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Peter Saul, American Gadfly

October 31, 2020

Three Paintings by Peter Saul in the exhibition titled Peter Saul: Crime and Punishment at the New Museum in New York

“Peter Saul: Crime and Punishment” (2020), installation view, New Museum, New York

By John Yau

Peter Saul’s painting, “Mickey Mouse vs. the Japs” (1962) shows just how prescient and in touch he was with America’s deep-rooted racism and falsity from the beginning of his career.

Made more than 15 years after Japan surrendered to the Allies, Saul’s painting might seem like an unlikely subject until you remember that he was born in San Francisco, California, in 1934.

As a child growing up during the war, Saul was likely to have seen cartoons by artists ranging from the politically liberal Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) to the socially conservative Walt Disney, all depicting racist stereotypes of the Japanese.

Living in Northern California, he might have been aware that nearly 90 percent of the 125,000 Japanese living in America resided on the West Coast before President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, resulting in their forced relocation and internment.

The racism of these anti-Japanese cartoons was a continuation of the “Yellow Peril” tropes developed around the anti-Asian immigration policies in the United States. These began in the mid-19th century, which saw the passing of the Naturalization Act (1870), granting citizenship to formerly enslaved Americans but not to Asians, and the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), severely limiting the number of Chinese allowed to immigrate to the country.

“Mickey Mouse vs. the Japs” and nearly 60 other paintings stretching across Saul’s career, from the years he was a young artist living in Paris (1956-64), to the present, are included in the exhibition Peter Saul: Crime and Punishment, at the New Museum (through January 3, 2021), curated by Massimiliano Gioni and Gary Carrion-Murayari.

Closed down for many months because of the pandemic, Saul’s first New York museum survey is now open again if you buy a timed ticket, which I urge everyone to do. It is the one exhibition that you should see before 2020 ends.

Originally, I was scheduled to give a gallery-based talk on March 31, but on March 20, Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered all non-essential businesses to shut down in order to stop the spread of COVID-19, closing the museum before I was able to see the show.

When I finally walked into the exhibition last week, I did not know what I would find, much less write; the sumptuous exhibition catalog that the museum sent me months ago has sat near my desk, unopened, because I wanted to see the show with fresh eyes.

I have seen many of the paintings in the retrospective multiple times, and have written about Saul’s work on numerous occasions, most recently for the catalogue accompanying the museum exhibition, Peter Saul: Pop, Funk, Bad Painting and More at les Abbatoirs in Toulouse, France (through January 26, 2020).

Still, after spending considerable time in the fourth-floor room just off the elevator bank, where Saul’s recent paintings, including portrayals of Donald Trump, George W. Bush, Newt Gingrich, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong, are – unfortunately – double hung, I couldn’t get a handle on the show.

“Mickey Mouse vs. the Japs” changed all that. In the paintings done before and after it during the early 1960s – “Ice Box Number 1” (1960), “Superman and Superdog in Jail” (1963), and “Man in Electric Chair” (1964), among others – it is clear that Saul had found his subject: an American society deeply rooted in consumerism, pervasive racism, and toxic masculinity.

Saul’s subject matter, much more than his loosely painted style, is what distinguishes him from the Pop Artists, particularly Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. In fact, it is evident from some bitingly satirical paintings not included in the exhibition that Saul has little regard for Warhol and other artists associated with New York in the 1960s.

There are a least three reasons why I think that “Mickey Mouse vs. the Japs” and other early paintings are so important to understanding the nature of Saul’s genius. The first is because he was able to recover and transfer into his work the anarchic glee of children watching mayhem-filled cartoons. Second, having no interest in preserving the well-known images of Mickey Mouse or Superman, he turned distortion and exaggeration, motivated by imagination, into central components of his drawing. Third, he began to view the painting, beginning in 1960 with his “Icebox” series depicting open refrigerators, as a container for divergent images and styles. By rejecting flatness, a mode of painting that dominated the New York art world, Saul knowingly consigned himself to being an outsider and a gadfly from the beginning.

From these starting points, Saul’s incendiary exhilaration over exposing America’s delusions, mixed with his rejection of formalist principles and love for drawing, culminated in one of the most important, trenchant, and necessary bodies of work to be made since the beginning of the ‘60s.

In Saul’s paintings, we implicate ourselves through our voyeurism while others suffer humiliation of one kind or another. This is what he understands about us – that we take a certain delight in seeing others being shamed. We justify this by telling ourselves that they (whoever they are) are getting what they deserve.

Saul has no interest in preaching to the choir. For him, no one is innocent, nor – more importantly – can anyone claim to be. He sees through our self-righteousness, which is why we need him. He won’t let us get away with our self-regard and sense of importance.

The other thing that struck me about this exhibition was the ferocity of Saul’s artistic ambition. Shortly returning to the US in 1964 and settling in the San Francisco Bay Area, he started developing an exaggerated cartoony style in outlandishly fluorescent colors to deal with current events, particularly the Vietnam War, its atrocities, imperialism, and racism. Within a space of two years, he transformed his paintings into lurid, disturbingly hilarious scenarios, based on current events as filtered through his imagination.

In works such as “Vietnam” (1966), “Saigon” (1967), and “Target Practice” (1968), he merges tight formal control, Day-Glo colors, and the current events into impossible physical contortions and grotesque caricature. The coiling and colliding, the rubbery and the globular merge to spawn an unruly array of incommensurable feelings, from icy, impotent anger, to the allure of seditious buffoonery, to an unsettling delight in the flawless acrobatics of his artifice.

Stylistically speaking, Saul has synthesized Salvador Dali’s love of melting forms, the intricately drawn grotesques of cartoonist Basil Wolverton, and Abstract Expressionist’s sweeping gestures – to name just three of his inspirations – to come up with bulbous, elastic, bursting shapes all his own. In addition, he has equated paint with all manner of viscera and bodily extrusions.

Over the course of a career spanning 60 years, Saul has put the lie to all of our shrieking protests in the name of decency and humanity, while never letting us believe that we are any different from the wretches he depicts. That’s where the humor comes in: he gets us to laugh and, at the moment we let our guard down, reflect upon our sense of superiority and our responsibility for the degradations we are enjoying.

After walking around both floors of the exhibition, I went back to the fourth floor and sat on a bench, where I spent a long time looking at “Bush at Abu Ghraib” (2007), whose title refers to a notorious Iraqi prison where American soldiers — both men and women — filmed their abuse and torture of hooded prisoners.

Saul depicts Bush standing beside a prisoner, whose grotesquely distorted, three-eyed head is riddled with bullet holes. Wearing a dumb grin, Bush has stuck his index finger into the prisoner’s mouth, tacitly echoing Caravaggio’s depiction of Thomas inserting his finger into Christ’s spear wound in “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” (ca. 1601-1602). Whereas Thomas is suspicious, Bush seems to be enjoying himself.

Through his relentless prosecution of so-called American exceptionalism, Saul gets at something intrinsic to our national character: the corporate greed, viciousness, and political expediency that motivate much of the country’s behavior. The methods may change from administration to administration, but not the gluttony. He knows that even our name — the United States of America — is a sham.

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