallery in Paris.”

Frumkin continued to buy drawings and started acquiring paintings, and then put Saul on a monthly stipend and began exhibiting the work in Chicago and New York—presenting thirty solo shows of the artist’s work between 1961 and 1996.

For a while in the 1950s and ‘60s, Matta was Frumkin’s main advisor. He introduced the dealer to the Italian abstract painter Alberto Burri and the American surrealist Joseph Cornell—artists that Frumkin first exhibited at his Chicago gallery, which he launched in 1952 and later at a New York branch, which opened in 1959. “I think we will make a very good team,” Frumkin wrote to Matta after taking down the artist’s premier exhibition at the gallery in December 1952.

“Going through our correspondence files, I found ‘the’ letter—as I like to refer to it—where Allan has just left Paris and is on his way to London and writing to Dennis Adrian in New York,” George Adams, Frumkin’s former gallery director and business partner, told Art & Object by phone from his San Francisco Bay Area home. “In it, Allan wrote, ‘I’ve just met the most interesting artist through Matta. His name is Peter Saul and I’m not certain why he’s so good, but he is.’ Allan didn’t completely understand Saul’s art, but he intuitively knew that it was really terrific work.”

“I show what I like and has value—artistic value—and, presumably, if there’s artistic value eventually there might be some monetary value,” the dealer told artist and critic Don Gray in an interview on Gray’s Manhattan Public Access television show in 1976. “What one is looking for is a certain level of ambition and potential for achievement, and you really don’t care where it comes from.”

Because of the link to Pop Art, Saul’s paintings and drawings initially sold well, but when the artist moved back to the States in 1964 and started painting more political subject matter, broader interest from collectors and curators waned.

“Show after show of Peter Saul’s latest paintings would open and close at the galleries in New York and Chicago with few or no sales. And this went on for decades,” Peter Frumkin, the dealer’s son, wrote in his introduction to the exhibition catalogue for a survey of paintings from the 1960s and ‘70s from the family collection at Venus Over Manhattan in New York in 2015.“Because Allan Frumkin believed Saul’s work was strong and important, hoped that the market would eventually catch up, and wanted to help the artist continue focusing on his work, my father kept adding to his growing warehouse collection of paintings by Peter Saul,” Peter added. “As the relationship between dealer and artist extended and developed over time, I would tease my father about his Saul collecting habits, saying that he was the world’s leading—and only—collector of Peter Saul.”

The impressive list of lenders to Peter Saul: Crime and Punishment at the New Museum includes the Art Institute of Chicago, Hall Art Foundation, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, and the artist KAWS, who lent a dozen canvases from his extensive collection of Saul’s work.

Featuring some sixty paintings from 1960 to 2018, and ranging in subject matter from such things as comic book characters, celebrated criminals, and savage soldiers to art masterpieces, controversial world leaders, and popular political protesters, the retrospective takes viewers on a psychological walk though the history of modern times.

“Frumkin visited once a year without fail, all that time,” Saul shared with Art & Object over the phone from his studio in Upstate New York. “He would look at my work and say I’ll take that one, that one, that one, skip that one, skip that one, I’ll decide on that one later, and so on. He would only spend about two hours.”

“He was always very cool and calm, which scared the hell out of me,” Saul added. “It caused me to be a little bit worried, sleepless even for a night or two after he came. My fear was that he would just suddenly say—in his calm, clear voice—‘Well, thank you very much Peter. It’s been extremely nice knowing you,’ and then get in his rental car and go away. However, I managed to keep him interested, keep him surprised from 1960 to 1997. I was fortunate to meet him. I’ve been lucky all my life.”

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