Peter Saul at work in his studio in Germantown, New York. By Tim Davis.
Peter Saul Paints the Carnage
No artist has captured the horror and hilarity of American life quite like Peter Saul. There's Mona Lisa puking on her chin, O.J. Simpson in the electric chair, and Donald Trump getting punched in the face by a cheeseburger. Now, after 60 years making paintings, he's suddenly an art-market darling—and has just mounted his biggest retrospective yet.
By Scott Indrisek
There was an odd span of years, in the early '00s, during which flight attendants, restaurant workers, and other strangers would mistake Peter Saul for a woman. Perhaps advancing age had added a touch of femininity to his features. “I'm glad you've become a woman,” his wife said to him at the time. “Now we can really get to know each other.” Rather than balk at the misunderstanding, he ran with it. One anatomically graphic painting from 2006 shows Saul reclining on an examination table, his bespectacled head transposed onto a naked woman's aging body.
Saul is fond of saying that the only things he's really concerned with are the painting he's currently working on and the ones that will come after that. So at the moment, he's revisiting that fixation on women: some new gender-bending self-portraits but also other paintings of women enraged, pissed at the world, “bashing and trashing” the men around them. Or what about the opposite, he muses: scumbag guys who are beating up on women? “If that were treated humorously, it could be peppy. Punchy,” he says, no pun intended. “Could be a picture for me to paint!”
And while he's at it, he surmises, he might also experiment with some further shape-shifting. Why not a self-portrait as various types of minorities? he wonders. It wouldn't be a first. Back in 2006 he depicted himself in the midst of becoming African American. (“I can be a minority artist anytime,” read a speech bubble.) “I hope I can get away with it,” Saul says, with the air of someone who doesn't much care either way. Not only is he unconcerned about his right to take on such loaded subject matter, but he also finds himself uniquely qualified to do so. His ability to make awkward and absurd paintings about gender relations, for instance, reminds Saul of the ease with which he once depicted the Vietnam War, in ways that often enraged his peers. “I can do something that, for some unknown reason, other artists can't do,” he claims. Other painters have more hang-ups, anxieties, loyalties to concepts like “truth” and “feeling.”
“I don't need to be true, I don't need to be feeling, you know,” Saul says. “It's a gift. If you're not needing too much recognition, you can do anything you want.”
If all this sounds tricky in a 21st century consumed by identity politics, where one wrong painting can set off a social media firestorm—well, it is. But Saul sees himself as floating happily above that minefield. His goal is to intrigue or confound your eyeballs—to make you take notice. The artist might pride himself on his even temperament, but boring art does push his buttons. “If my painting doesn't leap off the wall,” he tells me, “I get mad at it.”
Saul has spent decades grappling with unwieldy subjects—from the horrors of Vietnam to the execution of Jeffrey Dahmer—running all this American muck and atrocity through a mental machine that renders it loopy, ridiculous, even fun.
“There's a wave of politeness come over America, that's for sure. Anything previous is liable to ‘political correction,’ I think it's called,” he says, as if puzzling over some just-unearthed alien concept. “You're not allowed to insult anyone in the whole population. Except maybe billionaires. And even that's questionable.”
This is a man who once painted Ronald Reagan as a zombie worm injecting drugs into its own ear; who depicted the arrival of Columbus as a slapstick, cartoon bloodbath; who delights in rebooting famous historical paintings, such as The Raft of the Medusa, which he populated with a cast of freaks and self-injuring malcontents. Sometimes things are a little lighter, like a troop of talented raccoons collaborating on their own version of a Jackson Pollock drip abstraction.
Long a so-called artist's artist and a favorite among those in the know, Saul is now a cult hero. (His most prominent collector is Brian Donnelly, the superstar artist known as KAWS.) His laid-back, grandfatherly vibe belies a simmering, strange wit. Those who sing his praises speak of an art world that is only now getting used to the 85-year-old Saul's oddball talents, honed over 60 years of uneven commercial success. “Peter has never been a market darling until recently,” says Anna Furney of the Venus Over Manhattan gallery, one of Saul's two dealers in New York. “We're talking about paintings that are difficult, paintings that have something to say, and sometimes that doesn't always jibe with collectibility.” But now, better late than never, here comes a wave of acclaim, culminating in a splashy survey at the New Museum in New York that opened in February, with prices for his work having doubled and tripled over the past few years. “Whether people get it or they don't, it doesn't really matter. His place is very secure,” says Adam Lindemann, founder of Venus. “I think Peter Saul will be around forever.”
Saul's goal is to make interesting pictures, to be worthy of your attention. The only thing he fears is being boring. “I picture someone approximately like me who has a few hours to kill and for some unknown reason goes to art galleries,” Saul reflects. “Is my picture sufficiently interesting to interest this person? Or is my audience restricted to intellectuals, college lecturers, art curators, people who know about modern art?” That quest for interestingness has brought him into some unexpected and unpleasant places; he's followed the impulse, often without any regard for what the art world (or its market) thinks of him. “He's never really wavered from his focus on pushing the boundaries,” says Lindemann. “Painting whatever you're not allowed to do: If it's sexism, racism, police brutality, violence, war, capital punishment, he'll just paint it to push the outer boundaries of bad taste. He'll paint something that's unsalable, like Stalin shooting Nazis.”
Right now this quietly eccentric octogenarian spends his days in Germantown, New York, a peaceful hamlet about a two hours' drive from Manhattan. He shares a bi-level studio with his wife, the sculptor Sally Saul. One afternoon last November, his workspace sports canvases destined for a Parisian exhibition in early 2020. One painting depicts a bunch of dice floating in space, surmounted by human heads clumsily making out with each other. “Turns out I can't do kissing,” Saul says with a shrug. “I guess I don't know how to visualize it.”
Where did Peter Saul come from? The origin story is worn from the telling, as picaresque and evocative as the artist's own work. Raised in California, Saul attended a Canadian boarding school where juvenile beatings were rampant. The experience scarred him in ways that still reverberate. He set off for art school in St. Louis in 1952. “The art teachers didn't like my work usually,” Saul recalls, “but they liked my enthusiasm.” His parents hoped that he'd settle on a degree in commercial art, maybe land a real job after graduation. That didn't happen. Instead he met his girlfriend (and later wife), Vicki Goorman, and the pair absconded to Europe in the mid-'50s.
They'd planned to ditch America for good, but reality upended their bohemian dreams. Saul found England “impossible, crowded, stupid.” The couple ended up moored in a small town in the Netherlands, “kind of a hopeless place to be.” A run-in with a deceptively friendly local cop led to their being rudely tossed out of the country—neither of them had a proper visa. “I remember walking across the snow with my suitcase, we had our artworks under our arms,” Saul reflects of their last-minute deportation. “Things dropped in the snow—forget it, that was the end of them.”
Paris was a little bit better. Saul spoke only the most rudimentary French, but he's never been much of a networker or social climber. He hawked copies of the Herald Tribune on the street. Saul wasn't a model employee; he threw most of his newspapers in the trash rather than selling them. It meant more time to smoke in cafés, to indulge “this nonsensical life” that he'd stumbled on in the City of Lights. The local art-gallery scene left him bored—French art of the '50s was too cerebral, lifeless—although he did take advantage of cheap admission at the Louvre. The epic canvases of the 19th century “made their dent on me, I guess,” he says, although the Mona Lisa—not yet a tourist blockbuster—left him cold. “It just looked normal to me—I couldn't see any big fuss about the corners of the mouth, or sfumato, or anything like that.”
The artwork that did give Saul a thrill wasn't particularly en vogue at that moment. There was Paul Cadmus's 1934 painting Coney Island—a packed, carnivalesque scene of beachside debauchery—which he'd first seen as a child via a reproduction in one of his mother's Book of the Month Club volumes. George Tooker, in particular his 1946–7 painting A Game of Chess, also tickled his brain, with its eerie depiction of the titular game, played by two creepy teens in a hallucinatory hallway. A random, imported copy of Mad magazine—spotted in a French bookstore but never purchased, since it cost too much—also left an impression. It got Saul wondering why narrative had fallen so out of favor in modern art. He decided to do something risky, and a little uncool: to experiment with paintings in which something actually happens, even if that was simply “this blob of paint talking to that cigarette.”
Saul was also taken by the work of his contemporary Roberto Matta. He sent the more successful artist some drawings, then spent a few months tracking down the man's phone number. His cold call wasn't very successful, but Matta—“startled and probably a little guilty,” Saul admits—suggested that the young artist hook up with Allan Frumkin, an American art dealer who was briefly in Paris. In the film version, this is the moment where the 26-year-old artist gets his big, weird break. Saul arrived at Frumkin's hotel, hopeful. “I brought 20 drawings, about, rolled up. He said, ‘Let's see what you got.’ I unrolled them at the bar. He said, ‘Oh, let's do business,’ just like that. No more problem with money.”
Thus began a decades-long partnership. Frumkin had a difficult personality and was “kind of a scary guy,” Saul recalls. “I had an understanding that he wanted to be stimulated, he wanted me to paint some pictures that nobody else would paint, so I tried to accommodate him in that way.” Saul could conjure whatever he wanted, secure in the knowledge that his cantankerous patron would have his back—showing the work in New York and Chicago, even if he wasn't always selling it.
From Paris, Saul moved on to Rome, where he eventually ended up painting in a room within a Roman Catholic church, loaned by a sympathetic priest. The visions he had there weren't exactly religious. “I thought, Wait a minute, a crucifixion—that's an idea for an image,” he says. “I put somebody up on the cross—Donald Duck, or someone like that—and started out.”
Saul's pictures of the early '60s were zany, sloppy affairs: refrigerators stuffed with food, chaos, and weaponry; the imagined execution of Superman. Bathroom Sex Murder (1961) drops clues to its narrative in a series of what feel like hieroglyphs: a knife, a man with a cigarette, a dog sniffing what might be a vase or a bong. Frumkin introduced New York to Saul early in 1962, coinciding with other buzzy exhibitions by soon-to-be-famous Pop artists James Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein. The local art press lumped Saul in with this growing Pop Art movement, which bothered him a bit—he's never liked labels, never yearned to fit in.
Saul moved back to California in 1964; his parents offered to front the down payment on a house for him and Goorman. By the middle of the decade, his technique is refined—the colors more explosive and the linework sharper—all the better to gouge at social and political injustices. Homage to Thomas Hart Benton (1966) is a lurid mess, rendered in acrylic and pen, replete with an ax-wielding KKK imp and a boat floating in a lake of what's either blood or Hunt's ketchup. Writing to Frumkin about the piece, Saul promised his dealer would find it “ugly in a way that is actually ugly even for sophisticated people in your neighborhood—and I'm pretty certain you won't put it on the wall.”
Saigon (1967) featured a Vietnamese woman crucified to a palm tree while a carefree American G.I. sips cola. Like many of his paintings against the Vietnam War, it succeeds by repurposing hateful caricatures, coughing them back up and asking the viewer to account for their brutality. When the Whitney Museum reopened, in 2015, with its sprawling survey show America Is Hard to See, it gave Saigon a prominent spot—but Saul's reception hadn't always been so warm. “To make those works in the '60s was bordering on treason,” says Massimiliano Gioni, artistic director of the New Museum, who co-curated Saul's survey there. Part of the artist's particular genius, he adds, has been “his ability to make paintings that sounded and felt like the worst of America at a certain moment in time. Paintings that, in a sense, function like watching the news for 24 hours.”
Saul's paintings of the 1960s may have been unhinged, but his life was comparatively quiet. He was living in Mill Valley, California, meeting some of his artist neighbors—William T. Wiley, the sculptor Richard O'Hanlon—and occasionally dropping in at local art schools, like UC Davis, where he encountered a young Bruce Nauman. The Summer of Love seems to have passed him by; he smoked pot merely “four or five times,” content to leave certain doors of consciousness closed.
Once, he got the idea that Joan Baez might dig some of his anti-Vietnam paintings for a future album cover. He trekked over to her house with some reproductions to sell the idea. “She said, ‘Oh, this is terrible, we can't have this kind of thing,’ ” Saul recalls. “ ‘What we need to do to protest the war is have beautiful things: fields of wheat, flowers.’ Anyway, I sure messed up on that one.” While his star was ascendant by the beginning of the decade, he couldn't quite find a way toward art-historical permanence. “I became unknown again,” he laments. “I was one of the dozen most famous artists in 1961, 1962. But by 1964 I was becoming enormously less famous at a high rate of speed.”
In the early '70s, Saul met and later married Sally. (His marriage to Goorman started to disintegrate around 1972 and eventually ended in divorce.) She recalls him as a talkative man at the time, constantly smoking a corncob pipe, a history buff who drove around without knowing where the hell he was going. The couple would relocate to Chappaqua, New York, and later Austin, where Saul would teach at the University of Texas for nearly two decades. They raised a daughter together. (Saul also has two children from his previous marriage.) His life may have been getting more settled, but his work never would. Consider Girl Trouble II (1987): a man blowing his head off with two guns while, inexplicably, a nude crucified woman sprouts from his open trouser fly. “I thought that was pretty amazing!” Sally tells me. Not everything Saul makes is her cup of tea, though; a painting of John Wayne Gacy being executed gave her pause. “It's not a matter of liking or disliking,” she explains. “I just find it difficult to look at.”
In 2012, Saul began working with the gallerist Mary Boone, who represented him in New York until recently, when she went to jail for tax fraud. Boone was a larger-than-life staple of the 1980s New York scene, a flashy dealer who helped make the careers of Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and other brash painters. “She regards me as a valuable kind of oldster, a sort of ‘genuine artist’ from a ‘previous time,’ ” he explains, stressing the scare quotes. “You know what I mean? ‘Whoa, don't disturb him!’ Just as well. I don't want to be disturbed.”
But the thing about Saul is that he has never calcified into an oldster of any sort; the paintings he's making now, around 10 to 12 of them a year, are just as crude and influential as ever. The process is much the same as it's been for decades. As we sit in the studio, sharing a few cider doughnuts from the local farm stand, Saul shows me examples of the small pencil drawings—a melting watch reclining on a couch, Van Gogh slicing off his own ear—that he then overlays with a grid in order to transpose the lines onto canvas. He methodically builds his images in acrylic—listening to Johnny Cash, or maybe Beethoven, or maybe radio sermons from wild-eyed fire-and-brimstone preachers (“I like to listen to people I don't agree with,” he says)—often employing a distinctive dot-making pattern that can give his deranged figures an almost airbrushed look.
That style—which owes as much to art history as it does to Mad magazine—is suddenly very popular. Younger painters worship his over-the-top comic excess. And it doesn't hurt that Saul's lurid scenes play pretty well on Instagram.
“Peter bangs,” says Jamian Juliano-Villani; that's high praise from the 33-year-old painter whose own grotesque figurative paintings have often been shown alongside Saul's. “He's fucking active, still. It's funny, he knows a lot more than he lets on about contemporary art.” Her favorite of Saul's works? The fairly self-explanatory Mona Lisa Throw Up (1995). “It just reminds me of eating SpaghettiOs or something disgusting. Total trash,” she says admiringly. “That was my Facebook profile picture for like three years.”
Saul has always kept one eye on politics, and that hasn't changed. He's painted Salvador Dalí pissing Champagne into George W. Bush's ear, Newt Gingrich assaulting Little Orphan Annie. These aren't didactic pictures, meant to impart any right-thinking lessons. Take Quack-Quack, Trump (2017), in which various versions of our current president are subjected to abuse: punched by a cheeseburger or invaded by little ducks nesting in his extravagant hair. Some of the paintings he's about to make could be seen as a tangential commentary on the #MeToo movement. In one of them, a woman confronts a sweaty businessman and “bangs him on the forehead with her prominent nose.” It's often hard to tell if Saul is trying to make a statement or is simply bemused by all the political noise.
Saul's Practice is, by definition, against rules of any sort. But he does have a few he seems to abide by, mantra-like: Recognition doesn't matter; money's not the main thing; don't care what anyone else thinks of you (or at least do a good job of pretending). Paintings can be commercial or otherwise, the “otherwise” being “anything that's deliberately cruel and thoughtless to people you never met, for no apparent reason.” Also: “If sex and violence occur in the same picture, it needs to be humorous.” He's not afraid of much beyond being boring, although doctor visits do shake him a bit. “He might diagnose some horrible illness,” Saul says. “That scares the hell out of me. What do I do about that? I pretend to be 15 years old so I can die by surprise. Whoa, what happened to me! Help! [Clunk!] Hit the floor, you're dead. That kind of thing.”
But not just yet. There's another painting left to finish. It's a riff on an 1812 work by Théodore Géricault, with a dog replacing the original's mounted military rider. On the afternoon I visit Germantown, Saul tells me that when his kids were little, he used to distract them at restaurants by getting them to draw: “Here's a funny man, and he's riding a stupid animal. Let's pretend he's a bear!” I nod to the painting in progress nearby, which isn't so far off from those juvenile exercises, with its dopey canine hero balanced atop a horse. The children didn't grow up to be artists, but no matter. “I actually did it myself,” Saul says. (As to how his kids feel about his art practice, now that they're grown up? “Embarrassed, I think, probably,” he tells me.)
Listening to Saul reminisce about parenthood, it's easy to forget that this mild-mannered 85-year-old is the same person who painted O.J. Simpson in the electric chair, or two juicy pieces of cake and pie fucking each other. Then again, it's always a mistake to confuse an artist with his art; as Sally reminds me, Nabakov may have written Lolita, but he wasn't actually a pedophile.
When Saul was teaching in Austin, he tells me, he found something strange about his students: They couldn't willfully picture anything awful. “They feel like they can use their imagination to think of something like ‘what to get my parents for Christmas,’ ” he says, “but they can't use their imagination for ‘supposing my parents are in a car crash tomorrow, what would their bodies look like?’ ” Saul never found himself with those prudish human hang-ups. “I don't seem to feel guilty about imagining things. It's very strange. Because I can just spend my day in a happy way—I've been happily married for 45 years, I have three children—relax, feel good, and everything else, and I just feel calm, you know?”
That's just the head-scratching mystery of Peter Saul. I ask Gioni if he thinks the artist's mellow personality reflects the intensity of his work. “That could be another way in which Peter manages to be such an acute interpreter and critic of America. He fits in,” the curator says. “He lived in Austin, or today he lives upstate. He lives in places where America reveals itself almost without any shame. Because he blends in, he can depict it at its best, or at its worst.”
Life in Germantown is sedate; it's not a bad place to hide out from American carnage. Saul is seriously copacetic at the moment. “Modern art has treated me well,” he says, almost wistfully. Early in 2020, he had the chance to show his canvases alongside Sally's ceramic sculptures at Almine Rech, in Paris. For the past couple of years, he's been making small, vaguely photo-realistic paintings of birds to give to her on her birthday. Last year it was a blackburnian warbler.
When he was younger, Saul's dreams of success were full-color visions of decadent leisure—the artist at rest, not having to leave the house much, blessed with a wonderful woman, with money simply arriving in the mail. He lusted after images of Matisse's studio in the Mediterranean—hedonism and hard work, all in one place. What would the Peter of the 1950s and '60s think of Saul today? “I think my 25-year-old self would be astonished at the way it seems to have worked out,” he reflects. “If you disobey some rules, you get to be part of art history. You get to be valued.” So here he is, finally: valued by the establishment but still hell-bent on disturbing it. “Be regular and orderly in your life,” Flaubert once wrote, “so that you may be violent and original in your work.”